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Speech for India, not party
- Sonia keeps politics out of address at Oxford Islamic centre

Oxford, Nov. 29: International terrorism has not been able to take a hold among India’s Muslims, Sonia Gandhi said in a speech in Oxford today.

After unveiling a portrait of Indira Gandhi at Somerville College, Sonia Gandhi addressed the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. All 450 tickets for the meeting were snapped up.

Although the BJP has objected to her visit to the centre, on the grounds that it is allegedly linked to Osama bin Laden, the speech itself was not party political.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee would find it hard to disagree with what she said. Not so, possibly, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.

“We are meeting against the background of growing international terrorism and the fallout of what has come to be known as 9/11. What is striking and remarkable is that international terrorist networks do not seem to have a hold on Indian Muslims. That is entirely because our political and social framework accommodates plurality in substantial measure,” she said.

Her speech at the centre would not have become a political issue had it not been for the impending Gujarat elections and the BJP’s eagerness to pounce on anything to embarrass the Congress.

Officials at the centre said a relative of Osama had attended a party thrown by Prince Charles, the centre’s main patron, at Highgrove, the Prince of Wales’s country residence. But the man, who was one of the many funders of the centre, was not a supporter of Osama — as the British press had checked and verified.

He was among a group of people who had been invited to Highgrove two years ago at a reception to mark the 15th anniversary of the founding of the centre in 1985.

To be fair, British papers have also lost interest in the centre’s tenuous bin Laden connection, arguing members of his large family cannot really be held responsible for the actions of one man.

Whoever helped Sonia Gandhi with her speech did a good job. On the whole, she did a good PR job for India.

“All over the world, an impression has been created that Islam and terrorism are inseparable. The fact that there are any number of terrorist organisations whose members subscribe to other religions is conveniently forgotten.”

She added: “India has been a victim of cross-border terrorism. Both Hindus and Muslims have been targeted alike. This is particularly so in our state of Jammu and Kashmir where it is evident that the terrorists are acting in pursuance of the foreign policy of our neighbour to the west.”

“It would be wrong to think that religion is their motive. Nevertheless, I should point out that, by the posture it adopts and the actions it takes, this neighbour provides a ready handle to those who stoke communal antagonisms in India. There are also religious and political leaders on both sides who feed on each other’s passions.”

She drove home her point: “Terrorism has no religion.”

“The new challenge that the world will face in this evolving century is decentralised terrorism on the part of well-organised political and ethnic groups armed with sophisticated weaponry.”

Sonia said terror should not be combated with greater terror. “Though no end can justify mindless violence, ultimately the roots of terrorism have to be located in political, social and economic factors. Prosperity can breed terrorism as much as poverty can. A globalisation process that is seen to be inequitable and destabilising of cultural moorings can trigger terrorist mindsets.”

She began her address on a lighter note. “I must straightaway declare my partiality. I love that other place (Cambridge) where I first met my husband 35 years ago and where his grandfather, India’s first Prime Minister, took his Tripos.”

Sonia Maino, a language student, met and fell in love with Rajiv, who was “studying” at Trinity, Nehru’s old Cambridge college (where the Indian connection has been sustained by its present Master, Amartya Sen).

“But Oxford has a claim on my loyalty. My mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi, whose portrait I presented to Somerville College this morning, went up to Oxford during 1937-39.”

She pointed out that Oxford had many other Indian connections. “Rabindranath Tagore once described Oxford as a symbol of the undying spirit of man. That spirit is reflected in the activities of this centre whose proclaimed objective is to increase the mutual knowledge and understanding between Islamic and the western world.”

Referring to India’s religious diversity, she said: “There are more Muslims in India than in any country save Indonesia. Similarly, there are also more Christians in India than in many countries recognised as Christian. But India is not a Hindu country or a Muslim country or a Christian country. It belongs to all of them and the millions of followers of other religions as well.”

She emphasised: “Jammu and Kashmir defines India’s secular nationhood. Jammu and Kashmir is a crucible of Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist cultures.”

She turned her attention to tensions and conflicts in India. “Tremendous social ferment is taking place throughout the country. This churning does, on occasions, result in conflict. From the outside, its scale may get magnified, and it may appear that India is frequently in turmoil. The truth is that, at any given point of time, the vast majority of our people live in harmony and peace.”

On the United States, she said: “The USA is now the world’s pre-eminent power in every sense of the term. But the paradox of this power is that cannot afford to act unilaterally.”

It seemed a plea for the US not to launch a go-it-alone attack on Iraq.

She was introduced by Farhan Nizami, the centre’s director, as “the president of the Indian National Congress and the leader of the opposition in parliament” — Sonia noted that “it is a matter of pride that a scholar from our state of Uttar Pradesh is the director of this centre”.

He described Sonia in glowing terms. “The party she represents played a decisive role in the movement that led to the independence of India,” said Nizami.

“The family to which Mrs Gandhi belongs is associated with the vision of a tolerant, inclusive, pluralist India, committed to democracy and justice, at home and abroad. Its commitment to secular democracy is a commitment to the neutrality of state and government vis-à-vis the many overlapping identities of Indian citizenry.”

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