It has been said that Indians didn’t fully appreciate Rabindranath Tagore until he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. I can’t vouch for the story but do find it saddening that such supposedly robust patriots as Narendra Modi and Amit Shah are so lacking in self-confidence as to crave the white man’s imprimatur of approval for their actions in Jammu and Kashmir.
This alone explains the Union home ministry’s recent claim that conducted tours of foreign dignitaries are necessary because “such exchanges promote deeper people-to-people contacts and ultimately it feeds into the larger relationship which any two countries would like to develop”. Hence, sponsored trips by 27 members of a virtually inconsequential European Parliament followed less than three months later by a clutch of 17 diplomats posted in New Delhi. But Rahul Gandhi leading an Opposition delegation was turned away from Srinagar airport.
The Americans and Iranians don’t feel it necessary to keep India in the picture over their spat. China certainly doesn’t think it necessary to inform India of wide-ranging changes in the position of its 11 million restive Uighurs. Reversing the picture, when Mahathir Mohamed criticised the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, Malaysia’s charge d’affaires was summoned to South Block and ticked off. But did the external affairs ministry’s mandarins squirm when Alice G. Wells, acting assistant secretary in the US state department’s Bureau of South and Central Asia, drew pointed attention to instances of lynching by cow-protection vigilantes? Or to the recrudescence of hate crimes by majoritarian gangs?
The message must now have gone out far and wide that India might be the world’s second most populous country with the fifth biggest economy, but its leaders are so unsure of themselves after 1,200 years of servitude (to quote the Prime Minister) that they cannot take major domestic decisions without seeking a European or American nod of approval.
In this respect, Mr Modi is exactly like Indira Gandhi, though he has nothing of her finesse and would probably hate to have the resemblance pointed out. A British journalist posted in New Delhi, probably Trevor Fishlock of The Times, once commented on how deeply Mrs Gandhi cared for media comment in London. She was not-so-secretly pleased and flattered when my anonymous (as was the paper’s style) profile of her in The Observer, also of London, called her “Empress of India”. But she revealed her Achilles heel when she was upset with criticism during her Emergency.
According to her, the BBC had to cancel a proposed round table discussion on the Emergency at the last moment because no speaker was willing to criticise that 18-month dispensation. Mrs Gandhi claimed that all the speakers the BBC could muster lustily supported her. Similarly, the BJP government now claims that all Indians heartily endorse the scrapping of Article 370 and the state’s reorganisation into two Union territories. Why then bother with massive public relations hospitality?
This column’s purpose is not to denounce the Emergency as the worst misfortune ever to have befallen India or to lament the loss of Jammu and Kashmir’s composite identity and notional constitutional autonomy. It is to assert loud and clear that Muzaffar Hussain Baig, the Jammu and Kashmir People’s Democratic Party leader and former deputy chief minister, was entirely right to ask with ill-concealed contempt for the two groups of foreigners that New Delhi arranged to be shepherded round Jammu and Kashmir: “Who are they?” Who indeed?
Mr Baig himself is a Kashmiri Muslim, a distinguished lawyer with a master’s degree from Harvard Law School who was advocate-general of Jammu and Kashmir. He started his political career with the People’s Conference Party where he was vice-chairman. Now, he represents Baramulla in the Lok Sabha. I am not sure of his views on the state’s current status, but he can’t be too outspokenly critical since he is at liberty to appear regularly on television. But he deserves full marks for declaring that what foreigners think is neither here nor there because Jammu and Kashmir is India’s internal concern. Foreign leaders would respect the Prime Minister and home minister more if they too had enough self-respect to take that stand.
Not that the government’s position doesn’t need explaining to avoid strictures by the Human Rights Commission or the US Congress. But credible explanations can be extended through normal diplomatic channels. Elaborate public relations exercises only expose official weakness. The visitors may have been taken with the scenery, enjoyed boating on the Dal Lake, savoured Kashmiri cuisine, and noted the absence of disorderly conduct in the streets. But no one ever mistakes the silence of the graveyard for the tranquility of the Garden of Eden. The soldier-civilian ratio would have been a giveaway unless the military was kept carefully concealed.
Visitors from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, with the world’s highest Internet and cellphone penetration, would have been as amused as European Union representatives about the explanation that all communications have been banned for five months only to avoid law and order breaches. This might have made some sense to Latin American and Organisation of Islamic Cooperation envoys who would also understand why so many political leaders, including three former chief ministers, are in detention.
Asked in India about their impressions, the visitors will naturally be polite to their hosts. The situation recalls the World War II story of Anglo-American prisoners in Germany being ordered to describe the prison camp glowingly in letters home. The POWs did as told (their letters would have been destroyed otherwise) but added a line “Tell it to the Marines!” Little did the military censor, delighted that the praise was being spread, know that the slang phrase means “Don’t believe a word of it!”