September 13, 2002


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Admiral (retired) J G Nadkarni

Beyond boundaries

One would have thought that the issue of Sonia Gandhi's foreign origin would be dead and buried by now, but it resurfaces off and on in today's chauvinistic, divisive, bigoted, no-holds-barred politics.

Sonia Gandhi is legally and technically not a foreigner, having opted for Indian citizenship some years ago.

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa recently said she would never support a foreigner as India's prime minister. Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat, brought invective to a new low, calling Sonia a 'gori chamdewali'.

It is a pity that our modern-day swadeshi patriots have forgotten their history lessons so quickly. To start with, India's liberal Constitution and its worldly-wise founders made no distinction between foreign-born and native-born. According to the Constitution, all it requires for any person to take office as prime minister is that s/he should be an Indian citizen. Anyone who meets this requirement has a full right to take the oath of the highest political office in the country.

Foreigners have played an important part in India's freedom struggle and development. Englishman Alan Hume was one of the founding members of the Indian National Congress and Annie Besant, also a Briton, took active part in the freedom struggle and made India her home in her later years. She fought for women's rights long before it became fashionable.

After Independence, in a display of forgive and forget, Indian leaders requested Lord Mountbatten to be free India's first governor-general. India's armed forces had British officers as their heads during the early years of Independence.

Apparently countries were far more liberal in the past on the question of foreign-born persons ruling over them. In 17th and 18th century Europe, there were so many marriages between rulers of different countries that the nationality of the ruler became a minor issue.

Henry VIII in his quarrel with the Pope discarded Roman Catholicism and founded the Church of England, which has remained the state religion of England to this day. Much later, one of his successors, James II, turned out to be a staunch Catholic. Rather than allow James to turn the clock back and make England a Catholic country again, the English parliament took the unusual step of inviting Mary, James's daughter, and her husband William, king of the Netherlands, to invade the country and replace him. The parliament wanted Mary to be the queen and William the prince consort, but the former refused and both ruled Britain jointly, perhaps the only such instance in history.

Later, when Queen Anne died without a child, George of Hanover, Germany, was installed as the new king. Poor George remained an alien to the people; he could not speak English and refused to learn it. Indeed, the present English monarchy has more foreign blood in its veins than English. The present queen's grandmother was German and great grandmother a Dane.

England, of course, is not the only country with such a liberal record. When Norway separated from Sweden in 1905 and became an independent country, they invited the crown prince of Denmark to be their new king. The crown prince, accepted and calling himself Haakon, became quite a popular ruler.

Eamon de Valera, who was the president of Ireland for more than 13 years, was born in America and went to Ireland only because his father died when he was young and his Irish mother wanted to bring him up in Ireland.

The American constitution, a model human rights document in many respects, forbids "foreign-born" persons to hold the office of president. Surprising in a country that is proud to call itself the "melting pot". Ironically, the clause was inserted by the founding fathers whose ancestors must have come across only a few hundred years before. Possibly Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and their colleagues did not want any upstart to spoil their chances of becoming president. Fortunately, no such clause forbids the holding of any other office. Some of the most distinguished secretaries of state, Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright among them, have been foreign-born.

The contribution of foreigners in America's development has been recognised. Albert Einstein did his best research after reaching American shores. Enrico Fermi, an Italian, oversaw the development of the hydrogen bomb and Werner von Braun, a German, developed the rocket to send the first American satellite in space.

The world has moved on over the past 50 years. In the present days of globalization and internationalization, old prejudices and national boundaries have been broken. In business, sport, and entertainment, national lines have begun to disappear. Monica Seles, a Serb, represents the United States in tennis and Wilson Kipketer, a long-distance runner from Kenya, wins gold medals for Denmark. One is finding it difficult to distinguish the British Olympic team from that of any African country. Foreign players dominate the proceedings in European soccer, English county cricket, and American basketball and baseball.

Over the past one thousand years Indians have established a reputation for being one of the most tolerant people in the world. We have freely allowed oppressed peoples of the world to enjoy our hospitality and make this country their home. And they in their turn have made valuable contributions to the betterment of the country. Everyone has been allowed to practise his religion without hindrance. We have earned our name as a true secular nation.

Unfortunately, that reputation is being tarnished today thanks to the intolerant policies of some super-patriots who are willing to throw away all that this country stood for to make a few political gains.

Every citizen of India has a perfect right to know the background and qualifications of a political leader aspiring for high office. But the area of inquiry should be restricted to the ability of the politician to effectively govern the country. It may include his qualities of leadership, his integrity, his educational qualifications, and also whether he has any criminal record. His race, creed, religion, and the colour of his skin have no place in this inquiry, nor are they relevant. Personal attacks based on these are bound to lower the debate to the level of the gutter.

Our chauvinism and paranoia about foreigners is making us out of sync with the increasingly liberal and supranational atmosphere that is beginning to pervade the world. Nationality is beginning to lose importance. In these days of multinationals, CEOs can belong to any of a hundred countries. Multinational mergers are the order of the day. It may sound far-fetched now, but the day may not be far off when countries may offer the job of managing its affairs to an international technocrat or politician with a proven track record. Clinton, anyone?

Admiral (retired) J G Nadkarni

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