Hindu dharma is implicitly at odds with monotheistic intolerance. What is happening in India is a new historical awakening... Indian intellectuals, who want to be secure in their liberal beliefs, may not understand what is going on. But every other Indian knows precisely what is happening: deep down he knows that a larger response is emerging even if at times this response appears in his eyes to be threatening.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Miracle that's India, yet we demonise it

Miracle that's India, yet we demonise it

Vivek Gumaste (A Reader)
Posted online: Saturday, May 07, 2005 at 1102 hours IST
Updated: Saturday, May 07, 2005 at 1105 hours IST

Growing up in the southern city of Bangalore in the early 70’s, I was appalled to see differing political factions of Iranian students indulging in open street fights. What an uncultured group these people are, I thought to myself. It was a classic example of washing one’s dirty linen in public in a different country. It evoked a sense of disgust in me. It is the same feeling that I sense, here in New York, when I view the local desi scene in the context of the denial of an US visa to Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister of Gujarat.

I do not wish to dwell on the pros and cons of the issue at hand but would rather like to analyse what such episodes do to our image as a nation and a people. How does it reflect upon of all of us – the secular groups, the nationalist factions or whatever (I hate these labels for they mislead). Is this the right forum to wash our dirty linen? Does it serve any purpose apart from demoralising us?

We as a nation appear to be excessively obsessed about how we are perceived. What will the world think of us is question that we often ask ourselves and is a mantra that is chanted again and again. Now who or what is this “world” that we keep referring to? Is it the Western governments? Is it the Western media? Or is it the lay public in these countries? And how is this opinion shaped? Does it stem from an independent judgment? Or is it a reflection of how we project ourselves?

During colonial times the British encouraged an unsavoury image of India in order to justify their rule; the natives are unfit to rule themselves was their premise. According to them, snake charmers, emaciated cows on the streets and ubiquitous dirt seemed to embody India, prompting even Mahatma Gandhi to dub such descriptions as nothing more than ‘a drain inspectors report’. Writing in Young India, Mahatma Gandhi said, “Katherine Mayo’s book Mother India is the report of a drain inspector sent out with one purpose of opening and examining the drains of the country to be reported upon… If Miss Mayo had confessed that she had gone to India merely to open out and examine the drains of India, there would be little to complain about her compilation. But she says, in effect, with a certain amount of triumph “the drains are India….”

As these stereotyped images of India conjured during colonial times fade away today, another one, uglier and more repulsive than the previous, is being created. Events are being exaggerated or blown out of proportion in order to sensationalise news items and thereby make them more appealing to a Western audience. However the culprits this time are not the West or Europeans. The detractors are our own homegrown writers enthusiastically misusing a newfound access to the world stage with each one trying to outdo the other in this calumny.

Pankaj Mishra is the author of the novel, the Romantics and is a regular contributor to the New York Times. On the eve of Clinton’s visit to India in March 2000, in a scene that conformed to a Nazi how to manual, 33 Sikhs are rounded up and gunned down in cold blood by Islamic militants. The hideous crime shocks the nation and reverberates throughout the world. But Pankaj Mishra chooses to see it differently. In an article titled, “Pride and Blood in Kashmir”, (NYT, March 22, 2000) he uses this barbaric act, not to castigate the militants for their brutality, but to censure the Indian Government for its highhandedness. He quotes a Border Security Force personnel who tells him, “I don’t believe in this human rights nonsense.” Pankaj Mishra concludes, “The military arms of all-powerful authorities in New Delhi have been used to suppress regional discontent.” In effect he is telling the outside world that Indian democracy is a sham.

In another article (Hinduism’s Political Resurgence, NYT, February 25, 2002), Pankaj Mishra goes one step further preferring Pakistan under the dictator Musharraf to democratic India under the BJP: “While General Musharraf strives toward a secular polity, the ruling politicians of India head in the opposite direction.” Imagine the irony when he surmises: “Oddly, the illiberal tendencies a military dictator seeks to expel, with popular support, from Pakistan seem to be finding a hospitable home in democratic India.”

These writers are at their worst or best (from their perspective) when they report on anything to do with Hindu nationalism. Reproduced below is a paragraph from Pankaj Mishra’s, “The Other Face of Fanaticism” (NYT, Feb 2, 2003). Referring to the Gujarat violence he writes: “The scale of the violence was matched only by its brutality. Women were gang-raped before being killed. Children were burned alive. Grave-diggers at mass burial sites told investigators “that most bodies that had arrived….were burned and butchered beyond recognition. Many were missing body parts-arms, legs and even heads. The elderly and the handicapped were not spared.” Is this the image of India that we wish to project to the outside world? Again am I saying: hush up these evil acts?

No. Use the right forums to seek redress if that is your real intention. Do not sensationalize events to garner personal glory.

A. Ghosh’s report in Time magazine is along the same lines. He speaks of how people boasted of the killings associated with the Gujarat riots and then adds:

“Some, if not all, of this was undoubtedly pure braggadocio. The stories sounded fake, or at least embellished for effect. "It was like a bunch of schoolboys boasting about imaginary achievements," said my friend. "But these so-called achievements were murderous." What was especially scary was the casual, matter-of-fact tone in which this conversation was conducted. "These guys seemed no more agitated than they would have if they were talking about the weather," said my friend. "It was like an everyday discussion."

If Ghosh realises that these incidents are not entirely true (embellished for effect) and suggestive of ‘pure braggadocio’ as he himself puts it, why does he feel the need to document them especially in an international magazine? Apart from netting him a by-line and falsely maligning Indians does it serve any function?

Look how Meenaksi Ganguly writing in Time uses one man’s words to denigrate the Hindus as a whole: “Another man, who claimed to have killed nine Muslims that day, offered this explanation: "I am just a Hindu. That is enough, because I was acting for all Hindus."

Their writing is graphic in a most negative way and is meant to portray the worst of India. Read this excerpt from Shashi Tharoor’s article, paying close attention to the words I have italicised (India’s Past Becomes a Weapon, NYT, March 6, 2002): “In 1992 a howling mob of Hindu extremists tore down the Babri Masjid, which occupied a prominent spot in a town otherwise overflowing with temples. The mosque had been built in the 1520's by India's first Mogul emperor, Babur; the Hindu zealots vowed to replace it with a temple to Ram. In other words, they want to avenge history by undoing the shame of half a millennium ago”. Such writings effectively conjure up an image of a country filled with bloodthirsty religious fanatics.

As these articles indicate, most articles about India appearing in the foreign news media are penned by Indians or people of Indian origin. During the months of March-April 2002, the Washington Post had 12 reports (most of them not complementary) on the Gujarat riots: six were by Rama Lakshmi, 5 by Rajiv Chandrasekaran and 1 by Salman Rushdie.

In the debate about Gujarat, Indian newspapers are extremely fond of referencing an ‘international’ organisation; the New York based Human Rights Watch. But do you know who authored the report on Gujarat put out by HRW? Smitha Narula, a person of Indian origin.

So an objective evaluation reveals that what we perceive as western opinion is really not so. It is in fact a veneer that has been deviously crafted by Indian political groups pursuing a narrow agenda.

What makes these Indian writers depict India in this fashion? There are two reasons for this. One is that the Western public (like the public everywhere) craves for melodrama which these Indian writers are ever willing to provide even at the cost of truth and honesty. In addition, the urge to ‘get published’ in the Western press drives these individuals to dramatise events. Secondly this is the result of an ideological warfare that is being waged by the Indian left against the Hindu right. Unfortunately, the so-called liberal wing in India has a large cadre of well-educated (not intellectuals, mind you) Westernised journalists who are able to interact with their counterparts in the West and thereby propagate their one-sided views.

Compared to the pessimism that pervades the writings of Indian authors, Western writers tend to be more fair and positive about India. Reproduced below is an abstract from an op-ed piece titled, Vote France Off the Island (NYT,Feb 9,2003) by the noted columnist Thomas Friedman: “Sometimes I wish that the five permanent members of the UN Security Council could be chosen like the starting five for the NBA All-Star team — with a vote by the fans. If so, I would certainly vote France off the Council and replace it with India. Then the perm-five would be Russia, China, India, Britain and the United States. That's more like it.

Why replace France with India? Because India is the world's biggest democracy, the world's largest Hindu nation and the world's second-largest Muslim nation, and, quite frankly, India is just so much more serious than France these days. France is so caught up with its need to differentiate itself from America to feel important, it's become silly. India has grown out of that game. India may be ambivalent about war in Iraq, but it comes to its ambivalence honestly. Also, France can't see how the world has changed since the end of the cold war. India can.”

In another article captioned, Where Freedom reigns (NYT, August 14, 2002) Friedman concludes: “The more time you spend in India the more you realise that this teeming, multiethnic, multi-religious, multilingual country is one of the world's great wonders -- a miracle with message. And the message is that democracy matters.

This truth hits you from every corner. Consider Bangalore, where the traffic is now congested by all the young Indian techies, many from the lower-middle classes, who have gotten jobs, apartments -- and motor scooters -- by providing the brainpower for the world's biggest corporations. While the software designs of these Indian techies may be rocket science, what made Bangalore what it is today is something very simple: 50 years of Indian democracy and secular education, and 15 years of economic liberalisation, produced all this positive energy.”

Reading this article made my heart well with pride. I made a copy of the article and had my American-born daughters read it again and again. Even when commenting about something unpleasant like the Hindu-Muslim riots of Gujarat, a foreigner like Friedman is willing to analyse the events objectively. His observations are tempered with good sense and good judgment. Though critical of the riots and the Hindu nationalist BJP; he is reluctant to demonise events. His keen journalistic eye observes that the riots did not spread to other parts of India as one would expect.

“No, India is not paradise. Just last February the Hindu nationalist BJP government in the state of Gujarat stirred up a pogrom by Hindus against Muslims that left 600 Muslims, and dozens of Hindus, dead. It was a shameful incident, and in a country with 150 million Muslims -- India has the largest Muslim minority in the world -- it was explosive. And do you know what happened?

Nothing happened.

The rioting didn't spread anywhere.”

So am I saying that violent crimes and brutal injustice should be hushed-up or swept under the rug? Am I suggesting that a foreigner’s view is more important than an Indian’s?

The answer is no on both accounts. My only grouse is with the forum that one uses for this purpose. Such type of exposure on the international front hardly serves any constructive purpose.

The world is not going to shower accolades on us for washing our dirty linen in public. They will only use this information to chastise us and imply obliquely that we are not yet ready to be granted a permanent seat in the UN. Further it tends to strengthen colonial notions of Indians as uncivilized natives incapable of resolving their problems in a sophisticated manner.

All said and done, India still boasts of an infrastructure that works. Our courts do hand out fair judgments. Our newspapers posses a degree of freedom that is unmatched in the world. That this freedom has been blatantly misused in recent times is another story. More importantly, we have a functioning parliament that allows every grievance to be voiced publicly. So if one genuinely desires redress without ulterior motives, these are avenues that can be tapped and should be. Recourse to the world stage is relevant only in cases of suppressed nations which India is not.


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