‘‘Are you Indian?’’

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A former diplomat recounts anecdotes “without appearing to advocate any further deepening of the North-South divide...”

If you don’t have a Hindi background, you may need to be brought back down to the ground?

The reports in the national print and electronic media about the incident involving a CISF official at the immigration counter at the Chennai airport asking Lok Sabha MP Kanimozhi if she was Indian (for failing to speak in Hindi) brought back unforgettable memories of similar experiences more than forty years ago in New Delhi.

To recall the context briefly, like all new entrants into government service, we too had attended the foundational course at the National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie, and were undergoing training in our “parent Ministry” and other Ministries, Departments, and Agencies of the Government, and attending academic courses at the Jawaharlal Nehru University and the Indian Institute of Foreign Trade, during the 1977-1979 period.

Being new to the city and living in the External Affairs Hostel on Kasturba Gandhi Marg (people still referred to it as Curzon Road), most of the spare time was spent in exploring neighbouring Connaught Place and Bengali Market, and mainly scouting for inexpensive eating places. One still feels nostalgic about many of them, including those at the various “Bhawans”. Efforts at acquiring cultural pretensions meant attending performances regularly at the venues in the neighbourhood. Browsing at the bookshops in the area and window-shopping at the Central Cottage Industries Emporium on Janpath and the innumerable emporia run by state governments on Bhabha Khadak Singh Marg used to be the other favourite pastimes.

During one of the weekends that were dedicated to visiting relatives staying in places somewhat far away from the heart of New Delhi (as a meal was guaranteed), I asked a local police officer for direction to a particular bus stop. As it was spontaneous and not at all pre-meditated, the question came out in English. What happened thereafter was simply beyond belief. The police officer was not merely content with expressing his wrath in the filthiest possible language for my not speaking in Hindi: he made loving references to my brother-in-law, mother, sister, and parentage. After the torrent of abuse subsided, he murmured the direction under his breath, almost inaudibly.

By itself, the incident would have been entirely forgettable, even if unpleasant. In the next six months, I tried this as an experiment on two more occasions — I have to admit shame-facedly today that these two were deliberate and planned (blame it on the exuberance of youth!) — at two different locations, one with another official from the Delhi police and the other from the traffic police. Surprise, surprise, the responses were identical to the first one: the choicest abuses in Hindi, including describing me as obnoxious, and affectionate references yet again to my brother-in-law, mother, sister, and parentage. In any other setting, one should have felt deeply touched; the prevailing circumstances would, however, not permit that.

It is inconceivable that three police officials concerned would have coordinated their strategies in responding to the query in English by this “Southie” at three different locations in the national capital on three different occasions. In other words, the reasons for the coincidence and identical nature of their responses should lie and be sought elsewhere. As a matter of fact, to the discerning, they should not be far to seek. I recall telling a couple of friends and relatives something to this effect at that time.

These thoughts came rushing back on reading stories in the media about the incident involving the Thoothukkudi MP.

Following the same logic, one wonders whether the remedy of ordering an enquiry into the incident, with the obvious intent of “punishing” the CISF official (which would most likely be one of the standard ones, like an adverse entry in the annual confidential report, a warning, or deferral of an increment, or such-like) would be the right one?

The CISF official asked the question because that was perhaps the only thing that she knew. It is not known if she had been given any training prior to this incident on how to treat passengers, let alone VIPs and VVIPs? Nor whether the efficacy of the training imparted been assessed in a professional manner? Without these, why and how can the poor official be blamed? Cannot the matter be better addressed by the Commandant, CISF writing a letter of apology on behalf of the CISF for the perceived, most likely unintended, slight?

More important, can the situation be ameliorated by addressing this single instance, when such incidents are commonplace and occurring almost daily? Should we not contemplate more systemic, long-term remedies, if we are serious about addressing their root causes? Willingness to address the root causes is in itself a complex question, depending as it does on a host of socio-cultural, historical and other factors. Unless, of course, we accept that there exists a category of “lesser Indians”! In response to a question from an erstwhile colleague during our attachment with the Jawaharlal Nehru University, a well-known professor had replied that chauvinism by the majority goes by the name of patriotism!

During the 1977-1979 period, I had exactly the opposite experience too once, at the Madras Central Railway station. At its entrance, I had asked a lady sweeper on duty for directions to the office where the “quota” reserved for senior officials of the Railways used to be released. Except that, this time, I myself was the offender, as the question came out spontaneously in Hindi. She looked at me benignly, half-smiled, and replied in English: “No Hindi here, Sir, but the office is right opposite the station”, and pointed it out to me.

Without appearing to advocate any further deepening of the North-South divide, may the divide prevail, persist, and thrive in the realm of supremacy of civility and cultural refinement!

(The writer is a former diplomat; views expressed are personal.)

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