By Prakash Kona
I remember reading an article written years ago by the eminent journalist Pran Chopra – a man who met Gandhi, Mao and Ho Chi Mihh (that’s one hell of a combination!). The article was titled: “What others think of us.” I am only summarizing the article from memory: It was about how Indian politicians and diplomats are utterly oblivious to the contempt with which they are regarded in the west, especially when they go to those countries and give idealistic speeches while the audiences are pretty much aware of how they are working against the interests of their own people. What Pran Chopra meant was that it was common knowledge that these people are bloodsuckers and crooks. I couldn’t more agree with him.
I live in a strange part of the world where those in power are unashamedly corrupt and people applaud when they hear them espouse ideals on public platforms. The naked brutality of our political class along with the system of administration and justice which serves the interests of the moneyed classes, is evident to those who have eyes to see. The deprived are nowhere in sight in this country except as stereotypes in silly Indian movies which are like the fantasies of a 13-year old boy who has just become conscious of certain parts of his body.
Therefore, when Freedom House, an American government-funded NGO (of whose existence I had no previous idea) changed India’s status from “from Free to Partly Free” the huge reaction to this did not come as surprise to me. The decline of status was, the report said, “due to a multiyear pattern in which the Hindu nationalist government and its allies have presided over rising violence and discriminatory policies affecting the Muslim population and pursued a crackdown on expressions of dissent by the media, academics, civil society groups, and protesters.”
I refuse to fall into the category of petty nationalists who think that Freedom House or any other organization or individual has no right to comment on us. I think everyone on this planet has a right to comment on everyone else. Wherever violence happens to someone without reason there has to be a voice raised against the violence challenging the power that uses force without accountability. At the same time, I am opposed to that tone of self-assurance taken by the NGO especially when it is funded by the US government; in its report on the US, there is no mention of America’s unequivocal support to Israeli occupation of Palestine, the inhuman economic embargo on Iran and Cuba, and the fact that American governments steadily stand behind every third world despot on this planet, as Chomsky has been tirelessly documenting for years.
But the issue with Indians is a deeper problem. We are obsessed with what a country in the west thinks of us, especially if it is the United States or some other first world country. The classism of Indians shows in the reaction. Our deeply colonial mindset is constantly looking for approval from a white European or American individual or organization. It is not whether we agree with the Freedom House report or not. Either way we are not coming to terms with the simple fact that we cannot do without a certificate from a western country telling us who we are. We continue to be ungrownups, almost begging for recognition from countries like the United States whose domination of the world is a threat to humanity.
Frankly, more than Freedom House, I am interested in what on-the-street Pakistanis, Nepalis, Sinhalese and Bangladeshis think of my country; they are my neighbors and being sensitive to their feelings is of paramount importance than what an organization in America thinks of where I live. It doesn’t mean that I don’t take the Freedom House report seriously. I do. It also doesn’t mean that I don’t learn to think of myself as a person and as an individual and create my own parameters of what is good and what is bad. We need to have a moral framework of our own to judge our own conduct. As long as we don’t have such a framework we cannot claim to be an autonomous people capable of making responsible social and political choices.
As nationalistic as Indians tend to be in principle, I have never seen a people more suspicious and indifferent to each other’s plight as ourselves. It is the servility of the average Indian that is tragic to say the least. As much as I despise China’s human rights record, at least they are able to stand up to western arrogance and not bend over backwards to be on the right side of Americans. It is terrible to see how seriously we take a couple of tweets from some celebrity in Europe and America criticize the government’s attitude to farmers and minorities and we are completely indifferent to what the farmers or the minorities themselves think about the current situation. This comes from a people who continue to live in the colonial era and who refuse to come out of it.
In his political novella Karnak Café, Naguib Mahfouz summarizes the direction we need to move in as a third world country, through the mouth of a sinister character Khalid Safwan who was a torturer and a murderer, but who himself, in the nature of things ends up going to jail and getting tortured.
“Firstly, a total disavowal of autocracy and dictatorship. Secondly, a disavowal of any resort to force or violence. Thirdly, we have to rely on the principles of freedom, public opinion, and respect for our fellow human beings as values needed to foster and advance progress. With them at our disposal it can be achieved. Fourthly, we must learn to accept from Western civilization the value of science and the scientific method, and without any argument. Nothing else should be automatically accepted without a full discussion of our current realities. With that in mind, we should be prepared to get rid of all the fetters that tie us down, whether ancient or modern.”
This is exactly the moral framework that we need to have in India and perhaps in all developing nations with a colonial past. Reject autocracy, reject the use of force, accept that public opinion and freedom are important, and boundlessly cherish every individual human being. We don’t have to accept anything without thinking about our current realities and we have to absolutely get rid of all the chains that enslave us whether in the name of “tradition” or “modernity.” Both can be equally liberating or equally dangerous unless carefully discussed.
While we don’t have to react like spoilt children to every bit of criticism, we need to have our own moral and political standards, by which we measure or evaluate who we are. It is one thing to say that I don’t care for what Freedom House or another celebrity thinks of my country or me. It is something totally different to say that I refuse to think about myself as a person and have no standards by which I evaluate myself based on how I treat people around me. Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels brilliantly demonstrates that men are no different from animals: they eat, shit, copulate and when upset throw feces at each other. Reason and empathy however make us more than animals, even if less than angels and saints. As a nation we cannot be guided by instinct because that leaves us in the animal state; we need to create our own parameters for a society that is capable of being rational and empathetic to the struggles of every individual person.
A good part of overcoming the colonial mentality is in being confident enough that we are capable of moral and political choices on our own. The alternative of course is not that we turn into bigots and ignore everything great that comes from the west. As much as I think that US policies pose a grave danger to the future of humanity especially for those living in the third world, I admire the American love of life; their belief in progress and their faith in themselves to overcome obstacles. We need a healthy dose of that American love of life as an antidote to the deadly poison of fatalism that like a cancer prevents us from making even the smallest effort at having better leaders and administrators than the ones we do.