A unique aspect of the Indian psyche is that we are quick to find faults and share our superior and ancient gyaan with the rest of the world on all and sundry matters. And yet woe betide any negative comments in the Western press or media, or heaven forbid from an NRI. The ‘Hypersensitive Indian’ immediately takes umbrage and roars into action to rebut and fight against any perceived slights.
One very recent and notable example of the ‘Hypersensitive Indian’ at the highest levels of Indian leadership circles was External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar’s petulant over-reaction to the Freedom House report, which downgraded India to “partly free”. Another example was Krishnamurthy Subramanian, Chief Economic Advisor to Government of India, whose equally embarrassing plaint was that the West is mean to India, and hence we “… don’t have to pay any attention to what the West is saying about us“.
The US State Department and the White House couldn’t care less about the fact that the very same Freedom House report said that the state of US democracy was “parlous”. And I doubt if they even read, let alone cared, when the Times of India proclaimed in an editorial that there were signs aplenty that the US was a “democracy in distress”.
That’s how a grown-up superpower reacts to criticism and critics, and this is something for India and Indians to take note of – if we are serious about our position on the world stage.
Rather than attracting more attention and negative press, it would have served Indian interests better to read what the ‘Freedom in the World 2021’ report actually said. Jaishankar failed to note that India, with a score of 34, actually rated higher than the US at 32 in ‘Political Rights’. There was no need for him to respond in a public forum, and say very defensively that “…you have a set of self-appointed custodians of the world… they invent their rules, their parameters, they pass their judgments.”
The unnecessary victimhood on the part of a very senior leader is of a piece with a similar mindset in many parts of the Indian press and leadership, and amongst Indians, whereby every criticism of India is taken as proof of a Western bias. And heaven forbid if that criticism comes from an NRI, and then it’s even worse and it is seen as a betrayal of Mother India by one of her children.
The Chief Economic Advisor to the Government of India had his own “eureka moment”, discovering that the “West cares only about itself”. Someone should inform him that every nation, including India, looks out for its own interest – as it absolutely should.
The CEA goes on to explain to his naïve and gullible audience that the Western view of the world is centred around themselves and “we all need to be aware about the narratives that are being sold to us”. Furthermore, “if we are not careful, our view of the world can easily become distorted”. Clearly, he must think rather poorly of Indians and their naiveté if they need to be protected from comments in the Western media.
A nation aiming for world superpower-hood shouldn’t be complaining about the mean West and evil Western media. To see the Indian Ministry of External Affairs earlier this year actually issue a statement complaining against “recent comments by foreign individuals and entities” on the farmers’ protests is a sad commentary and unworthy of a nation of India’s size and stature.
The same hypersensitivity is exhibited at interpersonal levels in interactions with Indians, especially when anyone of Indian origin or descent dares to comment and critique India and Indian policies.
The attacks on Meena Harris, the niece of US vice-president Kamala Harris, over her advocacy for the farmer’s protests have only helped give the movement more publicity. One can agree or disagree with her for speaking out “in support of human rights for Indian farmers”. However, the response from activists in India was to burn her portrait to protest against her comments. A response to her tweet is typical of how most Indians respond to anyone outside India who dares to comment on Indian matters …“People who claim to be of indian heritage but are ignorant of its current affairs should stay away from poking their noses in Indian affairs” …“This is what we all had been warned about. @KamalaHarris election as VP will not do India any good, it will be against India’s interest … time for Indians to unite and boot out American products.”
This NRI “loyalty test” plays out at an inter-personal level too, in globalised WhatsApp Groups of college friends and family. Any post by non-resident Indians and others of Indian origin that is viewed as being even mildly critical of India, whether it is factual or just a joke, is met with virulent attacks that accuse the poster of making a “mockery of India”. The comments are labeled as distasteful or offensive, and the NRI is deemed to be a turncoat and India-hater.
Families and friends are drifting apart and longstanding friendships and relationships are rupturing as a direct result of the ‘Hypersensitive Indian’ mindset, which posits that it’s time for Indians to be nationalistic. By which they simply mean we must unite and reject any comment that is not totally and unquestionably adulatory about India and everything that happens in India.
Many Western publications such as the New York Times and the Washington Post have editorial boards that arguably favour critical op-eds about India over other sorts of articles. Yet the news divisions of these same newspapers deliver professional fact-checked reporting on developments in India, which puts the often shoddy and shallow news reporting of many mainline Indian newspapers to shame. Hypersensitivity about the negative op-eds should not be a reason to ignore truthful news reporting by professional journalists at world-class newspapers like the Wall Street Journal or the Financial Times.
India and Indians should emulate the West and Westerners and not overreact to comments, advice and criticism from the global media and think tanks, and from NRIs or even citizens of other nations. It is always good to give it a listen, just to see if there is something to learn from and improve oneself, rather than follow the CEA’s advice and not pay any attention to “what the West is saying about us“.
‘Aikaave janachey karave manachey’ is a common Marathi saying, which advises us to “listen to what others have to say, and then do what your own heart tells you to do”. Every Indian should heed this sage advice and act worthy of a nation that has a proud heritage and a leadership position on the world stage. It’s time for the ‘Hypersensitive Indian’ to retire.
Ram Kelkar is a Chicago-based columnist who works for a privately held investment firm.