All entries for Monday 10 October 2005

October 10, 2005

The Feeling of Safety is only Skin Deep

The Telegraph, 10.10.2005

“Wait a minute before you go down the escalator,” said Ashwin.

We’d just finished watching the late night, and only, show of Salaam Namaste at the Odeon Skydome in Coventry. The movie was a blast, and although it was my second time, I enjoyed it as if it were my first.

“Why, what’s the difference if I go down now or 20 seconds later?” was my surprised question.

“Well, that family in front of you is a Muslim one.”


I was rather annoyed at what I thought was my friend’s bigotry, and was gearing up to deliver a long pep talk on how we should respect fellow human beings, irrespective of what faith they belonged to. I was kind of surprised too; from what I knew of Ashwin, he was a typical economist — rational and practical. But you never know.

“You don’t want to be walking too closely behind them. Those guys below might think we belong to the same family.”

I looked down and knew exactly what he meant. The hall below the theatre was brimming with a crowd of intoxicated people trying to jostle their way through a packed nightclub entrance.

Sure enough, when the family ahead of us reached the end of the escalator, and was heading for the exit, one guy yelled, “What the f**k are you doing in my country? Get outta here you rascals.” Not to be outdone in displaying his machismo in front of his date, another snapped, “You wanna come have a drink mama?”, knowing full well that drinking was a strict no-no for Muslims.

The family quietly walked to the door looking down, and swiftly headed for the car park where a few policemen were walking around.

It was our turn now. Ashwin was a big fellow, and I was quite angry as well. But for a bunch of 6-foot something drunkards, we were no match. So we decided to avoid the stern looks, and went down the stairs. Nothing major happened, except that we got an earful of “Go back to your own country” and “What’re you doing here, mate? You don’t belong with us”.

Salaam Namaste is a hit, even in Britain. The hall was full. But after the people came out, you couldn’t see a person outside the cinema within 5 minutes. An Indian (or Asian), that is. They’d rather make a hasty exit than be subjected to abuse that would ruin the wonderful evening they’d just had. And in all the years I’ve been coming to late-night movies in Britain, every time it’s been the same.

Thankfully, we made it safely outside the hall. Now for a taxi. The taxi stand had turned into a haven of drunken people vomiting uncontrollably. So we started out on foot. But we couldn’t walk in a straight line as we had to take frequent detours, to bypass troublemakers headed our way; once we went around a hedge instead of past it lest we got drawn into a fight someone had started.

In crisis situations, one’s senses are heightened. My eyes zoomed in on an empty taxi from far away. Waving like lunatics, we asked the driver to stop and walked as fast as we could. Running could get us unwarranted attention, although I did feel like it.

As we came close, we saw that the taxi-driver was Indian. He could well have been Pakistani or Bangladeshi, but I couldn’t care less — he was an Asian. Finally here was a taxi with a desi driver who was ready to take us home.

Of course, any taxi driver would have done the same. But there was something so comforting and reassuring about seeing a fellow Asian that hard logic cannot possibly explain. He seemed like someone from home.

Back home, I couldn’t help wondering what kind of life these taxi drivers had. After all, most of their passengers must be those who’d just had a drinking spree and who could utter abuse quicker than their own names. And all for a few pounds!

You get to hear a lot of harping about how multi-culturalism has been a resounding success in Britain. It may well have been — I’m sure most of these seemingly racist buffoons would be perfectly respectable citizens in the morning. But what’s the saying? — a drunkard never lies. Is this the hideous truth that lies dormant in the souls of England?

Ashwin and I will go watch Maine Gandhi Ko Nahi Mara next week. You can’t let irritants like this to hold your life hostage.

Manmohan at the UN

India Cause, 10.10.2005

Manmohan Singh touched down in Delhi on September 17 after his recent trip to Paris and New York. Prior to his departure, he had a hefty list of issues to be taken up during his bilateral discussions with President Jacques Chiraq and at the General Assembly of the 60th annual convention of the United Nations. He was also scheduled to meet Presidents George W Bush, Vladimir Putin and Parvez Musharraf on the sideline of the UN summit to discuss bilateral and global issues of importance. Commentators and politicians back home were dissecting his every speech, every move and every gesture, trying to analyse whether he managed to showcase India’s rising stature and push for its national interests amidst the ever-changing dynamics of international relations. He has largely succeeded.

The sheer symbolic importance of Dr Singh’s speech to the UN General Assembly cannot be left aside. He began his speech with a reference to the ancient Indian concept of Vasudaiva Kutumbakam, i.e., “the whole world is one family”. He dwelt for a considerable time on the vision of shared destiny of all the member countries of the United Nations, and lauded the adoption of the UN Millennium Goals by most of them. However, he did chide certain groups of countries, primarily the richer and the corrupt ones, saying that while the world “is generous in setting goals”, it is also “parsimonious in pursuing them.”

When it came to the issue of reforming the UN Security Council, Dr Singh was unequivocal in his condemnation at the process hitting cul de sac- “Unfortunately, the UN suffers from…[its]…decision making process…[that]…reflects the world of 1945, not 2005.” He strongly argued for the case of the G-4 countries (India, Japan, Germany, Brazil) for reforming the UNSC, even though it faced stiff opposition from the US, China and the African Union. He pointed out the “democracy deficit” at the UN, which denied these countries their rightful place, suggesting that the UN’s “ability to deliver…on its own charter obligations remain limited” as a result.

It could be argued that Singh, along with India’s External Affairs ministry, has missed a trick by still sticking with the G-4, as many countries are prepared to support India’s bid on its own, but are not sure about all the four aspirants. For example, during his bilateral meeting with Dr Singh, Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested “constructive reform” of the UNSC, and giving India a permanent seat was an essential part of it. British Prime Minister Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chiraq have recently re-iterated their unreserved support for India in this regard. But the United States remains unconvinced about Brazil and Germany, while China will not have Japan at the table.

On international terrorism, Dr Singh, widely looked upon as a soft-spoken man, was surprisingly firm. He declared that the international community “must not yield any space to terrorism”, while maintaining that “India will never succumb to terrorism”, be it in Jammu & Kashmir, or elsewhere. He upheld the notions of democracy and called upon all problems to be discussed within the system, while ruling out that there was any justification for terror.

His bilateral meetings were arguably tricky in nature and mixed in terms of success. On one hand, he had an extremely fruitful meeting with President Chiraq in Paris en route to New York. Apart from signing the $1.8 billion Scorpene submarine deal with France, he was welcomed with the declaration from the French government that it will facilitate the supply of civilian nuclear materials to Delhi, and encourage other members of the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group to do the same. Similarly, his meeting with President Putin also bore rich dividends- Russia welcomed the relaxed rules of technology transfers to India announced by the US, and assured greater assistance from the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group for India’s Kundankulam Project. Moreover, in a bid to increase under-utilised economic relations, Moscow will prepare a “comprehensive study on economic ties” by the time Dr Singh’s annual visit to the country takes place in December.

On the other hand, though, he came under increasing pressure from the US over the proposed $4.7 billion gas pipeline with Iran. According to official sources, the issue of the pipeline was not on the agenda during his meeting with President Bush. But a rather hawkish comment by a US Congressman just days prior to the summit, and a not-so-subtle statement by Condolezza Rice expressing “concern” about India’s relations with Iran, drove home the point rather well. India, being a board member of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), is increasingly being drawn into the “tripartite diplomacy” over Iran’s nuclear hoopla.

However, on the surface it appears that Dr Singh made India’s stand very clear. While arguing that “diplomacy must be given a chance”, he also stated that “Iran must live up to its international obligations” to suspend conversion and enrichment of uranium without IAEA inspections. He stated that India had the second largest Shia Muslim population in the world, was dependent on oil imports from the region, and that 3 to 4 million Indians work in the Gulf, and therefore a stable Middle East was always desirable by Delhi. At the same time, he did not forget to mention that a nuclear Iran was “not desirable”. He did the balancing act rather well, it seems.

Since then, India has surprised many by voting for the US/EU-backed resolution at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) board meeting to refer Iran to the UN Security Council over its constant failure to comply with its guidelines. The leftists in India are predictably furious, and so apparently-according to a report in The Hindu- is Iran, and contrary to official statements, it still might torpedo the $7 billion Iran-India gas pipeline. However, Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran presented two arguments in defence of India’s decision- first, that it was India that included a clause in the resolution that left way for further discussions between Iran and the EU-3 in the future, and once it had helped formulate the resolution, it had to stand by it or lose credibility. Thus, India effectively watered down an erstwhile hard line stance of the West towards Iran. Secondly, by its own judgements as a board member of the IAEA, India found Iran short of fully co-operating in increasing transparency about its nuclear activities.

His meeting with President Musharraf suffered from the hangover from a rather ordinary summit experienced by Pakistan. In his speech to the General Assembly, Musharraf was reduced to apologising for the A Q Khan nuclear proliferation network, promising more action to curb terrorism and getting himself drawn into a controversy over his comments about the rape of women in Pakistan, and how it was supposedly a ploy to get foreign visas. His response was predictable- try and shift the limelight to Kashmir.

The response from the Indian delegation was firm. Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran dismissed Musharraf’s referral to resolving the Kashmir dispute as per UNSC resolutions as a result of domestic populist pressures. Dr Singh too reiterated India’s stance that no troop withdrawals could take place in the valley until there was a substantial and visible reduction of terrorism on the ground. Despite the seeming rifts, both sides agreed that they were dedicated to the peace process and the third round of dialogue in January “had much going for it”.

A minor, but domestically significant, debacle took place when Dr Singh made a “casual remark” during his meeting with President Bush about the opposition he faces back home to the recent nuclear deal signed with Washington, and how surprised he was at the vociferous attack at the same by his predecessor Atal Bihari Vajpayee, under whose premiership India finally began to improve relations with the US. Apparently it is objectionable to highlight domestic dissent in international meetings for Singh, but it is all right when Bush mentions the problems he faces with Congress over the same deal.

Thus it seems that logically there can be no defence of this criticism on Manmohan Singh. His trip will be marked as a sure, albeit modest, success as he looks to broaden India’s horizons into the wider world.

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