Last month I was invited by the Indian government to attend an International United Nations Peacekeeping Seminar which was held in New Delhi during the period 16th-20th March 1999. During the week-long seminar which was conjointly organised by the Department of External Affairs and the Ministry of Defence I presented a paper on 'The Problems and Prospects of UN Peacekeeping - The UNIFIL Experience'.
I departed Lebanon for India on Monday 15th March and the seven and a half hours flight by a Gulf Air Airbus 320 from Beirut to New Delhi with a one hour refuelling stop in Bahrain was quite pleasant. I arrived in New Delhi in the early hours of Tuesday 16th March and despite my previous visits to India with brief stopovers in Bombay (Mumbai) and Madras, I found the capital to be more captivating, intriguing and might I add frightening, particularly the very heavy traffic. My driving experiences in densely populated cities like Hong Kong, Seoul, Bangkok and Beirut is nothing compared to the 45 minute journey from the airport at 0300 hours that morning to my hotel in central Delhi. I had been subjected to a number of life-threatening situations so I suppose that nightmarish trip could be added on to those previous experiences. I was most impressed and bewildered about how my young Indian driver managed to avoid hitting the heavily laden trucks, buses, hundreds of auto-rickshaws which appeared to blatantly violate all rules in the road code or the many cattle that wonder aimlessly along and across the motorway. It would have been ironic if I could survive the dangers of conflict in South Lebanon for so long only to be killed in a road accident in New Delhi. Vilisoni Hereniko told me about a similar experience when he visited Agra to see the famous Taj Mahal not too long ago. I guess we now have something in common, we survived the traffic hazards of India.
The seminar was attended by about 150 participants from 72 countries, including ambassadors and defence attaches who were based in New Delhi. The various presentations on the different aspects of Peacekeeping and Conflict Resolution, the resultant debate and discussions coupled with the interaction with the participants were most worthwhile and no doubt beneficial to all.
After my presentation I was criticised by the Lebanese Ambassador to India and the head of the Syrian delegation for not highlighting the atrocities which were alleged to have been committed by the Israelis during their invasions of Lebanon in 1978 and 1982. I 'diplomatically' reminded these gentlemen that as Force Commander UNIFIL I cannot be perceived by either party to the conflict to be 'pushing anyone's agenda' (not even the Lebanese as the host country). Furthermore for obvious reasons I had no intention of debating the legality or morality of the Israeli actions as these issues were beyond the scope of my presentation. I assured them that as a peacekeeper I am the poor man in the middle (meat in the sandwich) who is trying his best to make good a bad situation and that I would appreciate their understanding and assistance. You can see that peacekeeping is a thankless task and I had to keep reminding myself that I must be a good soldier and diplomat at all times. It is hard.
On Thursday 18th March, I accompanied Mr. Chun Chin Choy who is the UN Assistant Secretary General for Planning and Support Services from the Secretariat in New York on a guided tour of some of the Indian Army Training Establishments. We visited the Indian Military Academy in Dehra Dun which is located at the foothills of the Himalayas, the newly established Peacekeeping Training Centre (in a Delhi Cantonment) and the Headquarters of the 50th Independent Parachute Brigade Group in Agra.
The highlight of the day was a brief visit to the famous Taj Mahal which was built in the 16th century AD by Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal....a breathtaking and beautiful mausoleum which has come to symbolise the exquisite delicacy of that highest of human emotions...'ofa ma hanisi.
My visit to India this time reminded me of my secondary school days in Malhaha when I first learnt the history and geography of this vast and diverse South Asian continent. In this regard I am most grateful to the late Mr. Ieli Irava and ö'fa ta Fagmaniue Wilson Inia whose vivid descriptions and presentations on India during those school days enabled me to identify and better understand this fascinating 'Land of the Tiger'.
These are some of my thoughts and observations which I would like to share with our many kainaga whom I hope would be able to visit this beautiful country in the future. Prior to my departure the Indian Contingent Commander Colonel Dalip Bhadwarg jokingly told me that to see the country completely, a lifetime maybe too short. Even a glimpse is exhilarating, he added. I agree with him. I vaguely remembered from my history lessons that until Vasco Da Gama discovered the sea route to India, Bharat Hindustan in 1498, European Colonial powers in those days had remained cut off from this exotic land which was full of warmth, spices, silk and jewels. Once they gained access to India, the Europeans sought to further their business interests by aligning themselves with the local rulers, the Maharajas. The turning point came in 1757 when the British under Robert Clive defeated Nawab Siraj Ud Daulah at the Battle of Plassey and established British rule...the days of the Raj. European influence brought with it the advancement of scientific thought which inevitably led to the emergence of modern Indian nationalism and the epic struggle for independence. Out of the depths of Indian consciousness arose Mohandas Kormuchand Ghandi who used the principal of Satyagraha (nonviolent) resistance that brought to an end about two centuries of British Colonial rule.
Today, India is often described as the gentle South Asian giant. It is the largest democracy in the world. It is home to approximately 980 million people...a multitude of ethnic and religious groups epitomising 'Unity In Diversity'. Politically, India is a Sovereign Secular Democratic Federation of 26 states and 6 Union Territories. It has a multiparty Parliamentary Democratic system (which Fiji is going to be after the May elections). I am still amazed at how successive Indian governments have been able to keep the country together since independence on 15th August 1947. It has been quite a feat.
My Indian experience has been exhilarating and unforgettable. Perhaps it could be best summed up by a quote from Laurette Rabindra Nath Tagore's poem which won the 1913 Nobel Prize :
My return trip to Lebanon through Kuwait reminded me of my previous transits through Kuwait City to and from Beirut before the Gulf war. It was uneventful and could be considered as an anticlimax following my most enjoyable and memorable visit to India. At the airport I was met and briefed about the latest operational situation in the Gulf by two of our Fijian officers who were presently serving with the UN Observer Mission in Kuwait and Iraq. Fiji has been contributing military officers to this mission since the end of the Gulf war and over the years a number of our Rotumans have served in its ranks.
Prior to boarding the Middle East airline flight for the last leg of my return trip to Lebanon, I could not help but notice the many Arabs at the departure lounge who were obviously on their annual pilgrimage to Mecca. As I watched these pilgrims count their prayer beads and recite versus from the Koran I wished that they would remember us in their prayers as well as we endeavour to bring about a lasting peace to their most troublesome part of the world which has not enjoyed peace and harmony for so long.