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  • Sorry, luv, but as far as I’m concerned you’re Indian

    Posted On July 10, 2000

    By Karan Thapar

    Last week, as I sat listening to the debate swirling around Farooq Abdullah’s autonomy resolution, my mind turned to the many secessionists I’ve met. Journalists tend to meet several of them. My list includes champions of Biafra, dissidents from Chad, a few toughs from Polisario and several smoothies from what has since become Namibia. Yet nothing beats my encounters with those who wish to break from India. Of course, the connection between them and Farooq Abdullah’s resolution is a complete non sequitur. That is to say what follows is not logically connected to the thought that sparked it off. But so what? Few of us think logically and when we do it’s not much fun. So here are a few loosely connected recollections totally unfairly associated with our own dear Dr. Abdullah. Before I start, my apologies to him.

    The first secessionist I met was Jasjit Singh Chauhan. It was January 1983, the Khalistan movement was nearing its apogee and he used to style himself as its president. He was a venerable, white-bearded, elderly man. He lived in an undistinguished terrace house in West Kensington, oddly enough not very far from the one that caused Peter Mandelson’s fall from grace in 1998.

    For all intents and purposes Jasjit Singh Chauhan looked like a harmless old man. Yet he had one feature that set him apart. He did not have a full right hand. What emerged from the sleeve of his kurta was a plastic limb which ended in a palm with fingers curled as if in a frozen handshake.

    I met Chauhan during the course of research for a television report on the sikh troubles. He was only too keen to be of help. When I asked if he had issued passports and currency he immediately dug out hundred rupee Khalistani notes from his pocket and the next day sent me his Khalistani passport.

    When the crew asked if he had a flag he gave them one as a present. So, not surprisingly, when the report was ready we invited him to be interviewed in studio. He agreed with alacrity.

    On the appointed day Chauhan arrived ahead of time. The lady at the reception at London Weekend telephoned to say he was in the foyer.

    “I’ll be down in a minute” I replied but inwardly I cussed. If there’s one thing worse than interviewees arriving late it’s interviewees who arrive early. Chauhan was almost an hour ahead of time.

    Fifteen minutes later the phone rang again. It was the LWT receptionist.

    “Luv” she started, “Mr. Chauhan says if you’re too busy to come down should he come up?”

    “Oh no, no, no” I replied faster than greased lightening. “Tell him I’ll be there in a trice but keep him with you till I show up.”

    I probably took half an hour. When I stepped out of the lift into the foyer Chauhan was anxiously pacing the floor. He looked worried. I assumed he was scared the interview had been cancelled or, worse, that it had happened without him. When he saw me his heavily lined face burst into a big smile.

    As I approached him I felt guilty. I had been needlessly cruel to a gullible old man. I can only presume the tragedy that followed was because I tried to atone with a display of effusive charm and a warm greeting.

    I strode up, clasped him by the hand and shook it vigorously.

    “Dr. Chauhan I’m so so sorry.”

    Then it happened. The hand I grabbed was a plastic limb. When I shook it it came off. As the now empty sleeve fell back I was left holding Chauhan’s artificial right hand.

    “Aaah” I screamed in horror. To find oneself hanging on to someone else’s hand is not a normal experience. It’s not very pleasant either.

    Without thinking I threw it as far as I could. Unfortunately my aim is not very good and, quite frankly, I wasn’t conscious of what I was doing. Unwittingly I threw the plastic limb towards the revolving door. It landed in the middle and as the door continued to turn it went with it. A few seconds later the hand tumbled out on to the pavement and slowly rolled across. It finally came to a halt when it hit the tyre of a taxi parked at the edge of the road outside.

    Poor Dr. Chauhan. He was ashen. As the reception staff rushed to bring back his hand he smiled weakly. I apologised profusely. Several of the people standing around laughed loudly.

    Thereafter no matter how hard my colleagues tried the fire had gone out of Dr. Chauhan. The interview that followed was a damp squib.

    The other secessionist whose memories came flooding back is Amanullah Khan. I met him a year later and, if my recollection is not faulty, Mr. Mhatre of the Indian Deputy High Commission in Birmingham had just been killed.

    I’m not sure if the JKLF had accepted responsibility for the Mhatre murder but I tend to think it had. Eastern Eye, the programme I worked on, had invited Amanullah Khan to be interviewed. He was then – as he is still – President of the JKLF.

    Now, whatever else you might think of television journalists, we don’t condone murderers and Khan knew that. Yet he felt this was a rare opportunity to explain his cause. He was prepared to be embarrassed in the belief that the interview would also afford him an opportunity to talk about it.

    When I first saw him Khan was sitting in the make-up room. A plump and friendly lady was powdering his face. There was a cup of hot tea in front of him. As she dabbed at and puffed his cheeks she made cheerful if meaningless conversation.

    “You’re quite light-skinned, luv. You really don’t look Indian.”

    “I’m not.” Khan replied. Given his political disposition this was an impression he was most anxious to correct. “I’m Kashmiri.”

    “Same thing luv” the make-up lady continued unabashed. “As far as I’m concerned you’re all Indians!”

    “No, certainly not”.

    Amanullah Khan tried to interrupt, turning redder than the rouge on his cheeks warranted, but the make-up lady was in full flow and she wasn’t going to let the political affiliations of the man in front of her impede her conversation.

    `

    “My husband was in the British Army in India, you know” she carried on, her voice rising to a sharp falsetto. “Bert says they’re all Indians. Even the Pakistanis are actually Indians. Did you know that, luv? Bet you didn’t. Bert says he can never understand why they want to call themselves something else today. It’s too bloody confusing for the rest of us. Sorry, luv, but as far as I’m concerned you’re Indian!”

    I don’t think Amanullah Khan recovered from this onslaught. When he tried to sip his tea his hands shook so violently he spilled it on his shirt front. Later, when he walked into the studio, he stumbled as he sat down in front of the presenter. Eventually, when it was all over, he left as fast as he could.

    The next lot of secessionists I met were militants in Srinagar. They were less humorous and I, too, find it hard to be funny about them. Today Dr. Abdullah is fighting them and I wish him luck. If a little autonomy will help then, as far as I’m concerned, he’s welcome to it. In fact I’d share it amongst the other states with equal generosity. But, sadly, I don’t count.


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