This week saw the third major fiasco India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) was led into by the Indian media during the United Progressive Alliance’s (UPA) second term alone (give or take a couple of months). The first blunder was regarding the allegedly racist attacks on Indians down under in 2009, the second ignominy was the Norwegian child custody case, and the third pie-in-the-face moment is the ongoing row over Shahrukh Khan’s detention (he was similarly detained in 2009) at a New York airport in White Plains. In each case, the Indian media generated hype and public fervour over trivial quotidian issues without even bothering to ascertain all the facts first. As a result, the UPA government, who is desperate for some positive press lest they go down in history as India’s greatest kleptocracy ever, set their political machinery in motion to win some cheap publicity at home.
Allowing the media (or anyone else) decide the country’s foreign policy priorities is, quite simply, a bad idea. It should have been common sense, but certainly a lesson South Block should have learned a long time ago. At least, the UPA should have observed the consequences of opening their collective mouths based on Indian media reports after the Australian embarrassment. A quick walk (of shame) down memory lane will illustrate the point better.
Racism Down Under
In 2009, the Indian media picked up reports of attacks upon Indian students in Australia. During a rally by over 4,000 Indian students in Melbourne in May that year, the students was alleged that the recent attacks on Indians had been racially motivated. The murder of two Indians later that year increased bitterness among Indians even more. Duly reported and sensationalised back in India, the Shiv Sena organised a demonstration in front of the Australian High Commission and burned effigies of then Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Manohar Joshi, a Shiv Sena MP, warned that Australians in India could face similar attacks. Not to be outdone, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad threatened to call for a boycott of Australian goods if Canberra did not do more to protect Indians in Australia. Sitaram Yechury of the Communist Party of India (CPI(M)) even tried to connect the alleged racism to Nazi Germany and the Great Depression(!). SM Krishna, not to be outdone in hyperbole, claimed that the situation in Australia was a ”heinous crime against humanity” that would have a bearing on bilateral relations. Students’ unions in India came out on the streets, urging the Indian government to take action to ensure the safety of Indians in Australia. New Delhi, under so much public pressure, made representations to Canberra through various channels, from the High Commissioner on up to even the Prime Minister.
Indian media outlets, from Outlook magazine to NDTV ratcheted up the pressure through their woefully ill-informed journalism. As the picture became clearer, it turned out that some of the murders were committed by Indians themselves, and some of the attacks on Indian students were by Lebanese, Afghan, and other (non-White) nationals. Undoubtedly, some assaults were indeed racist, and every country has a racist element in it. However, as per an Overseas Indian Affairs Ministry report tabled in the Lok Sabha in February 2010, only 23 of the 152 attacks the previous year had any racial undertones. Indian community leaders also accused the Indian press of blowing the whole situation out of proportion. Despite the new evidence, India’s fourth estate held on stubbornly to their initial claims that Australia was a racist country. The New South Wales Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research explained the events as a function of changing demographics: “What has happened over the last few years is that a number of Indian students, attracted by fairly cheap accommodation, have come into the area, the target – always the soft targets – moved from elderly people walking on the street to Indian students with laptops.” Despite the hype by Indian tabloids, in 2011, the Australian Institute of Criminology released a study that found that over the period 2005-2009, Indian students experienced an average assault rate in some jurisdictions, but overall they actually experienced lower assault rates than the Australian average.
Ultimately, as Shashi Tharoor put it so eloquently,
For an Indian mother to hear that her son has been assaulted in Australia, it little matters to her whether he was assaulted because of his race, or because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, or because he was the wrong colour or the wrong height, or was carrying an iPod. She doesn’t want her son to be assaulted.
But that does not exonerate MEA officials for their incompetence or their weakness for cheap popularity.
War with Norway’s Child Services
In mid-January this year, the Indian media displayed its amateur status yet again in a report on a child custody case in Norway. The first stories broke out on NDTV and the Hindu but was very quickly picked up by other media outlets, and an indignant nation woke up to a report about the Norwegian Child Welfare Services taking away a three-year old and a one-year old from their Bengali parents. Ostensibly, this was because the one-year old, Aishwarya, was fed by hand by her mother, and the three-year old, Abhigyan, slept in the same bed as his parents. Understandably, Indians were furious at Norway’s failure to understand cultural norms in the non-White world.
The Indian government made strong demarches to the Norwegian embassy in New Delhi as well as its foreign ministry in Oslo, declaring that the separation of children from their parents was entirely unjustified. Politely but firmly, the Norwegian government replied that it would look into the case and keep the Indian government informed. Following Norwegian laws, however, the Child Protective Service refused to speak to the media. Had it stopped there, the MEA might have saved itself some embarrassment. But Indian media haranguing and public outrage at the plight of two small children in foster care for no apparent reason pushed South Block and Parliament into getting yolk on their collective faces. The Leader of the Opposition, BJP MP Sushma Swaraj, and the CPI(M) supremo Brinda Karat joined in demonstrations led by the grandparents in New Delhi, and BJP MP Tarun Vijay, to score points for tackiness no doubt, sent a teddy and chocolates to Norway for them. Even the President, Prathiba Patil, joined SM Krishna as he met with the grandparents to assure them that India was doing her best to secure the release of the children. As in the Australian case, contacts were made with Oslo’s officials at many levels, each stating the need to release the children and resolve the matter quickly. In fact, the Indian Express later reported that between December 24 and February 22, the MEA issued six official statements to the Norwegian government. This was more than the number of statements India issued on China, Pakistan, or the US.
The issue was resolved, i.e., the Indian media (and the government) beat a hasty retreat, when information leaked out that there was marital discord between the seemingly perfect Indian couple. The wife, Sagarika Bhattacharya, accused the husband, Anurup Bhattacharya, of torture, while the husband counter-accused his wife of having psychological ailments. There were even allegations of physical violence – by the mother towards the father – after which Anurup had filed for divorce. Amusingly, the Indian media, which had done so much to stoke outrage over the case, rounded on the government, accusing it of failing to do its homework. It wrote,
The main concern should have been the welfare of the children rather than scoring a diplomatic victory over Norway….At no point did Indian officials produce any concrete evidence of racial bias, yet the charge was freely bandied about and lapped up by the public….The media is often accused of being shoddy on facts and with some justification, but when official actions are based on unsubstantiated information, the result is the sort of embarrassment India is facing now.
Not quite exonerating the media but putting it in a more honourable light, NDTV admitted that the Indian foreign ministry had been misled by the media. They do, however, make the point that the MEA should have investigated the case more thoroughly and that it was motivated purely by populism – after all, what kind of foreign service gets its information from news channels?
The MEA then would only respond when parents would cry foul on TV, instead of pre-empting things and responding with more firmness. Surely before taking a stand that they would intervene, the MEA has done a thorough investigation, or at least relied on the information from credible sources?
Good question indeed.
VIP Detention: A Cultural Misunderstanding?
A few days ago, on his way to Yale University, Shahrukh Khan was detained for 90 minutes at the airport by US Customs. His detention has been the cause of great consternation to New Delhi and SM Krishna has, as usual, summoned the US Deputy Chief of Mission in New Delhi to explain to him that America’s habit of “detention and apology” will not do any more (the US embassy and Border Control have already apologised to the film star). In the one-upmanship battle prevalent in all sycophantic bureaucracies, Minister of State for External Affairs, Preneet kaur, said, “More than an apology will have to take place.” What that “more” is remains unclear. Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Rajiv Shukla too deplored the detention of SRK, calling it inappropriate. India’s ambassador to the US, Nirupama Rao, also took up the situation with the US State Department (their MEA), saying that the situation “need not have happened.”
As far as I know, SRK does not travel on a diplomatic passport, nor does he hold any position with the Government of India that would make him eligible to bypass security and customs. Furthermore, unlike India, obsequiousness is not part of the job requirements of US security officials, particularly to foreign stars. In India, people might take it for granted that public figures can get through security and other restricted zones without due process, but that is not the case in the West. “Janthe ho main kaun hoon?” simply does not have that oomph Indians think it does. The MEA’s chutzpah that US officials should even know who SRK was is also quite amusing. Conversely, if, say, Tom Hanks were detained at the Bombay airport, there are exceedingly slim chances that the US media would cover the episode with as much zeal as the Indian media seems to cover SRK. Or, to take another hypothetical case, if a famous German or Russian film star came through an Indian airport, would the customs official on duty be able to recognise them? And if recognised, is the Indian government advocating that they be let through without process?
An uncomfortable topic to openly discuss is the hushed allegations of racial profiling. Some commentators have seen the repeated detention of SRK as a sign of US discrimination against Muslims. While US authorities have been at pains to declare that this is certainly not the case, the National Counterterrorism Center reported in 2010 that Sunni Muslims were responsible for over 60% of all terrorist attacks worldwide and responsible for over 70% of terrorism-related deaths. Whether it is racial profiling or statistical probability, the fact remains that SRK shares an infamous name. South Block should get around to reading their internal memos, informing them that the alert on Shahrukh Khan’s name was in fact issued by India’s own Intelligence Bureau, who had discovered that Riyaz Bhatkal, founder of the terrorist outfit Indian Mujahideen was travelling under the pseudonym. More importantly, is the MEA telling the world that Indian Muslims should get a free pass through checkposts unless foreign governments wish to be accused of racial profiling?
The Affliction of Populism
There is little doubt that the UPA involved itself in these three issues because it thought they were easy cases through which they could win some cheap popularity. A confident demeanour abroad behooves a rising power, and New Delhi is also trying to send the message that its time in the spotlight has come. Unfortunately, surrendering one’s senses to play to the public’s ugly sense of national chauvinism has a high cost, and the Indian government has been made to look the fool twice and burn up valuable political capital in all three cases. A politician’s thirst for popularity and the media’s urge to sensationalise are an explosive combination anywhere, but especially so in India where there is an intellectual vacuum at the highest political levels. In all cases, the UPA let itself be led by the nose into an indefensible position by a fourth estate known for its questionable integrity. Behind closed doors, South Block has become the laughing stock because of its buffoonery, a price not just the UPA but India will have to pay. This is why we do not let Fleet Street decide our foreign policy.
I apologise to the (far superior) establishments on Fleet Street for using their name, but India has no equivalent that I am aware of. Plus, at a formative point during the writing of this post, I was held captive by a line from Yes, Prime Minister!