There are probably two ways to title this piece. The first: yes, I met Dawood Ibrahim, and I am not a terrorist. And second: I am a mere journalist, and my name is not Vaidik.
Let me deal with these one at a time.
The first one would call for full disclosure. That I met Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale a dozen-and-a-half times, Laldenga, Thuingaleng Muivah, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Qazi Hussain Ahmad, General Mirza Aslam Beg (then Pakistan's Jamaat-e-Islami emir and serving army chief, respectively). And, since we are confessing, I rode a truck at the head of a procession with Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri (now famous for laying siege on Islamabad) with a bunch of Kalashnikovs waved around us in non-threatening joy, met Velupillai Prabhakaran, conversed with two serving ISI chiefs, and my reporter's luck even found me in a lift in a Geneva hotel with a distinguished, taut gentleman in a finely cut suit who had soldier written all over him and Pataudi on his nose. He was Major General Asfandyar Pataudi, our own Tiger's first cousin, Saif Ali Khan's uncle, and then number two in the ISI.
Given how "patriotic" the discourse is these days, how would I have explained all these misdemeanours? And my "cowardice" in not making enough of the opportunity. What would I be expected to do now? Grab the AK from one of Bhindranwale's hitmen and either shoot him or put him under citizen's arrest? Convert Muivah and Laldenga into loyal Indians or wring their necks with bare hands like Sunny Deol? And would I then be expected to decline to meet the murderous mujahideen commander and assorted fundoos and finally, definitely file a contact report with somebody in the government after that encounter in the Geneva lift? But file that contact report with whom? Who do I report to in my government? I report to my readers.
Knowing the erudite (his likely description for himself, not necessarily mine) Mr Vaidik, he is most likely delighted by his sudden fame. But in the process, intellectual bankruptcy has taken hold of our collective judgment and exposed us as a nation of paranoid, unthinking, illiberal, ignorant, immature, well, let's dump all self-serving niceties, idiots. I am conscious of the risks in saying this because the Ved Pratap Vaidik-meets-Hafiz Saeed comic show has played out everywhere this week, including in Parliament. All it tells you is how widespread under-employment now is in our country.
Of all the non-controversies to have provided combustible gas for our prime-time warriors, this is the silliest one of all. A journalist meeting a terrorist has shocked us. Serious questions are being raised. Did the Indian high commission arrange this meeting? If that was indeed the case, then our high commissioner should be the most resourceful Indian diplomat ever, unless Saeed is also a twotiming RAW agent.
What did Vaidik discuss with Saeed? Well, if you know Vaidik, perhaps nothing. He is more likely to have used up the entire time on his own statesmanly exploits as a self-styled, honorary diplomat and peacemaker and what he told Benazir Bhutto, Asif Ali Zardari, Nawaz Sharif, Hamid Karzai, Rajiv Gandhi, P.V. Narasimha Rao and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and how Barack Obama probably confessed to him, saying something like, if only I had followed your advice Mr Vaidik... Poor Vaidik's old interviews are being played out with him thinking aloud about radical solutions for Kashmir, including independence. Did he, therefore, compromise India's interests? Did he come back and brief the authorities? Did he freeze Muridke's GPS coordinates on his smartphone? Did he offer Kashmir to Saeed? All I would say is, if he did, I hope Saeed gratefully accepted his offer, and celebrates victory now with a speech to the faithful: back to barracks, Brother Vaidik has gifted us Kashmir. And then I presume, he will get off our backs, or rather throats. You know I am not being serious in saying all this. But in these hyperpatriotic times, when English pacer Jimmy Anderson becomes India's National Enemy No. 1 for pushing "Lord" Ravindra Jadeja at the Trent Bridge staircase, and when Indian sense of humour is circumscribed by Kapil Sharma's Comedy Nights and Navjot Singh's Sidhuisms, it is best to idiot-proof everything. Because you do not want to be the star of prime time tomorrow with breaking news headlines like, editor says it is fine if Vaidik offers Kashmir to Saeed and he takes it and gets off our throats. Sorry, I didn't mean that. Although, in the bilaterally angry fortnight following 26/11 when a Pakistani TV anchor taunted me in a phone interview by saying that since Arundhati Roy had already "said" Kashmir "should be given" to Pakistan, what did I have to say, I escaped by saying, with dead seriousness, if so, please do take it from her. She is enormously more eminent, and a much, much better writer than I am.
At some point this week's argument has to turn serious, and here it is. A journalist is fully within her rights to meet, interview, even speak off-record, onbackground with anybody whosoever. If Mark Mazzetti (the NYT reporter who wrote The Way of the Knife, the most brilliantly researched work on CIA's 'black' operations in AfPak) had been able to interview Osama, he would be an even bigger star and not the villain of America. Peter Bergen had, in fact, met him back in 1997, and it burnished his credentials as the go-to analyst on anything to do with Osama. Decades ago, when Ayatollah Khomeini was a recent and Great American Villain, Oriana Fallaci became a global media star because she got an interview with him.
Nobody asked her to hold Khomeini in detention until the American hostages were returned. This deterioration of the discourse in India has been in the making for at least 15 years, probably since Kargil, when we journalists were hailed as force-multipliers and we started enjoying such certificates from the establishment. This echoed again in the jingoistic attacks on editors (including this one) who gratefully ate Pervez Musharraf's breakfast at Agra in 2001 as he took apart India's position on Kashmir, instead of protesting, or, better still, walking out to prove our patriotism. Instead of defending your right to hear a Pakistani president state his view, many of us even distanced ourselves in a cowardly manner, saying things like, but at least I did not stay silent. Last year, in what can be called his first election speech, Narendra Modi, at a rally in Delhi (September 29), attacked Indian journalists for again enjoying their meal without protest in New York when Nawaz Sharif allegedly described Manmohan Singh as "an old woman". All right, for Modi it was campaign rhetoric. But we journalists did not assert our right to listen, question and bring back stories and insights, and not fight battles for India like soldiers or diplomats. It is just that now the boot's on the other leg, given Vaidik's Sangh Parivar connection.
Which brings us to the second possible title for this column: I am a mere journalist, and my name is not Vaidik. I say that because all the defence that is available to a mere journalist for meeting, talking, even eating with anybody, even the worst enemies of the nation, is not automatically extended to you if your name is Vaidik. Because for years now Vaidik has been a political hanger-on, if not a politician, sometimes an ideological commissar, and often the self-appointed Ambassador Extraordinary Plenipotentiary-at-large for India, and definitely the main fixer and spokesman for Baba Ramdev. His crowning achievement has been to talk even someone as seasoned and shrewd as Pranab Mukherjee into leading a delegation of four grovelling cabinet ministers to fall at Ramdev's feet at Delhi airport. I believe that one act of pusillanimity destroyed whatever credibility UPA 2 still had. To that extent, Vaidik had scored the biggest scoop of his life. But it wasn't a journalistic one.
POSTSCRIPT: I can proudly count Vaidik as a regular, and discerning reader of National Interest and he called me often, to praise or to disagree, which is a privilege either way. One morning though, when I had written something critical of the Anna movement-which he then supported-he said something like, Arvind (Kejriwal) to achcha bachcha hai, lekin yeh ladki Kiran (Bedi) abhi kuchch ziddi aur aparipakv (juvenile) hai.
"Kiran Bedi ko chhoti ladki kehte hain, Vaidik sir," I said, "she must be only a few years younger than you."
"Arrey bhai, theek kehte ho... kintu maine to 50 ki age sey hi sanyas ley liya, desh ki sewa ke liye," he said.
In short, he said he had decided to become a senior statesman to serve the nation and had given up all worldly pleasures in that quest on the day he turned 50. Even sex. All sex. And so engrossingly fulfilling has this national service been that he had never been tempted again.
"Never been tempted since you turned 50, sir?" I asked, in awe.
"Never," he said proudly, "and you know what, all kinds of glamorous women meet me, even stay at my home and would love to have my attention, Miss America, even Miss Brazil..."
"I marvel at your self-denial and celibate commitment, Vaidik sir," I said, "but must you put it to the test of the charms of a Miss Brazil?"
Vaidik did not laugh. "Of course, I must," he said. Vaidik ji takes himself very seriously.