From Husak to Havel

M.L. Sondhi

Mainstream, December 30, 1989

I was leaving for Oslo to attend the Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony for His Holiness the Dalai Lama scheduled for December 10, 1989, when I happened to meet Dr. Miloslav Jezil, the thoughtful Ambassador of Czechoslovakia.  His response when I asked him for a visa to pay a short visit to his country was positive.  He also promised to inform Dr. M. Krasa, the expert on India at the Oriental Institute whom I had known since the late fifties when I was a diplomat in Prague.

After participating in the stately Prize Awarding Ceremony in Oslo and in the heart-warming torchlight procession in which the citizens of Norway’s capital voiced their emotional appeal on behalf of the people of Tibet, I found myself in Prague after a short transit through West Germany.

The sun rose in the east in a clear winter sky as I drove in a Skoda car with an old Czech friend out of the Hlavni Nadrazi (the Main Railway Station) into Vaclavske Namesti (Wenceslas Square).  I now saw with my own eyes the Peaceful Revolution initiated by the Civic Forum.  On the roadside groups of young people were lighting candles wherever on November 17, 1989 the Special Police Unit had beaten up the peaceful student demonstrators.

On Vaclavske Namesti and on Jungmannova Namesti where the Obcanske Forum (Civic Forum) has its coordination centre, we entered upon a remarkable scene with hundreds of citizens standing around video-sets watching special programmes on the radical and humane movement supporting Vaclav Havel for the Czechoslovak Presidency and seeking radical political and economic reform together with an affirmation of human rights.  In Havel – till yesterday only known as a man of literature and a human rights activist – Czechoslovakia has produced a leader who is unequivocal on the question of strict adherence to truth and non-violence.

Where is one to place Vaclav Havel and his supporters in the Czechoslovak political developments?  What had changed since I was last in Prague shortly after the Prague Spring 1968 was stifled by the Brezhnev doctrine in 1968?  At that time the reform Communists, Alexander Dubcek, Cernik, Zdenek Mlynar, Smrkovsky, Ota Sik, Radoslav Selucky and others were singing praises of “socialism with a humane face”, although the Bilak group by its behaviour in the Cierna-nad-Tisou talks with the Soviet side had shown that neo-Stalinism still had its following in the Czechoslovak Party.

Characteristic of the changed mood in Prague in 1989 is a widened intellectual horizon which can only be described as a neo-Gandhism.  The remodelling of the political systems in East Europe along the humanistic values of non-violence and ecology is no longer regarded as utopian. The central value of this new political consciousness is fully endorsed by the Obcanske Forum and by the welcome extended to the Greenpeace Organisation which was leading the campaign against both nuclear weapons and nuclear energy in the very heart of the capital city.  A huge Greenpeace Wagon was parked in Vaclavske Namesti and was conducting its high-powered publicity campaign for post-materialist values.

Vaclav Havel’s weltanchauung can be traced to a few value premises.  The first is his human and moral concern which transcends politics. When he took up the defence of the non-conformist musicians he had stated his viewpoint succinctly in these words:  “It has nothing to do with the struggle between two political groups.  It is much worse since it is an attack by the totalitarian system on life itself and on essential human freedom and human integrity.”

The second premise is that both Communist and non-Communist authors have to come together to develop the principles of equality and pluralism in order to establish a regime of human rights.  Havel along with other cultural personalities like Pavel Kohout, Ludvik Vaculik, Jiri Kolar, Josep Topol and others has helped to create understanding, goodwill and friendship across a wide ideological range in defence of humane values through samizdat literature.  The help given by the late George Theiner, a Czech exile and editor of Index on Censorship was crucial, since in his translations he combined sensitivity and moral responsibility for which all dissident writers are grateful to him today. 

The third premise is expressed in the Open Letter from Vaclav Havel which was published in the mid-seventies, and which embodies his total support to the principle of personal responsibility towards History.  This letter can be compared to some of the famous letters of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore, such as his letter renouncing his knighthood at the time of Jallianwala Bagh.  Like many of Tagore’s political writings, Havel’s Open Letter has already passed into the great Czech literature of this epoch.

The courage which Havel has shown to defend cultural freedom in the face of ideological stereotypes has indeed led many of his countrymen to refer to him as the “Czech Rabindranath Thakur”.

Much of what is currently happening in Czechoslovakia will sound familiar to the student of Indian political and cultural ideas.  Many activists of the Obcanske Forum have drawn inspiration from Attenborough’s film on Mahatma Gandhi which was extensively shown in Czechoslovakia.  Although it is still an inchoate movement, yet in its challenge to cultural decay and moral corruption, its ideas are on the whole favourable to the humanism of Mahatma Gandhi.  The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the Dalai Lama was welcomed in Obcanske Forum circles as an endorsement of the humanistic message of Buddhism.

While at Oxford as a student I had read the British author Edith Pargeter’s book The Coast of Bohemia which depicted the Czech landscape at the end of the Second World War, when the people were expecting pragmatic changes without knowing that a monolithic consensus would be forced on their society.  That the students of Prague are no longer shackled to the doctrinal rigidities of the past and are retooling themselves for pragmatic changes was made clear to me by my visit to the Law Faculty School, and my conversations with the members of the Strike Committee.  As students of Law, they were protesting against inequality and injustice in the manner of our own Indian students, except that they were formulating their ideas in terms of organisational systems needed to broaden the parameters of democracy rather than as a general resentment against the attitude of authorities as is the case in Indian university politics.  Nobody was mouthing platitudes; instead the focus in the group discussions was on the interpretation of national and international politics which would be in accordance with the need to avoid violence and to ensure the human survival.  One of the members of the Committee, a girl student, took the initiative to relate the Czechoslovak developments to the intellectual, moral and political issues of the Third World.  She also added that she would like to come to Jawaharlal Nehru University to study development in South Asia and especially study the role of Burma in the context of changing regional politics.  The Strike Committee in the Law School is a good example of the student mobilisation which has fervour in promoting the cause of the peaceful revolution but at the same time contributes to a serious nationwide debate on economy, culture and political consciousness.

Literally within hours of my arrival in Czechoslovakia, I could witness the pace of breath-taking developments.  Miroslav Pavel, the Head of the Czechoslovak Television, extended glasnost by allowing reportage on the Obcasnske Forum to include the most controversial aspects of the political debate.  Marian Calfa, the Prime Minister who is a reform-minded Communist, started active dialogue with Chapter 77 and was prepared to meet the representatives of the International Federation of Human Rights from Helsinki to an in-depth discussion to remove fears and doubts on the Human Rights situation in Czechoslovakia.  Jiri Dienstbier, the non-Communist Foreign Minister showed his potential for revision of the security and foreign Policy of the Czechoslovak Republic in line with the new political consciousness favouring reduction of levels of conflict and abhorrence of the use of force.  From conflict to cooperation in building new relationships is the keynote of Dienstbier’s administration in the Czech foreign office.  He and Valtr Komarek one of the first Deputy Prime Ministers are helping the government look at the matrix of values in terms of “New Thinking” on economic and political questions.

Of course some people still fear a conservative backlash. When I heard gloomy prophesies in certain quarters, my mind went back to that young hero Jan Palach who had immolated himself before a Soviet tank in Vaclavski Namesti.  During my visit in 1968, I had driven across the country to Jan Palach’s village to pay my homage to him.  His old mother was still living then.  The strength of the passion for freedom of the Czechoslovaks is often under-estimated by outside observers.  By temperament they are not given to raising war cries for political freedom, but as the example of Jan Palach shows, they can make the highest sacrifices for human freedom. By temperament they are not given to raising war cries for political freedom, but as the example of Jan Palach shows, they can make the highest sacrifices for human freedom.  The banners, the posters, the photo-exhibitions in the streets of Prague are evidence of the real world of a peaceful revolution, which of all countries India must take note of, because after decades of enforced silence, the people of Czechoslovakia are speaking the language of Tagore and Gandhi and conducting the struggle against vested interests with the weapons of humanism and non violence.   

The far-reaching economic changes which will provide momentum to the free market in Czechoslovakia are being watched with close interest by other European governments.  It would seem sensible to quickly establish links between the Indian private sector and the new and flexible organisational structure that is coming up in Czechoslovakia.  I was told in Prague that the  Czech émigré industrialist Tomas Bata (who is well-known in India on account of the Bata Shoe Company) was due to arrive shortly at the official invitation of the Czechoslovak government for serious discussions for collaboration in joint ventures.  It would be quite proper for Indian businessmen and our Chambers of Commerce to take new initiatives and identify a number of areas where Indo-Czech economic and industrial cooperation can be mutually beneficial.

Finally, I would suggest that it is an extraordinary historical parallel that both India and Czechoslovakia are placing a new emphasis on many common concerns: freedom of mass media; ecological concerns; peaceful resolution of conflicts; improvements of regional relations.  To emphasise our common commitment to democratic reforms and pluralism, perhaps the best gesture Vishwanath Pratap Singh can make is to invite Vaclav Havel or Dubcek to be the guest of honour at the Indian Republic Day on January 26, 1990.

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