Is India really a big nation, which behaves small?

Gen Hossain Mohammed Ershad, the first host of Saarc in 1985, said bluntly in a TV documentary sponsored by India’s foreign ministry that one of the main reasons for creating the grouping was that India’s smaller neighbours were ‘allergic’ to the big neighbour. ‘So we decided to bring everyone together to deal with the problem.’ Former US Senator and ex-ambassador to New Delhi Daniel Patrick Moynihan proclaimed that India is a big country, which behaves small.

The perceived smallness by foreigners is just as palpable at home. The exultation in the media over successfully getting the senior and the junior foreign ministers thrown out from their five-star hotel accommodations in Delhi reveals a mindset that goes with the description that perhaps bothered Moynihan. The eviction of two prominent ministers on the grounds that five-star luxury does not go with the drought and famine-like crisis being faced by millions of impoverished Indians is spurious, if also misleading.

It may have given the government a reason to gloat and win brownie points over some fictitious idealism but it serves no other purpose. It is of course just as foolish to force senior officials and ministers to travel economy class. The assumption behind the story is wrong. Suppose the ministers had been awarded some sprawling colonial-style bungalows in Lutyens’ Delhi, which they are entitled to, instead of being crammed in hotel rooms, would it make them ostentatious? Such reports help newspapers and TV channels escape their responsibility of throwing light on years of neo-con policies that have led to farmers’ suicides and boundless misery for so many Indians.

Tokenism was ok with someone of the stature of Gandhi, but in the current context such news reports are tantamount to what we know as the dumbing down of news. Gandhiji used to drink goat’s milk, which made him look something of an impoverished fakir. But that couldn’t stop Sarojini Naidu from chuckling to Gandhi: ‘Bapu, it costs us a fortune to keep you poor.’ Gandhi probably smiled back good-naturedly.

Some of the smallness is the handiwork of the media, with or without the assistance of their official minders in the business and intelligence communities. You should read just four English newspapers in Delhi to be abreast of the official or quasi-official line towards countries lying in the four directions from India, each exuding petty concerns rather than a visionary policy. One newspaper gives me all the anti-China propaganda that the dirty tricks department of the concerned agencies would want to expose us to. Another gives me the official pro-Sinhalese line on Sri Lanka. It also is nicely loaded with official dope on Kashmir and Pakistan. I read a third paper which never tires of canvassing for closer ties with Israel and the United States, in that order, together with a relentless campaign to privatise everything in sight. A fourth newspaper from Kolkata can give you insights into the complex affairs vis-à-vis Bangladesh and with India’s remote northeastern states, and all the way to Myanmar.

I have yet to come across a serious, objective discussion in any of the newspapers why India’s neighbours are allergic to it. Instead of blaming Pakistan’s ISI sleuths who probably play a hand whenever they find an opening in determining or undermining India’s ties with its neighbours, would it not be useful for Indian intellectuals and analysts to have a meaningful discussion as to why India’s RAW or IB are unable to neutralise the damage? India helped create Bangladesh out of Pakistan, but Dhaka today has better ties with Islamabad than with New Delhi. Is it because of ISI alone? Buddhist Sri Lanka, Hindu Nepal, they all seem to have better ties with Pakistan than with India. Shouldn’t there be a commission of inquiry set up by India to investigate the lapses by its ministers, officials and sleuths that have brought the country to a pass that bewildered Moynihan?

There are reports of rockets being fired the other day from Pakistan’s side of the international border in the Attari border region. This a serious incident not the least because it involves two nuclear-armed neighbours. It was however the very last paragraph of the report in The Hindu that suggested the incident could be the handiwork of ‘non-state players’. The matter was hopefully sorted out in the meeting the Pakistan Rangers and India’s BSF point persons held at the Wagah checkpost. A less sensational way to report the same incident would be to say upfront that the rockets were feared to have been fired by militants who are probably just as hostile towards the government in Pakistan. That would be the large-hearted and probably a truer way to treat a serious-looking incident at the border. What were the militants trying to do and what can the two countries do to not fall into heir trap?

In this regard it was heartening to read a piece by a former Indian intelligence chief, advising Indian journalists against sensationalising news of China’s threat to India. In his analysis of recent media focus on an imagined issue (which was evidently so outrageous that it was denied by the Indian foreign minister) B. Raman has discussed why the Chinese military is unhappy with the Indian media’s shrill anti-China rhetoric and why it could hurt both countries’ interests.

Raman quoted a report titled ‘China Refutes Trespass Claims’ carried on September 10 in The Global Times, the English-language daily published by the Communist Party-owned People’s Daily group.

Chinese non-governmental analysts have also been critical of the way sections of the Indian media sensationalised an incident involving the temporary detention of a plane of the UAE air force at Kolkata earlier this week for not correctly declaring that it was carrying a consignment of arms and ammunition and ‘combat missiles’ to China.

According to them, these arms and ammunition and missiles, which were manufactured in China, had been sent to Abu Dhabi for displaying in an international exhibition of military equipment and were being taken back to China after the exhibition was over. These analysts have expressed surprise over the manner in which the whole issue was sought to be sensationalised by sections of the Indian media as if it was a sinister development.

Raman says that while it was important for the media to report instances of alleged Chinese troop intrusions into Indian territory, they ought to take care not to create an anti-China frenzy, which may get out of control. ‘One was disturbed by the way a national television channel played up in a jingoistic manner the incident in the Ladakh sector in which a Chinese patrol is alleged to have intruded into Indian territory and painted China on a stone.’

Two acknowledged experts on China, who have an excellent knowledge of the Chinese language, appeared on the programme – a reputed academic of Delhi and a retired China expert of the Government of India. One would have expected the anchor to ask them to translate for the viewers what was written on the stone and to comment on the implications of it.

‘If he had done it, the entire jingoistic programme might have ended in a fizzle. He did not do so. Instead, most of the time, the viewers were subjected to an anti-China harangue by a retired army officer. I myself do not know Chinese, but I am told by those who know the language that what was written on the stone was ‘Middle Yellow River’. It could also be translated as central Yellow River.’ Moynihan’s words were not said with malice but with affection for India. Which hotel the ministers should sleep in or what class they should fly is of little consequence to the real issues the India media, the government and the sleuths need to handle with zealous care.