September 10th, 1997
Akhilesh Mithal

Death is Never a Great Leveller


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The fatal accident is attributed to the desperate flight of the couple from intrusive cameramen.




While some of the responsibility for the accident must lie with the driver’s drunkenness, the reason why he was forced to take over at the last moment were obviously the papparazi.


The tragic and sudden deaths of Princess Diana, Emad ( Dodi) al Fayed and the driver of the ill-fated Mercedes, Henri Paul have had an overwhelming effect upon the media in the USA, the UK and the Western world generally. Huge chunks of Time on TV and many square miles of Space on newsprint have been taken up by details of the tragedy and the opportunity has been exploited to delve in great detail into all events of significance and some quite trivial ones in the past. Opinion has been sought from all and sundry and response abounding has found expression without any sign of restraint.

The fatal accident is attributed to the desperate flight of the couple from intrusive cameramen. This lot are called ‘Papparazi’ after a sidewalk or pavement photographer with the name Papparazo who was a character in ‘Le Dolce Vita’, a ‘1960’s film of Fellini. The pressure exerted by the obnoxiously nosy cameramen while their quarry were at dinner at the Ritz caused such distress that a ruse was employed to draw them away. The regular driver and the armoured-for-safety vehicle were sent off ahead without the Princess and Dodi to act as decoy and draw the papparazi away. This forced the couple to use a lighter vehicle and a driver untrained and unprepared for the onerous duty of dodging snooping stalking cameramen astride fast motorcycles. This unpreparedness became apparent at the autopsy when the alcohol level in the bloodstream of Henri Paul was measured and found to be 400% above the legal limit.

While some of the responsibility for the accident must lie with the driver’s drunkenness, the reason why he was forced to take over at the last moment were obviously the papparazi. A loud and abusive cacophony of mutual recrimination has broken out in the media. The heavies like the mainline newspapers blame and TV channels blame the tabloids for their role as people who pay half a million dollars or more for a picture while the tabloids point out that the ‘Holier than thou’ accusers themselves batten off the same cadavers as themselves, albeit, in a more refined and seemingly restrained manner. In some writing and interviews the prurient interest of the ‘public’ is found to be the root cause of the activity and media is absolved of all responsibility.

To return to the Princess Diana-Dodi al Fayed tragedy it is noteworthy that little sympathy has been shown to the lover, Dodi al Fayed, who also died with the Princess. But his death and condolence for his bereaved family were hardly shared by anyone of consequence outside his family. Except the Church at the funeral service and an indirect reference to the new found happiness of the Princess by her brother Charles, 9th Earl Spencer.

The tone was set by the President of the USA, Bill Clinton while reacting to the news on Television on Sunday morning (31/8/97). He mentioned the Princess by name and dismissed the rest as ‘and her companions’. This bracketed Dodi with the dead driver and the seriously injured bodyguard. More importantly it distanced him from the close proximity of the greatest glamour girl of the West, Princess Diana.

There have been hundreds of articles and TV interviews but nowhere has there been any expression of sorrow or sympathy for the death of a man in the prime of his life. A man who set up many businesses to enrich the Western world and himself, and gave generously to charity as a sensitive citizen and a true Muslim. Did the Spencers or the Royal family send a wreath for his cortege? Or for that of Henri Paul. But, this last is another philosophic problem, that of equality and we shall return to it after attending to the neglect of Dodi.

Why are the powerful so callous even in the dark moments of their own sorrow?

It is easy to say that there are two great chasms between Dodi Al Fayed and the aristocracy of England. There is colour and there is class. To send a wreath would be to recognize the existence of the other. Would this really be some kind of dignity or status loss ?

Indians however can hardly afford to be judgemental. Remember the death of Sanjay Gandhi. He had managed to import a stunt plane and wanted to fly it without knowing how. On his way to the Flying Club he picked up a more experienced pilot, a Captain Mathur. In the crash that followed both Sanjay and Capt. Mathur were killed. Mathur was found wearing chappals (casual footwear) he had hurriedly donned when summoned by Sanjay to accompany him.

Despite his loyalty and the fact that they had died together as a result of the folly of Sanjay and through no fault of his own no consideration was shown to him.

In contrast, Sanjay who singlehandedly destroyed so much of value in Indian public life was kept lying in state to receive the homage of the captains of industry, of politicians and the goons he cultivated in his quest for power without responsibility. He was then cremated with full State honours at Shanti Vana, a site hallowed and made sacred by the last obsequies of Jawaharlal Nehru. Indira and Rajiv were to follow Sanjay to Shanti Vana and Shakti Sthala.

Maybe colour is less important than class.

Perhaps it is time to return to Henri Paul, the driver of the ill-fated Mercedes. Which killed him along with his employer Emad ( Dodi) Al Fayed and the Princess Diana. All they say of him is that he had taken excessive quantities of alcohol. [Eight whiskies?].

The fact that he was a security person and shanghaied into driving at the last moment because of change in plan earns him little sympathy. Here again Indians should remember Hari Pillai who was crucified after the assassination of Mrs Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards.

Everyone chose to ignore the reality, the power equations of the time. No one could stand up to Mrs Gandhi and she insisted on having Sikhs to guard her. In particular Beant Singh who had the same blood group and had been on duty with her for many years in India and abroad.

When new techniques for bodyguarding were introduced and a fresh, younger group trained in them got ready, Pillai tried to change the old guards with new ones. Mrs Gandhi refused to agree and insisted on retaining the old ones with whom she was familiar.

On the day of the assassination,October 13, 1984, Peter Ustinov was scheduled to make a documentary on Mrs Gandhi and was setting up his equipment in the bungalow next door to her residence. She became impatient and despatched one ‘bodyguard’ to make inquiries. Then she started for the venue and handed her purse to one guard and her parasol to the other. Thus, when she came to the spot where the assassins were waiting to ambush and kill her there was no bodyguard in readiness to ward off any threat and protect her from harm. The rule that bodyguards be men trained in the latest techniques and have their hands free had been broken. No one put up a fight to save India’s Prime Minister. She was killed by her own bodyguards because she would not heed the advice of her security officers. After her death Hari Pillai was savaged by people who should have known better. As the Rule of Law still works he was reinstated but he never could make up for the ground lost.

Thus death does not necessarily bring out the best in people The idea that ‘Death is the Great Leveller’ can be given up. This idea is older than the ‘Liberty / Fraternity / Equality’ slogans preached during the French Revolution (1789).

The above instances show that equality remains just or merely an idea and is nowhere near becoming a reality.


Akhilesh Mithal, 1991-1999. All rights reserved.
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