by Kuldip Nayar, NavHind Times, Wednesday, June 14, 2006
IT was an Indian voice that attracted my attention while I was loitering around downtown Manhattan, New York, last week. He took me to a nearby eating store, a common feature in America where a retail outlet offers you hot, cooked food along with everyday necessities like toothbrush, shampoo and medicine. I discovered he was the owner who had some 12 similar stores in the city.
“We are noticed now,” he said. “Never before were we, the Indians, given even a cursory look. Now the Americans know that our country is doing well.” What he was trying to convey to me was that India had suddenly become a success story. Newspapers and even TV networks mentioned it prominently. Many Indians occupied key positions in the fields of technology, medicine, education and business. “We can even influence the US Congress and the government,” said my middle-aged Punjabi friend.
He took pride in the fact that he had come from India with $5 and was now worth at least $10 million. “All of us have done well,” he claimed. However, the NRI success in the US is only part of the story. India’s eight per cent annual growth has made all the difference in changing the perception of policy-makers, editors and businessmen. India is no more the land of maharajas, snake charmers or dancing girls. It is considered a country which is trying to catch up with the West through science, technology and economic development. Probably, this is the time when we should be thinking of addressing the long-term image of our country in America. Duplicating think-tanks or institutions may not serve our purpose. I have in mind an Indian university in the US. Maybe, we can start with the extension of some leading Indian university like the JNU.
Indian subjects could be taught along with American history or whatever else is part of their culture and political scene. Hindu extremist organisations may find in the university an outlet for their contribution to India. At present they are funding the RSS which they believe is a cultural organisation. The proposed university or whatever else set up has to put across India’s ethos: democracy and pluralism. America is impressed by our open and secular society, but the image has been damaged because of Gujarat.
The anti-conversion legislation, which the BJP’s state governments have passed, has made the Christian world suspicious. It should be told that this is not India. It is only a political party seeking more votes, behaving irresponsibly and even spoiling the country’s reputation in the process. Image-making is an enormous task. It cannot be done exclusively by the government or Foreign Office. They can contribute and they have taken a good step, for example, by opening Nehru Centres at important world capitals. Unfortunately, the bureaucracy has taken them over. This is what I fear may come in the way of image building.
The approach of the bureaucrats is too stultified and their ideas too set in the face of a fast changing world. On the other hand, America is too squeamish when it comes to India. Washington is still plagued by New Delhi’s independent attitude during the Cold War and feels more comfortable with dictatorial and military regimes than democratic India. If we are able to develop the country economically, without disparity while keeping the society open and pluralistic, it would be a miracle which American or even the rest of the world might buy.
During my stay in America I was disappointed to find that a country where I inhaled free air some 50 years ago, and read the liberal thoughts of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln in a university there, is now embedded in conservatism, fanaticism and arrogance which an unchallenged superpower develops. There is little concern for the weak, the poor and the underprivileged. The treatment meted out to Muslims is, indeed, shameful. It looks as if America has launched an unofficial war against the Islamic world.
This is where New Delhi should play its role. It must re-secularise that society. I was, however, happy to find Hindus and Muslims friendly. People from Pakistan, Bangladesh and India are meeting socially all the time. At present they face too much fuss over immigration. I find in it traces of racism. What it really means is that the non-whites should not be given entry. True, Indians are mostly treated deferentially but that is because they have been found superior in intellect and entrepreneurship. When it comes to the West versus the rest, they too are tarred with the same brush of discrimination.
It is strange that America wants markets to open and even the tariffs to go. But it does not realise that India and such other countries have manpower to export when America has goods. If Washington can insist on demolishing the walls of customs and excise, why not bring down the walls of visas and entry permits? People to people contact will bring the different parts of the world closer to one another. Yet this argument does not go down well with the West which wants markets abroad but not people – black or brown – from the countries to which it sells the goods. The UK is like a country which also ran. Coming from America what hits you is the lack of confidence.
It looks as if the country cannot do without a set of crutches that once was represented by the colonies and their resources. The Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities are doing better on the whole than the Britons of the same level. The main reason is that Asian parents pay more attention to the studies and other activities of their children. Also the value system of British has got jumbled up. They look towards America and Europe, but it is like living in awe of rich relatives. What still impresses you is the dignified behaviour even in poor circumstances.
When I was in London, the British were in the midst of a debate over Prime Minister Tony Blair’s remark that he was not America’s poodle. Even if he is not, what does he prove by saying so? The fact is that London looks to the State Department and Blair looks to Bush for daily guidance. It is pathetic to see the Tory criticising the Labour but not suggesting how they would be any better if they were in office. Nations have to work hard and relentlessly to start again when they fall from the peak. I did not find that kind of spirit in the UK. Sometimes, I wonder if these were the people who changed their defeat at Dunkirk into a victory. Indomitable and courageous, they did not give in when any other nation would have surrendered. Where is that spirit? Have the people changed, or were their forefathers made up of different mettle?