Policy and prejudice —Tanvir Ahmad Khan

When it comes to our India policy, the tension between a stereotyping mindset and a critical imagination that questions the roots of distrust and hostility must be recognised as a factor that will shapes our attitudes and possibly state policy

A TV talk show the other day made me recall one of the conclusions reached in a recent study of prejudice and discrimination. The authors suggested that our species might aptly be described as Homo Stereotypus, i.e. ‘an animal predisposed to prejudice, stereotyping and discrimination, but one that possesses the capacity to overcome these biases if motivated to do so’.

The broad persuasive power of the electronic media makes it an important motivator of substantial segments of population. We know even from contemporary events that disastrous consequences follow when the media abandons the duty to help overcome biases and instead intensifies them. The genocide in Rwanda and the indiscriminate atrocities during the wars triggered by the fragmentation of Yugoslavia were both fuelled by hatred broadcast over the airwaves.

We also know from our recent experience of India-Pakistan relations that efforts to overcome negative perceptions, whenever the media made them with vigour and in a sustained manner, not only positively modified public attitudes but also facilitated adoption of state policy conducive to peace.

It also seems that there is a tendency to revert to stereotypes when this transforming process slackens. When it comes to our India policy, the tension between a stereotyping mindset and a critical imagination that questions the roots of distrust and hostility must be recognised as a factor that will shapes our attitudes and possibly state policy.

The TV discussion mentioned above was a reminder, notwithstanding the cordial meeting between President Asif Zardari and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New York last month and the just-concluded visit to New Delhi of Maj-Gen (retd) Mahmud Durrani, that a deterministic view of our relations with India might be undergoing a kind of revival presumably because of adversarial reporting in India and Pakistan of acts of terrorism and of ‘the hidden hand’ in insurgencies faced by Pakistan.

My optimism about a different and better future of bilateral relations based on the existing political will in the two capitals to transform old conflicts and bring them into the ambit of eventual resolution was countered by a respected rightwing columnist with the argument that ancient hatreds and prejudices were more likely to prevail. To my surprise, a senior former diplomat of Pakistan supported this rather bleak view, though from a slightly different standpoint.

For the distinguished and well-read rightwing co-panellist of mine, the hatreds largely belonged to the Indian state and society. Television programmes allow for only broad brushes but the images that he quickly painted from history were at least sixty years old while some stretched far back into time.

He mentioned the inability of the Indian people (read Hindus) to come to terms with 700 years of Muslim dominance. He also referred to the sidelining of Gandhi, the rise of Patel and Nehru’s scuttling of the Zonal Plan, presumably as illustrations of Hindu bigotry always overwhelming the more liberal elements in the Indian body politic. My colleague from the Foreign Office shared this pessimism but more on grounds of India’s lust for regional hegemony.

The examples cited intrigued me as nearly all of them were, at least partially, amenable to alternative explanations. That Mr Gandhi’s assassin was driven by insane anger at the Mahatma’s denunciation of communal killings and his disapproval of mindless hostility to the nascent Muslim state just resurrected in the sub-continent remains a fact of history.

But the sidelining of Gandhi immediately after independence had other dimensions too. India was opting for a course of modernistic technology-driven nation-building substantially different from his vision of a blissful rural India with its cottage industries and spiritual values.

Nehru, not Patel, was the pole star of new India. Gandhi had played a towering role in welding the Indian masses into a vibrant nation but the ship of the state in the uncharted waters of the mid-20th century was not, and perhaps could not be, steered by Gandhi. Had he lived, he would have continued to exercise a calming influence on a highly inflamed situation but he would have remained marginal to the choices made by Nehru, including rapid industrialisation and the priority given to the acquisition of nuclear knowledge.

It will be gross oversimplification to attribute Nehru’s destruction of the Zonal Plan to communal motives. At the practical level he was riled by his experience of the interim government in which he had found that he could not dominate the Muslim League members of the Cabinet.

At the conceptual level, Nehru was committed to a centralising state with national sovereignty as its core attribute. For him it would be a natural thing to assert that the sovereign parliament of India would remain free to re-visit the arrangements made by a colonial power. That he did not calculate the political consequences of his assertion, or care for them, calls for a judgement different from the allegation of communalism.

Neither should we be oblivious of the struggle in India against communalism, militant Hindu religiosity and bigotry based on caste and creed. Gujarat did see a pogrom directed against its Muslim community just about to come into own economically. There has been no lack of Hindus who lamented this great tragedy and held Narendra Modi’s government responsible for it.

The same is true of the more recent atrocities committed by the Bajrang Dal, the militant fascist wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, against Christians in Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka. The fact is that neither India nor Pakistan has been able to completely exorcise the demons that stalk them.

This should be an argument for working together, not re-kindling old fires of hatred as factors determining policy today. It is possible to construct a better future. There is no lack of political, economic and cultural reasons for doing so. In fact, given the deeply troubled regional situation and the uncertainties of fast-changing global politics, there is hardly an alternative.

The writer is a former foreign secretary who can be reached at tanvir.a.khan@gmail.com

Source: Daily Times, 20/10/2008

Leave a Reply