Justice must be colour-blind

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 July, 2007, 12:00am

The Australian defence minister's assurance that screening of migrants at ports of entry will not be race-based is symptomatic of a cleavage in international society that no one talks about. It is not the Clash of Civilisations but the great divide along racial lines.

It is in this context that the incarceration of Mohammed Haneef - an Indian citizen - in connection with the London and Glasgow terror plots must be viewed. Just as Haneef must be regarded innocent until proven guilty, India must have faith in the integrity of Australia's judicial system.

However, the Australian Law Council has condemned police conduct in this case and now, immediately upon being granted bail, Haneef's visa has been revoked and his detention extended under immigration laws.

It prompted New Delhi to summon Australia's high commissioner to tell him that Haneef must be treated 'fairly and justly under Australian law'.

Judiciaries do not function in a social vacuum. Decisions underlying due process are based on interpretation. A free and fair interpretation of what Haneef says under questioning is possible only in a conducive atmosphere. This is being eroded by the turn in sentiment since September 11 against foreigners. It explains the advertising campaign of the Queensland government - where Haneef was arrested - discouraging discrimination against 'overseas-trained doctors'.

Eschewing cautious terminology, Queensland Health Minister Stephen Robertson removed doubts about the target of discrimination by saying: 'Racism and bigotry have no place in the community.'

A flawed physiognomic concept, the western notion of race is the best known. However, it is predated by Asian notions. China's traditional belief in a mythic Yellow Emperor, who founded the Han race, was melded with the European biological concept in the late 1800s. The fusion between east and west gave birth to terms like 'hairy barbarians' - a derogatory term for westerners and later Indian soldiers in the British army that marched to Beijing and burned the Summer Palace.

In India, the western concept found its match in a much older caste system.

Not only does race conflict have a long history but race awareness is ingrained in the Asian psyche. Foreign tourists in Shanghai are still shown the park once forbidden to Chinese. Originating in Shanghai, the legend 'natives and dogs not allowed' spread to Johannesburg.

Colour is taboo, but has been a powerful motivator for action throughout history, from the Crusades to the Conquistadors, from the spread of European imperialism to the Indian freedom movement and, finally, to the 2002 Bali bombings. The bomber who was responsible for 202 deaths said he was not 'sorry for the whites' for 'they got what they deserved'.

Whether or not Haneef is complicit in Britain's recent terror strikes, Australia must demonstrate that democracy and the rule of law are credible alternatives to irrational passion.

Not for abstruse ethical reasons, but for the real danger that the least hint of any miscarriage of justice will play into the hands of the terrorists, and also reinforce the global divide on colour lines.

Deep Kisor Datta-Ray is a London-based commentator on Asian affairs. dattaray@gmail.com