The attack on the World Trade Center in New York has, as is the common opinion, profoundly transformed the American psyche. The people of the country have become more aggressively, assertively American. Has India, too, experienced a psychological change'
India has lived with terrorism for years before September 11. Its people know the agony of an insecure public life better than most others. Three Gandhis — Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi — were assassinated. For India, September 11 was not so much a rude awakening, as the shock of a recognition — to see terror happening elsewhere, in a country thought to be so unassailable. I remember ringing up a friend in Santiniketan on the day. Her spontaneous response was, I believe, typical of a widespread mood in the country: “The Americans were asking for it,” she said. America’s arrogance in dictating other nations, in squandering the world’s resources, in looking after its own interests as if those encapsulated the needs of the world, had created such a mood. Nemesis had finally arrived. However, at the time, such pronouncements were not deemed politically correct.
India’s political and intellectual classes realized within a day that their country was in the epicentre of the turmoil. September 11 evoked this attention immediately only because the interests of the United States of America were at stake. India has remained in world news ever since. The war on terrorism in Afghanistan, involving Pakistan as a Western ally, was the spin-off from a series of momentous events in India: the attack on Parliament, the Ayodhya temple build-up, the threat of a nuclear war between Pakistan and India. These are related events. They are connected not only in the context of history, but also as phenomena. They all deal with opposing perceptions of religious cultures and how they should shape the life of people.
Political analysts in the West began to diagnose the Indian subcontinent as the foremost danger zone in the world. Indians have never seriously considered the possibility of a nuclear exchange between Pakistan and India. Yet, the West was suddenly full of the deepest fears. This is probably because India and Pakistan live with the collective memory of Partition and its horrors, but Europe’s shared memory is still alive with the horrors of World War II, the Holocaust, the dropping of the bomb over Nagasaki and Hiroshima. In German schools, students cannot escape the photographs and data of the havoc the atom bombs created. Yet, the ruling classes in India and Pakistan seem to be devoid of such fears and apocalyptic visions. And the common people have no concept of what the nuclear bomb is about.
So while in India everybody carried on with his daily business, people elswhere in the world took the Pakistan-India interface seriously. Never before had the German government advised its citizens against visiting India. This time it did.
A general rule for most European journalists covering India is not to concentrate too heavily on India’s domestic matters which are of little interest to European readers, unless, of course such matters are related to global issues. The wrangles of party politics, of caste, class and religious feuds are beyond the grasp of the general European reader. But September 11 has changed all that. There has been more articles on the internal problems of India — the Ayodhya issue, Gujarat, India’s response to Afghanistan and Kashmir — in the European print media than ever before. The Afghanistan war has internationalized India to a degree never witnessed before.
The interested public in Europe needs, as any public elsewhere, a person or a symbol to catch its imagination. There were two persons who helped to focus on India — Arundhati Roy and V.S. Naipaul. Roy’s essays against the bomb, against India-Pakistan hostilities, against the Afghan war, on the Gujarat massacre, her every public statement were translated and published in full by leading European newspapers and magazines. She became the genuine voice of India, a voice that selflessly and fearlessly spoke out the facts. Never mind that she is no political analyst, that she has no training in the intricacies of economic, social and political matters. Never mind that others had made similar statements which were more complex and less readable. She spoke a language which the people of the world could relate to. Her one-day symbolic prison term, which created headlines in Germany, was seen as a kind of confirmation of her authenticity.
Naipaul cast the spotlight on India as well, but less clearly and vigorously. His statements were diffuse, perhaps also more differentiated, and did not captivate public imagination as much as Roy’s. Yet the very fact that the new Nobel Prize winner was of Indian descent and pronounced on India and Pakistan kept the subcontinent’s social and religious issues in the news in most parts of Europe.
Neither of these two writers visited Munich during the BuchWoche, a book fair which last March was dedicated to Indian literature. But there were many others from India. The country’s increased presence in Germany can be gauged from the enormous success of this fair which even took the organizers by surprise. Overflowing halls, brisk business by publishers, a rarely witnessed curiosity and eagerness to understand India and its people were in evidence.
Could all this have happened without September 11' I believe not. Obviously, the image of this country has not been improved by the war cries, the massacres, the violent religious fervour. The image of India has merely become more real, instead of being limited to the merely exotic. Which also means that the people in the West are more ready to understand and to condemn less lightly.