iOS app Android app More

Vamsee Juluri

Vamsee Juluri

Posted: January 8, 2010 03:29 PM

Indophobia: The Real Elephant in the Living Room

What's Your Reaction:

All prejudices are unpleasantly alike on some level, but the prejudice that India and Indians face on a global scale has proven to be exceptionally resistant to change.

In a week that saw innocent Indians being murdered and imaginary Indians being maligned on opposite ends of the Western world, Foreign Policy published an article that labels India a "global villain." It is time for a serious reality-check, and an even more serious attitude-check.

Let me start with the Foreign Policy article in question. Barbara Crossette, who authored the piece, formerly worked at the New York Times, a publication which has devoted entire editorials to its briskly exasperated civilizing mission vis-a-vis India. Now, Crossette writes about how annoying it is to deal with India on important global issues, such as trade and nuclear non-proliferation.

She begins with a pithy demolition of India's supposed good press in recent times (to which, one must note, a witty commentator has responded by asking the obvious: What good press?) only to go on to denounce India as a sanctimonious rogue among nations. The words that are used to describe India include "pious," "craving," "petulant," "intransigent," and "believes that the world's rules don't apply to it," all of which a student of postcolonial cultural studies would recognize as obnoxious cliches that have come to characterize Western discourse about the colonies for decades now. What else could be flashing in a writer's mind when the word "petulant" or "intransigent" is used but the belief that a a whole nation is infantile? What colonial image of a gaping-mouthed ragged supplicant must have inspired the use of a word like "craving" to describe India's goals?

The bold labeling of a sovereign, democratic nation as a "global evil" marks, I believe, a new low in what must be recognized as nothing less than Indophobia. If we have not heard that frequently enough before, it is not because it doesn't exist. Just like how the most effective propaganda is never called propaganda, but rather it is accepted as truth, the most insidious of prejudices seldom even get named as such (perhaps it is no coincidence that the phrase "elephant in the room," which means exactly that, is centered around the animal most closely identified with India). There are perhaps as many anecdotes about Indophobia at a personal level as there are Indians in foreign countries, but it is at a deeper cultural level that we need to face it first. The first sign of Indophobia many of us encounter is really its own ideological defenses; phrases which are used to preempt any discussion about it, like "Indian chauvinism," "Indian supremacism," "Indian exceptionalism," "Indian victimism," or just allegations of childish over-sensitiveness coupled with some sort of vague Eastern cultural fetishism pertaining to notions of honor (I have heard all of these sentiments informally or otherwise in my academic career from grad school until now). If we can get past these, perhaps we can see things more clearly.

India's role in the Western imagination has been a long and important one. Despite some reverential accounts of Indian civilization in the earliest days of the encounter between Europe and India, the image that has prevailed has not been a nice one, or even a truthful one. The present Indophobia has its origins in colonial Hinduphobia. Fuelled by the crazy stories of missionaries determined to rid the world of heathen Hindus and steeped in the ideologies of the colonizers' civilizing mission, Indophobia infiltrated popular, journalistic, political and academic thought. In the cold war period, some things improved, but in the great conversation of powers that Washington thought it was having, Pakistan would appear to it as a reliable favorite; tough, dependable, monotheistic, and anti-communist. India, on the other hand, was seen as too weak, too Hindu, too vegetarian, precariously past its Must Break Up By Date. At best, or worst, India was seen as "pious," with its Gandhian austerities and Nehruvian Non-Alignment dreams.

But it is the present, the post cold war, post 9/11, post outsourcing nature of Indophobia that we must return to, history in tow. The examples are many. Why is it that some Australians reacted to the beating and killing of Indian students with the odd retort that "this happens in Mumbai"? Why did NPR cheerily lend its audience to one man's claim that he saw an Indian get the Nigerian airline bomber on board? Why does Foreign Policy get to call India "evil" without a drop of concern for how it feels to Indian readers or how dangerous words like this were in the past for the colonized nations? Why does New York Times choose to show agonizing restraint when Pakistani terrorists massacre civilians in Mumbai and run screaming headlines naming the arrest of an "Indian" after Madrid? Why does Slumdog Millionaire, one of the most exhilarating movies of our time, depict the majority of Indian characters in it as irredeemably cruel and barbaric (not the nice Indian hero with the British accent though, of course not)? Why did the fictional slur "slumdog" and the image of poverty reportedly figure so often in the Australian attacks? Finally, why does Glenn Beck find the name of a life-giving sacred river similar to the name of a disease? I must admit though that the last case is less depressing because it is Glenn Beck after all and the problem must naturally lie not in the word 'Ganges' but really in his ears or what's (not) between them.

After a brief decade or so of somewhat unexpected "India Rising" stories, India-bashing is once again becoming fashionable. As a media studies teacher, I always wonder what it means when a particular way of looking at things suddenly becomes prevalent in history. What does it tell us about our times and who we are? In the past Indophobia was part of a colonial and then cold war mindset. Thinking of India as the very embodiment of wretchedness and poverty fit in with the western self-perception of the time. In recent times, things have improved at some levels. Racism is no longer legal and in many places no longer cool. With globalization and the economic success of India and Indians abroad, it is no longer possible to deny to India its talent, labor, and its contribution to the world. All should have been well, at least now. But Indophobia has found new reasons to resurface--and some of these reasons have less to do with India and more to do with where the United States sees itself in the world right now. The world's most powerful nation has been only minimally successful in its wars against its most formidable adversary. It is beset by doubts about the mortality of empires and such. It has swung from gung-ho bombs-away leadership to a low-bow bombs-away leadership. It has perhaps even painfully sensed the barb in the saying "with friends like these who needs enemies?" when it comes to the whole question of its cold war-era role in the creation of Frankenjihadis in South Asia. All of these have a bearing, directly or indirectly, on its present story on India.

The present wave of Indophobia, starting with the hate-call campaigns against Indian call centers a few years ago and culminating in the execrably immoral devaluing of Indian lives in recent times, may be at least in some parts the result of an overcompensation for a sense of imperial loss. The pinnacle of western power and prestige is no longer the only high rise in town (and I don't mean the Burj Dubai). Globalization has done to the world what it has done in India too--the days of single nation world dominance, like single party dominance in Indian politics, are over. Accepting this won't be easy for some because the culture has not found the will to change; at least not as far as India goes. The culture can grudgingly accept China as a rival. It can deem the whole of Islam as a civilizational rival. India's rise, though, is harder to accept. America is used to dealing with things on the grounds of toughness, force, power. Doing so on the grounds of smartness is new to it.

So the whole old repertoire of Indophobia returns; images of poverty and disease, allegations of corruption and piousness, insinuations about culture and religion. This time around though, there is less of the sort of restraint that existed in the past. Just as how some people think it is okay to be racist now because we have a black president, the new Indophobia deems it okay to spew nastiness because India has arrived too. But of course, post Mumbai and Slumdog the arrival story is also questioned. This is an old tired story too; of the romantic westerner eagerly turning to India despite their friends' counsel only to be tremendously disappointed that they didn't find nirvana, or even a nice airport terminal. That sort of backlash tends to get extra nasty, leaping into large scale generalizations. That is the pattern that seems to be playing out in the present India story. "You think you know India? You think India has got better/richer/nirvana?" The pitch inevitably starts (In Crossette's article this part runs with "internet entrepreneurs, hospitality industry pioneers and gurus"). "Nope," the anointed Western (and sometimes South Asian) expert gravely retorts. "Here's the real India and here are the real Indians. They are evil." At least Foreign Policy had the honesty to put that word up in lights.

As someone with an emotional stake in both India and the United States, I wonder whose loss will be greater in the end. The nastiness of Indophobia is of course bad for India in the first instance. It is young Indians who have been bearing the brunt, whether of American hate-callers or worse, of Australian murderers. But India is a survivor country; it has survived conquest, colonialism, and it survives its own chaotic self every day. America though is inexperienced on this count. It has just about started realizing, after much needless suffering of its own from blowback and backbite, that surviving the whirlwind of globalization takes smarts rather than brute force. I fear that the return of Indophobia may once again distract America from the right direction. When experts like Barbara Crossette heap sarcasm on "India's colorful, stubborn loquaciousness" they fail to see that the more we ignore this supposed "loquaciousness" the more we are signaling that the only language we recognize is that of brute force. There is no dearth of precedent on that. There is no dearth of possibilities that the future may be exactly that too, if old prejudices run unchecked.

But I cannot make myself leave on a pessimistic note. Indophobia can be fought, and I believe there is enough goodness in all communities to do so. First, I think the Indian community, in India and abroad, must get its own stories right. There has been a tendency to shy away from naming Indophobia as such because we think it affects our image of India Rising, which has been hard fought, no doubt. But there is a need to name bad stuff for what it is. To be fair, as always, we must continue our introspection into our own prejudices and shortcomings; after all, as Ramachandra Guha once wrote, 95% of blame for India's problems today lies with us and not the British. India needs a better India story too (Guha and Khilnani are the best place to start) and it won't be easy because of how diverse, divided, and indeed complicated we are. But that is our task, and indeed for those of us who have the privilege of living and writing in the Western world, indeed an important one. For our Western friends, especially those in positions of authority in the media, the task is more daunting. Your responsibility may not be towards Indian feelings, not at all. But you do have a responsibility in your profession towards Truth. As long as your Indophobia is acting up, you will remain clueless about it.