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My loss of honour

The television channels had a field day monotonously repeating my denials, and a few persisting with their ambivalence, writes VS Arunachalam.
None | By VS Arunachalam
PUBLISHED ON JUL 30, 2006 12:02 AM IST

It all began in the middle of the night with the phone ringing incessantly. I was asleep and my youngest son took the call. The caller, a TV reporter, announced that the word was out: I was the mole in Mr Jaswant Singh’s new book. The caller wanted to talk to me urgently seeking a response from me. My son, well aware the ridiculousness of the charges, refused to wake me up.  He offered to have the call returned in the morning, if the caller would leave his number, but the interloper insisted on an instant response. My son resisted, and after many minutes of argument, the caller gave his number but muttered something about the morning being too late. In a few minutes there was another call, this time from 10,000 miles away from my eldest son working at a university in the US. A confused journalist requested a statement from him apparently mistaking him for me. When that caller found out that my son wasn’t the VS Arunachalam he was hunting for, he lost interest but wondered whether he could help him with identifying VS, the villain. The brothers decided to keep silent till the morning before breaking the news to me.

My children did not have to break the news to me; two press-people did, sitting in our living room uninvited and unannounced. They were embarrassed by their intrusion and my ignorance of the news flashes of the night and wanted to interview me then and there with lights, camera, action. I then remembered reading something about Mr Jaswant Singh’s teaser on the identity of the mole.

I didn’t (and still don’t) have a clue on the identity of the mole. I never worked in the Prime Minister’s Office and was away during the years when purported leaks took place. In addition, I was the Scientific Advisor to Defence Minister and not to the Prime Minister. My connections with the Government and its defence and secret projects ended in 1992 when I chose to teach at universities abroad, in the UK and the US. I never went back to the Central Government. I have been living in Bangalore for many years since my return. All these facts were entirely overlooked. What more could I have said except a promise to stand up and fight for my personal honour. Having worked all my life on important projects for India, I had been maligned (and threatened) in the past, but this was a new and unconscionable low. The harrowed looks on my family’s faces was enough to convince me that this time I would have to fight back.  

Back to the story, the front gate had to be locked to prevent people invading our privacy. That didn’t stop a few overzealous cameramen and reporters from squatting outside hoping for some sensational developments. What then followed could only be described as pure nightmare. I was left scrambling with all the phones at home ringing incessantly and all asking the same questions about my alleged betrayal. My factual denials didn’t satisfy. With nothing to hide, I decided to stay at home, despite a few well meaning friends advising me otherwise. In hindsight, I wish I had done that at least for the sake of my family members. On seeing all the calls and people waiting outside, my sister, a heart patient had a few episodes of pain and all I could pray was that the tablets stashed under the tongue would work their magic. My son who took all the calls in the night, refusing to even think that his father was a traitor, was a broken young man in the morning after hearing numerous summary judgments from speculators and sensationalist media-men.

The television channels had a field day monotonously repeating my denials, and a few persisting with their ambivalence. There were a few correspondents who empathised with my ordeal and promised to help disseminate my rebuttal. The Fourth Estate, I then found out, could also be a source of strength.

I remembered reading about an American Professor of Languages, Haaken Chavelier, losing his job because Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the US Atomic Bomb, chose to mention his name without any relevance when he was grilled by the US Congressional committee, and of the many intellectuals losing their livelihoods by the whispers of unverifiable accusations during the days of McCarthyism. Was this an Indian enactment of an American tragedy?

I have known Mr. Jaswant Singh for many years and I thought I got along well with him, occasionally carrying out some of the tasks he asked me to do. On his invitation to do something dramatic for India in electronics and communications technologies, I remember persuading my many colleagues in India and the US to participate in setting up of a futuristic optical fibre network for the country. Nothing came out of that effort because it was treated with suspicion, and slandered till it died. This time, I decided to fight back and end the lies. 

Help at last came later in the evening when Mr Singh cleared up that I was not the mole, and a TV station broadcast Mr Singh’s off-camera comment that it was irresponsible to accuse me. Suddenly, as if by magic, this absurd circus ended, giving way to a surreal silence.

The phones were ringing again this time from friends and well wishers showering us with affection and offers of help. The science community in India is a wonderful close-knit family, but in its eagerness to perform, it is yet to fully comprehend the lurking dangers and inherent vulnerabilities of working in a badly polarized political environment. One caller wondered whether the episode was due to my working closely with Mr. Rajiv Gandhi, and the other was surprised that Mr. Singh did not find it fit to call me to assure his help when the press started hounding me. I replied that he was possibly too busy to call.

Many years ago, I stood before President Venkataraman in the hallowed hall of Rashtrapati Bhavan receiving one of the nation’s highest honours. Yet a few days ago, because of a whodunit gone awry,  I was being accused by zealots  of unspeakable crimes against my country.  I now know the transience of such recognitions:  “We are all naked when faced with the absurd”.

(The writer is a former scientific advisor to the defence ministry.)

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