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Mihir S Sharma: Xenophobindia

Mihir S Sharma 

One of the many things about Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that people love to cruelly mock is his tendency to worry aloud about how India’s being perceived in the West that week. His mind is colonised, his Leftist critics fear. Nonsense. Actually, he’s in thrall to foreign capital. We all are.

This week, Standard and Poor’s downgraded India’s outlook. One more downgrade and we’ll no longer be investment-grade, and various constrained – or lazy – Western fund managers will take their money out, further choking our economy. In these pages yesterday, Akash Prakash said he spends all his time abroad having to counter short-sighted articles in the foreign press about the tragic end to the Indian fairytale. Apparently, extrapolations – in The Wall Street Journal, say – of future growth from the number of potholes in South Delhi roads can turn most investors off.

Shockingly, what they think about us matters: the PM, bless his mumbling, is right once again. But his government has got it quite wrong otherwise. They haven’t tried explaining why the long-term arguments for India’s success are intact. No, they’ve put on their best 1970s safari suits, prostrated themselves before a garlanded portrait of Indira Gandhi, and gone out to do battle with the Foreign Hand.

It comes in all shapes and sizes, that pesky Foreign Hand. The case of Peter Heehs, the historian denied a visa because he offended the Aurobindo Ashram, was widely discussed. There are many such less visible cases — especially of those who’ve had the temerity to work on Kashmir, say, or the Northeast. Have you perhaps published an academic paper about the restricted access of Dalits or tribals to state resources? Your next visa’s denied. For excellent reasons! You entered as a tourist, and had the barefaced audacity to take notes while you were touristing. Clearly, you should have been on a “research visa” — an absurdity that exists only to stifle independent external voices.

The war on firang dissidents has expanded ever since the current home minister took over, a tribute to his ability and energy. These denials of entry were based on little but a distaste for their published work and distrust and fear of their imagined future claims. The foreign ministry’s at fault too; it keeps track of individual foreign journalists’ output and arbitrarily decides whether or not they’re being sufficiently respectful of our great and empathetic state.

This fear of foreign scrutiny, an inability to see outsiders uncover our warts, is being driven by the most globalised of India’s leaders. The home ministry may be led by the supposedly open and reformist Mr Chidambaram; but it uses the most draconian, Putinesque elements of the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act to hound and harass troublesome NGOs. At the height of the misguided Kudankulam protests, the home ministry sent the CBI a list of NGOs it wanted investigated — just coincidentally including a couple of Roman Catholic organisations from Tuticorin reportedly involved in the unrest. Most of the other NGOs worked in poorer, more depressed parts of India. Clearly troublemakers! Why else go there?

Then there’s Kapil Sibal, who has shown himself uncomfortable with the uncontrollable nature of the internet. There’s Jairam Ramesh, who, at the environment ministry, made India the laughing stock of global climate science by insisting that some half-baked report “proved” that climate change was miraculously passing the Himalayas by. The one-man report’s only qualification to outweigh years of international studies? The one man was Indian.

How is it that those in India who have benefited the most from globalisation suddenly turn thus away from the world? There’s a simple reason, brought out in a recent exchange between the historian Patrick French and the author Aatish Taseer in The Hindustan Times. Mr French pointed out that India has had a history of being written about by foreigners, and embracing those accounts – a history we’re small-mindedly turning our back on now. Mr Taseer, who has written an autobiographical novel about rediscovering spirituality and India after spending much of his life abroad, said xenophobia’s a dashed good thing. Otherwise we might wind up being exposed to all sorts of unwelcome ideas that weren’t born properly between the Ganga and the Yamuna, and did you know Sonia Gandhi is Italian?

This exchange shows how globalised India is suddenly xenophobic when it matters. The moment it is a case of our own product – the ideas about India – being under threat, we turn into the most regressive ideological protectionists. Look, I agree that MNCs serve foreign capital, NGOs are dictated to by foreign donors, and foreign correspondents can write silly, misguided, lazy stories. But domestic capital, Indian donors, and, sadly, a lot of desi journalists are hardly accountable, either. So what’s the big deal?

Frankly, there are enough terrible things happening here that we can allow foreign researchers and journalists to try uncovering a few of them. It shouldn’t matter to us if our state is held accountable for its errors and inaction by foreigners as well as Indians. We should, actually, welcome it — not fear that it will stop the state responding exclusively to us idea-formers, the strongest of domestic pressure groups.

Why don’t we react with the Zen-like calm displayed by the Indian stock markets when Standard and Poors’ was being shockingly disrespectful to our ancient culture and rising economy? Till we liberalise and globalise the ideas market the same way, our best and brightest will connive to keep historians, researchers, journalists and activists with the wrong passports from disturbing the untroubled Great India Story.  

First Published: Sat, April 28 2012. 00:47 IST