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Insults to the Mahatma, ignored by India

By Vijay Dandapani
February 09, 2006 17:49 IST
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George W Bush's protocol handlers have notified South Block that the American President's deep belief in his born again faith precludes his visiting Mahatma Gandhi's Samadhi at New Delhi's Raj Ghat -- during his forthcoming visit to India.

When asked -- by reporters on a recent trip aboard Air Force One -- if he will be breaking a decades long tradition of foreign dignitaries visiting India paying respect to the Father of India, Mr Bush, as is his wont, was caught off guard and mumbled something about how the Gospel of Jesus Christ views cremation as a pagan practice.

Astonishingly, the Indian press and the liberal elite have thus far given a free pass to this blatant insult to the memory of the Mahatma and to all Indians.

Indeed, none of the alacrity shown in demanding US Ambassador David Mulford's head -- for his ostensibly insensitive comments on India's Iran policy -- has been on display in the case of Mr Bush.

Before some of those mentioned above lather themselves into a frisson of fury over the latest slight from the US hegemon, they should stop and substitute Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, ruler of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for George W Bush, 43rd President of the United States.

The absolutist Saudi monarch not only broke a hallowed tradition of paying homage at Raj Ghat observed by every foreign leader but offered an outrageously preposterous reason for doing so.

The king is reported to have indicated that a visit to the Mahatma's memorial would violate the principles of his faith. By inference, India's current head of State President A P J Abdul Kalam should be guilty of sacrilege for his many visits to the Samadhi.

The government may have had its (mistaken) reasons for fawning over the Saudi ruler but the near complete lack of commentary particularly in the normally strident Leftist papers such as The Hindu boggles the mind.

Should President Bush or Prime Minister Blair or even the Pope have dared to commit such an egregious folly, headlines would have blared in those Leftist organs about India's sovereignty and ancient history being trampled upon by ugly colonialists who still seek to subjugate India economically and culturally, if not militarily.

Instead, what ensued were a few tame reports that acknowledged the radically changed protocol. Of course, the king's arrival in India saw a continuance of the cravenness that resulted in the timid acceptance of the insult. Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh chose to break protocol and greet the Saudi king at the airport.

Any measured analysis of the first visit of a Saudi king to India in 51 years would note that the attention from the other side was not accidental.

While the Saudis have the world's largest reserves of oil, they need new markets just as much as any other oil rich country and quite evidently foresee a resurgent India as a future economic player and potential partner.

An overarching dependence on the US has come to bite the Saudis since September 11, 2001, with negative sentiment amongst the US population and even some bureaucrats riding at an all time high.

Indeed, President Bush's latest State of the Union speech calling for alternative energy sources only underscored the need for them to look to other markets and alliances.

Arguably, there is no country better than India, with its large Muslim population together with a rapidly growing economy that offers the most potential.

Instead of recognising the not inconsiderable advantages India possesses, the government and the media elite is unfortunately intent on aligning the country with an opaque and hitherto unreliable feudal family that rules a nation by decree.

Indeed, the historical record of the Al-Sauds should cause any impartial observer to cringe at their treatment of minorities and foreigners both within and outside their country.

While it may be a while before the family hold on that country's oil patrimony is tested, it is utterly irresponsible to hitch India's energy and economic future to a country that no bookie in his or her right mind will offer odds on its enduring in its current form.

The last point also begs the question why the Oil and Natural Gas Commission's current tear to acquire assets -- almost exclusively from private Western companies accountable to shareholders -- in the name of 'energy independence' in countries tottering on the edge and led by brutal dictatorships is not viewed as tilting at windmills.

But then again, it is hard to wean away politicians and bureaucrats from a decades long regimen that calls for a government solution to almost any economic issue.

In the end, the gratuitous subservience to the Saudis results in a genuine loss of national pride. What is worse, however, is the unbridled spending of taxpayer monies in the name of energy security without involving the private sector. That is likely to have a far greater negative impact that will be felt for generations to come.

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Vijay Dandapani