Do you like Osama? India angered by British survey

Click to follow
The Independent Online

A British-based market research company is at the centre of a police investigation in India after staff questioned Muslims about whether they liked Osama bin Laden, and supported attacks against the US.

In a murky episode that took place in the southern state of Kerala, five female researchers were arrested by police after Muslims complained about the questionnaire. Officials became concerned that the questions could trigger community discord, and state officials have asked federal intelligence agencies to investigate.

Among the issues included in the 91-question survey were people's views on why Muslim women wore the hijab, whether suicide bomb attacks were ever justified and the US's intervention in issues in the Middle East. People were also asked their opinions on the state of Iran, what they considered to be the most important contributions to the world of Islam, and whether Sharia should be the basis for India's legal system.

Police made the arrests after being contacted by residents in Karimadom, a Muslim neighbourhood in the Keralan capital, Trivandrum (or Thiruvananthapuram), where the researchers questioned about 100 households. They were later released.

"The questions are highly inflammatory. They may cause communal disharmony," said P Verghese, an assistant commissioner of police, who is heading an inquiry into the issue. "The women who carried out the survey were locally hired daily wagers."

The motivation of the questions and what the information was to have been used for remains unclear. Some Muslim groups in Kerala have claimed that US intelligence agencies are behind the questionnaire, while the state's home ministry has ordered a full inquiry. Some reports claim that the survey may have been carried out in more than 50 cities across the country.

"We are taking it very seriously and have already sought the help of Delhi to unfold the mysterious motives of this survey," Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, Kerala's home minister, told Tehelka, a weekly news magazine. "A foreign agency cannot administer such surveys in the country without permission."

Police have said that the women were hired by the Indian office of Taylor Nelson Sofres (TNS), a British-based market research company that in 2008 was bought by the WPP Group, a FTSE 100 global communications services company, for £1.6bn.

TNS has refused to give any explanation for its activities. In a statement issued by an Indian PR agency, the company said: "TNS [has] filed a writ petition in the High Court of Kerala and a hearing is pending. As the matter is subject to legal process, TNS has no further comment at this time. TNS has been co-operating with the concerned authorities and will continue to do so."

The female researchers told police that the survey was being carried out on behalf of another, US-based market research company, Princeton Survey Research Associates International (PSRAI), which has offices in Washington and New Jersey. The company failed to respond to repeated requests for a comment.

It is not the first time that PSRAI has carried out surveys that have looked at Islam. Earlier this summer, in a survey apparently conducted for Newsweek magazine, PSRAI sought the views of Americans on how they would feel about a mosque being built in the local community and whether they were concerned about "radicals" among America's Muslim community. It also asked people their opinions about President Barack Obama, whether they believed that he was a Muslim, and even if they thought he sympathised with the goals of Islamic fundamentalists who wanted to impose Sharia around the world.

The company's website says: "PSRAI has extensive experience in conducting surveys in more than 75 countries around the world – from the United States and Canada, to South and Central America, Africa, the Middle East, Europe and Asia."