India is a village. Like villagers swept by tides of primitive passion, Indians are prey to fear and superstition, and haunted by a dread of the unfamiliar. Comfort lies in the charms and incantations of mountebanks and charlatans whose assertion of direct communion with divinity wins them even political space.
‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’, the Mahopanishad’s ancient Sanskrit phrase, doesn’t signify ‘the world is one family’ in the sense of a lofty all-embracing vision. It means that Indians who come into contact with the world drag it down to their puny level. The nationalist sun that rides the skies has warmed to life nascent forces that erupt in organisations that cash in on credulity by promising to enforce indigenous purity.
The Constitution’s ‘India that is Bharat’ means for them ‘India is Bharat’. Hence the chant of ‘Bharat mata ki jai’ that reportedly rent the air last month as three young Africans cowered in a police booth in the heart of New Delhi with the police doing nothing to save them from the fury of a howling mob. The rising spate of attacks on other Indians who are seen as outsiders and the mounting instances of rape and sex crimes against children reflect the frustration of primeval society gloating on the promised ‘achhe din’.
The keynote is ignorance. ‘You call yourself educated and learned men’ chants Borkung Hrangkhawl, the 27-year-old rapper from Tripura who has survived three stabbings. ‘And you don’t even know where Arunachal Pradesh is situated in the map!/ Tell me, is your knowledge of geography that bad?/ While on the other hand I am glad/ I bet I know a lot about India and its culture, cus it’s my country.’
It was also Nido Taniam’s country. And Akha Salouni’s. Nineteen-year-old Nido with the Mohawk mane was from Arunachal Pradesh; Salouni, 29, from Manipur. Both were murdered for being different. Even more different, Mapaga and Yohan from distant Gabon and Guira from Burkina Faso escaped with their lives. All five were victims of the hate that feeds on differences of food and features. Whether in politics, the media or the judiciary, few societies are so complacently self-centred.
The Doordarshan broadcaster who called Xi Jinping “Eleven Jinping” was not the only example of the grotesquerie that insularity produces. A trait we have in common with the Chinese is that neither nation thinks it necessary to pay heed to unfamiliar names. Chinese Singaporeans called me “Mr Sunanda”, adapting my name to their style. We do the same. Even the cosmopolitan Kunwar Natwar Singh refers to Singapore’s veteran Lee Kuan Yew as ‘Yew’ in the index of his memoirs. The transgression might have been less gross if Natwar hadn’t been fluent in Mandarin and an old friend of Lee’s.
Such blunders are not exceptional. When Alec Douglas Home was Britain’s Prime Minister, All India Radio invariably pronounced his last name phonetically instead of ‘Hume’. Bhutan’s longtime foreign minister, Dawa Tsering, was reconciled to the Times of India calling him ‘Mr Lyonpo Dawa Tsering’, oblivious of the Bhutanese prefix Lyonpo meaning minister and replacing ‘mister’. Another common newspaper tautology was to refer to the Bhutanese king’s aunt as ‘Princess Ashi Sonam’. Ashi means princess.
These examples will probably encourage the ebullient Markandey Katju to further tub-thumping about journalistic ignorance. Alas, the judiciary is no better. A Calcutta High Court judge once aired (as he thought) his global knowledge by sternly telling a motorist accused of running over and killing a pedestrian that he would have been tried for manslaughter in Britain. No one had told him that British law long ago replaced manslaughter with the less ominous sounding charge of ‘causing death by careless driving’. Katju’s own invocation of Voltaire and Rousseau when trying to belittle Indian newspapers betrayed his ignorance of Europe’s media.
It’s extraordinary that a country that has suffered wave upon wave of conquerors and been thoroughly exposed to British influence in every aspect of life for over a century remains locked in impenetrable traditional prejudices. Perhaps an explanation lies in PV Narasimha Rao’s claim to a Singaporean audience that every conqueror save the last had been Indianised. Even that might be disputed by continental Europeans who believe Britain’s Indian experience made it that bit less European.
Conventional Americans accused Indira Gandhi of posturing when she declared her India had no “inclination to be a power— big, small or of any kind.” But John Gunther Dean, the American ambassador of German- Jewish lineage, demonstrated greater perception. Foreigners were irrelevant to India, he thought, because India was wrapped up in India. Dynasties came and went, kingdoms rose and fell, wars blazed and were extinguished. Only the struggle for survival went on.
Indira Gandhi was fond of recounting an anecdote in Peter Sellers’ film, The Party, in which an Indian is asked, “Who do you think you are?” Quick as a flash, he replies, “Indians don’t think. We know who we are.” She interpreted that as an affirmation of identity and purpose that makes an Indian the equal—if not the superior—of anyone in the world. Not only is India a village, it’s the ‘Village that Voted the Earth was Flat’ (to borrow a line from Kipling’s eponymous story) in defiance of logic. It’s a unique gift to be frequently wrong but never in doubt.
This sublimity isn’t surprising against the reality of grinding poverty beyond the ostentatious consumerism of small elites in Delhi or Mumbai: the poor have only their convictions. Nor does it conflict with an extensive diaspora. As I wrote 55 years ago, expatriate Indians sleep like Dracula on a bed of native soil. Even demographic diversity doesn’t make for catholicity: Michael Lamjathang Haokip, a Manipuri engineering student in Bangalore, and his friends were assaulted for not speaking Kannada, because small minds are prisoners of village limitations. Young Nagas are racially abused, locked up, beaten and their heads shaved.
‘We are not Nepalese, Chinkies, Chinese. We are North-east Indians’ say their protest banners. But who cares? They don’t look ‘Indian’. Neither did the martyred Richard Loitam, Danna Sangma and Reingamphi Awungshi. Juliet Zonunmawi from Mizoram was the latest to die. ‘Just for your knowledge, let me tell you who we really are,’ Borkung sings. ‘There are eight states: Mizoram, Tripura, Sikkim, Nagaland, Manipur, Assam, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh/ And together we are the North-East’.
The eight states may seem as remote in Bangalore as Gabon and Burkina Faso, but the national capital is expected to be more knowledgeable. Delhi even boasts an Africa Avenue. But political gimmickry doesn’t educate attitudes. In an earlier outrage, ‘nine African women were victims of molestation and manhandling by a mob led by Mr Bharti’ according to Delhi Police. Somnath Bharti was law minister in Delhi’s shortlived Aam Aadmi Party administration.
The ignorance that fuels intolerance is not new. Mumbai’s leading hotel asked Hokishe Sema, four time Chief Minister of Nagaland, for his passport. Around the same time, I was sitting with the Karnataka government’s principal information officer in Bangalore when a Naga student was shown in: the PIO assumed he was from the Tibetan settlement at Bylakuppe.
These were genuine mistakes. There was no mistake when Indian police stopped a Sikkimese couple resident in Gangtok returning from Nepal at the West Bengal border. The Sikkimese were told they would be arrested as illegal Tibetans if they didn’t pay up. That was criminal exploitation. Borkung again: ‘Is it a curse or a blessing, or a blessing at its worst, and at times I feel like I am lost in the crowd/ Is it Adversity at its diversity? ‘Cus to me, it seems like democracy has just voted me out/ ‘Cus if our Preamble teaches equality and fraternity then why are we behaving like a hypocrite and promoting hypocrisy in abound? But here’s the doubt, the rebound aspirations that we found.’
Kiren Rijiju, Union minister of state for home and himself from Arunachal Pradesh, vows “hate crimes will not be tolerated”. He also says the recommendations of the committee set up in February with a retired civil servant and member of the North-Eastern Council, MP Bezbaruah, as chairman would soon be implemented. Meanwhile, he has sanctioned an exclusive helpline for north-easterners living in Gurgaon, which is emerging as a cesspool of vicious parochialism.
A helpline isn’t enough. The police must be ordered stringently to enforce the many punitive anti-discriminatory laws on the statute book, law courts instructed to hand down deterrent sentences. Above all, education syllabuses and teaching methods and contents must be overhauled. ‘So let me take you back to when in grade 6, I learnt everything about India and its culture through our textbooks leaving out North-East; now tell me that ain’t racist?’ Borkung asks. ‘Justice, liberty and fraternity lead to greatness/The greatness that we’ve been waiting for, then why is it that in our own country we feel so insecure, in our own country…?’
Our own country. A persecuted people’s loyalty is ardently protested. ‘I want you to listen, why r u killing/ Isn’t it the same air that we are breathing?/ I can hear the heart beating, Mom back home weeping/ And I guess you are day-dreaming.’
Yes, day-dreaming that India is an empire where Aryavarta rules lesser breeds without the law. It’s Animal Farm all over again, yesterday’s disadvantaged reinventing themselves as today’s chosen people. ‘…you take us for granted’ Borkung warns, ‘if I am wrong then confront me /Isn’t it that the government is of the people, by the people and for the people?/ Mahatma Gandhi himself said, ‘See no evil, hear no evil and do no evil’/ Then why are you so eager to hurt our sentiments, it’s like we are living down below while you are piling up the sediments/ The predicaments in this game of death, you are the participants/ So don’t constrain yourself to the limitation of what your actions have caused/ Life is a blessing from God, then how on Earth are you ever gonna pay that cost’. Then, the resounding finale, ‘We are Indians as much as you are.’
For how long? The panic-stricken exodus of 2012 when 35,000 north-easterners fled Bangalore alone, with many others fleeing Pune, Hyderabad and Mumbai, was a reminder that India is still not a single entity. Those with longer memories cannot forget that Nagas, Mizos, Meteis and other north-easterners fought long and bitter wars against the Indian State. Let’s not push them too far. Iqbal articulated a deeply-entrenched belief when he composed Saare Jahan Se Achcha, but the ‘Hindustan’ of his song must refer to the entire country if India is to survive.