New Delhi: He is one of India’s most flamboyant politicians. A former diplomat, a historian, a writer, a former minister and a Member of Parliament (Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala) from the Congress party, Shashi Tharoor wears several hats. In a candid conversation with Aarti Tikoo, Dr Tharoor speaks on issues that concern us.
Aarti Tikoo: After 20 years of war on terror by the US, the Taliban are back in power in Afghanistan. In your view, what scenario has emerged on the ground? Especially since we have not officially supported the Taliban?
Shashi Tharoor: Not just supported, we have opposed them effectively. Their victory is a disaster for us. For one, they are in many ways closely identified with Pakistan. This is to the extent that their cabinet was only announced after the head of the ISI General Faiz Hameed went to Kabul and almost presided over the formation of the government there. So clearly, Pakistan will be seeing the Taliban government in Kabul as its cat’s paw. In fact, among the dominant elements, there are the Haqqanis who have been given the interior ministry and half a dozen useful portfolios. The Haqqanis are the very people who are responsible for two bombings of the Indian Embassy in Kabul. So you really can’t look forward to anything from this government that will not serve the interest of Pakistan. WATCH: Pandits Targeted Again in Kashmir As Thousands Await Homecoming
Aarti Tikoo: What should be India’s position now?
Shashi Tharoor: There is a big worry about the emergence of a China-Pakistan-Afghanistan Axis. Last time, China was neutral. China was worried about Islamist extremist points of view influencing their own Uyghur minority in Xinjiang, Eastern Turkistan. In the current scenario, the Chinese have actually established a very good relationship with the Taliban and are looking at investing big time in Afghanistan.
To make matters worse, our two allies from the last time — Iran and Russia — have dropped the hostile stance. The Russians are now neutral, if not pro-Chinese, in the emerging scenario in the last 20 years. The Iranians seem to be adopting a line that the Taliban could be a good thing for Iran, provided they do not harass or persecute the Shia minority (which is basically Hazaaras, Tajiks and Uzbeks to some degree). Other than that, Iran has been warming up to the Chinese and vice versa.
The biggest challenge for Indian diplomacy is that we will have a Pakistan-Afghanistan-China Axis (with possible Iran’s complicity) on our western doorstep on the one hand, and Russia’s at best neutrality, at the other. This gives us a very unpleasant set of concerns towards the west, especially at a time where on our Northern border, the Chinese seem to be itching to readjust the LAC along with their interest and in their favour. This is a terribly hostile set of circumstances for us, for which I don’t see an answer. Turning to the Americans is not going to solve anything. The Americans will never engage in India’s ‘land’ problems. They would want to cooperate with us in big geo-strategy and maybe in the waters.
Aarti Tikoo: Are you saying Quad is not really a viable option? Do you think the axis that Pakistan-China-Afghanistan plus Iran will not be neutralised by Quad?
Shashi Tharoor: I think Quad is a viable option, but not for our territorial borders. The Quad essentially has an overarching vision, which I don’t think we have a problem with. But the capacities of the other members namely Australia, Japan and the US would be exercisable. They have the money, good intelligence capacity, good aircraft, surveillance, and all but as I see it, the focus is going to be on maritime. And that would mean that they would represent the capacity to balance the Chinese in the South China Sea and the East China Sea. Further, they might be able to be of some benefit to India on the Indian Ocean. But the Chinese are too smart to fight a maritime war.
Aarti Tikoo: Are you saying India is cornered?
Shashi Tharoor: We do look a bit cornered at least when it comes to our north and west borders, which is a very substantial portion of our strategic vulnerability.
Aarti Tikoo: You stirred another controversy when you supported the inclusion of Savarkar and Golwalkar’s writings in the syllabus. Isn’t that going against the party lines or what the successive Congress governments have been practicing in this country?
Shashi Tharoor: My view, as a public intellectual, is that if you want to be an amateur academic or somebody who reads and thinks and writes and therefore can have some credentials to those titles, it is very important for you to be exposed to all ideas and all points of view and then come to your own conclusions. So if you want to disagree with Golwalkar and Savarkar, at least know what or who you are disagreeing with. I have read both extensively and it has not changed my views at all. In fact, in many ways, I read them through the prism of what I consider to be right for my country and I’ve criticized them strongly. If you read my book, ‘Why I’m a Hindu’, and certain portions of my recent book, ‘The Battle of Belonging’, you will find some pretty extensive references to their thoughts and direct quotations from their writings, which obviously I couldn’t have quoted if I hadn’t read them. Students should read all points of view on whether they disagree with them.
Aarti Tikoo: As a scholar, researcher, writer and historian, what similarities do you find in Savarkar and Nehru’s idea of India?
Shashi Tharoor: I found some really significant differences. In 1947, at the time of independence, Savarkar did not particularly object to partition. He objected to the idea that India, or the nation of India, was in territory, and that the Constitution of India should be written for all the people. To this, Savarkar, Golwalkar and later, Deen Dayal Upadhyay also objected. They were of the view that the Constitution was written between ’47 and ‘50 and is for all the people living on the territory that you call India. A nation, they said, is not a territory but people. And the people of India are Hindu, and therefore, the constitution should have been written for a Hindu Rashtra. That is the Savarkar view.
To my mind, there couldn’t be a greater contrast between that view, his rejection or what we call territorial nationalism, by both Golwalkar and Upadhyay. It is the direct antithesis of the view held by Gandhiji, Nehru, Rajendra Prasad, Dr Ambedkar, Maulana Azad; who trashed this issue out in the constituent assembly. As far as they were concerned, our freedom struggle has been for everybody. The Constitution grants equal rights to everybody in India. So these are two completely different views.
Aarti Tikoo: But Savarkarites would argue that the definition of Hindu is cultural identity. It is not necessarily a religious identity. What would you say to that because the idea of India that Nehru described also is about this larger cultural continent that begins from the Himalayas and goes down to Kanyakumari?
Shashi Tharoor: I think they both share respect for the civilisational content of Indianness. For example, Nehru often wrote in a romanticised way about Indian civilisation. And even though independence came about in the 20th century, he had no pretensions that it would be a new India. As he saw it, it was in continuation of an Indian that existed as a civilisation for a very long time. There, Savarkar would agree. The difference was that, Nehru wrote of Indian as a balance sheet on which various people, several generations, travellers, religious figures of various religions, had contributed to and written one on top of the other without erasing what had been in the layers beneath, whereas, Savarkar’s was a pure pristine Hindu civilization, which has then been attacked by others. To my mind, what we are actually celebrating in pluralism is diversity. That emphasis on diversity exists in the Nehruvian thinking and is sought to be suppressed in the RSS, Savarkar, Golwalkar thinking.
Aarti Tikoo: You took a very tough stance against the Delhi police on the riots in Delhi during the Anti-CAA protests. What were you really objecting to?
Shashi Tharoor: I was objecting to the unfairness of many of their procedures and sloppiness. And I wasn’t doing so by myself. I was quoting an article that was a study of 40 court judgments from various courts, of various levels in Delhi (up to and including the High Court) by an NGO. They have found the very words I have quoted in my tweet in the judgments that these courts have passed. These amounted to pretty embarrassingly severe restrictions on the way in which the police have handled the investigation. Let’s face it, both communities were involved. But one community was overwhelmingly victimized. Much of the incitement to hear and see on the record came from only one side. So, when you don’t pursue certain evidence in cases and incitement but you pursue others, it will be seen as a slipshod investigation and a biased one.
Aarti Tikoo: Critics would say that you took a stand against Delhi police because Delhi police came after you, in the alleged murder of your wife Sunanda Pushkar.
They alleged abetment to suicide. You will see that nowhere in the record have I said one word against the Delhi police or the judiciary at any stage of the seven documents. On the contrary, as the police themselves have testified in court, they had 100% cooperation from my side. They were given access to my personal emails; they checked every single thing; raided my house and confiscated phones and laptops. At no stage was there any complaint that there was a lack of cooperation from my side. I respect the system and the process and I wanted to cooperate with sincerity. I am entitled to express my views (on incidents in the city) because I am not a directly involved party in this and I am speaking with objectivity.
Aarti Tikoo: This is probably the first time that you are speaking about this issue, ever since your wife died. How did it feel when the court gave you a clean chit in the case?
Shashi Tharoor: I prefer not to go into all of this because the wounds are still very raw and intensely personal. As I said to the judge at the time, there was a sense of relief. In some ways, it still has not fully sunk in. It had been enormous torture to go through a period of seven and a half years of my life with false allegations hanging like a cloud over me. I have been a goody two-shoes all my life — never violated anything, always a teacher’s pet, never breaking any rules — and suddenly, to be accused of unthinkable things that no one who knows me, would even consider me capable of. That was very painful, and not just for me but my family. My, now 85-year-old mother went through really terrible moments because of this. For me, the best way to cope with it was to cooperate fully and let the police and the judiciary and the lawyers do their job, and concentrate on not letting this define who I am.
Aarti Tikoo: The Congress party seems to be in a crisis. Some of the most prominent faces of the Congress Party have left. For example, Jyotiraditya Scindia. There’s been a talk about Sachin Pilot and you leaving the party. What’s really happening?
Shashi Tharoor: The talk about me was ill-founded because my political values don’t come to me from the Congress Party. I’ve been writing, published and have expressed a certain view about India in the history and the nature of Indian politics for close to 40 years and the truth, and my political leanings are only a dozen years old. So I felt that what I had brought to the Congress Party was decades of reflection, analysis and thinking and then a certain set of values, and if I don’t have something to contribute to the party, then why am I in the party? Anyone can be a rubber stamp for other people’s ideas. I came up with my own ideas and those ideas have found a welcome home in the Congress Party. So to my mind, those who had suggested I was going to leave the Congress really hadn’t read me. They had no idea what I actually believed in.
I’m somebody who believes in speaking my mind. I also like to make up my own mind. I read what others have to say and I approach most issues with an open mind. So, if somebody comes to me with a pro-BJP argument, I don’t just dismiss it because it’s pro-BJP, I listen to it to see if I can refute it or whether there are good points that are worth paying heed to. That’s the way I am, and that is often not appreciated by those who expect a Congress MP to rigidly follow a party line and to get his thinking from elsewhere. I think through things myself.
My own ideas happen to be quite congruent on the key issues with those of the Congress Party. So I don’t think that’s particularly correct about the other examples you mentioned. Scindia, Sushmita Dev, others… each had individual reasons. I will simply say that I firmly believe that the Congress represents the best hope for a credible national alternative to the misrule, the ineptitude and the misgovernance, we have seen over the last seven years in the BJP, and that if you want a better, more capable government, the Congress Party offers the capacity, the experience and I believe the right principles and values, to be able to deliver that.