Is nationalism about not meeting Hafiz Saeed?

They are demanding his arrest and want his passport impounded. The very people who Ved Pratap Vaidik is accused of being close to or would be his natural allies are distancing themselves from him — the RSS, the BJP and the Shiv Sena.

When the noise dies down, perhaps we can try and examine the questions a meeting with a terrorist raises.

Vaidik is said to be a member of the Vivekananda International Foundation, which is affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which in turn always has a say in issues pertaining to the BJP and therefore in matters of the state.

Vaidik was in Pakistan and met the Jamaat-ud-Dawah (JuD) chief Hafiz Saeed, who is also named as the mastermind in the Mumbai attacks of 2008. The United States of America had declared a bounty of $10 million on him. He is among the most wanted men. India has been sending dossiers on the 26/11 attacks to Pakistan and Pakistan has been sending its own files.

Was Vaidik working for the Indian government or, as Rahul Gandhi said, "The question is whether the Indian embassy in Pakistan facilitated this event...whether they helped...in anyway."

The equally important question is: Why did the Pakistani establishment that is so guarded about Saeed's access to the Indian authorities permit such a meeting? Indo-Pak relations are so fragile and rife with suspicion that those traveling across borders are inevitably tracked.

Is the BJP, desperate to create a good impression without compromising on its public pugnacity, using Vaidik? The Congress Party's Shashi Tharoor wants to know, "Was he an envoy of the government? Was he doing some back channel diplomacy?"

The man himself says he is nobody's envoy, yet he told Saeed, "Modi should not be feared, he is a good man..." There were other peacenik gestures, peppered with his political philosophy: "I have met enemies of the country in the past...my experience says resolution of conflict is possible not through the gun but talks."

Would a journalist do this? The simple answer is, yes. If you get to meet a wanted man who is often quoted as a reason for the problems with detente — assuming that November 2008 is our cut-off date — then an interviewer might use a soft option to set the tone, to create the right atmosphere. It is surprising that senior media persons are talking about why he did not ask Saeed for his voice sample and details about his role in the attacks.

India has decided that, like Kashmir, it will make 26/11 into its victimhood USP and use the bluster to bolster aggressive patriotism. We seem to have forgotten about how many people have been killed in the country during riots.

All the terrorists on the ground that day were killed by the commandos, except Ajmal Kasab who remained in prison and was later executed. Pakistan did not claim his body. This is essential to understand the basis of India's demand for Saeed and Pakistan's reluctance to adhere to it. The idea of a mastermind is to stay away from the heat. How many generals are killed in wars? How many politicians accept their sins of omission, if not commission? Even Osama bin Laden was not directly responsible for any of the blasts. In fact, he was probably not an active participant in strategising. His role, as evident from the videos, was to keep the war alive against those he perceived as enemies.

Hafiz Saeed has a cloak of a pseudo social organisation and continues to make public appearances in Pakistan and, like some of our own stalwarts who do not actively belong to any political party, seems to have a say in the country's affairs. Yet, India has been demanding his voice sample, when his voice is available at the click of a button.

Vaidik has claimed he went as a journalist. Forget the denials; that would be part of the plan. He has made it into a casual impromptu assignment where a Pakistani counterpart asked if he'd like to meet Hafiz Saeed, and he agreed. Any journalist would. But given the cases against him, did Vaidik not pause to wonder about the implications? The Indian media has concentrated on the predictable nationalism line, which is completely off-track and disturbing. The job of a journalist is not to toe establishment thinking, but to probe for facts.

For a moment let us set aside the Vaidik drama and ponder over how the line of questioning could go against other investigative reporting. Should criminals not be interviewed? Have journalists who spoke with Dawood Ibrahim, another wanted man, been arrested or questioned? Journalists in war zones meet rebel leaders, they even disguise themselves to get a scoop. The western media has many stories filed where Osama and other members of Al Qaeda were interviewed. In India, there was the famous case of R.Gopal, editor of Nakeeran, and his exclusive access to sandalwood smuggler and dreaded dacoit Veerappan. For years, the Tamil Nadu and Karnataka governments could not locate him, but Gopal did through an emissary. He even tried to get the criminal to surrender and negotiate with the government.

Vaidik has been part of a Track II initiative, the Regional Peace Institute, that includes Congress leaders Salman Khursheed and Mani Shankar Aiyer, and former Pakistani Prime Minister Mehmood Kasuri.

If chest-thumping nationalism means seeing Pakistan as the opponent, then why do we indulge in diplomatic manoeuvres at all? The 'peace-keeping forces' return with nothing but tales of goodwill. Assuming Vaidik is indulging in such manipulated intercession, we learn that Saeed wants to visit Delhi and Mumbai, and are assured there would be no protests were Modi to visit Pakistan.

These bon mots might sound obsequious, but that is the takeaway from all diplomatic endeavours. What we now have are black and white arguments. Hafiz Saeed latched on to the controversy and tweeted, "Row in Indian parliament over a journalists meeting with us shows the extremism, narrow mindedness of their politicians. Utterly Shameful."

This is what misguided hype does. It boomerangs. Besides the queries regarding journalistic independence as well as the hypocritical stance of political parties, beating on 'envoys' who meet terrorists is like using a straw sword. Hating Hafiz is a non sequiter; he is probably Pakistan's human shield.

© Farzana Versey