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‘Modern diplomacy is bringing civil society together through music and culture’

German Ambassador Michael Steiner talks about why Kashmir should be proud of Zubin Mehta concert.

Written by Express News Service |
September 15, 2013 3:04:50 am

In this Idea Exchange,German Ambassador Michael Steiner talks about why Kashmir should be proud of the Zubin Mehta concert,says it was a legitimate diplomatic exercise,explains the reason he hosted Modi and wishes India does not squander its economic chances. The session was moderated by Editor,Express News Service,Pranab Dhal Samanta

Pranab Dhal Samanta: Tell us about the Srinagar concert—you were saying it was quite a nightmare getting it organised through the Indian system. Also about your country,which is having its elections and is the one bright spot in Europe currently. At times,it feels that a lot of responsibilities have been thrust on Germany,more than what Germany wants to take on at times.

This concert was of course a huge logistical undertaking for an embassy. I was under pressure for whether I could guarantee security. I was pretty sure we would have the security,but that was the priority. The world was in a position to see it,because it was shown everywhere. The only critique I have is that you didn’t see what really happened at Shalimar Bagh. What really happened was that you had,of course,the VIPs,musicians,officials,but a huge majority of normal Kashmiris sitting on the lawns. Boat owners,shopkeepers and students,even former stone-pelters…

Of course music-wise it was fantastic,especially the Kashmiri song… You think it’s five minutes. In reality what happened was that we wanted the Bavarian State Orchestra to present a Kasmiri song together with the Kashmiris. But the problem was all the traditional Kashmiri songs were never put into note,there was never an arrangement,and the musicians did not speak English. They had never heard about the orchestra,and the same was true for the orchestra. So what we did with the help of the Internet and e-mails was that young Sopori (Abhay) trained with 15 musicians in Srinagar,and at the same time in Munich,the Bavarian State Orchestra trained for this one song… So musicians here had to learn to play together with an orchestra that they had never seen and had two days to train,and they did it… 7,000 km apart. It was perfect,just perfect.

You might have seen a lot of resistance,with stone-age arguments like the ‘Hitler of India’,‘Zionist’…but if you leave aside that side of the discussion,which was very heavy,with threats,the reproach was that this concert will show only the beautiful situation of Kashmir and not the difficult reality. We always said that’s not what we want,because if you bring a concert there,you bring a lot of journalists,and if you have read the international press,that’s what happened. I think that (Hurriyat hardliner Syed Ali Shah) Geelani has not received such an international platform that he had there. So the concert brought out not just the beauty of Kashmir,but also other voices. The moderates (came out)—it’s not easy for them. We have seen a sort of cathartic debate,which is very necessary. In the past,things were put under the carpet,now the Kashmiris had an open debate—under the restrained circumstances that you have there.

Modern diplomacy is not State-to-State relations. It is bringing civil society together through music and culture. I’m happy we held through till the end. We planned for 1,500,in the end we had 2,700. That was the absolute limit we could put in this historic place,Shalimar Bagh. We were reproached,‘Why didn’t you have an open-air concert?’. It’s very easy to give the answer,we couldn’t do a Woodstock concert there because the security situation wouldn’t allow it. But to every Kashmiri,within the limit of the numbers we could have,who wanted to come,we sent an invitation.

Muzamil Jaleel: The question being asked is if Germany has changed its stance on Kashmir. What is Germany’s stance on Kashmir?

Germany is very clear. We are in favour of a peaceful solution… To make it clear,you have asked ‘Why an embassy?’ I think exactly an embassy should do this because part of our job is a more modern form of diplomacy,bringing civil societies together,and culture is an important part. But it was also important to avoid anything State related. Therefore,in the concert,we decided not to play any national hymns of India or Germany. Secondly,we did not invite the top leadership of India. All these points made sure it was purely a cultural event,we also made sure of this when it came to our speeches.

If I have in my residence one of the best maestros you have from India,if I as someone from Munich can connect with one of the best orchestras we have there,if we can provide as an embassy a live show where people sitting in Bavaria,where I come from,can see something happening in Kashmir—you could have seen or listened to it in the United States,in Europe,at the feet of the Himalayas—if you had a chance to do that,I think you must. I thought it was the right thing.

Of course we had to assure no State insignia; it was financed by benevolent donors. It was very expensive. For seven or eight months I was constantly on the telephone,writing letters to the German economy,Indian economy,private donors. We saw six-seven sites,but I was immediately for Shalimar Bagh because it was the heart of Kashmir. But it was in a rather poor condition. They did what they had not done in years to restore it. Talk to Saleem Beg (of INTACH),he was incredible.

Muzamil Jaleel: One reason for anger is that there were massive restrictions on movement. And people who were chosen were not just music lovers,they were government officials,or well-connected. Students of Kashmir University were also not allowed in. Was there any resistance from the government of India towards the show?

We had to convince the Indian government. We were asked to deal with it ourselves,the security issues. On the second point,these were invitations from me and my wife. We can’t do ticketing,which would have been absurd. An embassy can’t ask for a price,I’m not a company. So,we had to guarantee security,we couldn’t do an open concert,we wanted to make sure that everybody who wanted to be there,within the limit of the numbers we had,could come. So,two weeks before the concert we said anyone who wants to come there can come. So we had,in the end,2,700 people. They all got invitations because most of them called us and e-mailed us in the last two weeks. It’s true that there were some people that the government said were risky,and we needed to rely on the government. I’m a foreign embassy,it’s a sovereign state,of course I need the government for security,I need to cooperate with the state.

Even on the last day we gave out invitation cards,I just kept one for memory. Look at any concert in the world,there are VIPs,and it’s good,it engages also… Of course we needed to have the chief minister,but the important thing is we had ordinary Kashmiris there.

Suanshu Khurana: If it was a private concert,why project it as a peace concert?

I always said it’s not a peace concert. It’s an illusion that with a cultural event you can mix politics,but culture is very powerful. People there had tears in their eyes.

We have good cars from Germany,but that’s not the best we have. The real good thing we have is our cultural musical heritage. Beethoven,the piece was written in 1803,that’s the best we can offer. I think it was right to call this a sign of respect to the Kashmiris. I think people truly understood it. After the concert was over,you should have seen how people reacted. What is the world talking about? Afghanistan,Syria,EU debt crisis. Kashmir was on the backburner. With this live broadcast by more than 100 TV stations,it came back in the international community.

Girish Bablani*: Hurriyat moderate leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq said that instead of a concert,it would have been more useful if you built a hospital there.

The concert is not an alternative to a hospital,but it is a mobiliser for hospitals. My embassy is right now supporting two medical projects—near Sopore and near Baramulla. The problem is we need to mobilise support for doing this. This upcoming week,there will be in the embassy the owner of a company with a turnover of 180 million Euros. He produces hi-tech measurement machines. He called me last week and said he wanted to establish a technical engineering training facility. That’s exactly what India needs,vocational training. I said to him let’s do this in Kashmir. In order to get him there,how do you think people get interested in these things?

I’m not saying to embellish the place,but interest people. So in this magical place,you had this incredible concert. Have you seen the violin soloist who played? He was incredible. You know what he earned for this? Zero. The whole Bavarian State Orchestra did this in their holidays. Zubin Mehta did not get one penny.

Coomi Kapoor: There are reports that some of them are upset,that they thought they would be playing to the whole of Kashmir in general and not a small elite crowd.

That was not a statement by the orchestra. The facts are clear,2,700 people cannot be VIPs. Where do you find so many there? There were women with scarves,do you think they were VIPs? Under the given circumstances,I don’t know any system that was more open… And don’t forget we had two live screens in Kashmir and on almost every TV you could watch.

Muzamil Jaleel: There was also an interesting opposition this time. It was another music programme in a park. They also invited you.

I thought it was a very clever idea,that they said ‘You do Ehsaas-e-Kashmir and we will show the reality’. I said to the government: let it happen. Originally it was planned to be at noon. I said if I’m invited,I’m happy to come. But then it was happening parallel to the concert and I couldn’t go. I think it was a healthy thing that it was not forbidden.

…Why aren’t you proud that this (the Mehta concert) happened? It’s incredible. There’s a very cathartic debate,there were pros and cons,which is fine. You have the best you can have there,your own conductor. You have Kashmiri musicians who were so proud they could be seen by the world. Be proud. It was an enormous success for Kashmir,frankly.

Shubhajit Roy: Just as you took the lead in organising this concert,earlier this year you took the lead in hosting a lunch for Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi at your residence.

I think what we did as the European Union was the right thing. It was not about taking sides. You know we need to have a convincing language. If we say that India is the largest democracy in the world and we trust the legal systems,then I don’t think it’s up to us,at the EU,to replace the judicial system here and say,‘We don’t care what the election result is,we refuse to have any contact with Mr Modi’. I think it was right because you cannot have it both ways.

Let’s talk about the lunch. You know where Mr Modi went after my residence? He went to see President Pranab Mukherjee,who had no problem seeing him. So is it for us,the foreign representatives,to tell you…? If your judicial system says he is guilty,then it’s fine. But as long as it’s a system that we recognise,there is a contradiction.

The second thing is,even among the people who I talked to in the reigning coalition,they said,‘We don’t want that you take sides in the upcoming election and take a moral stand,which is not even taken by our own systems’…We are diplomats and we need to be consistent.

There was no economic reason behind it. German companies—and there are 7,000 of them,the Indo-German Chamber of Commerce is the biggest in the world—don’t need me for that. I think it was a situation where after three elections,the judicial system hasn’t pronounced anything…So that was just to have a cleaner position after a long time…We didn’t go on a pilgrimage. I think that it was exactly the right thing to do. If we wouldn’t have done that,where would we be? We would have created a martyr,and that is not our role.

Pranab Dhal Samanta: Since how long had Germany been thinking about this,because it also coincided with Modi’s arrival on the national scene?

It was after the (Assembly) elections started in Gujarat and before the results were announced. There were one or two weeks in between. We didn’t go before the Gujarat elections because we didn’t want to interfere. We didn’t want to do it after the results,because it would seem we just reacted to the larger result. We had been thinking about it,for the reasons I mentioned before.

Y P Rajesh: Have you thought about having similar conversations with Rahul Gandhi?

We had them. Just to clarify,he was invited to one of our regular lunches. Next week we have one with another chief minister.

Shekhar Gupta: Is nuclear power an issue in the German elections? Is there one view or more than one?

Nuclear power is not an issue at all,and there is nobody who thinks it’s an issue. There is a debate about the speed and whether it is too quick or not,producing high electricity prices. We are buying nuclear power from neighbouring countries but they are also using a lot of our alternative energy. We are an exporter of energy,not importer…

In Germany there is only one subject for the campaign,which interests the people and nobody talks about it,and that’s very good. In reality,people are concerned about what happens with the stability of the Eurozone. The opposing Social Democratic Party,if they give in to get popular,they could immediately appeal to the fears of the people and say,‘Why should we pay rates for the South Europeans,it is unfair’. It would be a popular line. They have not done that. It is because we understand that Germany,in our better interests,not for moral reasons,is a European country… We have learnt not to play with this issue and not to instrumentalise this issue,even at the risk of losing in the elections.

Because Germany is not a national country anymore. Its economy is based on the European market…Germany has 80 million inhabitants,and every politician has realised that if we re-nationalised,we would be gone.

Dilip Bobb: Is immigration an issue?

The reality of Germany has changed. About 20 per cent of the students in universities are foreigners and 30 per cent of the population has an immigrant background. The second thing is,if you compare India and Germany,we are surely an economic powerhouse,but you are a demographic powerhouse,and you will be the youngest country in the world. If you look at what India needs and has,and what Germany needs and has,it is fantastic. We have universities that provide free education and we also have vocation because our society is much older than yours. We also understand that we need to have people come and study here for a while. It is very complementary… Immigration is not an issue. We have a course,which nobody denies is right,for liberalisation.

Kaunain Sheriff*: India and the EU are still initiating the Free Trade Agreement. Germany has been very vocal in its demand to open up the automobile and insurance sectors.

The problem is not so much the trade exchange,the real issue is investment. It is a free trade and investment agreement. Potential investors may want to invest somewhere else where it would be better. This money is then lost. If you want to achieve 8 per cent growth,you need foreign investment. If we get progress anywhere else and fail here,it doesn’t do good to India. If we have a natural partner,it would be India.

Europe with its very sophisticated social security system is very strong,and so are you. We should not miss this chance… It is whether we have the political will and power to conclude it.

These are EXIMS students

Transcribed by Vandana Kalra and Swetha Ramakrishnan

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