Canada has joined the counter-terrorism club. Should India, which has paid dearly in the fight against terrorism for at least two decades, say 'Welcome!' Manmohan Singh could tell Canada's prime minister, Stephen Harper, when he meets him in Ottawa in September that 'we told you so', not anytime now, but as long ago as the early Eighties. But he won't, partly, because Singh is a nice and inoffensive man by nature. Singh won't tell Harper any such home truths also because Canada still has a lot to learn about terrorism and a long way to go before it becomes a worthy member of the counter-terrorism club.
As a pluralistic state, it was perhaps an inevitable reflection of our times that Canada could not have escaped the events of the last 10 days, the busting of which the authorities in Ottawa and Toronto claim to be the biggest terrorism investigation since the bombing of an Air India plane 21 years ago. Seventeen people are to be tried as a result of that investigation. The world's second largest country, often cited in international surveys as the best place on earth to live in, is now at a crossroads. In a very significant way, Canada's future as a multicultural, multi-ethnic, multilinguistic and multi-religious nation will depend on how its government handles this month's terrorism case and how Canadians deal with its fallout.
I arrived in Canada 72 hours after the latest plot became public, crossing the border by road from Detroit, Michigan. The customs area at the border resembled a minor war zone with about 30 or so uniformed officers who would have looked menacing if it were not for their youth. My car was searched, but unlike officers in other countries, which face severe threats from terrorists, such as the United States of America, Israel or India ' where I have been searched in the past ' the Canadian Customs had no clue about what to look for. I had left my wallet in the car while stepping out for the officers to conduct their search. They pulled out small, chip-sized supermarket discount cards from my purse, perhaps to make sure that these were not bombs. They pulled out napkins from the glove compartment of the vehicle ' not rolls or packets of napkins, but five or six of them, which had been casually thrown into the compartment.
In the end, one officer summoned my wife to the trunk of the car and dramatically pulled out four bottles of beer. These had not been declared in the form, which listed what we were carrying, he accused her. If I were a Canadian, I would seriously worry about my security, if this is how checks are conducted at the border just three days after a terrorist plot, allegedly with global ramifications, was busted. What concerned me much more, however, were drawing room conversations in Canada, in which the terrorism bust is a hot topic these days. It was disturbing that white Canadians ' in one case, the guests included someone working for Canadian Customs ' were repeatedly referring to the people who had been arrested as 'those terrorists'. There was not a hint of doubt that 'they' ' as opposed to 'us', the white people ' could be innocent until proven guilty. Communities which by and large own and rule Canada have convinced themselves that those arrested are guilty even before the start of their trial.
The extent of such certainty and the scant regard for the processes of law that it represents surprised me because throughout the Eighties and Nineties, Canadians used every forum to tell Indians how we were violating human rights in Punjab, in Kashmir and any other place in India that was prone to civil strife or violent dissent. They never tired of lecturing us about governance, about civil society and about the strings that had to be attached to aid because of values, which were inviolate in Canada. Now that the shoe is on their foot, it no longer bites.
At least twice, since India became independent, Indo-Canadian relations were poised to take off, but failed to do so because something came in the way of realizing the full potential of those relations. The prime minister's visit to Ottawa in September was planned on the assumption that bilateral relations were once again finding their level after both sides decided to put aside contentious issues which were blocking progress.
There is worry now that the frenzy over this month's terrorism charges may once again boil over to block any big leap in Indo-Canadian engagement, which goes beyond governments and covers a wide mosaic from education to energy, from technology to trade. After September 11, 2001, when paranoia got the better of reason in the US, Rohinton Mistry, the Mumbai-born Indo-Canadian novelist and recipient of several awards, including the Commonwealth Writers Prize, cancelled a US book tour after he was 'randomly selected' for special security at every American airport before every flight in the US.
Azim Premji, the founder of WIPRO, said he was chosen for secondary security check on all four flights he took within the US on one business trip. Such racial profiling was a factor in stepping up his company's involvement in Canada because business can be hurt when there is no level playing field and all races are not equal.
Similarly, many Indian students, who would otherwise have chosen a university in the US, opted for Canadian institutions of higher learning because Canada was seen as more tolerant and there was greater certainty about getting visas to Canada than to America. If the racial and ethnic bias that is clearly being promoted in Canada in the aftermath of this month's terrorism arrests goes unchecked, Canada's image in countries like India with their emerging markets and economies can be easily dented. This, in turn, can rob Canada of some of the advantages it has enjoyed since September 11, 2001, as a magnet for the outside world. Especially since common sense has returned to America in many areas after realizing that even a semblance of isolationism and exclusion has a big price-tag in a globalized world.
For a country which is at war ' Canada has 2,300 troops in Afghanistan ' there is surprisingly little public discourse about its military involvement. Even after several of its troops were killed or wounded while battling a resurgent taliban, the spin about Canadian military presence in Afghanistan has upstaged any worthwhile debate about how it is providing ideological ammunition for Islamic militancy. Any hope that the latest terrorism bust will make Canadians realize that they are being pushed by the government into a war which is none of their business was dashed when the ruling party and the opposition united to close the doors on any chance of such debate.
Both sides refused to countenance the possibility that Canadian military presence in Afghanistan may be a reason for the rise of militant Islam in their homeland, dubiously arguing instead that Islamic militancy at home is reason enough to beef up Canada's military role in Kabul. Many Canadians mistakenly believe that their troops are in Afghanistan on a peacekeeping mission in the best traditions of their country's long and praiseworthy involvement in United Nations peacekeeping, which won the former prime minister, Lester Pearson, the 1957 Nobel Peace Prize. But today, Canada ranks 50th among UN members that have contributed troops for peacekeeping operations.
Although Canadians are unaware that their leadership role in UN peacekeeping is a thing of the past, the world sees that fact for what it is. Everything that has happened in the last 10 days in Canada suggests that the next myth that may be about to be broken is that Canada is a successful experiment in multiculturalism and multi-ethnicity. It would be a pity to see that happen. But many Canadians, for now, don't seem to care.