When the Indian prime minister walked through his grey-suited guard of honour at Tegel Military Airport in Berlin for his two-day state visit to Germany, he was unknowingly stepping on a controversy absorbing all Berliners: the future of their airports.
Tegel airport is scheduled to be replaced by a state-of-the-art Berlin International Airport — except that the ribbon-cutting day keeps moving back. Years behind schedule, inauguration has been pushed back again to 2014.
This hasn’t stopped, as German diplomats admit, advertisements on Indian television showing “Indian tourists landing at the new airport that does not exist.”
There was even a petition movement led by a Marius Valentin to try and keep the status quo who argued Tegel was “a landmark.” The airport’s main claim to historical claim is its use for US military transports during the Berlin Airlift of 1948, when the Soviets shut down access to the enclave of West Berlin. Valentin, mind you, being 22, is not speaking from personal experience.
But then Berliners also tried and failed to save the even older Tempelhof Airport five years go. At least the new airport is being criticised for design flaws as opposed to merely being new.
The day before Singh left for Delhi, the indefatigable German ambassador Michael Steiner hosted a group of enthusiastic students and teachers from a Delhi Kendriya Vidyalaya who were heading off to visit Germany.
This was part of “Deutsch an 1000 Schulen”, a German government programme to promote knowledge of German in India.
Already, German is now a priority foreign language in the KV system. Nearly 300 schools have adopted the programme and in a decade Berlin hopes to have one million desi Deutsch speakers.
The main limitation: a severe lack of German-speaking teachers. Indian students reportedly find German relatively easy — that Aryan thing. Except for the umlauts.
Mind you, learning German in India has a long pedigree. Pune’s Fergusson College has had a programme for nearly 100 years and is one reason Pune is home to dozens of firms with links to Germany. “Pune is becoming a German hub in India,” said an PMO official.
Indian language skills in Germany, however, is not such a rosy story. Says Florian Britsch of Berlin’s Frei Universitat “There are lots of Sanskrit teaching courses in Germany, but almost nothing in contemporary Indian languages.” The shadow of Max Mueller lives on.
The KV children, who met both Singh and Merkel, on the main day of the summit on Thursday were suitably enthusiastic. One of them asked Merkel “how long did they need to study to become chancellors?”
Talk to any German in the 50 plus age bracket and — after discussing the fact two German teams are in the running for the Champions League final, the never-ending eurozone crisis and the difficulty of predicting the results of their coming national elections — they all turn to history.
It isn’t so much the two World Wars, though the centre of Berlin is dotted with reminders of the country’s dark days — the Gestapo headquarters, the Holocaust memorial and various sites associated with the rise and fall of Adolf Hitler.
What Berliners reminisce about is the Cold War. This is no surprise: the Wall only fell a few decades ago and the partition of the city left a personal mark on all its inhabitants. Even spruced up, the block-like architectural residue of the Soviet days are instantly recognizable. “The strange thing is that East Berlin,” said tour guide Karin Schneider, “thanks to billions of euros in reconstructions funds, looked newer and better than the western side.”
SHADOW OF RAPE
India may have to get used to the idea that the infamous gang-rape in Delhi — and other attacks on women — is now part of the global narrative of their country.
Merkel was questioned closely by a German reporter at the joint press conference as to whether she had raised the plight of Indian women and girl children when she talked with Singh (or as she pronounces his name, “Dr Zing.”) She said yes, and then went off on a tangent about agricultural aid programmes.
Indian diplomats mournfully say that from Tokyo to Timbuktu, the gangrape has become a dominant image of India.
It helped that thousands of Indians protested against the rape-murder, but for those with only a shallow understanding of the subcontinent there is a sense of a nation where women are lucky to get through the day without being sexually assaulted.
The last world leader to meet Merkel was the Russian President Vladimir Putin, just days before Singh touched down. It was a visit that made headlines, or at least front page pictures, around the world thanks to a Femen activist baring her chest at the two of them — and Putin giving her an appreciative double thumbs up in return.
The Indian media contingent with Singh did idly wonder en route if Singh would receive the same treatment — and how Manmohanji would react. The general conclusion was that he would fold his hands and say “namastee.”
For the record: Femen, a radical feminist groups which originated in Ukraine, have protested against India before. A few years back they broke into the Indian embassy in Kiev, angered over the embassy supposedly saying visas for Ukrainian women to India would be restricted because of body trafficking problems.