Shubhajit Roy: You first came to India as a tourist in the late ’70s and early ’80s. And then you came as a diplomat and stayed here between 1988 and 1991. How have you seen India changing?
There is a French saying that goes, ‘The more things change, the more they remain the same’. In terms of the complexity of cultures that you see in India… that will always stay the same. But the change has happened in the cities. There was no Metro in Delhi when I lived here before. There is much more traffic, many more roads as well. But the big change is that people are much more outspoken. Public debates are much more intensive, especially compared to the 80s. You can see that in the way the media is reporting about pollution and the way people perceive it and how it affects them. Civil society has expanded its scope as well.
Shubhajit Roy: When you where here in ’88-91, coalition politics was at its peak. Now, you have come at a time when the government is led by a single party that has come to power with a huge mandate. How do you compare the political atmosphere, then and now?
Generally speaking, democracy works marvellously well, with elections and changes in government that people accept. As far as quality of politics and governance is concerned, I find it difficult to reply to that. I think the jury is out on that.
Praveen Swami: Belgium has been in the news because of the attacks in France (on November 13, 2015). Many of us have looked at Europe, with its human rights-centred governance, as a model. Yet, you have a substantial problem of radicalisation. In per capita terms, Belgium is sending the highest number of jihadists from Europe to the Islamic State. Why is that happening? What are the problems of minorities in Europe today?
Of late, there has been a substantial drop in the number of people who have been leaving. One of the reasons the numbers are relatively high is because we also count the non-Belgians who reside in Belgium and who go there, which is not necessarily done by other countries. Also, we have a transparent method to exactly see who is going, when they are going, etc. So maybe it’s got to do with the efficiency of our services that we have been able to identify these people. I am not saying that the fact that Belgium sends more people (to fight for the IS) is not an issue. After what happened in Paris, in some international media, they made a caricature out of Belgium, which is, if I may say so, not good journalism.
To a certain degree, there is this factor of the immigration population feeling alienated. There are several reasons why this is happening. This population, mainly from North Africa and the Middle East, consists of people who have been there for a couple of generations. Integration, in a continent which is not typically an immigration continent, has been a difficult issue. One can say the first generation was not so problematic. During the ’60s and ’70s, when there were a lot of jobs, and people were brought in to do these jobs, everything worked well. But then you come to the second generation—the young ones who are born in our country, who feel they belong there, but don’t necessarily feel they are 100% accepted. That creates a lot of frustration amongst some of them. You have to realise that it’s only a small proportion of people who have become radicalised and extremist. In statistical terms, it is a very minute percentage. But it, of course, has created great trouble. I guess a lot of these youngsters identified with what was happening in Palestine and Syria and that has led some of them to go there and fight.
Praveen Swami: In Europe, you have many models of minority integration—British multi-culturalism, the French assimilationist model—yet it seems to be having a problem, much more than India, when it would seem that Muslims in India have many more reasons to be angry.
Islam has been in India for many, many centuries. That is the difference with the Muslim population in Europe. Muslims here identify themselves with India. I am sure there are a lot of issues and debates, but physically and fundamentally, they identify with problems inside India, and not necessarily concern themselves with whatever happens in Syria. Their first concern is not with the fight going on between (Bashar) Assad and other rebels and the IS. All that is very far from their world. According to me, it is really a question of roots.
Shubhajit Roy: Do you think Europe missed the signs? Could it have reacted earlier to the sense of alienation that was growing in some of those communities?
Different countries in Europe are in their own way tackling problems within their societies. There have been many debates over the years on multiculturalism and assimilation. It is a reality that there is a proportion of population which is not open to accepting people from different cultural backgrounds. I don’t think anyone realised how horrible these IS people were going to be. Nobody could have imagined that young, educated people in the West would behead people. I don’t think there is an easy solution here. The first priority is to see that all these terrorist attacks can be stopped so as to protect the general population. Stimulating integration is going to be further away, because we can see that the general public is then going to follow the rightist populist path even more. The authorities have to first tackle law and order and, at the same time, develop a discourse towards alienated young people.
Sagnik Chowdhury: Recently, some Indian men were stopped on their way to Iraq and Syria and sent back by different countries. Given the Belgian experience, how should these ‘fighters’ be dealt with? Should there be a tough approach of criminalisation or a more liberal approach of rehab and reintegration?
In Belgium, some measures have been taken to penalise people who have travelled with the objective of engaging in terrorism. Obviously, when they come back, the priority should be to keep a good eye on them and follow them, maybe also engage in some kind of discussion with them. But the first approach, especially with all that is happening of late and because of the number of people who have been going, is really a strict approach.
Shubhajit Roy: Has there been any experience-sharing with India on this? Are there any plans on how to deal with such people?
This issue will probably come up in future bilateral contacts. Some of these things are part of high-security information, exchanges that are not really done at the level of diplomatic contacts.
Monojit Majumdar: You spoke about the problems of assimilation in Europe. Is there something specific about Belgium that the Belgian government or people are talking about, considering that several of these recent attacks—Charlie Hebdo attack (January 2015), the Paris attacks—have been traced back to Brussels.
One or two of these attacks have been traced back to this place called Molenbeek. But most big European cities have their own Molenbeeks. A lot of it also has to do with Belgium’s location—it’s a place through which everybody crosses into Europe. There is also this issue of open borders in the Schengen Area. We are actually pleading for stronger control of external borders. Also, France and Belgium are not just geographically close, but in the southern part of Belgium and also Brussels, people speak French just like they do in France. It’s kind of an open space, and so, obviously, there’s going to be a lot of interaction between the two.
Praveen Swami: You have the possibility of Britain exiting from the European Union. Then, when the migrants started coming in, countries started talking of tougher border controls. Is the idea of Europe under threat?
Belgium is one of the six founding fathers of what we call ‘European Integration’. Europe is a lot like India, maybe less complicated (laughs). The biggest challenge for the EU concept is, I think, the issue of refugees, because that has a direct impact on public opinion. On several of these issues, you have to evolve a consensus among the 28 member-countries, something that is not always easy. It’s a work in progress. But I am fundamentally optimistic about European integration because there’s no other alternative.
Shubhajit Roy: Much is being said about how the business climate in India is improving. What is your opinion?
I do notice an increased interest from Belgian companies coming to India. So the overall message is positive. Of course, the issue about the speed of implementation remains, but that has not really translated, for the moment, into scepticism.
AMITABH SINHA: How do you see the Paris climate deal? There is a feeling that the deal is much better than what people were expecting out of the talks. There was also talk of how the French presidency worked really well for a deal.
Well, the fact that there is a deal is great. Considering that the last Conference of Parties basically ended in a failure, this deal exceeded everybody’s expectations. Like you said, the French government did a great job, they applied some good diplomacy and managed to get people together. Also, the evolution of public opinion in countries such as India helped everyone reach an agreement.
Shubhajit Roy: What do you think is the biggest hurdle in arriving at an India-EU Free Trade Agreement, which has been in the works for about seven-eight years?
The main challenge was to get these parties back together; these negotiations hadn’t been taking place for the last two years. In January, they are going to come together for stock-taking. I am happy because it is important for these FTAs to be concluded. It’s important for the economic relations between India and the EU.
AMRITH LAL: The rise of Islamist groups in West Asia has also a lot to do with the way Western nations have intervened in that region. Does that inform the conversation in the European civil society? Also, the response to the Paris attacks has been the bombing of Syria, a pattern we saw in Afghanistan and Iraq. Do you think this is the right strategy?
All I can tell you is that it was the French government that carried out the bombings after the Paris attack, so I am not going to comment on that. There is a certain amount of public debate as to whether it’s a good tactic or not. But it’s also a fact that the IS controls territories, meaning they have a real economy running. So I think the logic of the tactic is to try to see to it that they cannot use, for example, the oil sales, the petrol income etc, to fund their terrorist activities. As far as the overall Western policies towards West Asia are concerned, it’s a bit too general because we have different players in the West who have different approaches and different policies. As far as Belgium is concerned, we have always been in favour of peace between Israel and Palestine, and as for Syria, Belgium has always been very critical of the Bashar al-Assad regime. In Iraq, Belgium has participated in the NATO context in some of the bombings, but there was a mandate for that from the UN.
MANEESH CHHIBBER: What is your impression of the current government? In the time that you have been here, you might have seen a lot of debates on intolerance, etc.
Well, I see a lot of things happening, of course. I have come to India many times before. As I mentioned earlier, I do see an evolution in terms of the maturity of the debate and the intensity of it, so I find it very difficult to draw any conclusions out of that, except for the fact that the Indian democracy is very alive and doing well. So, in that sense, I find that things have evolved in a very positive way.
Yamini Lohia: The Greek crisis appears to have been managed for now. Have the structural causes that led to it been addressed or are we waiting for the next time Greece defaults before we enter the conversation again?
I understand that things are being followed up closely and are under control. That is as far as I would venture to reply to this question because I don’t really know the details. I just know that for the moment we are out of crisis mode, which doesn’t mean that everything is rosy.
Shubhajit Roy: Since you have been here twice before and now for a year and a half, is there a story about India that has stayed with you the most, that gives the sense of something that you learnt about this country?
The longer I am here, the less I know. In a way, the India story is part of my life. I have been to other countries, spent time and left and then it has become my past. But India, because my family continues to live here… The ancestral village of my wife is 60 km to the north of Gorakhpur. It’s in Maharajganj district, which is the last district on the border with Nepal and on the border with Bihar. It’s quite a green and beautiful area. But at the same time, it has also a lot of challenges, developmental challenges. The population pressure is quite high. I compare it to the first time I went there, in 1988, I think. I feel the development there… it’s not urbanisation but ‘rurbanisation’. Probably the public authorities have to pay some attention to the infrastructure there – it’s certainly less pristine and less clean from when I saw it the first time. Lucknow, where my in-laws live, has improved a lot over the years.
Transcribed by Tanima Banerjee and Prashant Dixit