Sunday, 29 July 2012

Lady in Red (and blue)

The main Olympic story in the UK at the moment may be the opening ceremony (which I didn't see, being ensconced in bed trying to get over my recent bug) and Mark Cavendish's ongoing Olympic woes, but over here the focus has been on a hitherto unknown individual. Here's a picture of her with the Indian delegation, marching into the stadium on Friday night. Can you spot her?

If you're thinking that someone forgot to tell an Indian athlete what the dress code was, you're being over-generous. Turns out that no-one had any clue who the lady in red top and blue trousers, looking rather, ahem, distinctive against the yellow-and-navy tones of the delegation, actually was, and still less clue what she's doing there. She's since been named in the Indian press, but no further details about what she's doing walking next to Sushil Kumar seem to have come out.

The Indian acting chef-de-mission in the UK has unsurprisingly demanded an explanation from the organisers, saying that the incident had 'embarrassed us in front of the world'. Fair enough, but I think the only people who should be embarrassed by this are woman herself and the security team at the opening ceremony.

I can't imagine what was going through her head when she decided it would be a good idea to tag along with her country's sporting elite on one of the biggest nights in global sport, at which they had earned their attendance through years of dedication and hard work. I can only assume that she is not someone who thinks things through very much.

The security question, though, is different, and there are some serious questions that need answering. As many have pointed out in online comments, we are lucky that this person appears to have been nothing worse than a vain and thoughtless individual with rather poor dress sense.

The Indian 'online community' is predictably up in arms. Most of the ire is directed, quite reasonably, at the breach of security, but the incident has opened up old wounds too. There was a lot of resentment towards the British media at the time of Delhi's 2010 Commonwealth Games, when a slew of programmes about poor preparation and the construction of the athletes' village brought attention of a rather different nature from what India wanted.

At the time, there was a good deal of feeling here that this was a deliberate attempt to sabotage India's image. At the same time, of course, Indians quite happily lambasted the Commonwealth Games organisers themselves, and the general feeling among my Indian friends is that the Games were a shambles. But, as Mitt Romney recently found out, the only people who are allowed to criticise the organisation of a major sporting event in any one country are people from that country. This seems to be a general rule of humanity.

It does seem to be an extraordinarily sensitive area. Normally, for instance, I find that Indians don't much care about the colonial history between our countries. It's accepted as a part of Indian history, and certain legacies, principally that of the English language, are widely recognised (others, such as the creaking exam-based education system, are too, but in a less positive way). But it doesn't go much beyond that, either in terms of lingering fondness or lingering resentment. India's key foreign relationships are in its neighbourhood, and with China and the USA; the UK is really just one of a dozen or so "oh-yeah-they're-vaguely-important-too" sort of places.

This story has really brought out the cranks though. Here are some of the comments on the Times of India's original reporting on the incident:

"This is a serious issue. This could be a plan by the Brits who try every possible opportunities to damage India's image."

Some people here really do seem to believe that us Brits spend every waking moment dreaming up new ways to belittle and attack India (actually, guys, we're more concerned with attracting investment, boosting trade and benefiting from the massive economy India is destined to see the logic?).

"If this has happened in India on any international event for the contingent of any foreign country, each and every TV and media channel will continuously broadcast it and everyone will be demanding a CBI enquiry and resignation of minister and official concerned. Now nothing will happen to anyone in UK. Every one will hail the games a great victory and praise the successful conduct of the games by the administration, which will bring benefits to their country."

This made me chuckle,  partly because of the idea that the Indian media would consider something like this the main story around a major sporting event taking place in India, but mainly because it gets the British character so totally wrong. We don't like to hail great victories and praise our administration, or welcome great benefits to our country. We like to moan. We might have temporarily put this aside for the opening ceremony, but trust me, we'll be back to complaining about the Olympic price tag and delayed tube trains before too long.

"What is the big deal particularly as a foreign woman has gate crashed to run the country!!"

This was actually the thrust of most of the popular comments. Yup, there is no connection so tenuous that it can't be used to make a dig at Sonia Gandhi.

But I'll give the final word to a Canadian commenter, who I think makes a very sensible point:

"I want to be very honest with my beloved Indian friends. I am not Indian, but I love India dearly, as well as Indian culture and Indian history. I have grown up with Indians my entire life, but there is something I must say to the people of India. India is a strong, mature, democratic state, and as such, Indians need to stop overreacting to events like this. Much of the world views Indians as having an inferiority complex, who constantly overreact to any situation where their 'national pride' might SEEMINGLY be violated, regardless of how small and harmless it is. India is much better than this and Indians have no reason to feel slighted or insecure - you are praised and held in high regard around the world and as a mature democratic state, you need to display this confidence and not be upset over something as superficial and insignificant as this."

I may not quite agree on the insignificance point - this was a serious security breach, clearly - but the rest has a lot of substance. I recognise that, as an incredibly diverse place with a relatively short history as a unified, independent country, India's national identity is still fairly formative and fragile; I recognise, too, that its history of attacks and occupations by external forces can make Indians peculiarly sensitive on issues of national pride. So it's no surprise that there may be a tendency to overreact to things like this. But shrill conspiracy theories rarely help the people who make them.

I'd just like to hear what the lady herself has to say for herself...


Supriya Prathapan said...

Nice one. I've been watching BBC News regularly n I don't think that they r pushing anything under the carpet. In fact they've been highlighting all the mistakes from the North Korean flag debacle to the seats going vacant.Considering that Indians have so many enemies in the world,the organizers should have been a little more careful.I think the outrage is primarily because of the security breach.

Chris said...

Yup, as I said, we love an excuse to moan! The Korean flag thing was just gobsmackingly incompetent, but this was a genuinely worrying incident. As you say, there are plenty of people in the world who would have liked to use an opportunity like this to seriously harm India.

Phil Greaney said...

Possible identity of gatecrasher?