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Hot under the collar at Pravasi Bharatiya Divas
Pankaj Upadhyaya in Delhi |
January 09, 2004 19:28 IST
A major grouse at the last Pravasi Bharatiya Divas conference was that the delegates were not allowed to pose questions to the panellists at discussions.
This year the Ministry of External Affairs and FICCI have allowed floor participation in every discussion and the results were visible at the very first plenary -- the heat generated in the huge Vigyan Bhavan auditorium was enough to fight Delhi's biting cold.
The subject was rather tame 'Indians and the Pravasi Bharatiyas: Policies for Productive engagement', but everything -- from the government's 'India Shining' boast to its super power ambitions -- were brought into question by the delegates as they fought for mikes and the chair's attention.
Former prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago Basdeo Pandey chaired the discussion. The panellists were: Dato' Seri S Samy Vellu, Minister of Works, Malaysia; Pravin Kumar Jugnauth, Deputy Prime Minister, Mauritius; and Satveer Chaudhary, State Senator, USA.
Nobel Laureate Sir V S Naipaul, listed among the panelists, did not turn up. He sure missed some fun.
Devi Rathi, a lawyer from Canada, set the ball rolling when he made a strong case for allowing those opting for dual citizenship the right to vote in Indian elections and even contest them.
"Are you scared of Non-Resident Indians? Do you think we will fight elections and take power? Without political rights, the dual citizenship means little," he said.
The name of the next questioner was lost in the applause for Rathi and rather vocal attempts by a few other pravasi bharatiyas to grab the chair's attention. What was not lost, though, was the way he was dressed -- in a spotless white veshti.
And it turned out there was a reason why he was dressed so. "India must create an identity for itself based on its religions, its cultures, it's languages. Once we have created this identity, we can take it forward from there to achieve other global goals. Why do you think I am dressed like this, this is my identity," the 'Chettiar from Tamil Nadu' said.
He was cheered lustily by fellow NRIs and PIOs. A journalist sitting next to me removed his jacket and folded his cuffs.
Another delegate was on his feet, having won the battle of mikes. His name too could not be heard in the melee. He was from an African country and told External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha that his government had been unfair in excluding African countries from the benefit of dual citizenship.
He said the Indian Diaspora in Africa is more nationalistic than any place else in the world and that he and several like him in Africa would not hesitate in laying down their lives for the country.
The nationalistic fervour was rising. A questioner from Abu Dhabi wanted Senator Satveer Chaudhary's reaction to Senator Hillary Clinton reported statement that all Indians either own gas stations or attend at one.
Chaudhary at his diplomatic best reminded the delegates of the abiding interest the former first lady has in India and requested them to not see any one statement in isolation.
A delegate would ask a few minutes later what was wrong with owning a gas station or attending at one. "You doing a job, running a business aren't you? You are taking care of yourself and your family. So?"
The mercury hit the ceiling when a delegate asked the government to stop pretending it's a super power and an economic giant already. "You are talking of a mission to moon, what of the millions of people who are dying of hunger in the country. The deputy prime minister says India is not an underdeveloped country. If it is not, why aren't people not getting enough to eat. Just step out of this room, out on the roads and you will see India is still an underdeveloped country. You quote the number of cell phones in India, I count the juggis (slum dwellings).
"Why are you refusing aid? Why aren't we using the $ 100 billion forex reserve to help the poor, why aren't we building hospitals? Tell people what the real problems of this country are and ask for help," he said.
It was time now for Sinha to answer questions. But there was one problem -- there was no time left. It was time for the next plenary session and its panellists -- Member of Parliament Jyotirditya Scindia, Divestment Minister Arun Shourie and others – were knocking at the door.
But Sinha did reply:
In just six years we have come from a PIO card to dual citizenship. A lot more can be done and will be done, but please bear in the mind the progress that has been made.
The government of India is committed to the eradication of poverty. In six years the number of people below poverty line has fallen from 36 per cent of the total population to 26 per cent. Your concern is well placed, but remember we are doing our best.
India is a democratic country and whether we can give political rights to those who opt for dual citizenship will have to be debated.
The last word
Please bear with India.