How the West defines India – 1

Creeping Awareness

“What's wrong with us Indians? Why don't we even flinch when a hundred of our countrymen get mowed down like grass in a terror attack? When thousands of our brethren lose their entire lives' worth in a flood or an earthquake, how many of us wince in genuine pain for their troubles?”

Such thoughts often creep into my psyche unannounced, confronting me in those rare introspective, almost vulnerable moments of relative silence.

Over the course of the past few years, I have read various articles that bemoan the value (or lack of it) of India in the global media. “When terrorists strike and kill a thousand Americans it is terrorism, but when thousands of Indians die in terror attacks it is 'militant attacks or freedom struggle'?” these knowledgeable columnists and political commentators shriek! There are also others who mimic this shriek. All this awareness is good and proper – but have these folks ever paused to think about one of these in isolation from the other? Why always look at Terrorist attacks within India using the lens of Terrorist attacks in the West (on the West)? Should we, Indians have to let the West define everything for us?

Defining Indian Thought

Don't believe what I am saying? Let me repeat it for you — “The West defines India”. But for starters, let us think about Indian thought. Let's talk politics:

There are primarily three broad categories in Indian Society (politics, intellectual circles, academia, cultural bodies, etc) today —

  • The Extreme Left

  • The “Not-so Extreme” Left (can't really call them the Middle)

  • The Right

Now, note here dear reader – I'm not saying either one is uniquely qualified to stake a claim at being the “Right” political ideology – they each have their own appeal and an anti-thesis of it, thereof — it's “Turn-off factor”. Looking at the salient features of each Ideology, we find a common strain (call it the Lowest Common Denominator).

NOTE: This might turn out to be a defining moment for Leftist ideologues – for I have been a die-hard opponent of the Left. But the Left does have it's appeal – and I have had the misfortune of falling prey to it at one point in my life (luckily that tryst with insanity did not last very long).

Let's first analyze the Political Angle

The Extreme Left stands as an antithesis to the edifice of Capitalism – and where else do we find it but in the West. As a result, the Left stands as an antithesis of everything the West holds sacred – Capitalism.

The “Not-so Extreme” stands as a compromised antithesis of Western Capitalism – they call themselves “Socialists” — and all their policies and politics are defined by this.

The Right stands as a somewhat confused entity – some of the ideologues embrace Western Capitalism, while others reject it (Swadeshi).

The one common thread here we see is Western Capitalism – that seems to define each of these political entities.

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Let us analyze another position – the Intellectual one

The intellectual traditions in India have been renowned since time immemorial. However, off late (in an unbroken tradition since the late 18th Century), Indian Intellect has been markedly influenced by Western ideas. Since the advent of the “Westernized” (some call it Macaulayite) education in India, Western ideas have played a great hand in shaping Indian thought. The fact that I (albeit an insignificant piece of the puzzle) chose to write in English (over my mother tongue bAnglA or the rAshtra bhAsha Hindi) shows that I too am influenced by Western ideas (and education).

The unfortunate thing is – everything that the Indian Intelligentsia sees, is through the Western/Westernized lenses that have been implanted on us “en masse” (since the past 200 odd years). The living proof is in the existence and nature of the English Language media (some would consider this entity as being the most powerful shaper of Ideas and concepts in India today). Like in the domain of Politics, we also see similar tendencies and patterns playing out on the canvas called “Indian Media”. Steeped in Pseudo-socialist ideology, the “guardians” of the “Freedom of expression” in India today are overwhelmingly leftist in nature. They follow the same pattern as their political counterparts — sneer at the West while admiring it and trying to emulate it to the best of their ability. These people seem to think that they have some special insight into the way the West thinks and operates – more so than Westerners themselves. While their diatribe against Capitalism is greatly reduced (due to the fact that they are seeing it in work) post liberalization of the Indian economy, they still nonetheless hold on to a knavishly romantic idea of what the West is (and some even lament what it is today as opposed to what it “should have been”). The Right wing is not any less peculiar in it's treatment of the West – most of what they stand up (in public scrutiny at least) is in shrill commentary about corrupting Western values – about how Western Culture corrupts our youth, how social values are getting degenerated, etc. What's odd about this is that there are seldom any editorials that deal with Indian thought/culture/society on it's own merit – there has to be this “Other” — something or someone to point fingers at! What we see are Intellectuals on both sides of the fence (left and right) – both contrasting Indic with Western – almost as though Indic ideas don't have the strength to stand on their own – without the bulwark of Western ideas.


Analyzing the Cultural Angle

The Culture “Wars” (at least back in the days when I was growing up in India) constituted one group (Urbane, sociable, erudite and necessarily English-educated) looking down upon another (more tradition oriented, possibly from a rural/semi-rural background) and labeling this group varyingly as Ghaati, Rustic, backward, Fundamentalists. The culmination of the struggle between the two groups would be in the AVBP (Akhila Bharatiya Vidhyarthi Parishad) disrupting civil life (as we knew it down south) by calling for “Bandhs” and strikes on Valentine's day and “terrorizing” the meek. There were the cases of “Shiv Sena” doing similar things in “Amchi Mumbai” and perhaps other groups with very similar identities doing similar activities in other cities and states in India. The English language media would greatly lambast these entities as being “Backward and degenerate” — and called them “thugs, hooligans” (in some cases justifiably so) and so on. What irked them (more than the fact that these groups were indeed disruptive towards Civil life) was the fact that they dared oppose what the “Forward-looking” Westernized classes considered their “special” occasions — take the girlfriend out to the disco on Valentine's day – drink pitchers of beer and dance like crazy — or perhaps somewhat more benign activities such as buy cards, chocolate and gifts.

The reactions we'd see from the English language Media would be that of outrage at the thought of “who are those backward fools to tell us not to celebrate Valentine's day?” rather than at the negative behavior in general.

Here too – we see (I think these things still happen in India) a general trend of two sides – one side trying to emulate and glorify Western values (I for one don't see the glory in drinking oneself silly at the age of 17-21 and dancing like loonies to loud music and then throwing up on the way home) – while the other trying to demonize them. The common thread (this Valentine's day comedy show was only an example) being the underlying “adherence to” or “abhorrence of” Western ideas.

In the Cultural battle between the Westernized and the Traditionalists, each side again stands itself up in varying shades of contrast to the wider backdrop of Western ideas.

(To be continued)

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