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Shashi Tharoor
answers your questions
 real 28k

Thursday, 22 June, 2000, 07:25 GMT 08:25 UK
Shashi Tharoor answers your questions

Diplomat, writer and champion of Indian culture, Shashi Tharoor has worked for the United Nations since 1978. He is now Director of Communications and Special Projects in the Office of the Secretary-General, Kofi Annan.

He served for 11 years with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and he led the team responsible for the United Nations peace-keeping operations in the former Yugoslavia.

As an author, he has explored the diversity of culture in his native India in works such as The Great Indian Novel, Show Business and his most recent work, India: From Midnight to Millennium.

Shashi Tharoor answered questions live from BBC News Online readers. Read and listen to his answers below.


Shabnam Munif, USA: What is your view of the hostage situation and the suppression of the Indian people's rights on the Fiji Islands? Do you think the UN will intervene?

Shashi Tharoor: Well, the UN has intervened in the sense that the Secretary General has both publicly expressed his distress at what happened, his condemnation of the coup and he has also sent his special envoy who happens to be the head of our mission in East Timor. Therefore, the world has spoken with one voice making it clear to the Fijian authorities, as well as the victims of the coup, that the international community was behind them.


Emanuel Cochard-Paulsson, Switzerland: What is the UN trying to achieve in East Timor? It seems that the money allocated to building a new country is being diverted from the original goal to only support the huge number of UN staff present in the territory.

Shashi Tharoor:That simply is not true. We have a good UN presence in East Timor and that's because they are there to help rebuild East Timor from scratch. This is a country which has been destroyed in the months leading up to its separation from Indonesia. We've needed to have a substantial international presence in order to build the institutions towards a point where East Timor would be ready to seek independence as a member state of the UN. The reporting in the Western media suggests that this is progressing very positively. We are finding that East Timor is struggling back to its feet and that development is occurring, with the active encouragement and sometimes under the tutelage of the UN.


Faisal Mattoo, USA: Was not a resolution passed in the UN in 1948 regarding the holding of referendum in Kashmir. How come the UN has failed to implement this resolution on Kashmir?

Shashi Tharoor:The United Nations, I'm afraid does not directly implement all the resolutions that the Security Council passes - there are over 1,300 resolutions. The parties to any particular conflict or dispute have themselves to co-operate to implement these resolutions. We, in the international community, have to use our best efforts to encourage the parties to settle their differences and all we can do in many of these situations is to lend our good officers to help the parties achieve what ultimately, they can only achieve themselves.


Shalini Rathi, Switzerland:With regard to the subject of the expansion of the security council, do you think it is long overdue? And what are the chances of India getting the permanent seat?

Shashi Tharoor:When the Security Council was first created it had 11 members out of a total UN membership of just 54 states. Today we have 189 member states and just 15 members of the Security Council. So on the mathematical evidence, the Council has gone from being 22% of the membership to being just 8%. It can be argued that a body like the Security Council, which derives its legitimacy from the fact that it is a small microcosm of the UN as a whole, needs to expand its membership to be more representative. Large portions of the world that have become independent since the 1950s feel that they are under-represented in the Security Council. Having said that, this is still a matter for member states to resolve. They have not been able to agree on exactly how to do it, despite five years of discussions. Until this is agreed, it would be vastly premature to discuss the prospect of any particular country getting a permanent seat which for the moment does not exist.


Hana Sakura, Japan: As a custom, the Secretary-General's seat is rotated amongst people from different regions. Asia's turn is coming up quite soon. Do you think you might become the UN Secretary-General some day? What is the advantage of having a Secretary-General who has been a long-timer within the UN System?

Shashi Tharoor: The custom of a rotating practice is relatively recent. One mustn't forget that at the beginning of the UN's existence, a European Secretary General tended to succeed another European Secretary General. Though there has been a good geographical mix since then, there are other parts of the world who feel that they haven't had a chance, for example, Eastern Europe and the Antipodes. Asia feels that it's their turn again. Ultimately, this is only something that the 15 members of the Security Council can decide when the post next becomes vacant.


Chakrapani Kalyanaraman, USA:Illiteracy is one of the major problems in India. Is the UN involved in plans to tackle this problem?

Shashi Tharoor:The UN does make efforts through UNESCO (UN Education and Scientific Organisation) to assist governments with their own educational problems. I don't believe that given the vast nature of the problem in India, where nearly half the population is illiterate, where a third of children of school age are not in school, that this problem can be tackled by an injection of external assistance. The government of India has embarked on various literacy programmes which have had varying results in different states. Education is a state issue in India, so you have a situation where a state like Kerala has 100% literacy of those aged over five, and a state like Bihar has only 29% literacy, in the same country. The burden has to be borne by the national government as well as by ordinary citizens and voluntary organisations to try to eradicate this problem.


Vikrant Singal, India/ UK: Any of your books could have been written in 1980, including 'From Midnight to the Millennium'. Do you feel you have lost touch with India?

Shashi Tharoor:I don't feel that my last book could have been written in 1980 as it deals with issues that have come to the fore since then such as fundamentalism, pluralism and the debate over globalisation. I like to feel that I have not lost touch but it is up to my readers to judge. I have lived abroad for many years but I have maintained a close connection with India. My mother and grandmother still live there and I visit them regularly.


Jake, Canada: I read an excerpt from your book From Midnight to Millennium. It is clear that India was amazing in the past and still retains that same mystique to some extent. How would India keep itself intact in the coming decades as each of its various racial, religious and ethnic groups and states begin to reach toward their own picture of self-determination?

Shashi Tharoor:By maintaining the pluralism which is one of India's greatest strengths. India is a country which despite differences of ethnicity, geography, language and religion holds together through its common allegiance to an idea. This is an idea of India as a land that can endure differences of caste, colour, culture, custom, costume and still rally around a consensus. That consensus is that in a democracy you will disagree. The reason that I think India will hold together is that India has been able to maintain a consensus on how to do without consensus. India is sustained ultimately by a pluralist democracy that lets every Indian believe that they have an equal stake in the future of the land that they call India.


Srinivas Rangaraj, Canada: I'd like to get your view on the fact that in spite of the large Indian diaspora around the world, India herself has very little clout in global affairs. What do you think the reason behind this is?

Shashi Tharoor:I think that India still has a fair amount of clout in the world, especially in diplomatic affairs. The problem may lie in the gap between the aspirations of some Indians and the economic, military and geopolitical realities that hem in those aspirations. Our first concern as Indians should be to look inward to strengthen ourselves and provide our people with the essential requirements of their daily lives such as food, shelter and water. We should also give them the opportunity to develop their own potential and aspire to economic growth. From that inner strength will come the international clout.


Chetan Juneja, USA: What do you think is the cause of the rise of religious fundamentalism in India?

Shashi Tharoor: In part it has to do with identity politics and with competition for resources in a contentious democracy. Our politicians, sadly, have focused on narrow interpretations of identity in order to get votes. In that context, religion becomes a potent source of appeal. I have said in some of my writings that if politicians continue to appeal to these narrow identities, who is going to ask the question of what it means to be an Indian. Our greater strength in India lies in the realisation that the larger Indian identity makes us secure in our smaller identities. And every Indian has many of these identities. It's identity politics of the most basic kind that is to blame and it is only by reminding people of their larger identity that we will overcome this problem.


PS Sarma, Australia: I would like hear your opinion on the possibility of reuniting India and Pakistan, which have been partitioned for the last 50 years, yet have a shared culture which have developed over the last 5000 years!

Shashi Tharoor: Personally, I don't think that political reunion is possible. However, I think it's fair to say that there exists a fair amount of ground for developing all that we have in common. Of course, it means overcoming military and political mistrust, which currently means that ideas and items such as food don't always flow easily across the borders. I find it ironic that Indians and Pakistanis get on so well away from the sub-continent in countries such as the UK and US.


Maria Drago, USASomeone such as yourself who is also a very successful writer obviously does not need to stay at the UN, but rather chooses to, which makes me wonder, what is it that keeps you there? Why have you stayed as long as you have?

Shashi Tharoor: I believe in the UN. I always had a view of the world. I believe that the Indian experiment and the UN experiment have very many things in common. They're both about people of different colours, appearances, cultures, costumes trying to work together for common aspirations. The Indian dream is mirrored in the UN dream. I don't believe that my commitment to the UN in any way diminishes my faith in India. India matters to me and I would like to matter to India. Also, I'm the kind of human being that has many responses to the world. Some manifest themselves in my writing and some manifest in my work. My work with refugees, in peacekeeping, and now working for Kofi Annan, the secretary general, a man who is trying to uphold values that I too cherish: human rights, development, care for the most marginalised people on the planet. All of these are values which the UN is uniquely positioned to advance.

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