Did President Obama really admonish us? We don’t take very kindly to any leader from the Western world telling us how to be. I mean, we know how to be. We have been around since the Bronze Age. Columbus’ great great great granddad wasn’t even born then.
Most of us journalists did not sense that Obama was admonishing us in any manner, and that was perhaps because of the infectious enthusiasm in the youth present in the auditorium. They clapped and cheered and nodded in agreement with all that he had to say about India. Pic/PTI
He knew that for sure. But he was gently reminding us why we have been around for so long. Because of our ability to absorb differences. Our unity in diversity. Yes, that five-mark question in your Civics paper. All of us scored full marks in that question because we memorised the answer. It was sure to be there as a short question or an essay-type question in every final exam. And why was it a sure shot? Because that is the essence of our civilisation. And we have to remind ourselves that lesson all our lives. Go back to it, again and again.
Go back when there are assaults on our secular fabric. Go back to it when racism raises its ugly head. Go back to that lesson when horrible people get bolder and bolder, and encroach on tolerance and harmonious coexistence in our cities, towns and villages. In our schools and colleges. In TV studios and market places. In discourses in drawing rooms and nukkads and gulleys.
That is why even a small error like a missing ‘Socialist and Secular’ in a government advertisement on our Preamble gets us all flustered. Don’t play with it. It is what holds us together. Political pundits might turn up their noses and term these lazy conversations, which are borne out of half-baked notions of what India is. But it is necessary to have these conversations. To debate and outshout the loudness of divisive forces who raise their voice intermittently in the cycles of a country’s life. Their voices are loud, and the narrative that is emerging out of India of ghar vapasi, love jihad, four kids per woman is intensifying. The foreign media has picked up these jarring notes from India. The unease and worry is quite evident in the tone and tenor of editorials and reporting. Cassandras have a see-we-told-you-so gleam in their eyes.
There was a twinge of unease evident in President Obama’s speech in Siri Fort auditorium. He was lecturing us. He sure was.
Annoyingly, he wasn’t going to do that when he was in Saudi Arabia the same evening. He was not going to lecture them on barbarian laws like flogging, or lack of women’s rights. Then why us? Why the double standards? Why does America or the EU not hold Pakistan or China up to those standards?
That’s because India is truly a modern, liberal, secular democracy. It shares the same values as democracies in the West. There are aberrations, of course, but by and large, we are seen a beacon of hope in Asia. A country that can be a partner with almost any country, because of the tolerance and secular nature of its polity.
Sitting in the media enclosure in Siri Fort, most of us journalists did not sense that Obama was admonishing us in any manner, and that was perhaps because of the infectious enthusiasm in the youth present in the auditorium. They clapped and cheered and nodded in agreement with all that he had to say about India. With every bit of advice, he reiterated that the US also faces similar issues, of racism, inequality, prejudice and that he himself was a victim of such discrimination.
Just as Narendra Modi does. The PM has always spoken about similar experiences he faced. And it makes the rich uneasy when they hear this. It connects him with the poor and the marginalised. But what the haves and the have-nots expect him to do is to fight, on their behalf, those who encourage discrimination in the country. Silence or indulgence towards those who are threatening the secular way of life in India will be noticed abroad, and in India.
It can completely change the narrative about where India is headed out to be. It can dull the shine off Make in India, Swachh Bharat and every other progressive scheme. Investors who want to put in their money in India don’t want an India where hate and bigotry have a field run. It is a Secular India that takes all its citizens on the path of progress is what everyone is betting on. If we don’t correct our people who are taking us off this path, then well-meaning outsiders will.
Smita Prakash is Editor, News at Asian News International. You can follow her on twitter @smitaprakash