The Two Indias


The Issue

Many Indians can’t stand any criticism of their country and government and I think this is harmful for the aspirations of their country. They tend to equate criticism of their government with the criticism of the ancient Indian civilization, of which all present-day nations of Southasia were a part. Treating these two Indias separately may provide some solutions.

My personal observation is that the young generations in both India and China have developed a very disturbing habit- of feeling and expressing vindictive emotions about almost anything they achieve. In the coming days and years, they are destined to achieve much more. I am afraid of the kind of characters the people of our future superpowers will exhibit- it might very well dwarf the behavior and intelligence for which average Americans are disliked today in much of the rest of the world. Yes, they are smart, bright, capable and highly ambitious, but they are also fiercely nationalistic- often jingoistic. In a friend’s observation, they are more often than not, completely amuck with amour propre – not exhibited only by certain isolated groups or people, but collectively as a nation.

In this article, I will concentrate about India, because I know India better and because she is our closest neighbor. Also because I care about the country and would like to see her do better. I would like to be able to feel proud of India’s achievements.

Read the comments they post on articles that contain just one or two words of criticism about some aspect of their country- read the op-eds and articles published in their most popular newspapers and magazines, the commentary on their TV channels or try starting an harmless but critical debate with an educated, smart Indian- you will understand what I mean. They have nationalism plastered all over their faces, and at the drop of a hat, they will make you realize that it wasn’t a wise thing to even be curious about the mysteries of their country. They will most probably start with “zero was invented by an Indian” and if they stop, it might be with something like “let’s see- we are growing in spite of all the failed and troublesome states that are our neighbors, without them, we would have been much better.” Do not even dare to start a conversation about Kashmir, the Northeastern India, economic progress of China or the problems of the region’s poor people. They will not hesitate to tell it in your face that maybe the whole world is wrong, but they, or their country can’t, never was or will never be wrong.

I think this is because people confuse and mix-up a lot between the two Indias, which I’ll try to explain in this post.

It is one thing being proud about oneself, and it is totally another thing being arrogant and demeanative of others. Of course, I feel that this behavior is common not just in Indians or Chinese, but also in people in other countries of the region, including Nepal. We all have similar characteristics and shortcomings. But I feel that, as a future superpower and with so much potential, India should behave better and set examples for others. India is capable of much more, and I think her people should be able to accept their shortcomings, and display a greater heart. The well being and good behavior of India also augurs well for her neighbors- we want to be partners in progress and not hindrances in their ambitions.

These comments are with good and honest intentions.

India: a region and a civilization

The original meaning of the word India is very hard to express, and even Wikipedia has a rather long disambiguation page for it🙂. The nearest equivalents I can think of are Europe and Africa.

‘Bhāratavarsa is the equivalent of ‘India’ in Sanskrit, the ancient language of the region. It is believed that the name comes from the legendary Indo-Aryan emperor Bharata (wikipedia page) whose empire Bharatavarsha included the whole of modern India and many other countries which did not exist then. An ancient text describes the empire as:

The country (varṣam) that lies north of the ocean and south of the snowy mountains is called Bhāratam; there dwell the descendants of Bharata.

The map of "Bhāratavarsa" or ancient India.

Many other names including Bhārata and India that are used to refer to the modern Republic of India also have similar etymological origins, a list is available on Wikipedia. The great ancient civilization of the region is a common heritage of all people and countries that exist in this region today. The ancient Hindu and Buddhist texts also testify this- Hinduism and Buddhism originated as much in the present day Nepal as it did it parts of the present day India. In fact, because of migrations, many people from one region of the ancient country have moved to totally different parts of the modern territories which make the claims of the common heritage even stronger.

This region stood as a single undivided country during the ancient times- then-after, many small states were ruled independently of others by various people and clans. The use of the term ‘Bharatavarsa’ continued however, and many western observers continued to refer to the region by words like ‘India’ and ‘Bharata.’ Despite existing as different countries, there was just too much similarity and interaction between the people to accurately identify one from the other.

In the modern times, most of this region was ruled by the Britons, and it was only after their departure that many countries took their present shape. Other than Nepal, all others countries were born after 1947. Nepal- the oldest nation state in Southasia was unified by King Prithvi Narayan Shah in the mid-1700s. In fact, the Nepalese rulers of that time attempted to unify small kingdoms of the region in order to pose a strong resistance to the Britons. The independent state of Nepal (Bhimsen Thapa, PM) had made a failed attempt to form an alliance with Punjab (Ranjit Singh) and Oudh against the British invaders. After the end of a long war fought between Nepal and the British East India Company, Nepal lost around a third of her territory to the British. After the British left the region, the areas lost by Nepal were passed on to the Indian republic by the British.

This region used to be very prosperous at the prime of its history. China and India were the biggest economies in the world for almost all of the past 2000 years, accounting for over 80% of the world’s economy at some point in time. Nepal used to be very prosperous too, and had major trade routes between India and China. Just until a few decades ago, Sri Lanka was one of the most prosperous countries of Asia.

I don’t think any one civilization is more superior or advanced than the other, but most people in Southasia have the feeling that their prosperous heritage of a very old and advanced civilization has not received the rightful place in the world. They feel that they have been (or kept) on the wrong side of time for a good part of the recent world history and that they deserve a lot better. The feeling is almost similar in China- whose history of glory followed by humiliation and of resurgence is also not very different.

India: a country

Today, India is also the name of the second most populous country in the world and an aspiring world-power. Having gone through long period of colonization, independence, partition, wars with neighbors and underdevelopment, the vast country of India is rising for a more prominent position in the global economy as well as politics.

But come to think of it, the Indian government has not been able to earn a lot of respect from her neighbors- must of whom share very deep, inseparable and long ties with India. These countries claim that India wants more from them than she is ready to give them. Read the kind of feelings the Indian establishment evokes in the people of these neighboring countries, it is all very evident in their press and public opinion. Last year, even the Foreign Policy magazine ran a piece, saying that despite its very soft image and cheery-picture, India is the country that gives global governance it’s biggest hindrance. An Indian publication recently carried an article saying that if you keep your head down, India is a shining place but if you ask questions, you fall through a chute. The revelations from the Wikileaks cables and books published by former intelligence chiefs of the countries in the region also paint a very grim picture of Indian establishment playing a role very much in contrast to the victim it says it is of all the vices of the world.

Solution

Most ordinary Indians are not ready to accept what is wrong- they confuse that any criticism of the present Indian ruling class, establishment or the government with a criticism of the Indian civilization. They feel that the ancient Indian heritage is theirs only, and everybody who even tries to point out flaws in order to improve them, are their enemies.

All the countries and the peoples of the region have so much in common that it would be incorrect to say the problem lies only with the Indian people- people of other countries are as much responsible. But I think India should stop behaving like they are the victims, at least in their dealings with their close neighbors, and think of themselves as capable, responsible and mature country. Yes, the whole region has been through a lot of humiliation and wrongful treatment in the global stage, but now times are changing, and we should behave like we have grown up and are ready to take things under our control. The colonial rule in the subcontinent has affected all countries, including Nepal which was never a colony in true sense of the term (although some people argue British were able to control a lot of things in Nepal, without actually ruling her). We were all victims of whatever wrong happened with the region, and now when things are turning better, we should make an effort to make sure that we all grow and prosper together.

Like any government, Indian government and ruling class also has its problems. Indians strongly protest whatever malice they blame the colonial powers have caused. But there are also claims by smaller countries of the region that the Indian establishment behaves like a big-brother in the region. India is such a big and undeniable influence that these countries cannot do without her, but they also want to have their own ways, and would prefer if India respected that. The activities of Indian intelligence services and diplomatic missions have received a lot of flak recently. In Nepal, there have even been claims that the RAW (Indian intelligence agency) has tried a lot of things, including getting people killed, manipulating politics and dictating what happens with governance and policy. These countries can’t afford to  have bad relations with India, but they also don’t like high-handedness on her part, much like the way the people of the region never liked the high handedness of the colonial powers.

Therefore, it is my sincere request to my Indian friends: whenever you hear of people complain of Indian bullying or arrogance in her neighborhood, please try to think with a level head. I am not saying that the smaller countries don’t have their share of blame in their own problems- they have a major role, but India could certainly do better. And with such a rising and influential young generation, there’s a lot of hope that things would get better with time. Only if we could separate our nationalism and sense of vindication while dealing with the people with similar feelings. People of the region would certainly feel proud in India’s rise, and would do anything to contribute to the growth and benefit from it- just that a little more understanding could go a long way in achieving that aim. A little bit respect and understanding from everybody would be a lot more helpful.


Of course, there are far too many sensible and great people in India, if this post would have made you believe otherwise. I was only talking about the majority of her population, and at least the visible portions. There are some great newspapers, politicians and young people in India, but the bulk of her visible and influential population behave starkly opposite.

7 thoughts on “The Two Indias

  1. Dear Andrew, I’m your neighbor, your Indian friend. I am agree with you on most of the points. And I must add here that whatever complaints you have about Indians, in India too people are behaving very strangely for last 5-6 years. If you as an Indian speak about anything against an Indian institution, you will be branded as anti-national very soon. I would like to say that if there would be an inquisition today like medieval Europe, they would have killed many Indians for their criticisms. The current example is actor Anupam Kher, who has criticized the constitutional lacunae, he has been attacked.
    Anyway, thanks a lot for this thought provoking article.

    • thanks for your comment Ajay. I have found that using this “two Indias” metaphor is more effective when I try to put my points across- maybe you can also try this. Also, we can start changes in small scales by initiating conversations in our own social circles- I want to know how young Indians I don’t know react to this article- if it is possible, please share this post with your friends and do let me know🙂 thanks again.

  2. Nice Post Andrew, I understand your feelings and it is not the first time i have heard this from my Nepali friends. As an Indian I can tell you that an average Indian is not proud of what we are today, there are many loopholes in our society and we can not be a Super Power like this. I know a Nepali person is very closely related to India and hence wants a bit from Indian side too. I can assure that here in India people are never against Nepal or its people, we can debate that Nepali people are mostly working in Hotels and doing other small Jobs but for this Nepal is to be blamed equally.
    Yes India could not prosper without taking its neighbour along and I share ur thoughts on it. Govt. here is as usual very novice and hence does not represent its huge population.
    We here in India should learn to take Criticism in positive way and take it to impove.
    I second you on most of ur thoughts and its always a delight to go through them.

  3. while most Indians may not be so irrationally patriotic as to verge on jingoism, there is no doubt that indian media is quite possibly the most jingoistic and unquestioning press when it comes to india’s relations, involvement and activities in other countries.

    nothing india does would ever be questioned. no one would bother to ask if what the indian establishment is propagating is actually true. reminds me of the time when the nepali side was blamed of the floods in Bihar in recent years. so much for irresponsible journalism.

    and talking about people, it is a problem cutting across the subcontinent. nepalis are no better. yes, it is true that the recent growth of india in the world stage has boosted the arrogance of its people a little. but i m sure if that were to happen in nepal, nepalis would behave much the same way.

    the imp thing is to develop acceptance towards differing ideas, attitudes, cultures and people. we are such a closed society, we are not used to questioning the rightfulness of authority. Americans exhibit much more openness in such things. they would question their government’s decision to go to war in Iraq.

    Can an Indian or a Nepali be objective enough to do so if it was his/her country in question.

    A very thought-provoking and insightful post.

  4. I recently moved to India and I do sense a certain similarity with America over here. People either unquestioningly support their military or are not interested in it, there’s only a very small minority that will speak against the alleged atrocities committed by the military. People here are quite proud of their country’s relatively recent economic growth (and they should be).

    • Thanks for sharing your observation. I have noticed how right-wing the mainstream of Indian establishment and opinion is. The kind of views aired by Fox News in the US is done by the mainstream Indian actors and sadly, most educated, young professionals in India stand faithfully by them. Do you share this observation too?

      • The news / other media is biased for sure–definitely somewhat similar to Fox news in the US. As for most educated, young professionals, I don’t know for sure. The population’s too massive to generalize.
        As for the society to which I’m living in–my fiance’s family members are well traveled and quite objective in their view of India. Friends in our age group aren’t too interested in politics though and don’t seem to be too aware of (or remotely interested in) what is going on around them. Something I noticed is that they aren’t hostile, but they are completely clueless about neighboring countries like Nepal. I seem to get a ‘but I thought all Nepali people look Chinese’ reaction quite a bit.

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