Sunday, July 17, 2016

When a character from ‘Airlift” visits Shri Ram Mandir: His Excellency Sanjiv Kohli

Thakur Ranjit Singh

As the Indian dhol sounded out, and the conch shell or shank, was blown by Pundit Jagdish Maharaj, His Excellency, the protagonist of Airlift, Sanjeev Kohli was escorted into Shri Ram Mandir in Henderson, Auckland on the evening of 16 July, 2016. His entry was preceded by flagbearers carrying three flags of the countries touching all of us: New Zealand, India and Fiji. 

A person of such a short stature, such a humble-looking servant of people, how could he have caused miracles in Kuwait during Desert Storm (Iraqi wars)? One could but be proud of the very pivotal role he played in rescue and evacuation of over 150,000 Indians from Kuwait during Saddam’s invasion in 1990. [I overnight saw the movie “Airlift” in preparation to write this article.]

The reel and real Sanjeev Kohli. Left, Actor Kumud Mishra who plays Sanjeev Kohli in Airlift. Centre, the real Sanjeev Kohli, the then Joint Secretary of Ministry of External Affairs (MEA)  who visited Ram Mandir. He is now Indian High Commisioner to New Zealand. Left, poster of Airlift"
When Akshay Kumar’s ‘Airlift” was released, questions were raised about authenticity or truthfulness of the events and the story. One of the main characters, Sanjeev Kohli (played in the film by actor Kumud Mishra), has spoken out. The truth is that real Sanjeev Kohli exists, and that differs from the reel (movie) Kohli, who is portrayed as a helpless Joint Secretary in Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). The real Kohli dispels a lot of theories about the lack-lustre performance of the Ministry, “We had orders from Delhi not to leave till the last Indian had left, and we did it despite limited resources,” he reportedly told NewsMobile in an exclusive interview.

Sanjeev Kohli, now Indian High Commissioner to New Zealand, is an Indian Foreign Service officer of the 1988 batch. He is known in the ministry as a quiet performer who has served in Kuwait, Moscow and Qatar and served as a Joint Secretary in MEA headquarters in Delhi. He was a young third Secretary in the Indian mission in Kuwait when Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait on 2nd August 1990. “It was a traumatic time we were completely stuck without any communication link, it was about ten day later that we set up a communication link with great difficulty, but we never fled the country,” Kohli told media. In the movie, the Indian diplomats desert the mission with a lone staffer telling Akshay Kumar that all diplomats had left. It is reported that the movie Airlift is a tremendous effort by Akshay Kumar and does score on creativity. However it appears to have failed in research, missing out on important factual points which would have helped the movie.

Sanjeev Kohli facilitated and coordinated with various agencies to arrange almost 500 flights to evacuate over 150,000 Indians stranded due to Iraqi war- Desert Storm in 1990. The real story is that people were not abandoned. Indian government cares for its stranded people.
And despite its shortcomings, Airlift did show Sanjeev Kohli as a righteousness and loyal civil servant who played a key role in ensuring Indians were safely transported to India.

Therefore it was a historical moment when Shri Ram Mandir, on that cold wintery evening, warmly welcomed a distinguished guest, very deserving of the honour. Master of Ceremonies for the evening, Sunil Sharma very ably controlled the evening event which was a joint effort of Waitakere Indian Association (WIA), Waitakere Hindi School and the hosts, Shri Ram Mandir. Naveen Prakash the president of WIA, explained the role of Indian Association which has become a leading light for Indian Diaspora in West Auckland. Despite its volunteering efforts and being the genesis of celebration of various Indian festivals, the organisation was dependent on funding, and hinted on Indian High Commission coming to its rescue, in promotion of Indian culture. 

The grand entry: with dhol, preceded by three flags, new Zealand, India and Fiji. His Excellency, Sanjeev Kohli is escorted by Naveen Prakash, President of Waitakere Indian Association.
Outlining the history of Hindi School, students of the school informed that Hindi School was an off-spring of WIA which is now an autonomous body, which has been responsible for guiding language and culture in our young generation. The youth wing of Shri Ram Mandir, consisting of ladies, Pooja Kumar and Sagrika Kumar explained the history of the temple which has brought the community of Henderson together and has now matured into a community centre from being a devotional centre.

But the evening was reserved for the real hero of Airlift, His Excellence, Sanjeev Kohli. I wished to request him to email me his speech. But how do you request a speech from somebody who could speak very eloquently for some ten minutes in English, without any notes or written speech! It was all impromptu and it spoke volumes of the calibre of an accomplished and yet humble international Indian diplomat.

"A family which prays together lives together and are strongest together. " Sanjeev Kohli giving his address at Shri Ram mandir. He said, of all his trips to Auckland, the visit to Mandir was most fulfilling as it brought the nostalgia of his sweet childhood experience of visiting Mandir with his family. He told the devotees that temples also play a crucial social role in building bonds and community networking.
“ It is more than a delight to be present here-I feel blessed to be present in this magnificent temple…..As far as my tenure here is concerned I have been here for some four and a half months and had visited Auckland four - five times, mostly for business purpose. But this has been the most satisfying visit, “Kohli Ji told the devotees in the temple.

He had a nostalgic feeling of his “sweet memories of childhood which became alive again “by coming to the temple. He fondly remembered his younger days and childhood where he visited temples with his family and prayed together with his parents and siblings. He was pleased to see similar interaction, with various generations of people, young, teenagers, kids, babies and the elderly.

“It is a kind of feeling we need to develop in our younger people. A family which prays together lives together, and is always strongest together,” he said.

Group Photo: from left, Pravin Kumar- Managing Trustee - Shri Ram Mandir, Sunny Kaushal, Kanwaljit Singh Bakshi- National List MP, Councillor Linda Cooper- Auckland Council, Baljit Kaur- Executive- Waitakere Indian Association, Constable Mandeep Kaur- Ethnic Communities Relations Officer, His Excellency- Sanjeev Kohli, Ami Chand - Whau Local Board, Sunny Kaushal - NZ Labour Party and Naveen Prakash- President of Waitakere Indian Association.
Kohli praised the efforts of the Hindi school performers and especially the girls. “As a father of two girls, I feel proud to see the girls taking the lead over boys” He praised the Hindi school initiative. “A nation which does not take pride in its language does not go far”. On funding, he committed their assistance and would be prepared to help wherever possible. He was so impresses with the temple that he (jokingly) wishes to make it into a training centre…” I think we should also bring some Trustees from India who run temples to come and see and learn the way you do things here. The way you have maintained this place, I need to salute the vision and commitment of Pravin Ji (referring to Pravin Kumar, Managing Trustee of Ram Mandir) and his team, “he said.

Elaborating on the wider roles of place of worship, he advised devotees to have a paradigm shift. “Temples are not only a place where you get your devotional and spiritual fulfilment, they also serve a very important social cause. I think they bind communities together, and also in terms of building bonds within the community. We perform marriages in temple, we perform other events in temples. And whenever you have a problem, you go to temple and seek divine blessings. You also interact with your friends here. This is especially important if you are away from your country,” He praised the Indian Diaspora for their achievements and especially named Kanwaljit Bakshi, who was present, and praised him for noteworthy service to the community.

He touched on the issue of problems people faced with the past High Commissioners and many grievances people had. “We like feedback on the services we provide. I would like to assure you that someone who cannot have his problem addressed in the normal way, is most welcome to send me a direct e-mail, or message, I personally go through each mail and message, and it will be an honour to serve you, “he assured.

Acharya Dinesh Prasad Semwal,(right) a priest at Ram Mandir, presenting Holy Book to His Excellency, Sanjeev Kohli (left). In the centre, looking on, is Pravin Kumar, Managing Trustee of Shri Ram Mandir Charitable Trust.
Indeed, a person of such a small stature, lifted up the morale of all of us at Shri Ram Mandir.
He did it the same way as depicted in ‘Airlift.” With about 500 flights, he intervened, coordinated and facilitated evacuation of over 150,000 Indians stranded in Kuwait in Iraqi war of Desert Storm.

For a change, New Zealand has been honoured with the calibre of an Indian High Commissioner we can all be proud of. And Shri Ram Mandir was honoured to host such a humble servant of the people.

Your Excellency, Sanjeev Kohli Sir, we salute you. You make all People of Indian Origin proud. Jai Hind.

[About the author: Thakur Ranjit Singh is a Kiwi Fijian (Indo-Fijian) and the principal of blog FIJI PUNDIT. He is a qualified journalist and media commentator.]

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