14 January 2016

Imagining in the Indian Subcontinent

'Abhiman’ was the only Hindi movie I had seen until around 1996 when I spent some months in Galgamuwa. The family whose kada-kaamaraya (one-room ‘shop’) I had rented were addicted to Hindi films and I would see snippets when I went over to their house for meals.   I don’t know Hindi and back in the seventies when I saw the film there were no subtitles.  The music was wonderful and over the years I was able to learn most of the songs by heart.

Two decades later, one December night, in a computer lab in a small town in Upstate New York, for reasons I cannot recall now, I was singing a song from the film.  It so happened that an Indian doctoral student (Development Sociology,  concentration ‘Population and Development’) was also in the lab. She joined me and we sang some lines together.  A colleague from the USA heard us and asked, ‘are you from the same country?’

I told him that it is a song from a popular Hindi movie, but that I don’t know the language.  My Indian friend chipped in ‘we used to be, but not any more’.

‘Used to be? What do you mean?  We were never one country!’ I was amazed at her ignorance.

‘Come on, you don’t have to be so defensive. It was the same country.  That’s why it was called the Indian Subcontinent,’ she responded.

‘Rubbish. Are you saying that we were all part of a huge country called Asia, going by the same logic?’

I told her that not only wsa Sri Lanka always independent of India, we would not want to be part of India either. 

Now there is no denying the fact that India is a powerful country and one which can claim to a spectacular history on all counts.  It is also a land of huge contradictions with horrendous anomalies in terms of income distribution, literacy levels, access to positions of power and in categories such as religious faith, caste, gender etc.  My Indian friend, hailing from Gujarat, was convinced that all is well in India. She seemed ignorant not only about geography and history but basic indicators of social well being.  I googled some data on SAARC countries and read out the figures that ought to have humbled her. 

‘Anything can be written on a website!’ she refused to acknowledge my ‘evidence’. 

I remembered a massive poster mounted outsider the ‘Population and Development’ part of the Department where statistics such as infant mortality, poverty levels, literacy and under-5 malnutrition were neatly laid out for all countries. I believe the source was the UNDP.  I persuaded her to go with me to check the data.  She was visibly stunned to learn the truth about her country.  I was stunned that an Indian doctoral student could be so ignorant. 

I am pretty sure that my friend is a statistical outlier among doctoral students from India, not just in the social sciences but across all disciplines.  It is one thing to think the world of one country and quite another to be ignorant about its not so pretty aspects.  Pride is not a bad thing; arrogance is less sufferable.  I am not sure if it is some basic and unavoidable strain among citizens in so-called ‘big’ countries, but the arrogance she showed is certainly not an outlier among Indians in top positions of power. 

There is a perceptible Indian version of the proverbial ‘White Man’s Burden’ when it comes to South Asia.  I’ve seem this in many forums where the odd Sri Lankan, Pakistani, Bangladeshi or Nepali ‘representative’ is included to make it ‘South Asian’ and not ‘Indian’ (‘Maldives’ and ‘Bhutan’ were not even in their radar).  It is evident in Indian Foreign Policy when it comes to matters concerning relations with neighbours. 

It is all there ‘on paper’ though.  Jawaharlal Nehru, when he coined the term ‘non-alignment’ way back in a speech in Colombo (1954), re-uttered the ‘Panchsheel’ (five restraints) first articulated by Zhou Enlai (the proposed basis for Sino-Indian relations) as the ideal basis for bi-lateral relations.  Let’s re-utter and re-assess:  ‘Mutual respect for each other's territorial integrity and sovereignty, mutual non-aggression, mutual non-interference in domestic affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful co-existence. 

The reality is quite similar to the US version of national identity and preoccupation with self-image.  US Americans routinely gather the entire Americas into their political and ideological frame by referring to self as ‘American’.  We belong to the Indian Subcontinent, true. Does not mean we are Indians or that India has the right to decide what’s best for us. 

Nehru himself violated the lofty principles he articulated in Colombo scarcely before a year had passed. In the Bandung Conference in 1955, he chided the Prime Minister of Ceylon, Sir John Kotelawala for criticising communism.  Nehru, clearly a man of high intellet and strong personality, shrinked his image many times by asking Sir John, in the typical and presumptuous Big-Brother mode, ‘Why didn’t you show me your speech before you made it?’

Sir John had shot back: ‘Why should I show you my speeches; you don’t show me yours!’ 

Nehru is reported to have almost suffered an attack of apoplexy.  My Indian friend’s expression after being forced to accept certain uncomfortable realities was no different, I am sure.  Kuldip Nayar is no Jawaharlal Nehru. Neither is he a blissfully ignorant doctoral student.  I am not sure if he should be consequently proud or ashamed.  All I know is that not all Indians ar arrogant or ignorant but sadly they do get their garments discoloured by the sheer weight of the rubbish such people routinely unload on us. Pity.   

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who can be reached at malindasenevi@gmail.com