By Siraj Wahab
Who is more important: The ambassador or the consul general? Usually, and in strict precedence, of course, it is the ambassador. When it comes to Saudi Arabia, however, it is India's consul general in Jeddah who is the most important person simply because he is the one in charge of organizing Haj facilities for the nearly 170,000 Indians who perform the pilgrimage every year.
But that privilege can prove to be a poisoned chalice, as outgoing Consul General Dr. Ausaf Sayeed discovered recently. He has been in Jeddah as the consul general for nearly four years now and is due to leave the post in July; he joined the Jeddah Consulate in August 2004 for a three-year period and was given a one-year extension until the first week of July this year.
As the consul general in Jeddah, Sayeed's number is the one that politicians of all hues dial to get "special treatment" for their loved ones undertaking the pilgrimage. Then there is the official Haj delegation (which once had then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's barber as its member) that the consul general has to take care of. Then there is the headache of arranging accommodations for the Indian pilgrims. They have to be as close as they can be to the Holy Mosques in Makkah and Madinah — or else he finds himself in the hot seat. On top of all that, he has to listen to the unreasonable demands of the Haj Committee of India not to mention the frequent problem of Air India disrupting pilgrims' travel schedules. If everything goes right, it is the Haj Committee that gets all the credit; if anything goes wrong, he gets the blame.
Sayeed recently found himself in the eye of a storm whipped up by one disgruntled Hindi-language journalist. According to local newspapers, the journalist was on Haj last year in a personal capacity. His father, however, was part of the Haj goodwill delegation. With narcissistic logic, the hack announced that he wanted to be accommodated in the five-star hotels reserved for delegation members. The consul general refused him his wish. Stung by the refusal, the slighted scribbler waited for a chance to turn the tables on Sayeed. His patience was rewarded. He found an opportunity for revenge on the consul general's personal website (www.ausafsayeed.com). Those who are aware of how the cyberspace works know full well that websites hosted on free servers have no control over what advertisements are displayed on their margins. It was what was in these advertisements in Sayeed's case that became the root of the trouble.
One of the advertisements was for Salman Rushdie's controversial books. It appears that the journalist ensured that the location of the advertisement was highly publicized in Hindi newspapers, and the coverage coincided with the annual Haj Conference that was taking place in New Delhi last month. A handful of delegates demanded that Sayeed be withdrawn and Minister of External Affairs Pranab Mukherjee had to make a statement saying an inquiry would be instituted into the whole affair.
The whole thing turned out to be the handiwork of just one disgruntled journalist. It didn't stop there, however. A mainstream English-language newspaper fell into the Hindi journalist's trap and ran a story saying Sayeed was being shifted because of the Salman Rushdie ad issue. There were quiet chuckles in the Indian expatriate community in Saudi Arabia, which knew long before the controversy erupted that Sayeed was to be transferred to Delhi having served for four long years in Jeddah. His replacement was announced long before the journalist discovered the spurious advertisement. Sayeed's successor, Sayeed Ahmed Baba, a West Bengal cadre IAS officer of the 1988 batch, was confirmed as the new consul general on Jan. 10, 2008. The controversy erupted on Wednesday, April 2.