Friday, July 16, 2010

Reflections on Indian Independence

By Siraj Wahab

Published in Arab News on August 15, 2009

On this anniversary of India’s independence, as an Indian I am both happy and sad. I am happy because we attained freedom after a long and painful struggle and because India has made great strides in many fields over the last 60 years. Most importantly, we have managed to maintain the sanctity of the ballot. Democracy has been our guiding principle, and that is a remarkable achievement.

I am sad because my community has not been given due representation in some spheres. My community is still eyed with suspicion. The contribution of our ulema to the fight for independence seems to have been totally forgotten. Hundreds of Muslim scholars died in the run-up to independence. Now, mere lip service is paid only to Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. Although we attained independence in the physical sense, mentally we Indians still remain trapped in the British-engineered divide-and-rule ideology of the past. That is very sad and something that should change.

All of our problems could be solved provided we accepted the existence of those problems rather than ignoring them. Correct diagnosis is key to fighting any disease. Our foreign policy has always been Pakistan-centric. We are obsessed with Pakistan. We have always blamed our neighbor for all our problems. This is not to absolve Pakistan from its occasional misdeeds, but we are a big country, and we should act like an elder brother. We should be magnanimous in our approach toward our neighbors.

Pakistan aside, Sri Lanka has reservations about India; Nepal has gripes against us, and Bangladeshis aren’t too happy with us. We are a great nation because we have a great history. We shouldn’t squander that by being parochial and jingoistic. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh took a great step forward in Sharm El-Sheikh recently. We should build on that first step and isolate extremists on both sides. Let us not forget the courageous decision of former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee in taking that bus ride to Lahore and seeking a meaningful resolution to the many issues dividing India and Pakistan.

If we, the Indian people, don’t get the deserved social and political status in the new world, even in Arab society, it is because our leaders have not been able to see the big picture. They bog themselves down in domestic affairs and limit our foreign policy simply and almost exclusively to Pakistan. We seem unable to get out of that vicious tit-for-tat cycle. We never took proactive steps to capitalize on the strength of our economy and civilization. To be very honest, we have had no real statesman since Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru.

In the 1980s, African nations and Arab nations looked at India with awe and respect. Our stand on Palestine was unflinching. But then we lost that status because we diluted our stand on a number of issues. There was a conscious effort to get closer to Israel, so much so that we even helped put an Israeli spy satellite in space. We started being seen on the wrong sides and gradually people looked at us with suspicion. Arabs have a begrudging admiration for India because of its educational renaissance, especially in the field of information and technology. We should capitalize on this and win the hearts and minds of both the Arabs and Africans. This is possible, provided we stop looking at the small details and concentrate on the big picture.

As an Indian who has lived and worked in Saudi Arabia for some time, I think the Gulf countries offer Indian expatriates a great opportunity to better understand the problems of our neighbors. Just as we are fighting poverty so are Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal. Their problems are very similar to our problems. We had Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, Pakistan had Baitullah Mehsud and Sri Lanka had Velupillai Prabhakaran. They were all extremists. We all grapple with the same problems.

Once we Indians are out of the country, we look at things with fresher perspectives. In India as well as in Pakistan, it is the mass media that has made things worse. That is not the case here. When India and Pakistan came very close to war in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks, I remember talking to two taxi drivers: One non-Muslim from Kerala and one Pathan from Swat Valley. They both were worried and both were praying for the war clouds to clear. They had their families and loved ones in their respective countries. All of us surely encounter such people on a daily basis here in Saudi Arabia and in the other Gulf countries. We should carry the message of good will to our respective countries and work for the greater good of the entire Subcontinent. And we can.

Many people like to speak of an undivided India, but such ideals are far from the present reality. It upsets our Pakistani friends. They think, and perhaps rightly so, that we have still not accepted them as a sovereign nation. What happened in the past happened, and we cannot undo it. There is no need to. We may be separate countries, but nothing stops us from joining hands as the European nations do. France and England have centuries of war and trouble behind them, yet the two are part of the European Union. Why can’t we follow that example? Our films are hugely popular in Pakistan, and Pakistani television serials are adored by Indians. Pakistani cricketers, such as Wasim Akram and Imran Khan, have huge followings in India, and Indian cricket legends such as Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar have many admirers in Pakistan.

We need to build on our trust, on what is common to both of us. We have to inspire confidence in the nations around us. That would give no room to outside powers to play politics in our backyard.

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