The debate was lively, the coffee strong. The subject an interesting one: who enjoyed more holidays in their country, Indians or Indonesians?
We went over the list: Id, Diwali, Christmas and so on. India had more holidays, I argued. Prophet Mohammad’s birthday was a holiday in India. Was it the case in Indonesia? Yes, came the answer.
But my Indonesian friend was razor-sharp. What about the Chinese New Year? Was it holiday time in India? No, I said. Indonesia had won the diversity game.
But I had one last South Asian card to play. Every full moon day, or poya, is a holiday in Sri Lanka. Could Indonesia beat that? We rested our respective holiday cases.
Diversity of religion, language, culture is a defining feature of both countries. And, this diversity has been enriched by cultural contacts over the centuries. Not just Hinduism and Buddhism, even Islam had travelled from the shores of the Indian subcontinent to the Indonesian archipelago.
My first trip to Indonesia was sometime before the country’s national day on August 17. Just after getting out of the airport, I saw banners proclaiming ‘Dirghayu Republik Indonesia’, — Long Live the Republic of Indonesia. There was an instant connect; in ‘Muslim’ Indonesia, Sanskrit-Hindi words were being freely used to proclaim the independence of the nation.
Since my last visit to Jakarta some four years ago, it was evident that the country had turned into a flourishing democracy —free from the clutches of Suharto’s authoritarianism.
The military — Tentara Nasional Indonesia, or TNI as it is known — is on the retreat and civil society on the ascendant.
As Indonesian politics stabilises, the country can’t do much about Jakarta’s traffic. This sprawling, bustling city is often just a long jam.
From the city centre to the university it can take you two hours each way, with half-an-hour to interview the person you wanted to meet.
Travelling to the airport is a relative issue. A journey that might take 40 minutes could end up stretching to two hours; there’s also a strong possibility that you might not make it for the flight at all.
An Indian, may I remind you, gets a visa on arrival in Indonesia. And, I can testify that it’s a hassle-free affair and takes ten minutes at the airport provided you’ve got your forms and money ready.
It was on the streets of Jakarta that I first saw the ‘Kijang’. Multifarious, with black-tinted windows, striding on the streetseverywhere. It was an omnipresent being courtesy the Toyota company of Japan. Kijang, by the way, means deer in the Bahasa language.
And then the Kijang in Indonesia became the Qualis in India. This time around, I saw fewer Kijang on the streets of Jakarta, but more of the Innovas. Like back home, I thought.
You make your heroes
A furious debate was going on over the ‘glorification’ of the Bali bombers — Imam Samudra, and the brothers Amrozi Nurhaqim, and Ali Ghufron — executed by a firing squad for killing 202 persons on October 12, 2002, while I was in Jakarta.
Much of the Indonesian media, especially television networks, treated them as ‘heroes’, beaming every detail of their last hours and focusing attention on their family members.
“What we saw in the media these past few days has been strange and difficult to explain,” wrote Tempo magazine in an editorial. “The three men… have also been portrayed as victims or even as heroes… they are not celebrities let alone heroes.”
To my mind, such a debate is essential if any country is to answer that tough question: Why do a small bunch of people turn into extremists and plant bombs through their warped, barbaric understanding?
And do the media actually help in the propagation of extremist ideas by such coverage? It’s a question many societies in South Asia are struggling to answer.
But to my mind the real hero is none other than the head of the Indonesian Anti-Terror Special Detachment that cracked the Bali case. His name is Brigadier-General Surya Dharma Salim.