A veteran journalist who enjoys looking at the quirky side of life

R K Nair

The 'ugly Indian' syndrome

| Updated on August 17, 2013

The Hindu did a commendable job of offering its op-ed page space to half a dozen writers from as many neighbouring countries on the 66th anniversary of India's Independence. It was enlightening to view our great country through their eyes.

Not surprisingly, perhaps with the exception of Taslima Nasreen, one underlying emotion running through all these pieces is fear -- and the rancour and resentment associated with it -- with a tinge of awe and grudging admiration.

Why do our neighbours fear us? Is it our size? Maybe, to some extent. All these writers could be equally wary of China too. Yet, it is unflattering for a country with an ancient civilisation that made significant contributions in various fields to be portrayed as a regional bully.

Most graphic is "Beauty in the Beast" by Shyam Selvadurai from Sri Lanka. On a road trip from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer in Rajasthan, he and his partner were forced out of the front seats allotted to them and ordered to the back of the bus by a group of well-dressed middle-aged men and women whom he realised from their conversation to be doctors. He jokingly describes it as a "microcosmic playing out of India-Sri Lanka relations."

The others echo similar views though they do not say it in so many words. Appearing as they do on an Independence Day, these write-ups made me ponder on the role of the British in shaping our behaviour as a nation. Two centuries of colonial rule might have influenced the way we conduct ourselves in public. But then it occurred to me that most of these nations, with the exception of Nepal and Afghanistan, were also under British rule. So the British influence on our national character must have been peripheral at best.

I've seen Indian delegates and condescending bureaucrats conduct themselves with hubris at South Asian regional meets. They often behave like landlords talking down to serfs. It must be the vestiges of a feudal mindset that drive them to act in a manner that evokes resentment from our smaller neighbours.

Interestingly, the role is automatically reversed when dealing with Westerners. In their presence, our babus are so servile and eager to please, craving their attention and approval.

As India aspires to become a regional superpower, it would do well to deal with its neighbours with more courtesy and tact. Our forebears left an indelible mark of Indian influence on distant societies in Southeast Asia, China and Japan through soft power, not through military might and hubris.

Published on August 17, 2013

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