Time to move on
The point has been well made. No doubt, it was important to have him absolved of all terrorism charges and, now, finally win the battle to reinstate his Australian work visa, but Dr Mohammed Haneef must be careful not to overreach. In many ways, a victory for the young doctor was also one for India. when all charges against him were dropped in July, Indians living across Australia, including myself, popped champagne. After all, we are all ambassadors in our own small manner: whether you’re an immigrant who drives a taxi or a journalist like myself, we try hard to not only conduct ourselves impeccably, so that we may not nourish stereotyping in a country that is still sequestered from the rest of the world, but also protect the image of a nation that had its name somewhat denigrated by the events connected to the failed bombings in Glasgow.
All of a sudden, in an otherwise warm and friendly nation, some venerated Indian doctors across the Australian continent were treated with suspicion, bearded Sikh men looked upon as possible terrorists, and Indian colleagues, once fondly called ‘mates’, now bombarded with uncomfortable questions. In fact, even after Haneef was granted bail, I recall educating regular Aussies — taxi drivers, or just anyone whose eyes lit up when they found out I was covering this case — about the fragile evidence and the weak Commonwealth case against him, reminding them about all the ‘dodgy’ cousins they have, and whether they too should pay the price for any such association.
Public opinion in Australia, too, slowly seemed to change as the effete evidence against Haneef started to unfold, aided by snafus of the police. The doctor was transformed from ‘terror suspect’ to ‘victim’ — an unfortunate man, caught in the chasm of the politics of an election year and the fight against terrorism. The media, too, barring the odd tabloid looking to sex up its front page, were commendably balanced in their reportage, vociferous about the police’s inept investigation and the government’s conduct. In fact, many of my colleagues in the Australian media believed in Haneef’s innocence. One senior journalist, who had been a foreign correspondent in New Delhi and had come back home rather impressed by the vigour and creativity of the Indian protestor, was surprised why no Australian flags or effigies of John Howard had been burnt?
Besides the specious evidence against him, I believe, Haneef, himself, was largely responsible, for the sympathy that was elicited. I remember seeing him at the Brisbane courthouse on the day he was charged. He had spent the last 11 days in detention and was present in court for his bail hearing. He listened intently as his barrister Steven Keim and the Commonwealth jousted. Haneef had a conspicuous beard, he was handcuffed and sat behind a glass wall. There wasn’t a modicum of anger on his face, instead there was a certain grace that accosted the handful of us (journalists, court artists, government officials, and a few Australians who decided they would rather spend a Saturday morning ‘witnessing history’) seated in the open courtroom.
The same demeanour returned two days later when the court reconvened. The judgment was delayed and Haneef, like before, waited patiently to find out if he would be allowed back into the community. The beard, this time, was fuller, his eyes puffy, his hands missing the handcuffs but clasped, and his feet bare. The courtroom was in a different building and much smaller, filled, again, with reporters, bureaucrats, and scruffy protestors from the Socialist Alliance, who had
assembled outside the building since early that morning. At one point, a Muslim family entered and sat on the last remaining seats. One of the bearded men then suddenly screamed out Salaam mallikum to Haneef, the greeting piercing the silent courtroom, making all heads turn, first towards the family, then towards Haneef, who acknowledged the gesture by pursing his lips upwards, unable to force a smile. A journalist, seated directly behind the family, asked the man who he was. “An Australian like you,” he said. Moments later, the judge entered and announced the Commonwealth wasn’t able to prove Haneef’s association with terrorism, and he could, therefore, be granted bail. Clinging onto every word Haneef closed his eyes, and then broke into a rare smile. There was something about the young doctor that had impressed us all.
But, today, I am a bit disappointed. Haneef, who is back home, still feels the need to go back to Australia, a country whose government has made it unequivocally clear that it doesn’t ever want him back. He’s won the final battle and will in all probability get his working visa back if the immigration department doesn’t appeal. He’s made his point. It’s time to move on. As a doctor, he still wants to serve infirm Australians, many of whom will always believe he is a lucky terrorist. Haneef, today, in India, has the support of the government and the respect of the people. In Australia, he will have neither. And, in India there will be plenty of sick people he can care for.
Aditya Mehta is a Senior Correspondent with CNN-IBN. He was the only Indian journalist to cover this story in Australia.
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