Nepali Times
Rationalism and nationalism


Even as the Indian media mull over why Nepalis could be so annoyed at us-we Indians being such nice guys-it follows fail-safe methods in annoying them. Sure, what happened in Nepal last month was bad. The chain of events sharpened a number of contradictions in that society: a poor showing by an ineffective government, the hills-plains problem, anti-Indianism amongst some Nepalis. In the last decade the gains of Nepal's pro-democracy movement have ebbed. And the ultra-left and far right seem to be ganging up, and in fact helping create that hopelessness where many will welcome strongman rule once again over democracy.

There's been little analysis of these deeper and real issues in the Indian media. But there has been no hesitation in finding Nepal as a whole guilty of lots of unpleasant things. What if the Indian media applied to its own society even a tenth-a sensible tenth-of the standards it has judged Nepal by? The results would be interesting. From what sort of platform do the media in India apply their moral loftiness? The planks are many. Let's look at just four:

India's injured innocence is a bit misplaced. The irrationality of the rioters in Kathmandu was very real. So was the damage and loss of life it led to. It still in no way surpasses the many wonderful things we do here in India-only we do them more often. After MF Hussain has paid a thousand times for his supposed sins against the gods, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad-Bajrang Dal still attacks his film in Ahmedabad, smashes theatres and intimidates audiences. It then proudly proclaims its "defence of Indian culture", and says it will persist no matter what apologies Hussain may tender for crimes he has never committed. I couldn't spot any editorials in the papers that focused mainly on the irrationality of the VHP's attack on the film. Those that mentioned it editorially at all took care to distance the whole thing from the Vajpayees, Advanis and Murali Manohar Joshis-all very rational people. The last is a professor of physics who believes there were flying chariots and nuclear weapons in the time of Lord Ram.

The loss of five lives in Kathmandu was a major tragedy, and the circumstances quite unprecedented for Nepal. But Advani's rath yatra in this country left many more hundreds dead in its insane trail. Vicious outbursts by the Thackerays and Singhals too, have led to far more loss of life than anything that ever happened in Nepal. But that's only politics. What's with these Nepalis, anyway? No irrationality, please. We're Indians.

The 'den' image has cropped up in countless reports since the hijacking of the Indian Airlines plane last year. Remember how the Indian media went to town then? The ISI may well be active in Nepal. But the Indian government tells its people the ISI hasn't been dormant in India either. They've even been active recently inside Delhi's Red Fort. And if we go by the Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh's (RSS) view of things, the ISI is entrenched in every city and town in this country. So if Nepal is their den, what does that make India?

That the Delhi government is specially gifted in ISI-spotting is beyond dispute. One of its intelligence agencies puts out a note calling Dr JK Jain an ISI agent. If true, this confirms the ISI has successfully penetrated the National Executive of the ruling BJP. Jain is a former BJP MP, a Sangh media baron and among the most faithful of saffron souls the parivar has ever known. That the Sangh parivar itself has historically so often served the cause of India's adversaries is indisputable. However, it turns out the allegations spring from a petty property dispute the man has had with a BJP minister. That's frightening. If this is how rationally they deal with their best friends, one of their own pack, imagine what they would be willing to do to their political opponents.

Nepal has long been known for its tolerance and friendliness. What's occurred is an alarming break with that tradition. It might help, though, to try and understand why it's been happening. It isn't so many years ago that India blocked all transit points but one on its border with Nepal. Delhi then decided to make us look worse by arguing that it had upheld its "international obligations" by keeping open that single transit point. This was not only a technical stand, but also a very stupid one. We were talking about a country we claimed to have "deep and friendly relations" with. If anything, it's surprising the anti-Indianism provoked by that act didn't burst into the open then as it did this time over a foolish, possibly planted story.

The situation on the border changed when the Gujral government was in power. A trade treaty was signed, bilateral trade thrived and things improved. Sadly, all that is threatened as New Delhi refused to look at the piling up of anti-Indian grievances in Nepal. Our water disputes with Kathmandu have hardly been handled with great delicacy. And along the border are dams and other structures that could one day cause mega-deaths on both sides. We built most of them. The Nepalis have protested against these in the past. Indian media audiences know nothing about them.

And take what young students could be learning from Uttar Pradesh's textbooks: that Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal, for instance, were and should be part of a Greater India. The anti-Indian rioters in Nepal's streets haven't latched on to that one yet, it's a matter of time before they do. After all, some of them seem to have drawn much inspiration from the politics of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. And in case there's any chance of their missing the point, there's KR Malkani to set that right. He laments India's failure to acquire Nepal when it had a chance to do so, thereby forfeiting prime real estate in the hills. Malkani says out loud what the top bosses of the parivar deeply believe but won't openly admit. Not just
yet, anyway.

Take the bans on New Year revelry, birthday cakes and honeymoons in Uttar Pradesh. These were indeed attacked as irrational hogwash. But again, what the BJP and ABVP did on the ground was never connected to the paragons of rationality in government. But with Nepal, a whole society can be stereotyped on the actions of a few. The RSS has really got its knickers in a twist over Nepal-remember all the stuff about The Last Hindu Kingdom? The only Hindu ruling monarch? The Sangh crowd was always against the pro-democracy movement in that country. At the same time, Nepal is, ah well, Hindu. How do you bad mouth it and support it at the same time? It's not easy.

Many Nepalis were angered by Indian coverage of the IC814 hijack last year. Security at Indian airports has hardly been exemplary. And yet the kind of "we-penetrated-Kathmandu airport-security" stories could also have been done at a dozen terminals in India. Besides, the stereotyping of Nepal and the Nepalis that was a by-product of the accompanying hysteria did not make India too many friends in Nepal.

This much repeated charge is not without truth. It might help, though, to point out that a large part of that underworld is, er. Indian. Within that, the mafias of Mumbai and UP have a big share. The Chotta Rajans, Dawoods and Babloo Srivastavs have all had bases and links. It's clear the unfortunate young actor, Hrithik Roshan, never said the ridiculous things attributed to him. There's more than one way, though, that the false idea that he did could have caught on. Bollywood and mafia links are not Nepal's problem. But it is the Indian media's. Many in it have no incentive to probe deeply the ties that bind Bollywood to bad money. Such an investigation could prove highly embarrassing. The Indian media are just covering police action. Not one independent investigation has come from them. Surely odd, for a media that prides itself on its knowledge and coverage of Bollywood. From the Indian media, let's have less instigation and more investigation.

(P Sainath is a Bombay-based writer and journalism trainer who writes regularly for The Hindu and The Telegraph. He is the author of the award-winning book, Everybody Loves a Good Drought, Penguin, 1996. The above piece was adapted from a longer version that appeared in The Hindu.)

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)