Wednesday, November 25, 2009

India and Middle East

India Should focus on the Middle East
New Indian Express, 26 November 2009

Despite less popular nomenclature, the Middle East developments have more far-reaching implications for India than commonly recognised. The region normally is noticed for all wrong reasons or only for wrong reasons; terrorism in Israel, Iraq and Algeria; Islamic upsurges in Egypt, Yemen; threats emanating from the Somali pirates to oil supplies from the Persian Gulf; political instability in Lebanon; or the nagging and seemingly endless nuclear controversy over Iran. Occasionally elections get attention in the Indian media.

Yes, the Middle East has its share of problems but it also offers a number of challenges and opportunities. Since the end of the Cold War the world has become complex and New Delhi is still learning to maintain close and friendly ties with countries, which are at competition, if not war, with one another. This is especially true for the Middle East.

No country would be able to remain indifferent to the impending fallout of the eventual American withdrawal from Iraq. Likewise, New Delhi would not be able to pursue closer ties with Tehran without worrying about the US factor. Its newly found bonhomie with Israel would have to factor in the cold winds from Cairo. Its overall energy security calculations would have to consider the growing Chinese presence and competition in the oil-rich Gulf region. It is no accident that Iran has been using the China angle to force India’s hands on the never-ending negotiations over the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline. Its closer military ties with the Jewish state have a bearing on India’s ties with as diverse a group as Egypt, Iran, Palestinians and of late Turkey.

Besides the geographic proximity and long political interactions, the region is important for a host of reasons. First, the Middle East is India’s prime trading partner. In 2007-08, it accounted for nearly 25 per cent of India’s total trade. Exports to this region stood at over $30 billion while imports stood at close to $72 billion. While the ongoing recession reduced the quantum of trade, the Middle East’s share in India’s overall foreign trade is unlikely to dwindle.

Second, a better picture of the region emerges in the energy sector. The region accounts of bulk of energy imports. Out of the $86 billion energy imports in 2007-08, as much as $58.8 billion came from the hydrocarbon-rich Middle East, with the Gulf region accounting for the lion’s share. Countries such as Saudi Arabia and UAE meet bulk of India’s energy needs. As India’s energy import dependency is expected to reach close to 90 per cent by 2025, the importance of the Middle East will only increase in the coming years.

Third, one need not overemphasise the role played by the expatriate population. Currently there are over four million Indian labourers in the Gulf and even without the hawala channel they contribute substantially to their families back home as well as to the Indian economy.

Fourth, Islam plays an important role in India’s ties with the Middle East. Even though most of the global Muslim population lives outside the region, the Middle East has become synonymous with the term ‘Islamic world’. The latest report by the Washington-based Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life identifies India as having the third largest community of Muslims after Indonesia and Pakistan. Any upheavals and progress in the Middle East naturally reverberates worldwide. If al-Qaeda has negative implications, the inter-faith dialogues pursued by Qatar and Saudi Arabia for example highlight the growing awareness in the region for better and nuanced understanding of one another. The Middle East mainstream is still moderate and needs to be befriended and encouraged.

Despite these factors, the Middle East does not figure adequately in India’s foreign policy agenda. The high-profiled visit by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia during the Republic Day celebrations in 2006, for example, was not followed up adequately. The reciprocal visit by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Riyadh is plagued by delays. There is also pending invitations from Israel, Iran and other countries of the region. Singh’s visit to Egypt earlier this year, which subsequently became controversial due to the Sharm el-Sheikh statement, was not a state visit as he was attending the Non-Aligned Summit hosted by President Hosni Mubarak.

The South Asian countries are becoming vital primarily because of the negative consequences. As we have seen, domestic instability and violence in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka often spill over into India. The Middle East on the contrary offers a number of incentives, opportunities and challenges.

Let there be no mistake. India’s great power aspirations will be tested in the Middle East. In the coming years, much of the great power rivalry involving the US, Russia, China and Japan will be fought over this region and its energy resources. The region will inevitably figure in India’s simmering discontent with the Obama administration over issues such as non-proliferation. The real implications of its energy cooperation or potential competition with China will be tested in the Gulf region. The maturity of its foreign policy establishment will be measured by how it handles the India-Israel-Iran and India-Iran-US triangles.

The time has thus come for a serious, nuanced and non-partisan understanding of the Middle East and its complexities. Erstwhile platitudes, historic bonhomie and civilisational rhetoric are important but would be insufficient to handle present dynamics and future challenges. The Middle East Institute @ New Delhi is a small step in this direction.

(The author teaches at Jawaharlal Nehru University and is the honorary director of the Middle East Institute @ New Delhi. This commentary is published in partnership with

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

For Qatar, Small is also Effective



While bigger players squander their goodwill and fortune, the small Emirate is slowly emerging as a diplomatic powerhouse in the Middle East. The conduct of Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani in lending his weight to burning issues is a sign of emerging Qatari diplomatic acumen, even while others have burnt their fingers in similar diplomatic ventures. It has become obvious, given President Hosni Mubarak’s ineffective unity talks between Fatah and Hamas, that Egypt has lost its leadership role in the Middle East peace process.

Fortune, however, favors Qatar. In May 2008, the Emir Khalifa brought the warring Lebanese factions to Doha and facilitated a marathon discussion between the pro- and anti-Syrian factions. The Emir stepped in after other influences within the region and the historical links of the French proved insufficient to bridge the gap between the factions. On a few occasions Amr Moussa, the Secretary General of the Arab League, announced an impending settlement only to flounder. Qatar did not have any such pretentions. The warring Lebanese factions left the Emirate with the Doha Accord that ended the political boycott by the Hezbollah-led opposition and, eventually, paved the way for the parliamentary elections held on 7 June 2009. With Saad Hariri abandoning his efforts to form a unity coalition, one should not be surprised at Emir Khalifa’s re-entry onto the Lebanese political scene.

Likewise, when the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan had problems with Hamas and its activities within the country, Qatar stepped in. The deportation of Khalid Mashaal and his colleagues to Doha in November 1999 resolved an impending showdown between the Islamic militants and the Hashemites. The move also enjoyed the tacit backing of Israel, which was at ease with a ‘friendly’ monarch watching over the ‘outside’ leadership of Hamas. The importance of Qatar in regional developments was given a boost in September 2008, when the Syrian president convinced the Arab League to appeal to Qatar to sponsor negotiations between the Darfur rebels and the Sudanese government. Although progress has been minimal, the development highlights the growing diplomatic reach of Qatar.

As part of an effort to cleanse the negative image in the region following the 11 September attacks, Qatar has also taken the lead in initiating and hosting inter-faith dialogue among the Semitic religions, which often involves Jewish religious figures. Doha has also hosted a number of Israeli officials, leaders and commentators.

What makes Qatar acceptable to both sides of the political divide; Israel and Hamas, Hezbollah and Hariri and Iran and the US?

One can look at three possible explanations. One: unlike other regional players, Doha does not have historical baggage, nor does it have any illusions about its regional influence. Although wealthier, it does not resort to chequebook diplomacy to gloss over deep political differences. Above all, it does not have pretentions of being a regional player. Not pressurised to deliver, Qatar is more effective than others.

Second, Qatar maintains open channels of communication with all the major players in the region, a fundamental pre-condition for any mediatory efforts. It has close ties with Syria and, unlike other Arab powers, did not boycott the March 2008 Arab summit in Damascus. This move proved helpful when the Emir sought to mediate between the Syrian-backed Hezbollah and the US-backed Hariri factions. The tension between Riyadh and Damascus, both before and after the Damascus summit, diluted the Saudi ability to resolve the Lebanese stalemate. The same fate awaited Egypt after Mubarak chose to skip Damascus.

Three, in pursuing foreign policy options, Khalifa is not always guided by American preferences and dictates. For example, American displeasure did not prevent him from dealing with Iran. His disagreement with the prevailing international consensus over the nuclear row was exhibited in July 2006: when the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1696 that called on Tehran to suspend uranium enrichment, Qatar was the only member to vote against the resolution. Similarly, open communication with Tehran was accompanied by Qatar maintaining a low-level Israeli mission that had been briefly closed following Iranian pressures just days before the Emir hosted the Ninth OIC summit in November 2000.

In short, low profile activities, lesser expectations and, above all, the maintenance of closer ties with all the warring sides has enabled Qatar to play a role far bigger than its size and economic influence would suggest. Small is not only beautiful but, in the case of Qatar, it is also effective.

Monday, August 10, 2009


A hostility affecting the region
The New Indian Express, 11 August 2009,

While their leaders warn of an impending global catastrophe if Iran goes nuclear, the Israeli public is taking a more sanguine view. An opinion poll by Tel Aviv University finds that over 80 per cent feel their personal lives ‘would not be expected to change’ if Iran developed nuclear weapons. Should this enable us to look for an understanding between the Jewish State of Israel and the Islamic Republic of Iran?

With the war of words flying in both directions, such an entente is almost unthinkable. Since he became president in 2005 Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has functioned as if the destruction of Israel is the raison d’ĂȘtre of Iran. He has denied, denounced and belittled the Holocaust in which Jews were slaughtered by the Nazi regime. Organising Holocaust denial events has become his pastime. His quixotic fights with history shames many Iranians. His controversial re-election can only worsen the situation.

Moreover, every now and then Iran announces the successful test firing of missiles. Each test is deadlier than the last and the latest in mid-May was for a missile with an estimated range of 1,200 miles. This not only brings Israel but also southern Europe within Iran’s range.

Israel is equally obsessed with the Islamic republic. The present government blames Tehran for most of its problems with the Arabs and Palestinians. Iranian support for militant groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas clouds Israel’s ability to examine the root causes of the prolonged Arab-Israeli conflict. Today, Iran’s nuclear ambitions are Israel’s top foreign policy priority. The recent meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Barrack Obama confirms this. Obama was keen to push the two-state solution, while the Likud leader wanted a firmer American commitment on Iran.

It appears that the military option is still on the Israeli table. Despite the technical difficulties and political hurdles, it has not given up the idea of attacking Iran’s nuclear programme. Netanyahu apparently told Obama that Israel would not wait indefinitely for concrete measures to prevent Iran from going nuclear.

When each side perceives the other as the mortal enemy, can one visualise reconciliation? At first glance, such a suggestion would be dismissed as wishful thinking.

Let’s take a second look. Israel and Iran are the only two countries in the greater Middle East that could be classified as regional powers. No one can deny that their policies, actions and rhetoric often have had seismic effects. For better or worse, many countries in the region fear their actions as well as rhetoric.

The other countries are no match for these two. Petro-power and Islamic credentials have not transformed Saudi Arabia into an effective regional power. Likewise, the political aspirations of Egypt are not commensurate with its diplomatic accomplishments. Of late, Cairo has been less effective even on the Palestinian front.

Should a resurgent and perhaps nuclear Iran bring Arab countries closer to Israel? Theoretically yes. Shared security concerns, especially over pro-Iranian militant groups, should bring the Arabs closer to Israel. But this will not happen before a comprehensive peace in the region. The cold peace between Egypt and Israel is between states, not people. The Arab street is not ready for reconciliation with Israel, at least not before Palestinian political aspirations are met. And the Netanyahu government is not ready for a two-state solution. Hence private understanding over Iran is the maximum that Israel can expect from the Arab regimes.

Moreover, for Israel as well as Iran, Washington remains an enigma. Can Obama convert high expectations into concrete policies and tangible results? Will his Iran policy satisfy Israel as well as Iran? Squaring the Israel-Iran-US triangle is easier said than done. The historical baggage and complexities are overwhelming. Thus, the Obama administration is more likely to disappoint than satisfy expectations on both sides.

As a result, Israel and Iran need to plan for an alternate contingency, one that recognises their mutual concerns as well as possible failure of Obama’s Middle East policy. Of late, spearheaded by Cairo, a number of Arab countries are arguing that the nuclear capabilities of Iran as well as Israel are a threat to the region, especially Arabs. Under Amr Moussa the Arab League is not prepared to de-link Iran from Israel’s nuclear capabilities.

These concerns should enable Israel and Iran to re-examine their hostility towards each other. There is a greater convergence of interest between the two than is recognised. One is not suggesting a modern-day Sykes-Picot arrangement where Iran and Israel divide the Middle East into spheres of influence. Even if they dream, neither Iran nor Israel has the imperial wherewithal for such overreach.

Nor can they go back to the days of the Shah when both countries pursued David Ben-Gurion’s policy of peripheral diplomacy. Driven by their mutual concerns over the increasingly revolutionising Arab world, one found the other as an ally. This strategy and their pro-western orientation worked in tandem until the Islamic revolution. Times have changed and Israel is no longer as isolated as it was during the Cold War. It has some friends and more clandestine allies in the Arab world.

Thus, the US-USSR behaviour during the later part of the Cold War offers an interesting model for Israel and Iran. Their mutual animosity did not diminish, public rhetoric against the other continued and each one scrambled for allies in the other’s backyard. This however, did not prevent the US and USSR from reaching broad understanding on critical matters. Israel and Iran are too small to divide the region among themselves, but could reach some broad understanding on issues that affect and undermine their security. It calls for chutzpah, perhaps; but are we not discussing the Middle East?

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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Diary Beijing

The New Indian Express, 24 July 2009

Moody machines at airport
It is often impossible to figure out what can ‘pass’ at the security checks. Obviously different countries have different standards. I confronted another problem and the same equipment had its preferences. For my Chinese friends who are fond of Indian food, I carried some species in the carryon baggage, our only luggage during the trip. While packing I did not think carefully and spread them in both bags. One bag with all spices went off smoothly and the other one did not. The machine discovered some ‘banned’ substance and we had to empty it. The security person wont allow us carry the species that had chillies and a larger bottle of cream. We quietly dropped them at the dustbin. Although disappointed, I could not ignore the irony. What happened to the same ‘banned items’ in my other carryon bag that went undetected? Not just the personnel, even the equipment is getting moody?

Airport barometer
The flow of passengers at the airport is an interesting indicator for measuring the economy of the country. While hotel occupancy might tell a different story, the size of the passenger flow shows the trend. This is more valid in countries such as Egypt and Turkey, which relies heavily upon the tourists for economy. Recent political tension over the Gaza war, for example, has adversely affected the flow of Israeli tourists to both these countries. The economic crisis is manifests in many European airports. A few years ago, SARS played havoc when international tourism to China dropped dramatically. The initial impression of the Beijing airport is interesting. Not only were there planeloads of people, there were more foreigners than Chinese. Of course, there were a number of Chinese speakers; the family behind me was Canadian whose kids were trying to read the signs in Chinese. There were far more counters for foreigners but still the non-Chinese queues were longer than the native ones. Perhaps it is a sign that weakening of the dollar has not dampened tourism to China.

Emulate China?
One of the first things one reads in the Chinese media was the report that the government officials in the southern province of Guangdong, often described as an ‘economic powerhouse’ of South China, should disclose all their personal belongings to the public. Through this measure the provincial government hopes to increase transparency among the public, which have become sceptical and disgusted over corruption in high places. Can’t help wonder if those aspiring to emulate China, both on the Left and on the Right in India, would demand our bureaucrats to disclose their personal as well as family belongings?

Ticketless travel
When you board a bus in Beijing a few things are striking. Most public buses are air-conditioned; senior citizens travel free while most young people have monthly tickets. The occasional travellers and tourists are the only ones who need a ticket. Like the West, the buses only have drivers who also double as conductors. But there is a big difference. You drop the money in a box next to the driver and move towards the back. Neither he nor the machine dispenses any ticket. The reason? Passengers discard small tickets in the streets and add to garbage and dirt in the streets. Hence the bus system has dispensed with tickets. So, literally you travel ticketless in Beijing. At the same time, the city is yet to find a way-out for the challenge posed by its smoking population. It is not uncommon to find burned out cigarette buds not just in street corners but also along the major roads.

Crossing chaos
For a country that prides itself on order and discipline, crossing the roads is a nightmare in Beijing. The traffic lights are heavily loaded against the pedestrian who get only a few seconds to cross the broad, normally six lanes, roads. Both young and old could not make it to the other side without being harassed by the vehicles that use the free right option. Special lanes for bicycles only make matters worse.

Lonely at the Wall
The Great Wall literally caters to different tastes. First time visitors prefer the popular tourist site at Badaling which is also the most developed and easily accessible. Naturalists prefer Mutianyu section with its lush green surrounding. This time around we opted for the undeveloped Ba Dao Kou section that demands trekking along the woods. Most sections of the Wall are dilapidated, could not find a single complete step and at times the Wall was literally unstable. It is impossible to pass beyond a few hundred metres that too with great difficulty. But once on top, the whole surrounding area is breathtaking. What more, we four were the only ones on the Wall as much as our eyes could see.

Astronauts on ground
That was how they looked. With only their eyes visible, that too behind goggles, they were completely covered in white protective clothing. Why did our plane skip the aerobridge in the new Beijing Capital International Airport? The Chinese officials are not satisfied with the passengers’ declaration that they have no signs of Swine Flu. A medical team boarded the plane and focusing their hand-held pistol-like equipment towards the forehead, they measured the body temperature of about 300 passengers. It took less than 15 minutes. Their efforts were not futile as a Chinese passenger had some symptoms and was quickly taken away in the waiting ambulance.

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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

India-Israel friendship

The Singapore-based Middle East Institute just carried my short paper on The Friendship With Israel: India Squares the Circle. If interested you can find the full text click here

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Tamils in Sri Lanka

The Problem is ethnic, not just Tamil

The New Indian Express, Chennai, 18 June 2009

ONLY history can judge the true contribution of Vellupillai Prabhakaran to the Tamil cause in Sri Lanka. Has he put the problems of the ethnic minority on the world map a la Yasser Arafat or squandered the opportunity by wanton disregard for human lives? Such an assessment would be made not only by his followers, supporters and sympathisers but also by the wider international community, Tamils and non-Tamils alike. One thing is for sure. The Tamil problem as it is defined for the past three decades will not be the same. To be effective it has to be viewed, understood and above all presented differently. Packaging, if you prefer.

First and foremost, the Tamils of Sri Lanka need to re-examine their reliance upon Tamils across the Palk Strait. When push comes to shove, they were let down. Not by the larger Indian state as some would like to believe but by the leaders of Tamil Nadu. Chief minister M Karunanidhi personifies this trend. A few days after LTTE accepted the death of its leaders, he urged Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to treat Sri Lanka ‘as a special case’ where non-interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign country could not be applied. This was only after he concluded cabinet deals for his family.

Others are no better. During the election campaign how many buried their past and took refuge under Eelam agenda? All were prepared to ‘sacrifice’ their lives but not their hunger for power. Both DMK and AIADMK leaders used NSA against pro-LTTE leaders because it served their interests. Thus any emerging Lankan leadership from the present trauma would have to take a hardnosed approach to the track record of Tamil politicians in India, their politicking and their limitations. It is time they buried the notion that the Tamils across the Strait could provide deliverance.

Second, the inglorious defeat of Vaiko sends a strong message. The Lankan problem is an important emotional issue for the people of Tamil Nadu but it is not a critical issue. At the end of the day, it is battle in another state. It is time, the Lankan Tamils recognised this. A greater Tamil nation is a cultural identity that encompasses Tamils living in different parts of the world. Making them into a political nation is vastly different.

Let’s say that the Tamil Nadu government reintroduces the entertainment tax with the purpose of transferring that revenue towards the welfare of the Lankan Tamils. Will Kollywood organise a welcome rally? One per cent VAT for the same purpose would evoke public outcry. Will the youth who were in the forefront of many pro-Eelam agitations accept a ten rupee increase in the monthly bus passes? In short the leaders have conditioned the population into symbolism and rhetoric and forgotten the core issues. They are primarily concerned with the electoral gains to be made and play up the Sri Lankan problem.

Three, there has to be introspection. The LTTE failed not because of its military weakness or lack of support but primarily due to its short-sighted approach towards the struggle. If Prabhakaran failed to put the Tamil problem on the world map like Mr. Palestine, who should be blamed? Despite all the violence against Israel and its civilian population, under Arafat the Palestinian national movement strived for internal unity. The emergence of Hamas indicated his failure but Arafat bribed, cajoled, reasoned, blackmailed and at times intimidated his opponents and rivals. Physical elimination of rival factions was not his style.

Let’s admit. The LTTE chief was Arafat’s antithesis. How many Tamil political personalities, leaders and civilians populations were literally eliminated by the LTTE? Those who disagreed became traitors and were eliminated. New leadership would have to come to terms with black phase, own up and unequivocally distance itself. Likewise, before denouncing the Lankan government for targeting civilians, Tamil groups must admit that they were no better. In the name of fighting for the Tamil cause how many civilians, Tamils and Sinhalese alike, were killed by LTTE and various other groups. Every single civilian life is sacrosanct.

Finally, the problem needs to be redefined. It is not a just Tamil problem but a larger problem of majority intolerance. While the Tamil diaspora would continue to be a major source of support, the problem has to be taken to a higher level. Sri Lanka says it is a democracy, so let’s judge it by democratic standards. Are there laws and norms to reflect this democratic commitment? What is the number of Tamils in the bureaucracy, military, educational institutions, student communities and other sectors? Not poster boys but substantial representation. Does the judiciary uphold social justice or ratify state-sponsored discrimination? Sri Lanka relies heavily on international aid, assistance and cooperation and is vulnerable. China can step in and compensate Indian refusal for military supplies but Colombo needs the wider world which is more sensitive to minority issues.

Such an approach will also enable non-Tamil Indians to see the Sri Lankan problem differently. By playing up the Tamil card, the problem became parochial and narrow. Today it is Tamils of Lanka and tomorrow it can be another minority in another country.

It is an ethnic problem and not a Tamil problem. By expanding the scope, the Tamils of Sri Lanka will acquire more and genuine friends. Will the phoenix emerge from the ashes?

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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Close encounter

A loss not that significant

The New Indian Express, Chennai, 26 May 2009

Many of them lost their families, property, nationality, identity and dreams. Simply put everything they had or aspired for. I only lost a few photos. Not my life, passport, money or not even my camera. The person only took off the memory chip but returned my camera. I lost a few pictures took earlier in the day. What I lost can be replaced with a few euros.

But what was my crime? I took some picture of the Sri Lankan Tamils who were protesting in lush green lawn in front the headquarters of Air France along the Esplanade des Invalides in Paris.

As I was walking from the Home des Invalides a group of protestors caught my attention. When I got closer, I recognised that about hundred Tamils were protesting against the Sri Lankan government. Through their slogans in French, they were drawing the attention of the international community. There were a number of horrific pictures that reminded the passers-by of the brutality of the conflict back home. Only the previous day the Lankan government had announced that LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran has been killed. Were the protesters mourning his death or they were merely protesting the atrocities? No clue.

I took a few snaps. Then I noticed a poster of Mahatma Gandhi on the lamppost. The Mahatma was not holding his usual long walking stick but rather an inverse AK-47. I could not ignore the irony of the poster and wanted to take a picture. The black flag that was also tied to the same lamppost was fluttering and blocked the view. I wanted both Mahatma and AK-47 in one frame. This took a little more time and caught the attention of the protestors.

As I was moving away, a few young men came towards me and asked something in French. When I expressed in inability, they switched to English: “Which newspapers?” asked one. “Where are you from” another followed. The third one came to the point, “Why were you taking photos. “Others joined in the chorus. I said it is a public place and hence. Then one of them asked me to show the pictures. When I did, he snatched the camera. “I will delete the pictures, if you want” I struggled. Meanwhile someone was saying, ‘Passport, passport, Take it.” The shorter one who snatched my camera was more daring. In a fraction of second took he off the memory card and returned the camera and said: “Now, you can go.”

All this happened in under a minute and right in the heart of Paris and in the middle of the day. Scores of people were walking all over the place. Since others surrounded me, none could have noticed what was happening there. I was not the only one who was taking pictures of the protestors. The protest was held only to highlight the plight of the Tamils in Sri Lanka and hence taking pictures should not be an offence, let alone a violation of privacy.

The LTTE flag in the lawn clearly indicated that the protestors were sympathisers of the Tigers. Why were young men afraid of me taking photos of a public demonstration in a western capital? Maybe not all the protesters were refugees. Perhaps there were some cadre or potential cadre among them and that they would not like to be captured in camera. I have no idea.

But what happened to scores of others, mostly white tourists who were guilty of the same crime. I was the only tourist with sub-continent features in the area and so it was easier for them to bounce me and take away the photos. Wish those young men had the same courage towards white tourists who were clicking at the protest, both before and after I was intimidated. Perhaps skin colour sets limits to bravado.

Unable to decide the next move, I walked ahead and sat on a bench on the other side of the river and looked back at had happened. Not a pleasant thing but I could have lost much more. I decided to walk back along the same route. To avoid further unpleasantness I opted for the other side of the broad road. As I was passing-by, the few men who took away my picture moments ago were staring at me from the other side. I looked back at them.

A lone police car was nearby and I passed on quietly.

But for my own sake and inner peace, I needed to go there. So the next I was there and took pictures that I could not do the previous day. The day was bright and sunny, and the scene was much better and the golden statures atop the pillars across the Seine River were glittering under the sun.

That day also there was a demonstration but on a smaller scale. Maybe I went a little earlier. From afar I noticed many tourists who were taking pictures of the protest. But this time I decided to keep a safe distance and walked a street parallel to the main road. Of course no photos also. Why the same mistake twice?

Photos I took the previous day were for my personal use. Except for one or two close friends. Who has the interest let alone patience to look at amateurish pictures of exotic Paris? They would have remained in my hard disc only to be forgotten soon. Thanks to the lost memory card, the missing pictures are carved in stone. I gained more than I lost. I don’t have the photo but what I saw will go with me to my grave: Mahatma Gandhi holding an AK-47 in the heat of Paris.

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