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This is one among thousands of incidents that will go unreported but the story must be told. And people like the villain in this piece must be called out. While I will protect the identity of the person at the receiving end of the abuse, everything else is true, factual and a first-person account. An episode that has shamed me as an Indian and has also made me immensely proud as one. Remember the story about a passenger urinating upon a fellow female passenger on an international flight that hit the headlines a few months ago? This one is no less offensive, except that the stink raised was not that of urine but one of complete lack of decency and concern for compatriots among certain sections of apparently affluent people.

I was on a flight to Mumbai enroute to Vadodara, to attend a conference themed on India’s leadership of the Global South based on principles of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam. After witnessing this incident, the entire business of attending the conference appeared to be such an ironical farce because the grassroots are rotten and whatever ‘airy-fairy’ ideas are propounded during such talk shops can never be realised unless the rot in our moral and cultural grassroots is addressed.

Seated on an aisle seat of the aircraft, I was observing, as I often do, the manner in which flight attendants deftly handle the refreshment services and other requests of the passengers and yet maintain a calm and pleasant demeanour. It is a great education in human behaviour as one gets to witness several small incidents that say so much about us individually and collectively as a people. The superbly efficient flight attendants were doing their job and passing refreshments around. Having woken up early to catch my flight, I was dozing off when I heard the beginnings of an altercation between the lead flight attendant, who hailed from the North Eastern part of India and a burly, spectacled, tika-sporting passenger, Shri Pawan Kumar Patodia, sitting on the opposite aisle seat, one row behind.

It appeared that the passenger was not too comfortable conversing in English and the flight attendant was not very adept at Hindi. In the exchange that followed, the flight attendant admitted that she was a little weak in speaking and understanding Hindi, to which Shri Patodia replied, “Of course, you will be weak in Hindi because you come from China.” I could not believe that I was hearing such nonsense from a seemingly educated, well to do, roughly 50-year-old Indian. I was reminded of similar barbs that were reported a few years ago in Delhi towards youth who came from our North Eastern states for higher education or work. As an Indian, I felt deeply ashamed. Doubly so because none of the passengers who were witness to the incident even reacted as I was squirming in my seat. Such deplorable apathy!

Just as I was going to tell the indignant passenger off, the flight attendant politely but firmly told him, “Sir, I am deeply offended by your comments and I intend reporting the matter. I am as much an Indian as you are.” I don’t think the passenger expected such a riposte; as perhaps, he was used to passive acceptance, in general, of his offensive, rude and blatantly uncouth behaviour. After a brief exchange, I heard the passenger mumble some kind of apology but the damage was done. I felt proud to witness the calmness and maturity with which the flight attendant ticked the passenger off and defused the situation but such people must not get away lightly.

Later, I complimented the flight attendant for her handling of the situation. I also told her that in addition to whatever action she was contemplating, I would like to report the matter as well. I have since filed a formal complaint, which the airline has acknowledged and promised to investigate. I hope that the airline acts swiftly and Shri Patodia gets labelled as an ‘undesirable’ passenger, is banned on the airline for an appropriate duration and asked to tender an unconditional apology to the cabin crew for restoration of flying privileges. While this incident is just a drop in an ocean of insults that our service providers endure, the lessons must not be lost.

Respect for diversity, consideration for fellow citizens, decency in behaviour, public empathy for the right stand, individual and public disapproval of such incidents and appropriate deterrent action by authorities against public disharmony creators such as Shri Patodia must be ensured by every nationalist Indian and organisation. Money or importance does not necessarily make a good citizen. Education, culture, discipline and values do.

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