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For official India, sometimes one has to be prickly to get noticed

By Mahendra Ved, chair, CJA-India

Indians are often accused of being thin-skinned – sensitive, touchy and protesting too much.

Perhaps they are. Perhaps not.

Oil Minister Jaipal Reddy has taken issue with United States President Barack Obama who blames India and China, the big fuel consumers, of causing the current price spurt.

Obama and former US president George W. Bush earlier said that India and China have major responsibility for pollution, climate change and many of the present-day woes the world faces.

That India and China, otherwise competitors, bond together on such issues is interesting.

Issues that lead to Indian protests have been both serious and seemingly frivolous.

American comedian Jay Leno ruffled feathers while poking fun at Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

The host of NBC’s Tonight Show mentioned Romney’s summer home and showed the Golden Temple in Amritsar, considered the Sikhs’ most sacred shrine.

Let us accept that there is a difference between humour and mockery. Notions and tolerance levels vary among people of different cultures. This is particularly the case with Western and oriental societies.

Take India’s dealing with the Norwegian authorities who have taken away the small children of a resident Indian couple, claiming they had not been properly cared for. The grounds included the children being fed by hand – something culturally ‘Asian’ that the Europeans cannot understand.

After months of pleading with Oslo, External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna finally despatched an emissary last week. He met the children’s grandparents at a public protest. Joining it were lawmakers and civil society members.

The burden of their argument was: does the West still think, in the new millennium, that it has to bear the ‘burden’ of ‘civilising’ the browns, yellows and blacks?

Offensive ads keep appearing in the Western media, depicting Hindu deities, to sell products like lingerie and shoes. India does not have to protest; its diaspora now does it, and usually such ads are withdrawn.

Unlike before, these protests are heard. The obvious reason is India’s rising economic profile. Even the diaspora, contributing handsomely to the society they have adopted, is now treated with more respect, if the polity is democratic.

Delhi has asked the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to cancel the sponsorship of the London Olympic Games by Dow Chemicals, which now owns Union Carbide, the company whose negligence spewed poisonous gas in Bhopal, killing thousands and maiming for life thousands more.

It happened in 1984, but the court battle continues over Dow’s responsibility towards the victims.

Indians were notorious for their moralising, which irked those at the receiving end. Indeed, Henry Kissinger, architect of the US ’tilt’ against the Bangladesh liberation war in 1971, later wrote with vehemence about the moralistic stance adopted by the then Indian Premier Indira Gandhi.

It is another matter that much of the world, including the Western intelligentsia, appreciated and rejoiced at Bangladesh’s liberation.

Mercifully, India is not into moralising now. The drive is essentially diplomatic. It can tell the West, with which it enjoys excellent relations that it does not pay to impose economic sanctions on the poor people of Fidel Castro’s Cuba, Saddam Hussain’s Iraq, an ayatollah-led Iran or a military-ruled Myanmar.

To be able to protest to the outside world and being heard depends upon the extent of liberty at home. Although China is clubbed with India on critical global issues, it is only in India, perhaps, that official protests are scoffed at by sections of the intelligentsia and media.

“Why thin-skinned India gets prickly heat,” says satirist Jug Suraiya, writing in Times of India.

“Why is India — official India — more prickly than a porcupine given an electric shock? Why is India so ready to take offence at the slightest real or imaginary affront to its feeling of self-importance and throw a temper tantrum like a peevish brat?”

There is support, however, if the protests are not official. Then it is democracy at work. The entire current anti-graft movement is part of that.

Protests at home are getting louder by the day – nuclear power plants, special economic zones and the like draw the ire of environmentalists, political groups and those displaced.

The Supreme Court has just asked the Government to link the river systems causing floods and droughts for the benefit of entire India. But water is a contentious commodity. Though well meant, the court order holds portents of more protests.

Mother, as a saying goes, does not feed the child till it cries.

This article appeared in the New Straits Times, Malaysia.

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