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Terrorism cannot be justified, says British PM

The Prime Minister had not set an agenda or asked for questions in advance and said he was willing to talk about anything his interviewer chose, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Sep 08, 2005 04:59 IST

Unlike many world leaders who let the stress show on their faces, British Prime Minister Tony Blair seemed bright and cheery on Wednesday at the start of his trip to India. Blair had flown in from China the night before but insisted that “I have no problems with jet lag.” A vacation in Barbados had left him tanned and energetic.

This interview was conducted at the British High Commission in Delhi. The Prime Minister had not set an agenda or asked for questions in advance and said he was willing to talk about anything his interviewer chose.

Inevitably though, after the first few token questions about Europe and his visit to India, he ended up spending most of his time talking about terrorism, Iraq, the perception of Britain among Muslims and how best to fight fundamentalism.

And yes, he repeated his usual response to the usual rumours about him stepping down midway through his current term to make room for Gordon Brown: “You are elected for a term and you serve it.”

How do you view the India-EU relationship?

We’ve got to take the relationship with India and the European Union to a new stage and that’s the purpose of this Joint Action Plan today. That’s only a start but it signifies a complete change of gear for India and the EU. The trade between India and Europe is enormous. And as the Indian economy grows, there are going to be more and more opportunities for business. For some time, people haven’t taken this relationship very seriously. But actually, it really matters. It’s very important for Europe and India.

Are you pessimistic about Europe after the failure to ratify the Constitution?

No. Whatever happens to our Constitution, Europe remains the largest commercial market in the world. It is 25 different countries co-operating together. And increasingly, it is developing its own defence and foreign policy. Whatever happens during the next 12 months — and I think it is possible for Europe to regain momentum again — Europe is here to stay. And for India, which people are now coming to terms with as a major power, it is important to have a good relationship with Europe and vice-versa.

Relations between India and the UK have improved in recent years. Was this something you set out to do?

Yes. On my very first visit to India, I was struck by the fact that there was a lot of the past in our relationship — for perfectly understandable reasons.
Britain today is a modern country. It is dynamic. It’s open. It’s got a very huge mix of races, religions and it is a country wanting to be taken on its merits. Whatever history we have together, the 21st Century relationship between India and Britain is a partnership of equals. India is, frankly, going to be one of the major powers of the world in the years to come and it is important for us to have a modern, sensible relationship.

There is a tremendous affection for India in Britain. Obviously, we’ve got a big Indian population in the UK which is hugely respected and contributes an enormous amount to our country. I set out very clearly to have a modern relationship with India. And that’s what we’ve got today.

Are you concerned about the effect of the London bombings on community relations in the UK?

You’ve got to be concerned because of the potential impact within the Muslim community. If people start saying that these measures are directed not against terrorists, but against Muslims…

But I think people realise that these measures are necessary to defeat terrorism and that the way to keep our multi-racial, multi-cultural society together is by coming together — whatever your race or colour — to stamp out extremism or fanaticism.

It is possible to get a somewhat exaggerated picture of this. There will be people who will make inflammatory comments but those who shout the loudest don’t necessarily represent the mood. And the response of the Muslim community in the UK has been — overwhelmingly — to condemn terrorism.
I don’t think they see the measures we are proposing as a big threat. They understand it’s necessary, for example, to deport people who are inciting others to create terrorism in the UK.

In retrospect, do you think that in an effort to promote multi-culturism, you were too soft on extreme elements within the UK?

I was trying to introduce tough measures but until the terrorist acts occurred, people were questioning whether the government was scare-mongering or using the threat of terrorism to introduce unnecessary legislation. I think people now understand that the threat is real.

We are an open and dynamic country. We welcome people who come to our country to make a contribution to it. The Britain of 2005 is a very different country from 20 or 30 years ago. On the other hand, when we are generous and tolerant towards people who are coming in, that shouldn’t be abused. If people are coming in to foment hatred and incite terrorism, then, frankly, they’ve got to go back out again.

Do you think that some of these people should have been deported earlier?

We, of course, have been trying to deport them but there have been problems to do with human rights issues. I hope now that we are able to get a grip on this.

Inevitably, this takes us to Iraq. Regardless of whether the original reasons for the invasion were valid or not, did you realise that the Muslim world would react with such hostility toward the West as a whole?

I’m very clear about this. There’s a danger when people say, about those committing these acts of terrorism, that they abhor their methods but understand their sense of grievance.

But if you look at what’s happening in Iraq or Afghanistan today, it is the ordinary people — who are Muslims — who are trying to get their democracy. And these terrorists — Al Qaeda and others — are trying to stop them. It is not merely that their methods are wrong. They have no grievance. They are actually visiting a grievance on people who want democracy. You can agree or disagree with the original decision to get rid of Saddam but, what is clear is that, for the past two years, there has been a UN-led process for the country to become a democracy and the only obstacle in its way is terrorism of the same ideology as in London, in Egypt, in Indonesia and as you’ve seen in India — in Kashmir. My view on this is very clear. Terrorists will use the issue of Iraq, of Palestine, of Afghanistan, of Kashmir — they will use any issue to justify what they do. But actually, the fundamental point about their ideology is a hatred for anyone different from them.

You don’t dispute, surely, that anti-West feeling is at an all-time high in the Muslim world after the Iraq invasion?

In politics, you’ve got to challenge an idea rather than simply accept it. And I challenge the idea that when in Afghanistan, instead of the Taliban, you have a democratically-elected President; in Iraq, instead of Saddam, you have a democratically-elected government; that somehow this is a suppression of innocent people.

First Published: Sep 08, 2005 01:04 IST