Xmas card from Amer­ica

The Pak Banker - - Editorial - Jawed Naqvi

THE woman on the aisle seat, my neigh­bour on the Bri­tish Air­ways flight, could have been any agree­able white Amer­i­can tourist ex­ud­ing af­fec­tion for In­dia. That she turned out to be a dyed-in-the-wool Repub­li­can made her a more in­ter­est­ing com­pan­ion on an oth­er­wise point­lessly long jour­ney to San Fran­cisco. She was re­turn­ing home to Phoenix where Sarah Palin is thought to have a mar­ginal ap­proval as a pos­si­ble chal­lenger to Barack Obama two years from now.

The sub­ject in­evitably turned to Meera Shankar's pat­down search saga. The In­dian am­bas­sador in Washington was the toast of the Obama visit to Delhi. Her pic­ture of poise was un­der­scored by her el­e­gant choice of saris. And now she had been sub­jected to a hu­mil­i­at­ing phys­i­cal search at an Amer­i­can air­port.

There was ou­trage in the In­dian me­dia. The for­eign min­is­ter de­scribed it as un­ac­cept­able. His Amer­i­can coun­ter­part of­fered pro­fuse apolo­gies. Just then news came in of In­dia's UN en­voy, a Sikh gen­tle­man, be­ing sub­jected to a sim­i­lar search. "When they peep in­side our un­der­wear we don't protest re­ally," said my flight com­pan­ion in a whis­per. She was try­ing to ex­plain that In­di­ans had over­re­acted, keep­ing her tone soft to avoid at­tract­ing the at­ten­tion of other In­di­ans in the vicin­ity. "There is noth­ing racist in be­ing cau­tious with air­port se­cu­rity, not since the un­der­wear bomber nearly wreaked havoc last Christ­mas."

The ref­er­ence was to a young Mus­lim from Nige­ria, who ev­i­dently tried to de­stroy North­west Flight 253 over Detroit, on be­half of Al Qaeda. Had he suc­ceeded, the re­sult would have been worst ter­ror­ist at­tack on Amer­i­can soil since 9/11.

Amer­i­can se­cu­rity of­fi­cials were san­guine they had done the right thing with the In­dian di­plo­mats. If the two needed pro­to­col as­sis­tance they should have in­formed the air­port ahead of their travel, which they hadn't. Un­like the stan­dard in­su­lar Amer­i­can Repub­li­can vis­i­tor to In­dia the lady from Phoenix read lo­cal news­pa­pers. She was quick to ob­serve, though not dis­ap­prov­ingly, that the In­dian home min­is­ter had just then pro­filed In­dian mi­grants in Delhi for a ris­ing crime graph in the city of 14 mil­lion plus.

The min­is­ter later apol­o­gised for air­ing his prej­u­dice but it took away lit­tle from the point that In­dian elites can be racist and sus­pi­cious of fel­low In­di­ans. It is manda­tory for po­lice, for ex­am­ple, to fin­ger­print do­mes­tic ser­vants in Delhi, while spar­ing the em­ploy­ers the in­sult­ing scru­tiny. I won­dered if the lady from Phoenix en­dorsed the In­dian min­is­ter's ideas on in­ter­nal se­cu­rity.

I was in Amer­ica last Christ­mas and a few times be­fore that but I haven't been able to un­der­stand the hul­la­baloo about be­ing searched or be­ing sub­jected to per­va­sive ques­tion­ing. No one has done it to me. Amer­i­cans love to fear, of course. That's the way they are brought up. That's how the bulk of their com­mer­cial ad­ver­tis­ing is an­gled into the liv­ing rooms. It is fear that spawns a bizarre rush for con­sumerism. In any case, im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cials have been cor­dial with me, even friendly. A Viet­namese cus­toms of­fi­cial at San Fran­cisco checked a packet of cumin seeds from a range of spices I was made to carry for a rel­a­tive and a po­lice­man loaned me his phone to make a call.

Of all the Amer­i­can states hit badly by the cur­rent eco­nomic slump Cal­i­for­nia has en­dured the worst of the trauma. Soon the state's movie-ac­tor gover­nor Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger will hand over the ba­ton to a Demo­cratic suc­ces­sor but the ar­riv­ing change will be at best cos­metic. The sul­len­ness that comes with a high in­ci­dence of un­em­ploy­ment and 'To Let' signs on empty pub­lic build­ings is un­likely to abate.

At home, some­one switched on the TV. An im­pres­sive repast of Christ­mas carols was be­ing beamed live from Washington with Pres­i­dent Obama and his fam­ily oc­cu­py­ing the first row. Christ­mas carols and the more fa­mil­iar hymns al­ways take me back to La Mar­tiniere Col­lege, my school in Lucknow. Its or­nate chapel sym­bol­ised the most ven­er­a­ble part of a fine tra­di­tion of mu­sic and cel­e­bra­tion. So what if its founder was a French mer­ce­nary who de­serted to the Bri­tish corner af­ter fac­ing im­mi­nent de­feat in an 18th-cen­tury skir­mish? Wizard of Oz

There is some­thing com­fort­ing about Amer­ica's re­spect for its his­tory of art and mu­sic, about its un­end­ing ven­er­a­tion of icons from the past. The late Judy Gar­land al­ways makes an ap­pear­ance around Christ­mas time in her cel­e­brated role in the . Ask some­one in In­dia about Judy Gar­land's sing­ing and act­ing con­tem­po­rary, say, Kanan Bala. The chances are that you would be sorely dis­ap­pointed. Apart from the very old pa­trons of her mu­sic, there is hardly a chance of her be­ing known to the younger gen­er­a­tion. There's some­thing to pon­der over here.

Two sto­ries caught my eye in the past week. There is a great de­bate brew­ing over an Amer­i­can sol­dier who raped and killed a 14-year old Iraqi girl and shot her fam­ily. Should the civil­ian courts have the author­ity to pre­scribe the life sen­tence he has been given?

The other story re­veals a flip side of the world's most for­mi­da­ble mil­i­tary power. There is no de­bate about whether the Wik­iLeaks chief Ju­lian As­sange had a point to make by ex­pos­ing the seamier side of Amer­i­can diplo­macy. He should be killed, say the se­nior lead­ers, not un­like the ay­a­tol­lahs of Iran they re­vile.

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