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?Indian society is demanding accountability now?

Shashi Tharoor, UN Under-Secretary General for Communication and Public Information speaks on the Volcker report , his writings and America post 9/11

india Updated: Jan 27, 2006 13:09 IST
Shevlin Sebastian
Shevlin Sebastian

In the West or Africa, or the Far East, would there have been such a furore over the Paul Volcker report?
I would not like to generalise. Because India is a turbulent democracy, we tend to rake up a lot of issues. There is a marvellous New Yorker cartoon, which had a television anchorman saying, "Those were the headlines and we will be back after the break to blow them out of all proportion."

That is exactly what has happened. [Former External Affairs Minister] Natwar Singh's name was mentioned on a list of names annexed to the fifth volume of a report, which listed over 2500 companies and individuals. It was, by no means, a major finding. But I think it is very healthy that we, as a society, are demanding accountability.

You mentioned the UN has no documents about Volcker's findings? So what does the Indian government do then?
Though it was created by a resolution of the Security Council, the Volcker enquiry committee is completely independent of the secretariat. We have the same report that the media has. The only thing the UN can do is to facilitate contact between the Indian investigators and Volcker's staff.

You have had a lot of experience in various countries like the former Yugoslavia. Yet, very little of it appears in your fiction. Why is this so?
That is a very conscious decision. I feel it would be incompatible now, with my obligations as an UN official, with the diplomatic reticence, the obligation not to cause offence to other member states and so on. One day when I will put the

UN behind me as a profession, I would want to interpret some of my experiences as a writer.

Some people say working in the UN is not tiring at all: A cushy job, with a solid pay packet. Is this true?
This image is not only wrong but also out-dated. The UN is a competitive employer in the international marketplace but by no means as generous as the private sector. And few of our jobs would qualify as cushy. We may have accountants or administrators leading conventional working lives but we also have people who have 18 hour working days in the field in refugee camps. We have people who are sleeping in tents right now in the so-called Azad Kashmir because of the recent earthquake. We have people in developmental projects in Africa who often don't see a foreigner for weeks. We have all of these experiences within the UN. So to generalise about the UN, in that sense, is flawed.

You mentioned that one of your sons was shouted at in New York because he was brown. How have things changed in the US after 9/11?
There was an enormous tension in American society after 9/11.Mainland America, not counting Hawaii and Pearl Harbour, had not been attacked by foreign forces since 1812 when the British attacked. For the Americans, there was no historical memory of an attack and it seared the consciousness of people. Of course, many people reacted with a great deal of decency and nobility and grace. But some, in every society, always react badly. And those who did, were the kind of people who shot dead a Sikh because he was wearing a turban thinking he must be like Osama Bin Laden.

Two persons shouted at my son, saying, "Dirty Arabs, go back from where you came from." However, this is not at all representative of an entire society. But it is a reflection of the extreme fear and passion and anxiety generated by that event. Today, all that has subsided. But I don't know what it would be like if there is a second attack attributed to the same sources.

Are you amazed at the way your life has panned out? A Kolkata boy hobnobbing with the world's elite.
A Kolkata boy, yes indeed! Yes, it is amazing. When I look back at my own family and my own experiences in growing up in Kolkata, Mumbai and Delhi, I would not have been able to imagine the kind of opportunities that life has given me. For which I am deeply grateful to the forces beyond my control.

First Published: Nov 13, 2005 03:00 IST