War of Words: The Indian Narrative

By Ashwin Sanghi
Bharat is a land of stories and storytellers. Wandering bards recited our stories over generations and we built a treasure house of tales including our itihasa and puranas. The Ramayana was narrated in 300 different ways and reached far flung regions like Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, Japan, and China. But modern India has been consistently poor at managing its storytelling. What explains this?

During the state visit of PM Modi to America in June 2023, former US President Barrack Obama gave a strategically timed interview to talk about “protection of the Muslim minority in a majority Hindu India”. These were words from someone who had bombedseveral Muslimnationsincluding Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia. ThisNobel Peace Prizewinner had dropped three bombs every hour in 2016 alone.

Then, timed with PM Modi’s July 2023 visit to France, the European Parliament passed a resolution criticizing the“divisive policies promoting Hindu majoritarianism” and urged Indian authorities to protect “Manipur’s Christian community”. The European Parliament had no advice for France or Sweden that saw minoritiesup in armswithin their own borders.

Rewind to December 2020. The agitation against India’s Farm Bills was at its peak. The Canadian PM, Justin Trudeau, supported the protesting farmers from 7000 miles away. He said, “Canada will always be there to defend the rights of peaceful protesters.”It was the same Trudeau who invoked emergency powers and froze hundreds of bank accounts two years later to quell the Truckers’ Protest in Ottawa.

Earlier this year in March 2023, the German Foreign Office issued a statement regarding Rahul Gandhi’sdisqualification.It said, “we expect that the standards of judicial independence and fundamental democratic principles will equally apply to the proceedings.”Notice the condescending tone? Unsurprising that Germany had no words for NATO big brother USA when former President Donald Trump was arrested.

India continues to be at the receiving end of such sanctimonious statements. It is natural that such remarks generate social media outrage, and many Indians wonder why theircountry is targeted so frequently. There are multiple reasons:

One: Statements often reflect one part of the fractured polity of those countries. In America, a 2021 survey by the University of Virginia, found that many voters on both sides of the political divide supported“partitioning the United States into multiple countries based on political party lines.” One sees similar post-Brexit polarization in the UK. The situation is not very different in most European countries—or in India. So, one voice rarely reflects what everyone thinks.

Two: There will always be constituencies outside India that speak for constituencies within.There are 57 member countries of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. They often speak for perceived Muslim causes—even CAA that has nothing to do with India’s Muslims—while maintaining strategic silence on China’s Uyghur Muslims. There are 158 countries with Christian majorities—including 15 with Christianity as a state religion. But there are only two Hindu-majority countries besides India: Nepal and Mauritius. This imbalance makes Indiaakin to Israel, a country with no significant external constituency.

Three: The term “neutral media” is an oxymoron. All media organizations have inherent biases—racial, religious, colonial, and political. Remember the New York Times cartoon regarding India’s Mangalyaan project? Or Der Spiegel’s cartoon about Indian trains? Or the funeral pyres of Covid-19? How about the BBC and CNN proclivity to magnify negative news from India? Prejudice and advertising dollarsoften steer media output.

Four: The Hindi adage “jisskilaathiusskibhains” reminds us that the one with the stick also controls the buffalo. We see this repeatedly in the results of international democracy rating organizations such as the Economist Intelligence Unit, Freedom House, and Varieties of Democracy Institute, which often apply subjective norms that pull India down in various indices.

Five: People assess the frequency of an occurrence by the degree to which instances are readily available in their memory. This is known as the availability heuristic. A negative article about India in the Washington Post is recalled by me quicker than similar articles about other countries. Social media algorithms also ensure more visibility of such news on my feed. So, we should not discount our own cognitive biases.

Six: To wish away the existence of a “deep state” in the West is to ignore the story behind the story. Yes, I am a fiction writer, but fact is often stranger than fiction. To attribute everything to a murky “foreign hand’ may be foolish. But it is equally foolish to think that regime change objectives of an entrenched military-industrial complex do not exist. That would be to ignore events such as the Arab Spring, the Global Financial Crisis, or the Russo-Ukrainian War.

Seven: The Indian diaspora—over 20 million globally—is fragmented, else this could have been a significant lobby group. Republican administrations in America have tended to perform better for India, but the majority of Indian Americans support Democrats. In Canada, political power espouses separatist causes like Khalistan. The left intelligentsia at foreign universities and Indian voices in foreign media are often responsible for the most scathing views on India.

So, what can India do to revive the power of its storytelling? For one, we need better published data that feeds into various global indices. Second, we need to actively encourage new indices that correctly measure India. Third, we need more commentators—in think tanks, foreign media, and universities—whose interests are aligned with India. Fourth, India needs its own equivalent of Al Jazeera, BBC, DW or RT that actively pushes the Indian view. And fifth, there must be proactive planning of institutional narratives rather than mere reaction.

There is an Indian proverb that says that only fruit laden trees have rocks thrown at them. Why would one waste time hurling stones at a barren tree? India’s international position needs to be viewed in that context. As India’s economic, military, and diplomatic heft grows, be prepared for more attacks.Storytellers, your time starts now.

--- The writer is a novelist.