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First, a disclaimer:
By sharing what I am about to share in this post, I do NOT mean to suggest in any chauvinistic, jingoistic manner that Indian society is some ‘perfect’, glorious society with no issues or problems. I also do NOT mean to suggest that we shouldn’t face our problems squarely and openly. I also do NOT mean to suggest that we should shove our problems or all that is negative and wrong in our society under some sort of rug and pretend that we are ‘holier than thou’.
These are some of the criticisms we Indians often hear, especially from our fellow Indians, whenever one of us tries to speak of something that is NOT critical of India. It is as if it has become some type of a litmus test to be judged as a ‘good’ and ‘progressive’ Indian only if we criticise India and speak of or write about all that is wrong in Indian society. Going by this post, I will probably fail that test badly! But seriously, I don’t care about such tests. I think nobody should.
What I care about is that I write what I feel I must write. I write for my fellow Indians who are more open-minded and willing to engage with diverse points of view. I write for my readers — from whatever part of the world — who are willing to engage with a point of view on its own merit rather than a pre-conceived notion of what is right or wrong, what is good or bad.
Second, a clarification:
By sharing what I am about to share, I do NOT mean to generalise about all people living in the West. I also do NOT intend to offend, in any way, any of my readers from different parts of the West. I studied, worked and lived for many years in the US, and fondly look back on my life there and deeply cherish the lifelong friendships I made with people from different parts of that amazing country and also various other parts of the world.
But my personal experience of living for a decade and a half in the US is NOT the only reason for this clarification. I also say this because I do NOT believe that the content of this post is about the attitudes of people in the West in particular or in general. Rather it is about a certain tendency of the collective mindset that is influenced and often unknowingly shaped by forces larger than an individual or even groups of individuals.
Third, an explanation:
Most of the points I am about to share are not really new. Many serious thinkers, Indian and others, have written about these things, in much extensive detail, with much deeper analyses and numerous examples.
I believe, however, that some of these points are worth reiterating, and perhaps require regular reiteration — in as many different ways and voices as possible — because the underlying issue is indeed very significant. And also, because there is always a different set of audiences that are reached with each new reiteration. In this post, I present the issue in a somewhat simpler and personal way, with a hope that my readers will engage with the points shared here in a constructive manner.
(These three points have added to the length of this post, but I believe it was essential for me to write these points before beginning my main argument.)
A little more than two years ago, a friend and former colleague of mine from the US was planning to visit southern India, particularly Pondicherry and Auroville, and possibly a few other places in Tamil Nadu. One of our common students, another woman of approximate our age, was also planning to travel at the same time for her own research work. This would have been their first visit to India.
The three of us had some email exchanges about possible guest houses and hotels, places to visit nearby, and other necessary details to consider when preparing for travelling to India. In one email the issue of safety came up. And naturally they were concerned about all the news in the media about the horrendous ‘rape problem’ of India. This was just after the Nirbhaya tragedy.
These are highly intelligent, well-educated women with very open minds, who can not be easily taken in by all that appears in the media. Yet, this concern came up.
It must be emphasised that when my friend wrote to me about this she was indeed very sensitive and careful about expressing her concern. She clearly stated that she fully understood that one such news story doesn’t say anything about a vast country like India or even a particular region or city of India. Yet, this concern came up.
I wrote back to her saying that I completely understood her concern and respected her for bringing it up with extreme sensitivity. And shared with her a few articles that had appeared at a few places which challenged all the negative portrayal of India’s ‘traditional rape culture.’ A few of these were written by Western women who had travelled and stayed extensively in different parts of India, and these writers had made some excellent points about how generally positive their experience had been with Indian people, including Indian men. These pieces also emphasised the dangers of stereotyping a whole people based on a few negative stories — no matter how terrible they are — that end up getting world-wide coverage for days and weeks.
I also shared with her some of my personal opinion about a few sensible things we all need to consider — women, men, children, everyone — when traveling to new places, especially in a foreign country. I told her that just like she would avoid going alone late at night to some ‘dangerous’ places in many cities in the US, the same consideration would be necessary when traveling in India. I also shared with her a few pointers about cross-cultural sensitivity so as to avoid getting any unnecessary gazes triggered mostly by curiosity and not necessary bad intent.
The whole email exchange was very pleasant and in the spirit of sharing and learning, no bad feelings or ill-will on either side. But this was a conversation between friends who had known each other for many years.
It just so happened that my friend had to cancel her travel plan due to some health concerns. But her student did visit India. She stayed in a guest house in Auroville for two weeks, engaged in her research work and explored a bit of this part of the country. She also visited me one evening and we had a nice long conversation over tea, about many things. She shared with me how positive her whole experience had been, and how much she had learned by just talking to the people. She said she could have used better wi-fi facility at her guest house, and we laughed over that, because that is a concern I completely share with her. Indians living in metro areas have no clue what we in rural India struggle with! But I digress.
Fast forward to 2015.
Recently a German professor declined admission to an Indian male student. Reason? We should all be able to guess by now. Yes, it is a fallout of the infamous BBC documentary, India’s Daughter.
She stated the presence of an Indian male student in her programme could be a potential security threat for her female students. The professor later apologised about her stated reason when the German envoy in India intervened, chiding her that it is simply wrong and extremely unfair to stereotype and falsely generalise about all Indian men.
Some doubt the authenticity of this story. Be that as it may. The fact that the story circulated in the media says something. Something very serious.
What can NOT be doubted is the authenticity of the fact that there is a very real war of civilisational narratives out there in this media-crazy world where truth takes a backseat to propaganda and perception. Nations, cultures and peoples are ‘constructed’ through their images and portrayals. In the minds of the people, in the minds of the governments, in the minds of the international community.
If we think that highly intellectualised minds are not victims of such propaganda-frenzy, we should think again.
A highly respected, internationally famous intellectual recently tweeted something about India’s traditional culture of rape and misogyny. After getting some virtual beating from other twiterrati, especially some of his Indian followers, he was forced to explain, several times, about what he really intended by his original statement.
But the damage was done. The drama continues.
There is no point denying that in today’s age perception and branding matter. They matter a lot. We live in strange times when people are quick to harshly judge their politicians simply because of what they wear or don’t wear. We easily ignore the message of their speech, but we remember and write columns after columns about their fashion sense. Never mind the real intent behind a certain policy initiative, as long as we can criticize it using a certain fashionable ‘slogan’, we have won the battle of perceptions. Such things are common occurrences in today’s socio-political climate, even within a country’s own media discourse.
Imagine the impact perception and propaganda can have when a certain issue becomes the hot favourite of global media, for weeks, months and years. A quick look at the headlines across all the western media outlets over the past few days will reveal how the rape problem in India has been reported and analysed.
(Before anyone accuses me of being chauvinistic, of avoiding the real problem of sexual violence, let me point out to the disclaimer at the top of the post).
In today’s globalised and highly inter-connected socio-economic climate, a developing nation like India which is trying to position herself in the world to attract larger foreign investments, more tourism, greater leverage in the geo-political dynamics is now forced to fight another battle of perceptions. An unfortunate fallout of the recent controversy around the BBC documentary. Some of the reasons for this may be government’s own doing, because of their hasty and ill-informed decisions. But the larger blame for this renewed battle of propaganda must squarely rest elsewhere.
If some of my fellow Indians still believe that we should not be concerned about our ‘image’ but only the ‘real problem,’ I would say that the solution to the problem, any problem, can never be found in media discourse. Instead, the propagandic nature of today’s media discourse actually discourages serious problem-solving by simply provoking more momentary sensationalism rather than facilitating a sincere and sustainable awakening and introspection. (I am almost certain that some of my readers will disagree with this last point, let us agree to disagree).
If we still deny that there is no war of propaganda out there, or that there is no such thing as power of branding, I would only say that we are probably living with our eyes and ears closed. Or we are wishing to go back to some long-gone golden age when everybody loved everybody and the world was a much nicer place.
Sadly, that time never existed. Certainly not since some ambitious and adventurous kings, sailors, and religious missionaries in some countries of the West discovered that there is a whole big world to explore, exploit, conquer and rule.
“Barbaric Others” — that’s the title of a book that comes to my mind. I read it many years ago, but I still remember the impact it had on me. On my understanding of the colonial history of last several centuries, starting with 1492, the year with which the analysis presented in this book begins. This book explains how ‘Otherness’ is constructed, how xenophobic equation of Other with Barbarian has endured in Western civilization’s relationship with the rest of the world, from colonial times till the present. I highly recommend this book to my interested readers because it can give a very real sense of the larger issue under discussion. Published in 1993, the book is highly relevant even today. And will probably remain so for many many decades to come.
(The full reference of the book is: Barbaric Others: A Manifesto on Western Racism. Ziauddin Sardar, Ashis Nandy and Merryl Wyn Davies. London; Boulder, CO: Pluto Press, 1993. Read a review of the book here. There are many more thoughtful analyses, many such books that I have read and can recommend. But this one will suffice for now.)
The ‘others’ are being constructed in newer ways, and perhaps today the problem has become much more serious because of the global reach of mass media which are often being used as convenient tools for propoganda and branding. Serious thinkers and analysts are writing about the problem of such ‘constructed otherness’ and also about the cost-benefit analyses of such propaganda, branding and the battle of perceptions. (Yes you read it right, cost-benefit analyses, because there are actual, tangible costs and benefits that result from the propaganda wars).
Before I close this piece, let me share something that I just read last night. In a recently published piece regarding the whole controversy around the BBC documentary, Prof. Jakob De Rover, from Ghent University, Belgium writes:
The fallacy of hasty generalisation is commonly used in propaganda and the politics of fear. Now, it is part and parcel of the discourse about rape in India. No wonder then that many Indians have the sense of an international conspiracy against their country. However misguided the calls for banning films and books may be, they are expressions of feeling powerless in the face of a centuries-old discourse about Indian culture that continues to dominate international public opinion. In insidious ways, this discourse misrepresents India as the very embodiment of immorality: a culture that programs its people to follow immoral rules as though these are moral.
India and the West could together look for solutions to the problems that we share. Instead, Western commentators reproduce old colonial stories about India as an immoral culture. This gives them a twisted relationship to the Indian people. On the one hand, they keep turning towards the same class of Indian journalists, activists, and intellectuals for ‘local knowledge’. But these native informants merely talk the talk of the West to the West. On the other hand, more and more Indians are disgusted by the West’s condescending attitude towards their country. And this is then dismissed as hurt pride. If we want to bring our two peoples and cultures closer together in this new age, reason and empathy are our only hope. The madness of the current discourse about India must end. (Emphasis added)
I highly recommend to my readers to spend a few more minutes reading the full article by Jakob de Rover. Readers may also like to read another important analysis by Prof. Vamsee Juluri, a professor of Media Studies at the University of San Francisco.
Addendum, dated March 16: In a commentary published in Telegraph Christopher Booker writes:
Those who saw the preview of India’s Daughter in Delhi have testified that the original version did make comparisons with the rest of the world. One, Anna Vetticad, praised it as a “balanced documentary”, because it ended with “worldwide statistics highlighting violence against women from Australia to the US”. But when the final version emerged, all this had been cut out. India was shown standing alone, as a country where rape is an exceptional problem.
Makes one think, doesn’t it? Read the full commentary here.
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Linking this with ABC Wednesday, I: I is for India