Self-criticism came more readily to our forebears.
Introspection and self-absorbed bigotry have traditionally walked hand-in-hand in Southasia. Megalomaniac rulers, the leech-like priestly classes and their bete noire, the serenely divine dervishes representing the hoi polloi, have coexisted for centuries. Jawaharlal Nehru himself quoted Alberuni, the 10th-century Afghan chronicler, to support this lacerating critique of the Subcontinent.
For India’s sciences, languages and its architectural splendour, Alberuni had unalloyed praise. About its people, though, he said: “They are haughty, foolishly vain, self-contained and stolid. They believe there is no country like theirs, no nation like theirs, no science like theirs, no religion like theirs.” How did Nehru respond to such criticism, centuries later? In the Discovery of India, he describes Alberuni’s views as “probably a correct enough description of the temper of the people”.
Alberuni was relentless in his scrutiny of India’s cultural demeanour, which he thought was not too dissimilar at times to any frog in the well. “According to their belief”, Alberuni wrote,
there is no race on earth like theirs, and no created being besides them have any knowledge or science like theirs whatsoever. Their haughtiness is such that if you tell them of any science or scholar in Khorasan or Persia, they will think you to be either an ignoramus or a liar. If, however, they had travelled and mixed with other nations, they would soon change their mind, for their ancestors were not as narrow-minded as the present generation is.
It took a large-hearted intellectual of Nehru’s stature to understand and accept this devastating commentary on historical India and its ruling elites.
A ‘foreigner’ such as Alberuni should not, of course, be readily accepted as a stand-alone source of such a harsh evaluation of a people. Let us therefore turn to the home-grown Bhakti movement, in medieval India. Straddling the entire diversity of the Subcontinent, where it spread to the remotest of corners, the movement threw up an amazingly critical worldview. And among its foremost objectives was a square challenge of what the dervish-like Bhakti preachers considered to be an incorrigible moral decay.
If we were to call a Hindu a ‘rogue’ in India today, we would risk starting a communal flare-up. Similarly, neither would it be politically wise to call a Muslim a ‘pervert’. But 500 years ago, the saint-poet Kabir was delivering these rebukes to both communities in equal measure, through popular poetry. “The Hindu doesn’t let you touch his pots and pans over claims of possible contamination, but you would often find him prostate at the prostitute’s feet,” he declared. “Muslims marry their cousins, eat dead animals and scream atop their fragile mosques as though God were deaf.”
Far from being harassed or hounded by his powerful pre-Mughal quarries, Kabir set off a bizarre competition between Hindus and Muslims – both of whom he berated roundly – as each clamoured to claim his legacy. The seer would be lucky today not to be lynched by those he dared to address so acidly five centuries ago. Kabir lived not far from the sacred ghats of the Ganga in Benaras, where religious zealots recently hounded out the film crew of a movie about Hindu widows. That movie, Water, had later to be shot in Sri Lanka, and was subsequently widely lauded.
Religious and nationalist fervour share a common characteristic: their followers believe that theirs is the best. There is great irony in this regard contained in a moving poem by Allama Iqbal, one which India later chose to accord the status of a national song. In the 1930s, Iqbal wrote: “Saare jahaan se achha Hindustan hamara” (Our Hindustan is better than any other nation in the world). Now, if you were to take a fleeting poetic thought such as this to heart, hitch it to a newfound nuclear prowess, and you happen to be surrounded by countries who fear your overbearing narcissism, you would spell trouble for both yourself and those neighbours you seek to befriend.
This is more or less how SAARC – the brainchild of Gen Ziaur Rahman – was born in 1985. “To tell you frankly, we were all a little allergic to India, so we decided to engage it collectively,” explained General Hossain Mohammed Ershad, who hosted the first summit in Dhaka. (Ershad made these remarks in a televised discussion with this writer in 1997.) India’s army had helped to liberate Bangladesh from a sectarian, Punjabi-dominated West Pakistan. And yet, Dhaka chose to turn against its former ‘benefactors’ in New Delhi. Was there something wrong with India’s body language towards Bangladesh following the brief honeymoon period in 1971-72, that such tension should arise between India and Bangladesh that today you can cut with a knife? It seems so, but the problem has never been publicly or truthfully discussed. Is Bangladesh an ungrateful neighbour? Perhaps both sides could use a little self-criticism?
But let us not pick on any one country. Instead, let us discuss all the SAARC member states, and their chemistry with each other. There are admittedly ethnic tensions between Bhutan and Nepal related to the refugee matter. There may also be some small issues pertaining to a trade corridor between Nepal and Bangladesh. But that is about it. There is no foul chemistry between these countries, much less any suspicion of an imminent military assault. So why is it that India has been viewed with such disfavour by its neighbours?
Take India’s helping hand to Sri Lanka. In the 1970s, it had militarily bailed out Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s Sinhalese-dominated government in the face of a Marxist revolt. It also gave moral and political support – including alleged military training – to Sri Lanka’s Tamil minorities. And yet, Rajiv Gandhi was butted by a miffed Sinhalese soldier at an official guard of honour in Colombo, before being killed by a Sri Lankan Tamil woman near Madras some years later. It was all extremely tragic, but how do we explain this bristling rage from the very people one had tried to help?
Or, take India’s ties with landlocked Nepal. The one lasting memory among the people there – despite India being the artery, a veritable lifeline to Kathmandu – is the image of the crippling economic blockade that New Delhi imposed on its northern neighbour in 1989. Some Nepali analysts acknowledge the culpability of the royal palace in forcing India’s hand, but the lasting rancour in Kathmandu is palpably anti-Indian. Why? Was there introspection, much less any self-criticism, by either India or Nepal over this easily avoidable standoff? If there was, we have not heard of it.
A country such as Bhutan, supposed to be umbilically linked with India’s political and diplomatic postures, finds itself occasionally strained by the bear hug. The tiny Maldives, whose government the Indian Navy saved from a certain coup in 1988, does not exactly seem to reciprocate the enthusiasm with which India seeks its welfare. About India-Pakistan ties, the less said the better. Each side bears such enormous and deep-rooted grudges against the other that we should count ourselves truly lucky that the nuclear-armed neighbours are currently at least talking.
Far from making an objective and critical self-evaluation of their poor bilateral relations, the rhetoric from India and Pakistan has been marked by double standards. For example, Pakistan has often slammed Indian-sponsored elections in Jammu & Kashmir as ‘fake’, but has not considered making room for a credible civilian democracy in its own wider patch. Another example is worth recalling. India held up the last Kathmandu SAARC Summit because it disapproved of a military coup against Nawaz Sharif by General Pervez Musharraf. But India seemed to have forgotten that the first host of the SAARC summit, Gen Ershad, was himself a military dictator with blood on his hands. And who was the Pakistani leader at that summit shaking hands with Rajiv Gandhi? General Zia ul-Haq, of course, the guru of all coup leaders!
It was Imtiaz Alam, the Pakistani founder and secretary-general of the South Asia Free Media Association (SAFMA, a promising platform for Southasian media until it began carting dubious politicians around for powwows at fancy holiday resorts), who once hit the nail directly on the head. A few days after India and Pakistan exploded their bombs in May 1998, Alam visited Delhi for a discussion with the Indian media on the road ahead. His observations at the end of the conference were withering: “We are here ready to concede that Pakistan has done horrible things in Jammu & Kashmir. We have fomented terrorism there. But we want the Indians also to say ‘mea culpa’. But all we hear from them is, ‘Yes, you are right, Pakistan has done a lot of harm to us!’”
Clearly, the media in Southasia has, for the most part, followed rather than challenged the accusatory stance of its jingoistic political leaderships. We refer derisively to American and British journalists in Iraq as the ‘embedded media’, but do we ever look at our own culpability in this regard? Continually and truthfully doing so could, little by little, work to bring about a revolutionary change – perhaps with regards to what Alberuni and Kabir found missing in our spirits.
Jawed Naqvi is the Delhi-based India correspondent for the Dawn newspaper.