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Monday, 30 March, 2015, 12 : 00 PM [IST]

Between Hope and Despair: Incredible or Intransigent India?

Tourism and Politics depend on perceptions.

You choose a new destination because of your perception of the place; you experience it only after you get there. You might be disappointed. You vote for a candidate because of your perception about him, but the reality might not match the hype. Both tourism and politics are unpredictable activities. This was brought home to us repeatedly over the last three months. During this period, we criss-crossed the country, talked to complete strangers, and kept our ears open to what others were saying. Clearly, both tourism and politics are heading into rough weather.

In Bihar, someone engaged in shepherding Neo-Buddhist tourists asked us, “Are the growing 85 per cent of our population really scared about a falling two per cent? Fanatics are whipping up false fears against soft targets to boost their own image and the netas and their henchmen are being suspiciously intransigent.” We asked, “Aren’t you happy about the government offering Visas on Arrival”?  He smiled cynically. “Are you?” he countered. “Though the Tourism Ministry insists that we should adopt international standards of security, some kooky babu in the Home Ministry is pegging VoA (Visa on Arrival) to biometrics. Why should anyone go through the hassle of having their pupils scanned before entering India? Israel has the highest threat perception of any country in the world, but they don’t insist on biometric identification. Why do some of our ‘Movers and Shakers’ behave like frightened puppies cringing in a corner?”

His analogy was harsh, but it got us thinking. The vicious crime that was the subject of ‘India’s Daughter’ inflamed the imagination of the world. But the embers of it were dying down and the film would have caused a brief flurry at best. Then, in a knee-jerk reaction, someone decided to ban it and we shot ourselves in the foot! In an electronically-webbed world, banning is the best way to make anything go viral. Once again, potential visitors started asking themselves, ‘Is it safe for women to travel in India? Indonesia is a better bet!’ Our loss, Indonesia’s gain.

A similar thing happened when they imposed prohibition in ‘God’s Own Country’. A high-profile, high-spending group of Swiss watchmakers cancelled their meet in Kerala virtually overnight and switched over to a less-prohibitive Sri Lanka. That is also likely to happen to foreign groups planning to visit Maharashtra. In all likelihood, they have chosen this Western state because of its many attractions, not because they want to eat beef. But relaxing over a steak dinner after a tour is a way of life for them, so they’ll resent being deprived of it. Incidentally, in Islamic Dubai, our soaring, glittering, multi-starred hotel had a special Pork Products counter for their non-Muslim guests. We have also visited officially-sanctioned casinos in Malaysia, but, technically, no Muslims are allowed to enter them.  Though the Chinese are proud of their culture and language, all English-speaking Chinese guides are given official ‘English’ names, which are printed on their business cards. Explained one, “Our Chinese names are difficult for most English-speaking people to pronounce, so this makes it easier for them.” Nearer home, no out-of-state visitor in Gujarat has a problem getting a tippling licence. In successful tourism regimes, pragmatism prevails over posturing.

Few people believe that dietary restrictions are not imposed by the religious convictions of politically-powerful lobbies. Christian bishops in Kerala, who are required to drink consecrated wine at Mass, strongly supported the ban on alcohol. The problem arises when such divisive prohibitions are imposed on all citizens in a democracy. Because when this happens, it turns a spotlight on other, seemingly unrelated, decisions. People worldwide begin to stitch together such things as the ‘ghar wapsi’ movement, accusations of ‘love jihad’, the stoning and desecration of churches, and the rape of an old Christian nun as symptoms of a concerted persecution of the minority communities. Today, when information spreads like wildfire through the uncontrolled social media, such acts are often assembled into a menacing mosaic and take on a threatening life of their own. Most importantly, they have a deep resonance among the very nations whom we are courting for tourism, and also for our own development - the so-called First World is Christian.

Because of these biased developments, we believe that our nation’s image, as a liberal, progressive, democratic country, is being strained. Such a perception is likely to have grave repercussions on the future of both tourism and politics in our land. Incidentally, the word ‘Intransigent’ was used by the person we spoke to in Bihar. Significantly, he refused to allow us to use his name in this article because he claimed to fear a midnight knock on his door. (That was before the historic striking down of Sec. 66 A of the Information Technology Act by the Supreme Court.) So what is ‘Intransigent’? According to our Webster’s Dictionary, it is defined as characterised by refusal to compromise or abandon an extreme position or attitude.

If the tourism scenario seems dicey today, don’t blame the Ministry; blame a medieval mindset.

(The views expressed are solely of the authors in their personal capacity, and do not, in any way, represent those of the website.)
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