Recently, there has been commentary about the so-called ‘Hindu Right’ turning anti-American, jettisoning years of its stance of being anti-communist and pro-American. That is an intriguing point of view. But here is my response — it is not the case that the Hindu Right, or the broader Indian Right, has turned anti-American. What has happened is that the American Left has turned anti-Indian. Approval ratings of America remain high in India as also in the US for India. However, the American Left has acquired a decidedly anti-Indian bias in the last couple of decades.
It seems to have started with the good relationship that former US President George W. Bush established with India. Nuclear non-proliferation extremists in American academia, in the US media and in the Democratic Party were very upset. It did not help that the India-US rapprochement and cosiness had been initiated by a Republican President.
US-based Left-wing NGOs started a sustained campaign against many Indian initiatives. These attacks were usually on grounds of environmental protection, animal rights, or against the strong action taken by the Indian State against Islamists in the state of Jammu and Kashmir in the context of what was seen by the American Left as a case of human rights violations.
Many of these attacks predate the 2014 election of Narendra Modi as Prime Minister. Modi’s predecessor, Manmohan Singh, openly complained on American TV that American NGOs were supporting and funding protests against the development of nuclear power plants in India. An American animal rights NGO used the existence of a law to prevent cruelty to animals, to fund litigation that resulted in the ban of jallikattu, an Indian version of bullfighting. This ban was widely opposed by many sections of Indians, including regional political parties that were not in Modi’s camp. Such egregious interference by the patronising and sanctimonious American NGOs in the affairs of India has been a source of great disappointment for many Indians, not just for Manmohan Singh.
American academics in the humanities and social sciences under the influence of Marxism, postmodernism and, more recently, Critical Race Theory have started applying their Indian Studies programme — ideas developed by them — to describe the American situation. In this view, upper caste Hindus (who are a minority themselves and barely make it to double-digit percentages) are the equivalent of American whites. The upper caste Hindu males, presumably, are busy oppressing other minorities and indulging in Islamophobia just as it is being allegedly done by white Christian males in the US.
This rather tortuous unnuanced interpretation of Indian history and of contemporary India has led to strange outcomes. M.K. Gandhi, who was an upper caste has been portrayed by some as a Machiavellian oppressor and even as a racist based on his track record in South Africa. Ironically, Narendra Modi, who in fact hails from a backward caste, is never described as such. He is pigeonholed as a Hindu nationalist. While discussing Kashmir, casual accusations of Islamophobia towards the Indian State are par for the course.
Not one learned professor in any American university has spoken about the profoundly anti-feminist laws in Kashmir — Article 35A — that have recently been repealed. The same holds true about triple talaq, which has been outlawed in large measure because the Supreme Court ruled that this baneful practice needed to be dropped. Their great need to portray India negatively results in these academics being willing to remain silent about the routine violation of women’s rights.
The American media lens
The American media, represented by outlets like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the National Public Radio, have pretty much stopped publishing stories about Indian software programmers and now prefer to write almost exclusively about what they see as the dark underbelly of India. While it is no one’s case that such exposes should be censored, the fact remains that this is a not-so-subtle change in the biases of these publications.
The Covid coverage was fascinating. While China was largely given a free pass by the American Left-wing media, India was singled out as a bumbling, incompetent country that was, apparently, insensitive to the plight of poor Indians. Even as India kept vaccinating tens of millions of people, the focus almost always remained on the denominator — the ‘1.3 billion’ figure — and therefore, on the number and percentage of unvaccinated persons. Today, as India has comfortably vaccinated virtually all its adult population, one would think that there would be a word of praise. No such luck. The news simply does not make it to the NYT, the WP or NPR.
The other extremely distressing coverage was about the large-scale cremations of the dead during the second wave of Covid in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. There was something a tad ghoulish about the prose and the accompanying photographs. American media, along with their Left-wing friends in the Indian media, opined with authority that such gross incompetence will be punished by voters. In the recent elections for the state assembly of Uttar Pradesh, the Bharatiya Janata Party returned with a two-thirds majority. I, for one, saw no evidence of the ‘experts’ apologising for their poor judgement. Perhaps it was because they did not want to admit that their cremation stories were grossly exaggerated.
While the American Left did not appreciate the pro-India tilt of George W. Bush and preferred the sanctimonious homilies of Barack Obama, what really created a perfect storm was the fact that Donald Trump seemed to like India. Now that just would not do. To make matters worse, Trump and Modi seemed to get along well too. That seemed sufficient reason to conclude that Modi was a bad egg. Trump also attended a political rally organised by Hindu Americans. Now, politicians attend all kinds of rallies for all kinds of reasons.
However, as an American friend of mine told me that if Trump likes vanilla ice cream, then the NYT will run a campaign against vanilla ice cream and Left-wing Democrat legislators, who seem to be around in considerable numbers, will try to pass a law against the dreadful dessert. That rally was sufficient reason for many on the American Left to go beyond being anti-Indian to being anti-Hindu. Meanwhile, Left-wing Democrats of the ilk of Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Pramila Jayapal were busy making anti-India noises, citing what they thought were ‘authoritarian’ moves in Kashmir.
To his credit, US President Joe Biden has not bought into the maxim of ‘I should hate anyone who Trump likes’. He has brought a great deal more nuance to the situation. But he seems to have a knack for gaffes. He could have easily said that the U.S. was engaging extensively with India, which was in a tough spot regarding Ukraine. India has abstained from UN resolutions. Israel has voted for them but has not imposed sanctions on Russia. Clearly, these are knotty problems. Rather than calling the problems knotty, Biden chose to call India’s position “shaky”.
One must admit that even as he makes his blunders, Biden leaves us with a reason to smile. Incidentally, this approach seems to have been patented by the Democrats. Years ago, in 1978, former US President Jimmy Carter had hectored then-Indian Prime Minister Morarji Desai. Obama talked down to India in a schoolmasterish manner in his last public speech before he left India. And now Biden is worried about India’s shaky behaviour.
In the interests of good relations between India and the US, it is less important to worry about Indian or Hindu reactions. It is more important to hope that better sense will prevail in American academia, the US media, and the Democratic Party. In its absence, we may be in for a rough patch.
Jaithirth Rao is a retired businessperson who lives in Mumbai. Views are personal.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)