Jogging public memory: Hamid Ansari under attack for not being like Kalam

One of the two longest serving Vice Presidents of the country, Hamid Ansari (85) is not the ‘APJ Abdul Kalam-type’ is the grouse of his detractors

M. Hamid Ansari, former Vice President of India
M. Hamid Ansari, former Vice President of India

Saiyed Zegham Murtaza

Public memory being short, not many would readily remember the controversy around the Republic Day in 2015. Vice President Hamid Ansari was trolled for not saluting the national flag while Prime Minister Narendra Modi did. That was the first and the last Republic Day when the Prime Minister saluted the national flag because he would have been told that the Flag Code and protocol required everyone present to face the flag and stand at attention. Only those in uniform were called upon to render the appropriate salute.

While the Vice President maintained a dignified silence to the ill-informed controversy, BJP leaders clearly smarted at the loss of face. They then accused the Vice President of not attending the International Yoga Day celebrations led by Prime Minister Modi. Protocol did not require him to do so. But a few later Presidents and Vice Presidents have dutifully posed while ostensibly performing Yoga on the ‘historic’ Day every year.

There is a strong belief that Hamid Ansari as the chairman of the National Commission of Minorities had discomfited the then Chief Minister of Gujarat. Hamid Ansari was appointed the NCM chairperson in 2006 and the Commission had occasion to look at the victims of Gujarat riots in 2002, subsequent relief and rehabilitation and the trial or lack of it of the perpetrators.

A scholarly, well-read person the former Vice President is known to be diplomatic but outspoken. While addressing the students of Banasthali Vidyapith in Rajasthan, he asserted in 2014 that countries cannot change their neighbours and must learn to live in harmony and avoid conflicts. While he might have been alluding to the then growing bonhomie between PM Modi and Xi Jin Ping, it was assumed he was advocating peace with Pakistan.

In a farewell interview broadcast on Rajya Sabha Television in August 2017, Hamid Ansari spoke of the growing unease among minorities and said, “Feeling of unease and insecurity is creeping in among Muslims in India”. At an event in 2021 he had asserted that “Secularism has almost disappeared” from the government's official vocabulary.

Is this then the reason why BJP leaders cannot leave the former VP alone even six years after he demitted office? “He speaks his mind,” says Rajya Sabha MP from Samajwadi Party Javed Ali Khan. When he was the Vice President, points out Dr Afroz Alam from Maulana Azad University, Hyderabad, he was not at liberty to speak his mind and therefore Indian Muslims felt aggrieved. When he now does speak his mind, the Right-wing starts smarting, he adds.

Born in Kolkata, Hamid Ansari did his schooling at Shimla and graduated from Kolkata. The grand-nephew of former President of Indian National Congress and freedom fighter Mukhtar Ahmed Ansari. Now 85 years old, he has been a distinguished career diplomat and represented India in various countries as Ambassador and as India’s Permanent Representative in the United Nations. When a man like him is vilified, it reflects more on the country and the media than on him.

But even by BJP’s own admittedly low standards, the vicious attack unleashed by party spokesperson Gaurav Bhatia and others was incredibly crass. They latched on to a little-known Pakistani ‘journalist’ claiming in a YouTube channel (nobody has quite bothered to determine how old the video is) that he had been invited to attend a few seminars in India in 2009 and 2010, in one of which he had ‘met’ the Indian Vice President, who would have been the chief guest or delivered the keynote address. He had shared the stage, he claimed, and had shaken hands with the VP. It was claimed that following his visits to India, he passed on ‘Intelligence’ to Pakistan’s spy agency ISI. This tenuous link was used by the BJP to accuse the former VP of being a ‘Pakistani’ agent.

By that token, everyone sharing the stage with the visiting Pakistani journalist could be described as a ‘Pakistani agent’. A key organiser has conveniently turned out to be a BJP loyalist who helped muddy the water by claiming that he invited the journalist under pressure from the VP’s office, while providing not a shred of evidence. As it is happening so frequently, the ‘Kangaroo courts’ in TV studios went to town amplifying the unsubstantiated and irresponsible claim. How does a former Vice President prove that he neither knew the journalist nor had invited him 12 or 13 years ago?

Surely the question should be asked of the External Affairs Ministry, which would have cleared the invitation, and the Indian mission in Islamabad, which would have granted the journalist the visa?

(The writer is an independent commentator. Views are personal)

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