Sunday, May 19, 2013

How the world looks from India

The Government of India may have rolled out the red carpet for Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, who arrived in New Delhi yesterday, but popular opinion in India is deeply sceptical of Chinese ambitions in Asia and its policy towards India. This is the clear verdict of arguably the most comprehensive survey of Indian public opinion in recent years. But while there is great warmth for the United States, and discomfort at China’s rise, the percentage of Indians who believe India should cooperate with China at the global level equals those who support plans to contain China. India Poll 2013, the findings of which are being released today, was carried out late last year, much before last month’s incursion by Chinese troops in Ladakh.
Predictably, there continues to be deep concern within India about possible terrorist attacks from Pakistan as well as the motives of the Pakistan Army, but a courageous, reconciliatory move towards Islamabad by the Indian Prime Minister would invite widespread domestic support.
India Poll 2013: Facing the Future is a survey of opinion of 1,233 adults, a representative cross-section of Indians from all sectors of society; interviews were conducted face-to-face in India between August 30 and October 15, 2012. The poll was commissioned by the Australia India Institute at the University of Melbourne and the Lowy Institute for International Policy, and the fieldwork conducted by a reputable international polling company.
China and threat factors
Not surprisingly, Indians see Pakistan and China as the biggest foreign threats to their nation. Only nine per cent of Indians believe China does not pose a threat, while 84 per cent believe it does, with 60 per cent identifying it as a major threat. Seventy per cent of the respondents agreed that China’s aim is to dominate Asia. The responses were roughly equal, however, between those who believed that India should join with other countries to limit China’s influence (65 per cent), and those who believed India should cooperate with China to play a leading role in the world together (64 per cent). In fact, some Indians clearly hold both views at once, an interesting sign of the tensions or indeed duality within Indian foreign policy expectations.
From all those who had identified China as a threat, over 80 per cent agreed that threat was for the following reasons: China possesses nuclear weapons, it was competing with India for resources in other countries, it was strengthening its relations with other countries in the Indian Ocean Region, and it was claiming sovereignty on parts of India’s territory. Only a slightly smaller number believed that the threat was because of China’s stronger military, its bigger economy, its military assistance to Pakistan, and because it does not “show respect” to India.
On a scale
This does not mean, however, that Indians do not want better relations with China; 63 per cent of the respondents want bilateral ties to be stronger. On a scale of 0 to 100, in terms of feelings towards a country (with 100 meaning very warm, and 0 very cold) of the 22 countries listed, China ranked right in the middle along with Brazil, at 44 degrees; the United States, Singapore, Japan, Australia, France, Nepal, Russia, Great Britain, Sri Lanka and South Africa ranked higher.
While the findings may suggest a schizophrenic Indian attitude towards China, the message is relatively straightforward. Indians are deeply apprehensive about what they perceive as China’s assertive or even aggressive attitude towards India, fearful of its policies in the region and anxious of its growing capabilities. And yet, while Indians generally hope that relations with China will become better and with little ill feeling towards the Chinese people, there is a lack of clarity on how India should respond to a Rising China. Should India partner with China to create a united front among Asia’s rising giants, if possible? Or be part of a balancing coalition to ensure that China’s rise remains peaceful and not destabilising at a time when there are widespread concerns that Beijing is aspiring for a dominant role in Asia? It is this policy dilemma which New Delhi needs to resolve. Likewise, Chinese diplomacy clearly faces a major challenge in terms of Indian public perceptions.
On Pakistan, the findings are along predictable lines, but with a significant counter-intuitive finding. Ninety-four per cent of Indians believe Pakistan is a threat, of which 78 per cent consider it a major threat. Of all those who identified Pakistan as a threat, over 90 per cent did so because of the possibility of terrorist attacks from Pakistan, the Pakistan military’s animosity to India, its possession of nuclear weapons, and because it claims sovereignty over Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistan ranks lowest in terms of warmth of feeling in the list of 22 countries.
And yet, despite great scepticism about Pakistan, 89 per cent of Indians agree that ordinary people in both India and Pakistan want peace. Eighty-seven per cent agreed that a big improvement in India-Pakistan relations requires courageous leadership in both countries and 76 per cent felt that India should take the initiative in seeking peace with Pakistan. Seventy-two per cent felt that trade and economic cooperation would bring peace between the two countries, while 67 per cent felt that without an agreement on Kashmir, peace would not be possible
In sum, the findings suggest that if Prime Minister Manmohan Singh were to have a summit meeting with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and take the lead on a dialogue with Pakistan, he would have popular support. While a grand reconciliation with Pakistan had been central to Dr. Singh’s vision of South Asia, he seems to have abandoned the goal for fear of a political backlash. India Poll 2013indicates that even in the last year of the present government, peace with Pakistan is an opportunity worth pursuing.
Ties with U.S.
At 62 degrees, Indians feel most warmly towards the U.S. in the list of 22 countries surveyed. Eighty-three per cent feel that India’s relations with the U.S. are strong, while only four per cent think they are weak, 75 per cent want them even stronger and only one per cent want them weaker.
During most of the Cold War and beyond, suspicion of America was a striking feature of Indian, particularly elite, opinion, even while the U.S. became a “land of opportunity” for Indian professionals. American sanctions after the 1998 nuclear tests further compounded this feeling. In January 2009, however, after the U.S.-India nuclear deal, Manmohan Singh surprised many by telling President George W. Bush: “The people of India deeply love you.” India Poll 2013 confirms the affection the people of India have for the United States, if not for a single President.
-Co-written with Rory Medcalf
Source: The Hindu

Sunday, May 12, 2013

I found my place in Tihar Jail

Thirty years ago, in May 1983, I spent nearly 10 days at Delhi’s Tihar jail for the first and, till now, the only time in my life. With me were several hundred young men and women, many of whom are today leaders across the globe: including diplomats, professors, Members of Parliament, scientists, and editors. The Tihar experience was transformational. My daughter’s school in Melbourne advertises itself to current and potential students with a pithy slogan: “I found my place in Methodist Ladies College.” Thirty years later, I can rightfully say: I found my place in Tihar jail!

I was 20, at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University studying for a Masters in International Studies. Like hundreds of others, JNU was our first exposure to the “real” India. JNU had a comprehensive policy of affirmative action that allowed students from all over India to be admitted, especially those who came from socially or economically challenged backgrounds. Deprivation Points, they were called, in an age of less politically correct vocabulary. Even those like me, who came from relatively affluent backgrounds, had a better chance of getting in because I came from Srinagar, cocooned in the Kashmir valley, and not from a public school in an urban metropolis.

Imagine then a university campus in the early 1980s, almost in the centre of New Delhi, inhabiting thousands of acres of land within the folds of the oldest mountain ranges in India: the Aravallis (and its beautifully wild flora and fauna), with just a few thousand students drawn from virtually the length and breadth of India, and with very little in common except a thirst for knowledge and for change. And almost completely isolated from the city and the world outside. A recipe for disaster, you might say, a Lord of the Flies in-the-making. And yet the outcome was anything but dysfunctional.

As Pushpesh Pant, one of our most inspiring teachers, was to later write:
“Excitement was palpable and infectious in the air. The milieu was open, hierarchies were abhorred and the team at the helm was a perfect one. Handpicked bright youngsters were invited to join interdisciplinary departments and the semester system adopted was refreshingly different from the end of the term all-important exams guaranteed to stifle originality and cripple the spirit.”

And much of the idealism of the faculty — the quest for excellence blended with social relevance — was transmitted to the students, who believed that they could change the world: democratically, non-violently and together. This was post-Emergency India, and even though Indira Gandhi had returned as Prime Minister, the power of ideas and the power of the people seemed unstoppable. The nights were long: as General Body Meetings flowed into informal discussions over endless cups of chai at Ganga or Nilgiri dhabha on issues that really mattered: Was there really an “epistemological rupture” in Marx’s thought? Did Utsa Patnaik get the “mode of production” debate right or was it Jairus Banaji, and, in any case, wasn’t he the only Indian who really understood Marxism? Wasn’t John Rawls just a liberal reactionary thinker? And could anyone really understand Gayatri Spivak, and did Deconstruction really matter?

Everyone who had a heart fell in love, and out of it, over readings of the romantic-revolutionary poet Pablo Neruda at Parthasarthy Rock, or singing Sahir’s songs from Pyasa.Student violence was unknown, gender sensitivity was an absolute axiom with women confident to walk alone at any time of the day or night.

The Soviet Union had intervened in Afghanistan but the walls mostly said “Down with American Imperialism”. The National Students Union of India (the student wing of the Congress) and the Akhil Bharitya Vidyarthi Parishad (affiliated to the RSS) had barely a presence, although the Students Federation of India (SFI) and the All India Students Federation (AISF) — student wings of the CPI (M) and the CPI — had suffered a major jolt with the Lohiaite Samata Yuvajan Sabha (SYS) and the Free Thinkers winning the 1982 elections. “Study and Struggle”, was the guiding mantra even for non-Marxists, with everyone being reminding constantly: “If politics decides your future, you must decide what your politics should be.”

But the days were too short! Almost everything changed in 1983. The journey to Tihar began as a protest by students at a perceived injustice, but transformed into an aggressive movement which led to an unprecedented divide between the faculty and the student body. Everyone has his or her version of 1983, much like Kurosowa’s Rashomon. And you can trivialise it or philosophise it, but you cannot easily forget those days in Delhi’s scorching summer. A student had been suspended from the hostel without a proper inquiry; the students’ union restored the room to him, after breaking the “official” lock. Two of the office bearers were rusticated, as a consequence. The “inhumane” gherao of the Vice Chancellor and the Rector that followed was difficult to justify. But when the police entered campus on that fateful night, the ceremony of innocence, as they say, was truly drowned. JNU was no longer the sanctuary where every idea, every thought, every identity could find a place.

We thought we were voluntarily “courting arrest” as a symbol of protest, and believed totally in the righteousness of our cause, only to wake up next morning in the jail to the news that we were charged for “attempt to murder” and “rioting” by a Delhi government wanting to “clean up” the campus of “romantic revolutionaries”.

The experience of Tihar was itself life-changing. It was as much about recognising the virtues of idealism, as well as its limits. About recognising the importance of freedom, as well as its limits. About recognising the power of the Indian state, and the limits of resistance. And, above all, about how confinement can, initially, cripple you psychologically, but once the initial distress has been overcome, it can be truly liberating and can help you to come to terms with your inner self. We were all bailed out, the charges dropped in a few years, and most of us went on to return to our petit bourgeois world of careers, and families and ambition. But who could ever forget May 1983? You can take me out of Tihar, but not the Tihar out of me.

(Source: The Hindu)