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Africa Diary

Print edition : Nov 01, 1997

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A journey with Prime Minister I.K. Gujral.N. RAM

NO sooner does the Air-India special flight, AI 01, take off from the Palam Air Force Station and stabilise its flight path to Kampala than Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral wanders into the middle, media section of the Boeing 747. He has some interesting detail to add to what the morning newspapers have reported about his 1 a.m. conversation - over the recently operationalised 'hotline'- with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The subject, of course, was bringing the trans-border shooting incidents to a decisive stop:

"Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif telephoned me around 1 a.m. today. He said, 'I'm sorry I didn't get back yesterday, as I said I would. My people have been complaining that your people have been shooting across the border.'"

Whereupon Gujral told Sharif that "that's not true, the facts are different," and the latter responded sensibly, "Let's not go into this."

In their friendly chat, the two Prime Ministers were united on the imperative of stopping the shooting incidents by working effectively the mechanism, essentially reliable military level communication arrangements, agreed upon in their September 23 meeting in New York. As part of this, the Directors General of Military Operations (DGMOs) of the two countries would discuss the problem over the 'hotline' and continue to keep in touch every Tuesday.

Gujral explains the background to his latest telephonic talk with Sharif: "I had telephoned him two days ago. I had said that the shooting across the border must stop. We had agreed on a mechanism in New York but it was not working. He said he had just returned from abroad and would look into it and get back to me the next day."

The Indian Prime Minister, describing the talk as warm and cordial, quotes his Pakistan counterpart as saying thrice, "Why don't you come to Pakistan?" During this conversation, they confirmed their intention to meet in Edinburgh during the Commonwealth Summit beginning in the third week of October and also in Dhaka in November during the South Asia Economic Summit, an informal meeting being organised at the initiative of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

"Here is something in a lighter vein," Gujral confides to journalists accompanying him on his eight-day visit to Uganda, South Africa and Egypt. "I said to him, 'You have called me at one o'clock in the morning. I am leaving for South Africa in a few hours.' To which he said, 'Why don't you take me along?"'

* * *

Uganda is a small, beautiful but emphatically poor and mistreated country. Its 22 million people, plagued by tribal and religious divisions, have been mistreated by its rulers, notably by Idi Amin during seven brutish years in the 1970s. Prior to independence in October 1962, Uganda's major political parties, the United National Congress (UNC) and the Democratic Party (D.P.), had an honourable record of resisting colonial oppression and seemed to have succeeded in laying the foundations of a democratic set-up. But under the first President, the UNC supremo Dr. Milton Obote, Uganda became by the late-1960s a highly centralised, one-party state.

On January 25, 1971, the Army under Idi Amin seized power and inaugurated a dark age the like of which few countries have been through in recent times. The dictator, who like Pakistan's Zia-ul-Haq initially promised a return to elected civilian rule, turned himself into President "for life". He unleashed a reign of terror that took a huge toll of life and welfare until his downfall, through military adventurism, in 1979.

Inter alia, he expelled in August 1972 Uganda's industrious and highly successful Asian community (then estimated to be 80,000-strong), causing enormous hardship and in the process virtually crippling the Ugandan economy. The invasion of Tanzania in 1979 proved Amin's undoing. With the Tanzanian defence forces moving in to liberate the country in concert with Ugandan democratic forces, Idi Amin was forced into exile in Saudi Arabia and Yusuf Lule became President.

But Uganda's political parties and leaders - the inept Lule, his successor and Uganda National Liberation Front (UNLF) leader Godfrey Binaisa, Military Commission Chairman Paulo Muwanga and the born-again Obote, now heading the Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC), and finally military putschist General Tito Okello - seem to have learnt nothing and forgotten nothing from the experience.

Political instability, rampant autocracy and corruption, atrocities against the people, and economic mismanagement remained the norm of governance in Uganda. Until the early 1970s, Uganda was clearly ahead of Kenya in developmental terms but by the mid-1980s it was far behind. Uganda's Human Development Index ranking, as of 1994, was at an abysmal 159 in a list of 175. Life expectancy at birth, which has actually declined in recent years, was estimated to be 40.2 in 1994.

UGANDA'S current President, Yoweri Museveni, started out as a radical intellectual and turned himself into a guerilla leader and strongman. His National Resistance Army (NRA) waged a protracted military struggle from February 1981 to January 1986, when it captured power and forced Obote to flee the country again. Although this strongman has the stamp of legitimacy through his roadroller election as President in a passable contest in March 1994, the adoption of a new Constitution in October 1995, and the formation of a relatively broad-based Government, his National Resistance Movement (NRM) is not committed to any free-wheeling or full-fledged elective democracy.

Political party activities are still banned in Uganda on the pretext that an atmosphere conducive to reconciliation must first be created. Museveni works with a 'Movement' system of government, with restricted or controlled legislative institutions and local bodies. Under the 1995 Constitution, the Movement system of government is to continue for five years, with provision made for a referendum towards the end of the fourth year of the new Government. As an outcome of 'non-party' parliamentary elections held in June 1996, a new Government was formed and Kintu Musoke, who studied in India, became Prime Minister.

It remains to be seen whether the Museveni order will actually make the jump to 'full democracy' once the time of transition passes, and whether the new institutional arrangements will bring the people of Uganda political stability.

* * *

During the Gujral visit, President Museveni is of course everywhere, a self-assured, hatted, savvy host (invariably accompanied by his wife), who does not need to step forward unless some decisive action is called for. His organisation seems remarkably effective: wherever the Indian Prime Minister and the Ugandan President go, men, women and children line up the route.

Bilateral relations are in good nick, with two-way trade (heavily favouring Indian exports) up from $ 5.6 million in 1984 to $ 53.79 million in 1996, and India weighing in with a number of modest industrial, developmental and training schemes plus bilateral debt relief.

At the international level, Uganda has consistently sailed with the Indian position on the issues that matter. On Jammu and Kashmir, its position has long been that the question is for India and Pakistan to settle bilaterally and peacefully, as laid down by the Simla Agreement, and also that the Kashmir region is an integral part of India. Although no public announcement is made during the Gujral visit supporting India's candidacy for permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council, Uganda's support seems to be in the bag. Uganda is also expected to bring with it half a dozen small African country votes in the U.N. General Assembly, where the issue is likely to be decided.

But the really important gain for India from the Museveni dispensation is the way he has invited, handled and smoothed in the return of the "Asian" or Indian-origin community. His government has actually delivered, in the face of obstacles, on the promise to restore Asian properties. There is an estimated 10,000 people of Indian origin in Uganda today and about a fifth of them are Indian nationals (the rest holding British, Canadian, Ugandan and other passports). Asians seem to be doing very well in the industrial and trading sectors. A new element is the presence of a fairly strong professional and semi-skilled professional contingent drawn from various parts of India, including the South and West Bengal; they are active in various fields, notably engineering, management, banking, insurance and accountancy.

A SIZABLE and representative section of the Asian community in Uganda turns up at Jinja, a thriving industrial and plantation centre that Asians are beginning to dominate again. Jinja is extremely picturesque for being at the source of the Nile, a sort of Talai-Nile.

Prime Minister Gujral, accompanied by President Museveni, is here to unveil a bust of Mahatma Gandhi ("Universal Apostle of Peace and Non-Violence") whose ashes were, in part, immersed here in 1948 through the special effort of the Gujarati-led Indian population. Museveni, departing from his text, makes the most interesting speech of the visit. His tribute to Gandhiji is an elegant contrast of two paths or routes to freedom: "Of course, I must confess my sins. I fought a violent struggle but it took a lot of courage to espouse non-violence against violent people. He took the long route and we took the short route."

The Bible, he goes on to explicate, has two components - the Old Testament and the New Testament. The philosophy of the Old Book is "an eye for an eye" but the New Book stands for "compassion, forgiveness and such things." While Gandhiji believed and practised the philosophy of the New Book, "I was old-fashioned."

President Museveni remarks on the cruel irony of "this non-violent man" dying "a violent death". Gandhiji showed that "one can be religious without being bigoted" and also that "politics need not be dirty". Asserting that Gandhiji "identified himself completely with the poor," Museveni the economic liberaliser concludes, un-Chidambaramlike, on the note that poverty is "the greatest challenge today."

* * *

The South African leg of the visit is packed and hectic for the Indian Prime Minister and the accompanying official and media party. The interactions with Nelson Mandela, a presidential host who is decidedly not everywhere with Gujral, are affectionate and very close. This befits a towering political leader who visited India soon after his release from prison, received substantial material assistance from India for his liberation cause, and is not likely to forget the once-in-a-lifetime mass welcome and adulation he encountered in Calcutta in 1990.

In the Parliament of new South Africa and in Mandela's Cabinet, Indian-origin South Africans are handsomely, perhaps disproportionately, represented (expressing their qualitatively important role in the African National Congress), and the brilliant and widely respected Speaker is the sari-clad Dr. Frene Ginwala.

Gujral repeatedly describes his South African visit as being, in considerable measure, a "pilgrimage" - to pay tribute to the Mahatma as well as Madiba (Mandela's popular honorific). The Gandhi heritage sites visited include the Tolstoy Farm, near Johannesburg, and the Phoenix Settlement, which is within striking distance of Durban. Both heritage sites are in a sorry state, suffering equally from vandalism and neglect. Faction-ridden Indian-origin efforts are on to restore, revitalise and 'contemporise' the two sites, with Indian Government financial support, but they do not look promising ventures. If the Tolstoy Farm and Phoenix are to be made relevant again, that can be done only by developing them into proper heritage sites - not by playing at Gandhian ashram life and utopian economic experimentation.

* * *

Gujral's visit to Pietermaritzburg is in a different league. (see feature on South Africa in the October 31, 1997 issue of Frontline). Here one can map, honour and learn the lessons of Gandhi's "political birth" - on and around June 7, 1893, the day the 'coolie barrister' was thrown out of a first class compartment by white racism.

I mention the moving experience of visiting Pietermaritzburg to a scientist friend of mine, Professor Venkat Venkatasubramanian from Purdue University, and he comes up with this interesting parallel. What happened to Gandhi at Pietermaritzburg, remarks Venkat, is "extremely similar to the Butterfly Effect" in Nonlinear Dynamics or 'Chaos Theory':

"That is to say, when a butterly flaps its wings in Beijing it creates local turbulence, which is very small. However, since weather patterns are highly nonlinear and dynamic, the effect of the original wing action gets enormously amplified across space and over time, and thus can result in a cascading of effects which can lead to a snowstorm in Minnesota.

"Gandhiji being thrown, bag and baggage, on to the platform in 1893 might have, in that place and time, seemed an insignificant incident. But since political development is also highly nonlinear and dynamic, the Pietermaritzburg effect got amplified across space and over time, first producing turbulent and creative effects in South Africa, and eventually generating and triggering a cascade of political effects in India, which saw an end to the British Raj."

* * *

Robben Island ("Penguin Island", in Dutch) used to be an infamous place - an instrument of colonial and white racist oppression and brutality, a powerful symbol of the anti-apartheid struggle. Although only 12 km from the Cape Town waterfront in the Table Bay and a mere five-minute helicopter ride from there, its 574 hectares have functioned like a mountain remoteness for many generations of anti-colonial, democratic and anti-apartheid liberation fighters (and for nearly a century, between 1846 and 1931, for leprosy patients, the chronically ill poor and the mentally ill as well). Now it is being turned into a national monument and developed as a possible World Heritage Site, with special provision made for its environmental, cultural and historical protection.

The first political prisoner on the island was the leader of a Khoikhoi group who was banished there in 1658 for attempting to regain possession of cattle which the settlers had misappropriated. He is in the rarest of the rare category: he managed to escape. The "world's most famous prisoner" of the contemporary age, Nelson Mandela, spent nearly 19 years here - from May 1963 until he was moved to Poolsmoor Prison in Cape Town in April 1982. In fact, seven of the eight convicted for life in the Rivonia trial were sent here: the heroes, aside from Mandela, were Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Andrew Mlageni, Elias Motsoaledi and Ahmed Kathrada. The eighth, Dennis Goldberg, being white was incarcerated in Pretoria Prison.

Many other political leaders, belonging to the ANC, the South African Communist Party, the Pan Africanist Congress, the Black Consciousness Movement and other groups, spent long and harsh years on Robben Island. Among them were Robert Sobukke, PAC leader (a three-year sentence followed by a six-year detention); Indres Naidoo, SACP liberation fighter (10 years); Tokyo Sexvale (18 years); Michael Dingake (15 years); Neville Alexander (10 years); and Patrick Lekota (six years).

Kathrada is now an ANC Member of the National Assembly and Parliamentary Counsellor in the Office of the President. He has been delegated by Mandela himself to accompany Gujral on his October 8 visit to Robben Island and gives a memorable but abridged briefing. The transcript made by M.S. Prabhakara, the South Africa-based Correspondent of The Hindu and Frontline, of a much fuller December 1995 briefing by Kathrada and Eddie Daniels yields the following detail and insights:

"When we first came here, the warders had been indoctrinated about the saboteurs and so-called terrorists, and they really believed that we were wild people. So when we came out exercising in this yard (the yard adjoining the cells in which Mandela and others were locked up), we could not do so until there was a chappie standing there training his gun on us...

"This wall is of great significance. Now this photograph here is of the courtyard taken while we were working. This is a U-shaped building, about 30 cells here, 30 cells there and about 20 on this side, all single cells. When the President wrote his Autobiography - as you all know it was clandestinely done - when he completed his manuscript, it was buried.

"We had planted a garden that ran from this end right through; and the manuscript was buried in the garden. Of course, the manuscript was copied and smuggled out already. One day, after we were locked up, the prisoners came out and suddenly started digging this trench. The next morning the prisoners were surprised - this was a very secret operation, this whole autobiography thing - that these were very enthusiastic people! Instead of the usual routine of getting out of our cells and emptying our toilet buckets and so forth, a few prisoners including ourselves came out with spades and so forth and started working in the garden. At that time the whole idea was to retrieve what had been buried. But unfortunately we only managed to retrieve part of it, and part of it was found and confiscated. And for that, those of us who were involved were punished.

"These cells you see, they are about eight feet by eight feet. The fourth cell is the President's cell. All the cells are alike. In that small space, for the first decade or so, we slept on the floor, on sisal mats. Later on you had beds. The bed you see in there (Cell No. 4) now is not the type of bed that was there (when Mandela occupied the cell). He could never have fitted into this bed.

"So in that small space, there was a bed, there was a desk, a bench, there was a bookcase, there was a toilet bucket. All that in that little confined space... The President's cell is the fourth one, mine was No. 14 and opposite mine was Eddie's.

"When we arrived here... in the middle of winter, it was very, very cold; and raining. President Mandela, Govan Mbeki, Walter Sisulu, all our seniors in age, were given short trousers, no socks, shoes as a concession, for strictly black prisoners were only allowed to have sandals. We were given long trousers - Indians and coloureds.

"As for food, there was discrimination. Mornings, we were all given the same food: a dish of porridge, a mug of coffee. But the African prisoners were given less sugar. Lunchtime, we (coloureds and Indians) were given what is called mealie rice; African prisoners were given boiled mealies. Suppertime: again African prisoners were given soft porridge, soup, no coffee; we were given bread with thick white margerine, soup and coffee. Africans were allowed no bread at all.

"Once they made a concession after we made representations; they allowed everybody to buy one loaf of bread a year at Christmas time. Then of course the meat and fish rations: the African prisoners were given less.

"Naturally, there were hunger strikes and all kinds of representation and so forth. Clothing was equalised in 1968. Equalisation of food took much longer: food was equalised only in the mid-1970s, I think.

"This section here (Section B of the Solitary Block) where we were kept was completely isolated from the rest of the prison community. We were not even allowed to see one another. When we went out to work on the (lime) quarry (where Mandela's eyes were damaged over the years), the warders used to clear the roads of any other prisoners... For instance, there were political prisoners like Indres Naidoo... we hardly ever saw them...

"But we had one advantage here. Because there were a number of coloured and Indian prisoners here, as things relaxed we were able to pool all our food; and then all of us had the same thing. On some days, we would have bread with porridge. But such a thing was not possible in the main section where there were hundreds and hundreds of prisoners...

"We worked from Monday to Friday. Saturdays and Sundays we did not work. We used cold water... We used to shower with brackish water, use it for washing clothes as well. I think till the mid-seventies, we did not know a thing called Omo. We used to struggle with blue soap for washing clothes until we discovered Omo. Omo was very effective...

"We were about 35. Then it gradually became less. By the time Eddie arrived, we were less than 20....

"Oh, yes, I must tell you about that. We were looking forward to all religious services, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, the lot. The preachers were very inspiring people and we thought we should attend all the services! But we were also a bit naughty. We took advantage of these priests' visits and planned to get some news...

"News was completely banned, all kinds of news. We were not allowed newspapers until 1980. One of Eddie's jobs was to steal newspapers...

"Brother September used to visit us regularly to preach to us. One day, Hennie Ferris and Eddie had worked out a little secret conspiracy without telling any of us. Hennie, who was a co-prisoner, very articulate in Afrikaans and English, asked Brother September whether he would give him, Hennie, the opportunity to lead the prayers. And Brother September was of course very, very pleased.

"And Hennie, who led the prayers longer than Brother September, at one stage asked all of us to close our eyes - which we did, including Brother September. While our eyes were closed, Hennie tiptoed, opened Brother September's briefcase, retrieved The Sunday Times. The next time Brother September came, Hennie Ferris again asked for forgiveness and so on. Brother September never brought the newspapers again.

"We used to do all kinds of things to get news and newspapers. Eddie was one of our experts... News was our lifeblood. Kathy (Kathrada) was in charge of intelligence. His was the most crucial department in our area. Education was another. For example, we wanted to call a hunger strike. Communication had to be established with other sections. All very sensitive, very dangerous positions in our activities here. I would assist in getting the news. But it was Kathy who used to distribute it among others.

"Coming now to the President himself. At that time he was studying Standard Six of Afrikaans and was allowed to subscribe to Huisgenot (a popular Afrikaans weekly)... What he used to do was to put the Huisgenoot in such a way that the warders could see its cover. The warders were not allowed to have any reading material while on duty. So they would come and say, "Mandela, may I read that magazine?" And he would say, "Yes". Of course, he (the warder) would be under obligation and allow study late into the night.

"I was in the President's cell one day, there was another person as well. And suddenly the President started to recite a poem to me. This poem is called "Invictus", by W.E Henley. It is a marvellous poem, I have made many copies of it, I have taught my schoolchildren the poem and I will recite the poem to you now...

"If you analyse the poem, it depicts the President's character. Throughout master of his fate, captain of his soul, his head bloody but unbowed. He kept up the morale all those years..."

The voices of Nelson Mandela's prisonmates, Ahmed Kathrada and Eddie Daniels, intone from the transcript like a reverie, something out of Coleridge set to liberation.

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