When the Indian government pursues foreign policy initiatives, it often difficult for the lay citizen to understand its human impact. Here's a real life example of how our neighbours look upon a democratic, strong and yet fairly liberal India reaching out to them.
This conversation, which took place in a cab, gave me some interesting insights into how an Afghan Shia intellectual views India.
Me: Where are you from?
ASI: From central Afghanistan.
Me: So, are things improving there?
ASI: Not as much as they should. America didn't have any intentions to help us. I think they just want a presence to keep an eye on everybody else such as China, Russia and perhaps even India.
In Kabul, at the university I taught, I couldn't be sure if I or the students would show up tomorrow. And all because of Pakistan. That's why I got out. There was no future for my family.
Me: All I care about Pakistanis is when we can play IPL with them, nothing more. But your perspective of the darker realities is much more up close and personal?
What a country! A Muslim can be a missile scientist and a popular president...
ASI: I was as strong a believer in Islam as could be but after all that happened I refuse to believe anymore. The Quran does have segments about non-believers and heretics that especially in the hands of the indoctrinated and uncouth become instruments of oppression of every sect or group that does not in some way belong to the "one true path". I and my family were ostracized in our own homes and communities. See you never hear of Shias involved in all these terrorist activities. Anyway, I'm an atheist now.
Me: Well, I'm religious and do have these arguments with atheists that not all religion is bad. But beyond a point, how much can one defend all religions? Shias have done quite well in India. Lucknow and Kashmir have many Shias.
ASI: All trouble is due to extremists, like that Zakir Naik.
Me: Hindus are tolerant about religious views but this guy on a public stage publicly...
Me: Yes. Publicly humiliated a spiritual leader who came for dialogue with him. Well... that killed it. Now, he's persona non-grata in India.
ASI: But you also need to ban his television (Peace TV)...
Me: Yes. But there is freedom of expression in India. We have several liberals who feel that's his right.
(Update: Apparently there is a ban in place but not always obeyed by some cable operators)
ASI: Liberals sometimes overdo things and create troubles for others. In morning side park, an Azaan call was made and 200 people assembled. There is no way that could have been spontaneous. And I ran away from my country to escape precisely this. There are so many mosques. Why can't they congregate there instead? When I called the liberal governed city, the authorities listened but didn't actually do anything to break up the prayer.
Me (changing subject): What language do you speak back home?
Me: Ah. Omar Khayyam. If there were no partition, Hindustani with some Farsi roots would have been the most widely spoken official language. Or if the last Mughal emperor's brother Dara Shikoh had assumed power instead, India would have been spared Aurangzeb's bigotry and constant battles of supremacy...
ASI:.. which destroyed the central government and paved the way for the British.
Baghdad too had a golden age under Harun al-Rashid's son when science, math and arts flourished. Zero was systematized.
Me (with emphasis): Introduced to the West.
ASI: Yes of course. Zero originated in India... So, what are the wealthy states in India?
The Russians used to say there is good cinema, bad cinema and then there is Indian cinema. Perhaps they were unkind.
Me: Maharashtra perhaps although there are huge income disparities in that state. So, if you take income disparity into account, maybe Tamil Nadu.
ASI: Tamil, the root of so many Indian languages. I'm a linguist by training.
Me: Yes. As is Sanskrit of many others. As a matter of fact, I have an idea about an automatic language translator for the Indian Parliament where all our leaders can speak and listen to one another in native languages. A grand unifier for my country!
ASI: The idea is fantastic! It can be a tremendous project.
Me: Thanks! I plan to get all the help and expertise I can get.
ASI: The Russians used to say there is good cinema, bad cinema and then there is Indian cinema. Perhaps they were unkind. I mean musicals as a part and parcel of cinema never really caught on in the rest of the world.
Me: Millions still prefer it that way. If you are looking for rational and cerebral Indian cinema...
ASI: Then I look for Satyajit Ray.
Me: Or for example, Anurag Kashyap among the newer ones. Bengalis, like Ray, haven't made internationally recognized cinema in several decades now. All because their economy collapsed under Communist rule.
ASI: Communists in India?
Me: Yes. The longest democratically elected ever government destroyed the state's economy. Hardly any of my Bengali friends lives there anymore.
ASI: You know I visited the Soviet Union and wrote an article that it collapsed because of three reasons: it did not recognize the human need to want a better life, its black economy (... I visited a director of a company who had slaves from Eastern Europe in his basement and money in Swiss banks because he couldn't show off in that society), and finally international students like me who were invited in the millions to create ideological slaves in third world countries but who turned out to have more money than the Soviet students. That surely raised questions about their economic system.
I and my family were ostracized in our own communities. See you never hear of Shias involved in all these terrorist activities. Anyway, I'm an atheist now.
Me: In India also we had similar issues due to a quasi-socialist system. Nehru one can forgive as the priorities for a new country were different. But Indira Gandhi was the worst prime minister economically. Her Garibi Hatao neither helped the poor nor the rich and entrenched a culture of corruption and mediocrity. While her son meant well and tried his best until he got assassinated, not until 1991 did the situation really change. And only now are efforts being made by the finance minister to bring back black money from Swiss banks.
ASI: Atal Behari Vajpayee changed things around?
Me: The reforms were initiated primarily by former PM PV Narasimha Rao who provided the political backing for the brilliant economist Manmohan Singh to architect and implement his radical policies. AB Vajpayee was sagacious enough to continue and expand on them.
ASI: Modi is like AB Vajpayee?
Me: From the same roots but his own man. Right for the country in many ways now!
ASI: I've heard his brother still runs the same small store he did before Modi was the PM.
Me: He is so dedicated that his wife is not really a part of his life. But he isn't the first to not have a family. India's father of the missile program and former president Dr. APJ Kalam also never married.
ASI: What a country! A Muslim can be a missile scientist and a popular president...
Me: Yes. He was Muslim. He inspired many and I have read a lot of his books.... So, India is building a port in Chabahar, Iran.
ASI: To avoid Pakistan and reach markets in Iran, Afghanistan and central Asia. India even worked with Afghanistan on the Salma dam. Both India and Iran have shared economic interests. Even during the sanctions, India and Iran had trade relations.
Me: Maybe that's what matters for all countries. Make money, have fun with family, enjoy life. Alvida for now.