Ignorance is not bliss

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Being truly Indian means possessing indepth knowledge of the country, and not just of one’s state, notes TIM BLIGHT

Vanakkam and welcome back to Chennai, one of the hottest cities in India during the summer. Although built along the coast, seaside Chennai only seems to get the cool sea breeze in winter. Without this respite, the sweaty heat lasts long into the night, and on the hottest of days everything seems to radiate the sun’s warmth.

The Indian media is now flush with stories of the rising summer and the impending monsoon along the west coast. For Chennaikers however, the monsoon is still at least six months away. While watching India’s plethora of news channels, I can’t help but sense a deep disconnect between the India of people’s minds, and the modern geographic boundaries. Listening to news emanating from Mumbai and Delhi, it would seem that India doesn’t extend any further east or south than the Western Ghats. Of course, the biggest, most important news so often occurs in centres of population – this is true even in Australia, where nearly all national news programmes are produced in Sydney or Melbourne. However ,there is something altogether more disturbing about the Mumbai-Delhi axis’ general disinterest in anything east or south.

Many years ago, an acquaintance once told me that all Indians speak Hindi. I challenged him on that, saying that the Mahl speakers of Minicoy Island, or the Tibetean language-speaking people of Arunachal Pradesh might argue otherwise. To this he replied, “Yeah, but they’re not really Indian”. I was aghast – how could he simply write off thousands, possibly millions of people, as “not Indian”, simply because they didn’t look or sound like him? And in a country like India, which prides itself on pluralism? I dared to stoke the fire by suggesting that if those people aren’t Indian, perhaps India should give those territories up. Needless to say, the fury that swelled in his eyes informed me that now would be a good time to stop talking. Unfortunately, this was an extreme manifestation of a widespread problem which I was to encounter many times again.

Like most prejudices, this one is based on ignorance. But at what cost? A trigger issue for many Indians is the Kashmir conflict. Yet how many Indians know which languages are spoken in the disputed territory? How many people could locate Gilgit on a map? Does anyone actually know the current status of the conflict at the United Nations? Or do we just know that it’s “ours”, not “theirs”, and that’s why we should fight? In his excellent book Superpower, Raghav Bahl speaks of the “siege mentality” of Indians; that is, a deep suspicion of the countries which occupy India’s borders, and a knee-jerk hostility to any action by them. Through the sweep of history, Bahl makes sense of why this has developed. But as India emerges as a superpower, it is time for all of us to understand.

The monsoon, although much less volatile than the Kashmir conflict, is a case in point. A quick survey of my fairly educated, reasonably worldly contacts from the western and northern states revealed that all but one were blissfully unaware that India experiences more than one monsoon each year. A recent commercial for The Hindu newspaper played on this, by asking people to name India’s vice-president and Hrithik Roshan’s pet name. For the purpose of the commercial, most people could identify only the latter. Taking inspiration from this, I decided to cast a wider net with my research, to examine what a selection of Mumbaikers and Delhiites know about India today. In my quizzing, few knew the capitals of Tripura or Meghalaya, and none that Hyderabad was once an independent state, forcefully incorporated into India by military action. Two people weren’t aware that Chhattisgarh was now a state of its own, two more thought that Delhi was in Uttar Pradesh! And no-one was aware that India fought a short war with Portugal over Goa, in which 22 Indian servicemen died, and which is still referred to in much foreign literature as an ‘annexation’ or an ‘invasion’. Now there’s something to get angry about!

History and politics aside, the point is that we all need to start recognizing India as a whole. 28 states and 7 union territories? We should be able to name them all, plus their capitals. And we should be able to call them all Indian; otherwise maybe we shouldn’t call ourselves Indian. Things are definitely improving; the days when people called for Dravida Nadu or Khalistan are now but a memory. However it has been shown throughout history that separatist groups thrive on exclusion, so I worry when I hear of ignorance or outright hostility to India’s various minorities, some of whom have a legitimate axe to grind. We need to know about India because knowledge is power, and if Indians are knowledgeable, then we will be powerful.

Ok, so I shouldn’t say ‘we’, because I’m not really Indian. But at the very least, in September, when everyone else is celebrating the end of the monsoon, spare a thought for us down in hot-as-Hades Chennai, where we know the real meaning of the phrase ‘Indian Summer’!

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