October 20, 2015

Pakistan and Australia publicly articulate concerns over growing violent acts of intolerance in India

The Telegraph, October 20, 2015

Concern in Canberra
Charu Sudan Kasturi

New Delhi, Oct. 19: Australia today became the second country after Pakistan to publicly articulate concerns over growing violent acts of intolerance in India, after two of its citizens were allegedly harassed in Bangalore over a tattoo one of them was wearing on his shin.

Matt Keith, a law student at Melbourne's Deakin University, and his girlfriend Emily Kassianou were eating at a restaurant on Bangalore's upmarket Residency Road this past weekend when they were allegedly confronted by BJP activists.

According to posts on Facebook by the couple, the BJP members were upset because Matt's shin was embossed with a tattoo of the goddess Yellamma, worshipped widely in southern India.

The local police then detained the couple, according to them, and allowed them to leave only after Matt had written a letter of "apology".

"We are concerned about reports an Australian citizen was threatened with violence and detained by police because of a tattoo," the Australian high commissioner here said in a statement issued by its spokesperson.

"The Australian Consulate General in Chennai is speaking with local authorities (in Bangalore) about the incident and has made contact with the couple in question."

The consulate in Chennai is Australia's nearest mission to Bangalore.

The alleged harassment of the Australian couple comes amid growing concerns among many western diplomats here over what some are calling an increasingly worrying climate of intolerance.

Some within the Narendra Modi government, like finance minister Arun Jaitley, have also cautioned about the potential negative impact of such acts on India's investment climate.

Earlier this month, organisers had cancelled a concert by Pakistani ghazal maestro Ghulam Ali in Mumbai after the Shiv Sena threatened to disrupt his performance.

Last week, Sudheendra Kulkarni, a former aide to BJP icons A.B. Vajpayee and L.K. Advani, was attacked by Sena activists who sprayed black paint on his face because he was hosting the release of a book by former Pakistan foreign minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri.

"We have noted with concern attempts to disrupt functions organised in respect of prominent Pakistani personalities on visit to India," Pakistan foreign ministry spokesperson Qazi Khalilullah said on October 15. "There is a need to ensure that such incidents do not reoccur."

At the time, India had dismissed Pakistan's criticism, insisting it needed no lessons in tolerance from Islamabad.

But the concerns expressed by Australia may be harder to shake off.

Australia, the high commission said, "encourages Australians travelling abroad to research and respect local customs and laws".

And it is precisely because of his respect for India and Hinduism, Matt said, that he had tattooed a "massive Ganesha" on his back, and Yellamma on his shin.

"Because my spiritual journey is my decision, as are the markings on my body, I do not deserve to be victimized and have to physically defend myself and my girlfriend every day," Matt wrote on Facebook. "She does not deserve sexual abuse both physical and verbal."