Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Freedom takes its first steps in Libya

Malayalis, who had worked in Libya, react to the rebel takeover of Tripoli

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo: Prof. M.T. Thomas and Dr. P.P. Jageer in Libya

When Kochi-based M.T. Thomas heard that the rebels had taken over Tripoli, he had a mixed reaction. “Because of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, those Indians who lived in Libya were safe, secure, and prosperous,” says Thomas, who had worked, till March this year, as an English professor in the University of Gharyan, at Kekela village, 200 kms from Tripoli. “Gaddafi, like the Libyan people, loved Indians.”

In fact, Thomas remembers seeing a photo of the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi with Gaddafi sitting next to each other in the Indian embassy in Tripoli. This was during the former's visit to Libya in 1984.

Thomas's friend and Gharyan University colleague, Dr. P.P. Jageer, also of Kochi, says that the Libyans have a great respect for Indians and love to watch Hindi films. “They are fans of Shah Rukh Khan, Amitabh Bachchan, and Aishwarya Rai,” says Jageer.

But there is no doubt that it was a brutal dictatorship. According to Human Rights Watch, 1270 prisoners were shot in one day in Abu Salim prison in Tripoli in 1996.

However, Jageer describes Gaddafi as an “enlightened despot. I don't think it is right of the Western media to call it a murderous regime. If Gaddafi had to survive, he had to kill his opponents. There was no other way. The idea was to keep everything under his control.”

One palpable result was that the people were scared. “The students were forbidden from talking about politics or the government,” says Thomas.

But Jageer says that there was a relative freedom in Libya. “I have heard people talk about politics, and criticise the leaders,” he says. “Because from every family there was at least one member who belonged to the police forces. They would talk to the policemen about the political situation.”

But what struck Jageer was the lack of general knowledge among the Libyans, thanks to their international isolation for many years. “They do not know anything about India and its many religions,” he says. “Sometimes, I would tell my students, 'You are frogs in a well.'” Of course, in the past few years, Internet connections had been set up in the country.”

But after more than 40 years of dictatorship, both are not sure whether Libyans are ready to handle democracy. Thomas recalls an incident: In July, last year, when he was preparing to return to Kochi for his annual vacation, the agency which was supposed to issue the tickets kept delaying it. After several futile visits to the office, a group of Indians staged a protest. “The staff got so scared, they immediately shut the door, and was about to call the police,” says Thomas. “Thankfully, other Libyans, who knew us, defused the situation.”

So, it is not going to be easy for a new government to assume power. “If you look at the history of North Africa, eventually, the military will take over and assume dictatorial powers,” says Thomas. “However, the good news is that, in the last decade, we have become a global village, thanks to the Internet, Facebook, and Twitter. So, maybe, democracy will take root in Libya.”

Jageer says that the rebels have been making the right moves. “When they captured Saif Al-Islam, the son of Gaddafi, they could have killed him immediately,” he says. “Instead, he has been arrested and will face trial. They are doing it to show the world that they are a law-abiding people. But the question is: how long will they able to exercise their self-control?”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

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