Issue date: 12/15/2003
By Bal Ram Singh
Greatness is really just a perception by the inside and outside world. While inside perceptions build morale and confidence, outside perceptions are no less important for an entity or institution, including a country. How does India fare in its inside and outside perceptions? A mixed bag at best. Let's take a peek at some of the relevant issues and factors.
One obvious factor in favor of India's greatness is the survival of its traditions and culture. The list of India's outside admirers is long and cuts across all section of life - Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King, George Harrison and Bill Clinton, to name a few. What is so unique about India that it has remained the zenith of philosophy, science, music, and culture for thousands of years? The answer lies, among other things, in nature's benevolence toward India. India's geography and geology provide natural settings for human learning. India is the only country blessed with the highest mountain peaks of the Himalayas on one end and the lowest level of earth (the ocean) on the other, with numerous geological formations in between. India is the only country that witnesses six clear and distinct seasons during the year. Such crisp variation in weather supports many diverse species of life.
India's tradition of celebrating diversity remains key to its success in the spiritual growth of its people, and its natural resources of fertile land and amenable weather to human living lends support for its prosperity and leisure time for developing thoughts in science and philosophy. In other words, India is truly a special land where ideas and observations intertwine to create an understanding of harmonious living. There is plenty of evidence of this when one examines numerous philosophical and spiritual thoughts, be it Vedanta, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Sufism, etc. These ideas have generally been living in peace with each other, which is more than can be said for rest of the world.
Non-resident Indians should promote the country's values and traditions by becoming living examples - not for egoistic reasons but simply in service of our adopted lands. But this rarely comes across when you encounter people of the so-called "educated" class of Indians, which has largely maintained its control over the political, administrative, educational, intellectual, financial, and political power directly in independent India, and indirectly in British India. Even a cursory look at India's diplomatic corps will prove the point. There is plenty of evidence that this group represents anything but India.
On April 25, 2002, Indian Ambassador Lalit Mansingh hosted a dinner discussion with a select group of a dozen community "leaders" to brainstorm strategies for their involvement in the U.S. political system to enhance India's image in the United States. There was nothing Indian in the discussion. It was parroting of the simple political process of the USA, a Western construct to control the freedom of people in the name of democracy - register voters, lobby senators and congressmen, become candidates, etc. While there is nothing wrong with all that, India and Indian-Americans have a lot more and deeper things to offer. The event was held at Legal Sea Foods of Boston. There was nothing Indian in the venue or menu, and Indian-ness was almost totally lacking both in conversation and costume.
Given that 9/11 was quite fresh in the minds of the American public, our diplomatic corps had no idea how to assert India's philosophy of celebrating diversity, and its history of welcoming communities under persecution throughout the world. There was no mention of how to inspire our second-generation children with ideas to present their heritage to classmates as a way to solve the world's turmoil arising from religious hatred. I saw a similar attitude in the new Indian consul general in New York, when he was asked a question about Kashmir during an Indo-Pak political forum organized by the Association of Americans of Indian Origin in New England Area on Sept. 6, 2002. He prefaced his answer (which was otherwise adequate and well articulated) by saying something like "being Indian consul general, I have to present the Indian government's point of view" - not that he believes passionately in that view.
Contrast those instances with a phone conversation I had with a member of the Pakistani embassy staff, Mr. Asad, a few days after Center for Indic Studies organized a panel discussion on "Media Coverage of Terrorism in India and Pakistan" at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. He had attended, uninvited, the entire two and a half hours (the Indian embassy representative, Mr. Navtej Sarna, has showed up for less than two minutes even though he was invited at least a month ahead of time). Mr. Asad proudly highlighted the contribution of the Maurya Empire to the development of modern-day civil service, and wanted to work with the Center to bring such heritage to the forefront of the world. In short, we have a class of people totally unwedded to Indian heritage and ethos representing India to the outside world.Consequently, the world, at a critical juncture of its existence, is getting cheated from the knowledge of India's true value and its multifaceted heritage, science, and philosophy.
Bal Ram Singh is director of the Center for Indic Studies at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. This article is the first in a series of related issues to be raised in the future under his column, which appears every other month in INDIA New England.