Thursday, March 01, 2007

Terrorist or Freedom Fighter? How a Moderator was Terrorised.

How does the world see us? Can a panel member talk back to the discussion moderator? Can anyone be racist here in our own country, our own city? All this struck me during the discussion on “Terrorist or Freedom Fighter.” The media, or, whatever media covered this event, of course, dumbed down the play of emotions that were let loose in this discussion of the Kitab Festival.

In the panel were Peter Gordon, John Kampfner, Fatima Bhutto (writer), Philip Hensher (writer) and George Brock, and wielding the moderator’s mike was journalist Indrani Bagchi. The discussion veered to how stated sponsored terrorism or “Crime against humanity” was termed “strategic combat” “military force” “campaign” etc and terror acts by people acting in concert for their alleged freedom was termed “bomb attack” “threat” “plot” etc. A matter of semantics but important nonetheless to the discussion.

Somewhere down the line Indrani Bagchi mentioned that Britain had more potential Islamic fundamentalists than any other country in Europe. Philip Hershner jumped to the defense of his country and said where she had heard or read this. Immediately he was joined by Fatima Bhutto, while Indrani (seated on the floor of the dais) tried to valiantly defend her point. Peter, an American, and George were meaningfully silent. Indrani from lower down, or, from the orchestra pit so to speak, realized she was a minority of one against the majority of four imposingly seated experts on proper seats and a table, all a bit superior about their colour and what not.

Goodness gracious me, the tension could be cut with a knife at that point while Philip Hershner glared at Indrani and went into an ill-humoured sulk – which he maintained through most of the seminar - Indrani tried to stick to her statement and made valiant efforts to justify it. Fatima Bhutto meanwhile went into the defense of Her Majesty’s Kingdom, her country of adoption. I could almost see a replay of my Jeddah experience where I worked with a British multinational. The Brits treated the Pakistanis as bonafide Brits while Indians were kept at arms length as if they were a treacherous lot.

Oh, my God! I screamed silently. Doesn’t this smack of racism and parochialism combined, here in our own soil? Don’t we Indians have any friends left in the world? This is open hostility; can’t people be more accommodating in a public discussion at least? Can a moderator be talked back to like this? Or is this pugnacity what characterizes international discussion?

It was left to an NRI type with a blackberry to jump to the rescue of Indrani as most in the audience didn’t even recognize that there was a subtle battle taking place on stage. NRIs are familiar with such battles as they live with it all the time. He “googled” he said. And the bright guy mercifully read out one report that stated that yes indeed Indrani was probably, well, um, right. I sighed. And he said that there were a thousand documents to prove that he was right.

“Can you prove this is not the case? I mean, provide documents like a thousand search results,” he said waving his blackberry.

Given this barrage of statistics the Brits and their collaborators were shut up rather nicely.

But what exactly did this smart and tech-savvy Indian google, is anybody’s guess. If I google for the search phrase “fundamentalism high in UK” I will have millions of references thrown up which would even include “fundamentalism not high in UK.” Do the Brits know this? Did they even suspect? I guess not.


They didn’t. They assumed that Indians being the computer savvy, geeky, brainy techno-wizards they were known to be, the man was right. They kept quiet. Thank God for Blackberries and their inventors. Come to think of it, “It (The Blackberry) must have been invented by an Indian,” which is the line of thinking followed by Prince Charles when he was embroiled in the scandal of his wife’s death.

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