Monday, February 18, 2008

stuck in the middle with you

Lets for a moment imagine that I don’t know what India is. No. Let’s say I don’t understand South Asian dynamics. Is that what makes us a whole (parts of a whole, perhaps more accurate) is that everyone – Nepal, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh, even Afghanistan – is that they are all connected through India?

Now, what divides us?

I went to a meeting recently, of a forum, organized by the Asia Foundation. Ambassadors and/or their aides, diplomats, the works. And they were all discussing the sub-continent. The point, actually, was to discuss the US’s role in the region. But, as it turned out, there was more introspection than one imagined. What is India’s role?

Before I come to the point that Naresh Chandra raised – that India is isolationist by nature – I will talk about two instances that struck me. Day 1: Someone from Nepal – he asked me, do you know about what has been happening there? By sheer good fortune, I have been editing the op-ed page of the Indian Express (till mid-December) and have been reading Yubaraj Ghimere’s column as a result. Yes, I told him, and we had a talk. Day 2: Someone from Bangadesh – more passionate, asked us, why do we get Indian channels on cable, but despite trying, cannot get our channels to India? A Bengali journalist tried to explain that they do get to watch them in Calcutta, but perhaps there is no real demand outside Bengali speaking areas in the country. The other point that came out was that talking to the government probably won’t help at all, because cable is now increasingly under private operators. But (and I did miss Day 3) was the overriding question – we know everything about India, why don’t you know about us?

I had to bit my lip and try not to be politically incorrect. Because the demand isn’t there? It reminded me of the point of the conference – we know so much about the US – bloody primaries to elect delegates who elect nominees who will then campaign for the seat of the President – yet, we know every move. Why? Because, it’s important to us what happens there. [A side note – some Obama fever is dying down in Indian circles because Mulford was talking about the nuclear deal only going through with a Republican frame of mind.] And I tried, as did others, explaining the newspaper’s reasons for not carrying as much Nepal, or Bangladesh as they would like -- [we are Pakistan obsessed, Afghanistan is sexy because the US thinks so, and Sri Lanka.. well, violence always sells, I’m sorry but it does] – is because you only have one, maybe two, and if you are very, very lucky, three international pages. Now, in the round-up of a million stories from around the world, there are a few reasons why some make it, and some don’t -- importance. That is decided on (and I’m no editor so this is not formal newspaper policy, especially not of my alma mater) but violence, familiarity, sexiness (Sarkozy-Carla, hello?!) and finally, images. But tell that to someone who says… and for very good reason… it’s the sub-continent. You want to be a leader? How about paying some attention???

So what is it then? Are we really isolationist? I bought a R.K. Laxman book today – actually, it’s about 600 of his most memorable cartoons in one book. One thing he said, which really struck me was this – we, as a country, as more interested in the personalities, the intra-party dynamics, squabbles etc, than we are in policy. Isn’t that true? How many schemes have fallen by the wayside because no one cares? 500 crore scam? Flip channel. I bet the kidney racket is second billing to Jodha-Akbar by now.

So let me also not get distracted by the digression – I bet you did. Almost, huh. But the question about India’s role in the sub-continent kept bugging me. Not that we barely know about the histories of our neighbors. (I don’t think Taslima Nasreen really counts as *eye on Bangadesh*) As a non-policy maker, what are you giving me, an average but interested citizen, to make me care about a neighbor who isn’t China. So are we isolationist? Why do we not care – or perhaps the government is an entity divorced of its citizens – then, the government cares, but the people needn’t bother? Or, like the US, in our own bubble, we don’t know what happens in our Canada’s? Unfortunately, I’ve lived in Canada. Our neighborhood isn’t that peaceful.

So one diplomat asked, almost na├»ve I would say, but don’t your papers have a policy of carrying [x] much news about India’s neighbors? Noo, we laughed. You have to be a non-profit for that one.

I’m not even going to try and assess India’s role at this point. It’s almost 4am and if anyone I hang out with reads this – I have been for two birthdays and it’s a bloody Monday – so, all I am capable of is probing. One of my best friends from Karachi and I sat down once and discussed the histories of our countries after Independence, because we had no idea what happened to the other side after… except that, maybe, maybe, they are eviiiil. But I can’t help but think; the sub-continent? Ask a sadda Punjabi who the government is in Tamil Nadu, in Kerela, in Arunachal? Blank, blank, blank.

And it’s not just the role of the media. It’s the history books too. I remember a project on why NCERT books were biased – while still at Welham Girls, Dehradun -- began with this statement – “Akbar, though a Muslim, was fair leader.” You want to talk about being mature enough to talk about outside these walls, without playing the blame-game? Or just being mature.

Then you get why I say we’re *stuck* in the middle. You think its time to start the education of India? Really, this time.