Saturday, October 4, 2008

NATO, UN sign deal; Afghanistan, Kosovo in the focus

The United Nations and NATO signed an agreement formalising the existing political cooperation between two bodies, NATO spokesman James Appathurai said in Brussels last Wednesday.

Addressing journalists during a press briefing, Appathurai said that the paper was signed recently on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York by the secretary generals of both organisations, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer for NATO and Ban Ki Moon for the UN.

The agreement did not bring about any "dramatic changes" for the cooperation in crisis regions like Afghanistan or Kosovo, where NATO acted on behalf of the UN, he added. It was a "pragmatic agreement" recognising existing cooperation which was much appreciated, he said.


NATO and Afghanistan agreed they needed to coordinate more closely to avoid civilian casualties in operations against militants, Appathurai told journalists.

Pointing to a "a general shared view" between NATO ambassadors and Afghan Defence Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak that there needed to be closer coordination between Afghan and NATO forces, Appathurai said that there was consensus on the need to give "a much more important role to Afghan forces in the conduct of searches, which are sensitive in Afghanistan, but also with regard to planning of offensive operations.”

The two sides also agreed on the need for closer coordination, including with the United Nations, when it came to investigating civilian casualties so discrepancies in numbers did not occur, Appathurai said.

The ambassadors and Wardak also discussed Afghan proposals to almost double the size of the Afghan army to 122,000 and NATO would probably back the plan if it were approved, Appathurai said.


NATO and Serbia last Wednesday signed a security agreement that allows for exchange of classified information with the two, said the alliance. The agreement, a standard document between NATO and Partnership for Peace (PfP) countries, was signed at the NATO headquarters by Serbian Defense Minister Dragan Sutanovac and NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.

The agreement will facilitate military-to military cooperation between Serbia and the alliance, Appathurai told journalists. He said the signing of the agreement was a "substantial step" in the relationship between Serbia and NATO.

Serbia joined NATO's PfP program in November 2006, together with Montenegro and Bosnia. Unlike the other two Balkan states, Serbia had been reluctant to move forward in its relationship with the alliance. The step of the new Serbian government was strongly welcomed by NATO allies, said Appathurai.

Sutanovac, who was visiting the NATO headquarters, also addressed the North Atlantic Council, composed of ambassadors from NATO countries. He was told by the ambassadors that a democratic Serbia in Euroatlantic structures is good for regional security and stability, said Appathurai. Serbia was also asked to fully cooperate with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), he said.

Serbia arrested former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and handed him over to the ICTY in July. Serbia is yet to arrest to transfer former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic.


NATO's recently established Georgia committee will have its next session - to be its second - in Budapest, on the sidelines of an informal meeting of defence ministers of the organisation this week (October 10), Appathurai told journalists. The committee was set up following the Russia-Georgia conflict this summer, to demonstrate NATO's support to Georgia.


Twelve countries including two non-NATO nations signed a deal last Wednesday to jointly buy and operate three giant transport planes to fill a shortfall that has dogged international missions from Afghanistan to Sudan.

Under the agreement, reached after two years of negotiations, they will jointly acquire three Boeing C-17s and place them at Papa, a new operating base in Hungary early next year under the command of a US officer with multinational crews, said Appathurai. The planes will be available for NATO, European Union and United Nations missions, he added.

NATO has long suffered a shortage of large transport aircraft, and the deal reached by 10 of its members and two non-NATO members - Sweden and Finland - is aimed at addressing that problem.

Appathurai said the arrival of the planes will provide an "important new capability" for the alliance and is a model for how smaller countries can pool resources to acquire equipment beyond the reach of their individual defence budgets.

The 10 NATO members that took part in Wednesday's deal are Bulgaria, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, Slovenia and the United States. Britain and Canada have separately acquired a total of 10 of the planes.
Two non-NATO countries — Sweden and Finland — also signed on.

(Published in

Missed opportunities at the EU India Summit

September 29, the sunny environs of Marseille in Southern France were the perfect setting to provide a strong impetus to the lackluster Europe-India relations but half a day of talks were overshadowed by French focus on Franco-Indian bilateral Summit the next day. The latter did culminate in France with India signing a nuclear co-operation deal.

Rising from the ashes of two World Wars and expanding to include 27 Member States with more in the waiting, the EU today is a bastion of peace, harmony and prosperity. On the other hand, India, with 28 States and seven Union Territories, has emerged over last six decades in a buoyant mood thanks to its democratic principles, freedom of speech and its new found economic strengths.

Fresh from the historic nuclear deal with the US, India is in a bargaining mood while the EU is still far from making the necessary efforts needed to shift its continuing bridge building with China to India as an important global and regional democratic player.

Political ties can not go far without financial bonds and a look at the trade figures from recent past show that its time to inject much needed momentum into an uninspiring trade relationship. At the Marseille Summit, the EU and India were unable to conclude a trade accord by the end of this year, as once hoped, and remain at loggerheads on key issues in the Doha talks on liberalising world trade.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told journalists, at the joint press conference with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, "We have agreed to achieve an annual bilateral trade turnover of 100 billion Euro within the next five years and to work towards the conclusion of the India-EU Broad-Based Trade and Investment Agreement by end-2009."

The 27 nation bloc’s trade with India amounted to just less than 56 billion Euro last year. Earlier the trade statistics shifted a gear from a meagre less than five billion Euro in 1980 to a respectable more than 45 billion Euro in 2006. Although trade with the EU is 20 percent of India’s import-export business, making the EU India’s largest trading partner in 2006, India’s share is only 1.8 percent of total EU trade.

In the context of the ongoing negotiations in the EU-India Free Trade Agreement, there are some stumbling blocks that need to be addressed on both sides. According to reliable sources, the major hurdle is in the fields of agriculture which is a protected sector in the EU which earmarks 40 percent of its total budget to this sector where there are subsidies galore.


In May, Peter Power, spokesperson for EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson had told journalists in Brussels, “I can confirm that we have received the document from India. I can confirm that it is certainly a useful and worthwhile opening bid for negotiations will have to go further and deeper,” lamenting that the time-frame for the talks to conclude is “not solely in our hands.” “We would like to see this particular negotiation making progress as rapidly as possible. I think the opening bid is not bad, but a lot of work remains to be done to have an agreement that would be worthy of support by both sides,” he noted. “I think at this stage it would be unwise of me to put a timetable, but certainly we should hope to see substantial movement in the next year to 18 months,” added Power.

India formally launched negotiations in June 2007 with the EU for a comprehensive FTA aimed at removing barriers across all sectors including investment and services.

The EU has, in recent times, accepted the fact that Indian import tariffs have been substantially reduced but it complains they are still high by international standards. The EU calls it a “complex and non-transparent” system as it points at additional duties, taxes, and charges that are levied on top of the basic customs duties.

Pointing to the “non-tariff” barriers, the EU lists quantitative restrictions, mandatory testing, import licensing, certification for a large number of products and a complicated procedural modus operandi as the major speed breakers for a smooth trade relationship. With Indians finding the EU institutions bewildering and complex, India has its own set of complaints, foremost being in recent times the frequent use of anti-dumping duties on its exports including footwear.


Climate Change is another major sticking factor in the relationship equation, as India negates EU calls for a stricter binding commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emission, while Delhi argues that as a developing country it can not be expected to slow down its pace of industrialisation.

The EU has allotted 470 million Euro between 2007-2013 to tackle cooperation in the energy sector and environmental concerns while making efforts to reach its Millennium Development Goals.

Indian Premier Singh, noting that the EU-India summit had produced agreement on co-operation in clean coal technologies and solar energy, told journalists: “I am extremely satisfied . . . The holding of annual summits reflects the great importance both sides place on this strategic ­relationship.”


The best bet of all was the EU-Indian nuclear initiative taking shape as the US House of Representatives and the US Senate cleared the way for India to buy nuclear power plants, technology and fuel in the US.

India, officially a nuclear weapons power since 1998, has been denied access to civilian nuclear technology for more than 30 years because of its test of a nuclear device in 1974 and its refusal to sign the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Like the US administration, the EU views now India, as a friendly democracy sharing many common values and argues Delhi should not be ostracised but encouraged to develop civilian nuclear energy and to assume its responsibilities as one of the world’s nuclear powers. “France has confidence in India,” Sarkozy said.

France, current holder of the EU presidency, is the member state with the most extensive experience of civilian nuclear power. It is keen to exploit the commercial opportunities presented by India’s need for new sources of energy to fuel its rapid economic expansion.


The EU and India said they planned to boost their joint work in the international thermonuclear experimental reactor (ITER) project, a French-based scheme to test environment-friendly, electricity-producing fusion power plants. They also said they would sign a separate agreement between Delhi and Euratom, the EU’s atomic energy agency, on fusion energy research.

On the question of EU aspirations to issue work permits to skilled professionals, the Commission President Barroso told journalists that the EU is aware of the difficulties faced by skilled professionals from India and other non-EU countries to come to the continent and was working on the “Blue Card” initiative on the lines of the more famous “Green Card” system of the US.

With the EU-India Free Trade Agreement in the pipeline along with other fields of cooperation being explored, both India and the EU are ready for taking a qualitative leap forward in relations, but the political leaderships on both sides have to transform all the talk of shared values of democracy, diversity and multilateralism into concrete pragmatic actions, thus making an effective and cohesive EU-India Strategic Partnership out of the present patchwork of sectoral cooperation.

Last but not the least, there was a complete lack of information from the Indian mission in Brussels where the EU is seated. European journalists pointed to “no press release,” “no media briefing,” “no pertinent information on the Embassy website,” nor a “call back to provide information from the Indian Ambassador’s office in Brussels.”
(Published in

Silence (not reacting) can be a strong tool of censorship

Getting reactions and comments from friends (who prefer to call me or email rather posting comments on the blog, thanks for choosing whatever way you choose to express your views and comments)!

A strange not very unexpected thing happened - that may come as a surprise - to readers who are NOT journalists or not yet in the positions of decision making or who have not yet crossed the threshold to get a peep into how media world decisions are made.

I posted my comments “about one Indian journalist’s coverage of Indian Prime Minister’s face expression when he spoke to French President Nicolas Sarkozy about Sikhs’ demands to wear turbans,” on the website of most of Indian mainstream newspapers including this journalist’s who was on board the plane carrying the Indian Prime Minister. (The answer to the question who paid for these accompanying journalists is known to all journalists).

But I was not surprised to find that NONE of these newspapers’ comment scan mechanisms let those Strong Comments to pass along to readers.

There was no bad/vulgar language nor was there any other criteria violated (myself being a journalist) but that did show how far the Indian media field is free and frank.

These are the latest ways of Modern Media Censorship as Silence is the best tool used by modern day media giants and one, who wants to go far in the herd mentality dominated sector, tries best to fit into the system.

I will sign out on one point that was told decades ago by an ex-Professor TS Lamba at IIT Kharagpur, “You should fit into the system and by finding fault in the system you cannot be successful.” The learned Professor was so right as I dropped out without a degree from Indian Institute of Technology but was invited to speak at a function/conference at a sister institute, IIT Kanpur this year.

More on that experience tomorrow!

Friday, October 3, 2008

Manmohan Singh with Turban, Nicolas Sarkozy with Nuke technology

Hello readers, 

As October 3, 2008 tiptoes in, I am breaking my blog silence to start blogging in the true sense of regular daily real life experiences.

The reason is the treatment meted out to the Sikh cause in France by respected Professor turned Politician Manmohan Singh, the Prime Minister of India while he was visiting that country.

Standing right next to President Nicolas Sarkozy, Indian PM Singh was face to face with me when I asked the French President the question about the "ban on Sikhs wearing turbans."

Sardar Singh did not blink even an eye-lid, leave alone asking the French President in front of world cameras to support my question as the French leader was lambasting Indians about Christian killings in India.

One thing that Sarkozy did not know then is that I am a Christian (although my surname comes from my Sikh paternal lineage) and I, like other secular citizens of the world, understand the meaning of secular.

And then I see Indian newspapers, especially one in Punjab, The Tribune running the report (appended below as it appeared on the newspaper's website) and it made me wonder "was it the same face that showed no emotion," in Marseille and the question, "How did the respected journalist see 'Pain was writ large on the face of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as he explained...' as the journalist was not present at the episode where the PM was talking to the President?"

One explanation that comes to mind is related to the Professor becoming a seasoned Politician as I have always believed Politics is made of two words: (made indoors) Policy and (then applied in public with) Tricks.

I will leave it to you readers to comment on what happened in Marseille, France where the question was asked in front of world cameras and what transpired in Paris. France where no journalist was present behind the closed doors.



When PM expressed anguish on turban ban
Ashok Tuteja
On board PM's special aircraft

Pain was writ large on the face of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as he explained to French President Nicolas Sarkozy the anguish of the Sikh community over the ban on wearing turban in schools in France.

''I said to him (Sarkozy) that the turban is an essential part of the Sikh way of life because the Sikhs are not allowed to cut their hair. And this is one way to keep their hair tidy,” he disclosed to reporters who accompanied him on his 10-day trip to the US and France.

Singh met Sarkozy in Paris yesterday. He told the French leader that Sikhs were facing problems in France. ''When Sikh children go to school, they are discouraged from wearing turbans. And when seeking identity cards, they are asked to remove their turbans.”

The Prime Minister recalled that he had raised the turban issue with Sarkozy during the latter's visit to New Delhi in January also. (

Brussels journalists unhappy with French organisational setup

The French presidency of the European Union last week informed the API/IPA (The International Press Association represents foreign journalists accredited in Brussels to the European Union, NATO and Belgium) of its willingness to reimburse costs incurred by journalists following a change to the Paris of the EU-Ukraine summit in Evian scheduled on, September 9. 

Paris informed via telephone API/IPA President Lorenzo Consoli that the Quai d’ Orsay will reimburse the costs sustained by all journalists who went to Evian for the summit, which was moved at the last minute to Paris. The API/IPA on its website ( requested the affected journalists, “to keep your bills and expense notes,” adding, “Many thanks to all those who have submitted their complaints to us.”

There were quite a few episodes of journalists suffering in more than one case in the hands of organisational skills of Paris. In the words of Dominic Hughes, a BBC journalist at Evian, “The BBC sent Steve Sidebottom (producer) and myself (reporter) to cover the Evian EU/Ukraine summit. We flew to Geneva, hired a car and drove for an hour to the hotel, arriving at around 1900.

As I walked into reception and announced myself the poor manager said, “But Mr Hughes, have you not heard? The summit is cancelled!” I asked when, and he said five minutes ago - so clearly the hotel had only found out right at the last minute as well. The poor man looked really crestfallen as the hotel itself was losing thousands he said.

I phoned London who said the Paris bureau could cover. So I filed a radio and TV piece as a preview and then was left with little option but to have dinner and head back to Brussels the next day - all at a cost of at least 350 Euro, plus hire car, plus return flights for two people to Evian. Not to mention the time wasted getting there and back!” The conditions were worst in Lille where the GMES (Kopernikus) conference was held and to which 30 journalists from all over Europe were present.

According to attending journalists, there was chaos as many journalists were given the wrong badge in spite of a very lengthy registration procedure (over one hour in spite of having already registered by mail several times) and therefore were barred from all press conferences with Gunter Verheugen, European Commissioner for Industry and Enterprise and experts since they had the wrong badge.

The attending journalists alleged that the whole conference was managed from Paris and the organisers in Paris had no idea of what the press room was like! Three tables, no computers, no wi-fi and no room for a quiet interview with the many experts present. According to journalists, there was also alleged intimidation because when the journalists complained, Paris reacted demanding names and phone numbers of the people who had complained. “I have never seen anything so badly organised!,” one journalist quipped.

According to Brussels-based journalists the list of problems is long and repetitive at major events with API/IPA listing some of them as: repeated failures to the system connection to the Internet, lack of space, lack of lines and telephones and ISDN, schedules inadequate facilities Press, logistical problems, interventions of security and local technical staff.” “These are serious obstacles to practicing the profession of journalism,” API/IPA said in a letter to French Presidency.

In a letter sent on September 22 to the French Presidency, the API/IPA regretted that despite promises of improvement made following our various complaints, these problems without precedent have not been solved so far. “From an organisational point of view, the informal ministerial meetings of the French presidency have been substandard until now,”said API/IPA President Consoli.

In addition, the API/IPA decided to request of the Secretariat General Council of the EU to establish, by common agreement, a list of standards as a minimum for all rotating presidencies guaranteeing in future the necessary infrastructure for working journalists at meetings outside Brussels.

EuroparlTV for the citizens, but Not by the citizens

The European Parliament launched its own media outlet EuroparlTV last week with much fanfare on its premises with its Editorial Charter promising, “The channel shall ensure that the plurality of opinion in the European Parliament is reflected, with due respect to the relative strengths of the political groups, in accordance with a neutral, nonpartisan editorial policy.” 

Brussels-based journalists who know the propaganda tuned talents of European politicians were not convinced as was evident in the Council meeting of the API (International Press Association, representing Brussels based journalists) the very next day, commenting on the Editorial Charter, the unanimous decision was to “wait and see.”

Even the local journalists were unconvinced about the unbiased productivity as Rob Heirbaut, EU-correspondent for VRT (Vlaamse Radio- en Televisieomroep - Belgian TV) said: “I have my doubts about the editorial charter. How will they decide if every group has had its speaking time on Europarltv? Will they use chronometers? And will Eurosceptics or far right independent MEP’s also be given a platform? And if not, why?” 

Journalists at the launch were sceptical of the “speech” by an unknown identity, a so called, “Irish Journalist,” a young woman, never seen earlier in Brussels, by any of the colleagues I asked to identify her. There was also optimism as Deanne Lehman (editor of of the Flemish Radio and Television station VRT), at the launch, commented: “A European Parliament web TV channel - in over 20 languages.

This embodies the very essence of the pParliament. Bringing the institution closer to the people who actually live in this laboratory is a lofty ideal, but I think it’s quintessentially European really. It’s an exciting, and challenging project!” But a day later, the Belgian journalist Heirbaut already had his doubts saying, “The Europarltv looks very attractive, I still have a lot to discover. I am a bit disappointed by the content though. I would have suspected a daily update of what’s happening in parliament, but they are still showing the story about the collapse of the roof in Strasbourg.”

Launching the project, European Parliament President Hans-Gert Pottering, declared: “As we approach the European elections of June 2009, EuroparlTV should be an excellent Internet tool for citizens, especially young people, to keep themselves informed about the activities and decisions of the directly-elected European Parliament - decisions which have an impact on the everyday lives of almost 500 million European Union citizens.” 

Echoing the sentiments but doubting the citizens’ participation, José-María Siles, Director of (a) news, The Correspondent Agency said, “Europarl TV is a great chance for MEPs to connect with the citizens. Are the Europeans going to poke their representatives? Hard to say,” adding, “I actively participated in the preparation of the Europarl TV last year, making four months of pilot productions.” 

On the content, VRT journalist Heirbaut said, “For journalists, I don’t think it is a useful tool, at the moment. But maybe next week or next year I will have to change my view. For schools on the other hand, it is very useful: it ‘ll make teaching about the EU and parliament a lot easier and more attractive. But will the broad public find its way to the website? I doubt it.”

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Pharmaceutical companies pay for drug authentication service at dispensing point

Pharmaceutical companies are paying an annual subscription for registration and maintenance of their unique product codes into the Aegate database to protect the consumers against counterfeit or substandard pharmaceuticals according to Aegate sources.

The pharmaceutical companies have access to add additional safety or security information into the database about their products at any time. Pharmacies are provided with Aegate's authentication service free of charge to ensure that for patient safety reasons cost is not a barrier to use, added Aegate.

The system was brought into focus with the presentation of an independent report at the European Parliament premises recently by Françoise Grossetête, MEP.

The report corroborated that Aegate's drug authentication service is 100 percent reliable and effective and keeps consumers fully protected against counterfeit or substandard pharmaceuticals when their pharmacist authenticates their medicines at the point of dispensing.

Speaking at the occasion, Professor Dr. Steven Simoens, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium, confirmed: "Our findings verify that Aegate's patient safety communications service is 100 percent effective in ensuring that the drugs pharmacists dispense to patients are fit for purpose and safe."

The independent market analysis of "The reliability and impact of drug authentication at the point of dispensing" was carried out by Professor Simoens, The Research Centre for Pharmaceutical Care and Pharmaco-economics at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium.

According to the study details provided, the retrospective analysis included 114 pharmacies in Greece and 658 in Belgium. In day to day operation approximately 20 percent of pharmacies in Belgium and Greece are using the system with another 20 percent waiting to receive the technical upgrade to their software.

On the question of conflict of interest, the University of Leuven said in comments on the commercial contract, "the authors have no conflicts on interest that are directly relevant to the content of this manuscript." Moreover, the study carried out under a non disclosable commercial agreement with the University of Athens took two months to complete, the statement added.


According to experts present at the presentation there are two approaches to supply chain security:

- authentication (such as Aegate system)

- track and trace

There are many companies in the US preparing to develop a track and trace system but the US does not yet have unique bar-coding so it is impossible to install. A decision on this approach by the FDA is being continually put back and is now expected by 2011 but it was confirmed by Aegate that with regards to authentication approach, "there is no other operating authentication system in the world today."

Dr. Guido Hoogewijs, General Manager of The Association of Belgium Pharmacists (APB), said: "The Aegate system is allowing us to strengthen our efforts by providing additional tools to filter out packs that are not authentic, that have just been recalled, just expired or are about to expire."

Hoogewils reiterated the concern of the Belgian pharmacists to only deliver pharmaceuticals of impeccable quality to their patients saying, "They have been financing and operating a Medicines Control Laboratory for the past 50 years in order to filter out substandard products from the market,"

Asked to comment on why the study was conducted only in Belgium and Greece, while Pharmaceutical Group of the European Union (PGEU) has 30 European members, PGEU in a statement explained, "Belgium, Greece and Italy (the three countries in which Aegate is operating) are the only three EU countries where by law all reimbursable pharmaceutical prescription items must contain a unique number on the individual drug package. (Similar to a passport number but on medicines). It is this number that creates the security."

John Chave, Secretary General, PGEU said: "Pharmaceutical safety is of fundamental importance for PGEU members and is a critical issue on the EU health agenda. Initiatives that have the potential to reduce the risk of counterfeits and promote patient safety are welcome."


Aegate explained that it provides drug manufacturers, pharmacists and their patients with a real time communication system that operates at an individual item level. Each pack of medicine is given a unique machine-readable identification number, known as unique serialisation. Using one of a number of technologies, including RFID, 1D or 2D barcodes, items are scanned as they are dispensed.

Allowing the pharmacist to check expiry dates and recall information, and provide updated patient care advice, the system ensures pharmacists receive product safety information more rapidly added Aegate. Currently, communications are achieved by fax or post and can reach pharmacies after drugs have been dispensed. The system also allows the authentication of the origins of medicines, thereby protecting against stolen and fake drugs.


With patient safety becoming an increasingly important issue and counterfeit drug sales forecast to hit USD 75 billion by 2010, Professor Simoens concluded: "The full impact of authentication processes will only be realised if such systems are applied fully within and across countries. We believe policy makers on a European and global scale should consider these findings and enact the necessary legislation to introduce drug authentication processes based on mass serialisation technology in community pharmacies."

Aegate has commenced roll-out in a new country every eight months since the technology completed development in 2006 and the next country will be announced shortly Aegate said. Currently in operation in Belgium, Greece and Italy, the system has so far this year scanned more than 24.5 million packs of drugs across Europe according to Aegate.

Urging others to follow the role of Belgium and Greece, Gary Noon, CEO of Aegate, said: "Industry and Governmental organisations now need to step up and demonstrate a similar level of commitment to patient safety."

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Sarkozy welcomes Sikhs sans turbans

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, at the concluding press conference of the European Union/India Summit in Marseille, France, stood next to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a Sikh wearing a light blue turban, as he answered this reporter’s (Tejinder Singh) question about the wearing of turbans by Sikhs in France. Regarding the required Sikh head covering, an integral part of their religious identity, Sarkozy, replied curtly, “Sir, we respect Sikhs. We respect their customs, their traditions. They are most welcome to France.”

Visibly irritated, Sarkozy continued, “But sir, we have rules, rules concerning the neutrality of civil servants, rules concerning secularism, and these rules don't apply only to Sikhs, they apply to Muslims or others. They apply to all on the territory of the French Republic."

The practice by Sikhs of allowing one’s hair to grow naturally is a symbol of respect, the most important of the five outward symbols required of all Sikhs, and the turban is worn to cover the uncut hair. Sarkozy explained that the banning of turbans is not discrimination, that, “These rules apply to everybody, to everybody with no exception. There is no discrimination whatsoever.”

Making it clear to the Sikh community in France that they have no option other than to conform to the rules, Sarkozy made the paradoxical statement, “We respect their traditions and their customs and we are convinced that they too respect the laws, traditions and customs of the French Republic.”

Discrimination begins early in France

In 2004, three Sikh boys, Jasvir Singh, Bikramjit Singh and Ranjit Singh, were expelled from French schools for wearing turbans. These students were the first victims of the ban instituted which prohibits Sikh students from covering their hair at school, a decision that has prompted world-wide protest from the Sikh community.

Commenting on the discrimination and its impact on children, Mejindarpal Kaur, the Director of United Sikhs, a worldwide Sikh organisation, stated in a press release that a preliminary survey of Sikh children affected by the French law found that 84 percent of the students interviewed were prevented from wearing head coverings to school. The survey also revealed that students had been expelled from French schools for refusing to remove their turbans, and many more suffered from alienation by their peers.

Also in 2004, Shingara Singh Mann, a French Sikh, reported he was prohibited from renewing his driver’s license after it was lost in a theft because he was wearing a turban to cover his uncut hair.

On December 5, 2005 the French High Court ruled in favour of Shingara Singh Mann, giving him the right to wear his turban for his driving license identity photo, overturning an earlier decision by the French Ministry of Transport. But within 24 hours of the court decision, the Ministry issued a circular expressly forbidding turbans to be worn in driver’s license photographs.

Kudrat Singh, Director of United Sikhs in France, said, “This is an example of oppression and discrimination which has not been seen in France for decades, and calls into question whether one can be both Sikh and French.” According to legal opinions, the ban is a violation of Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) which provides for right to freedom of religion.

MEP Gill urges EU action

Asked to comment, Neena Gill, a member of the European Parliament had said, “I am astounded by the level of discrimination that is in fact growing … it is not confined to France … it is in Belgium, in Germany and it really smacks against all these initiatives that the European Commission is constantly launching.”

However, solutions aimed at nurturing “unity in diversity,” the European Union’s frequently appearing slogan, are already working in the United Kingdom, one of the member states of the European Union, and across the Atlantic in the United States.

Highlighting the integration and diversity that prevails across the English Channel, Gill, who was born in Punjab, India, said, “If you look at the United Kingdom, you can wear a turban not only in mainstream jobs but also in the police, the army, the air force or the navy. There is no restriction. In fact, the army has special days when they try and recruit people from the Sikh community and the Dastar (turban) is not a problem for them, so I really think we do need to raise awareness, especially from the European Commission in these particular years of Equality and Intercultural Dialogue. We have to target the resources at these issues to ensure that there is greater awareness across the EU in accepting people of different appearances.”

US efforts to embrace Sikhs

Discriminatory incidents involving Sikhs increased dramatically as a consequence of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States. There were numerous cases of discriminatory attacks on Sikhs as they were misunderstood as allies of Osama bin Laden due to their appearance.

While the US is making the effort to remove misunderstanding and give Sikhs their legitimate place in society, in some member states of the European Union, comparable progress and acceptance has flowed in reverse.

US lawmaker speaks out

US Congressman Mike Honda (Democrat-California), who represents Silicon Valley and who is involved in this issue in his capacity as Chairman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, told this correspondent, “I don’t believe in sacrificing freedom in order to protect freedom. Turbans are part of the religious identity of Sikhs and we must strive to respect their freedom of religious expression. A balance can be struck between national security and religious liberties, but that balance can only be reached by consulting all the parties involved, in this case the Sikh community.”

“It would be ironic that many Sikhs, who fled their homeland seeking religious freedom, would find that America curtailed their religious freedoms when they arrived upon our shores,” Honda had added.

The root cause of the discrimination and a pragmatic solution to root it out was aptly summed up by Jennifer Handshew, a seasoned public relations professional in New York who had told this journalist, “I feel that ignorance and fear are the primary factors that fuel this discrimination and believe that education and awareness will help people better understand what the turban means to the Sikhs.”

What Handshew and others suggest provide a succinct analysis and a solution, but for now, the door to a respectable life in France for Sikhs has been slammed shut by the French President Sarkozy, in the presence of Indian Premier Manmohan Singh, himself a member of the Sikh community.

Tejinder Singh at the EU-India Summit in Marseille, France

Monday, September 29, 2008

EU, India ink pending civil-aviation deal on the eve of Summit

The European Union and India signed late evening September 28, a much awaited “legal” agreement in the civil aviation sector on the eve of the annual Summit on September 29 (Monday). “The deal amends 26 agreements that India has with EU member states in one go and opens other avenues for co-operation like traffic management,” according to an EU official who did not want to be named.

The deal was signed by Jamini Bhagwati, India's ambassador to the EU and officials representing French presidency of the European Union even before Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the current holder of the EU's rotating presidency had a meeting in the French port city of Marseille.
The aviation deal brings to an end ongoing six years of legal uncertainty which began when the European Court in November 2002 decided that bilateral deals on civil aviation services between EU member states and third countries discriminated against airlines from other EU states.
This “legal” agreement, without affecting the flights frequencies between the EU and India, will encourage more airlines to offer services between the continents, according to officials familiar with the deal.