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Does India see itself as sharing common values with the west?

September 11, 2007

Does India see itself as a natural ally of the west sharing common values of democracy, rule of law and tolerance for other religions and similar threats such as the rise of China and Islamic extremism?

That was a question put to me by a British commentator (Krenim) on this blog. He asked…and I thought I would try to answer to the best of my ability…but every commentator’s response will be a value addition.

Actually in India the ‘west’ is mostly seen as America. America is seen to be the leader of some sort of informal coalition and that is why attitudes towards the west invariably focus on America and anti-western attitudes make the United States the whipping boy.

Is America the favorite whipping boy of most Indians?
Well, India as a country has diverse opinions, because the country itself is so diverse. There are India’s Muslims, India’s Hindus, India’s other religions, India’s communists, India’s intelligentsia, India’s urban middle classes, India’s uneducated rural masses, India’s urban poor, India’s business classes, India’s elite, India’s youth, India’s secular and right-wing parties…

These groups can overlap and merge…or they can be very separate entities with a distinct political voice, with an ability to whip up passions. Some of them shout and scream, making us feel that they represent the majority…but the fact is that none of these groups can presume to represent the majority.

In terms of numbers, India’s masses are the strongest. The masses can have a strong political voice because political parties can manipulate this group …the masses are particularly vulnerable to the machinations of strong, cunning political leaders. But if the poor masses vote for the communist party in say West Bengal, it certainly does not mean that they go along with the party’s anti-west rhetoric. They understand little about foreign policy…and care even less. However if they are told that India is being bullied by America, they will understand that. And that is the message that the communists are sending out. The commies rule only in two states, West Bengal and Kerala.

No other political parties are as anti-west or anti-America as the communists. Even the right-wing parties which often take a stand against the so-called moral decadence of the west tone down their rhetoric when it comes to foreign policy.

The educated middle classes (estimated to be between 250-300m out of a population of 1 billion plus) may be more aware of political realities. They are mostly pro-west, and many are indifferent. They may be politically lazy, and may not even bother to vote, but they want to live by democratic principles and depend on the free market economy for jobs and personal growth. They are also being increasingly drawn by a consumerist lifestyle. They want to more opportunities, greater self-realisation, and more economic freedom. They often talk of disillusionment with political parties.

India’s business classes (and I am talking of big business) are very pro-west and in favour of liberalization and a free market economy, as long as it suits their own business interests. They are certainly pro-west. They can have big clout with the politicians and often have a say in economic and at times, even political decisions. A large section of the smaller traders and small businessman’s lobbies are anti-liberalization, as they view it as a threat to their survival.

India’s Muslims though huge in number comprise just about 13-14 percent of the total population. Today they are believed to be an increasingly divided lot…the days when they could be considered as one single group which political parties could tap for votes are said to be over. However, as a sizeable section of the Muslim community has been left out of the rewards of globalization and lags behind educationally (Sachar report) this makes them more vulnerable to anti-capitalist rhetoric. Combine this with feelings of distrust towards the Indian police and the government and it can make for vulnerable youth. In fact, there are certain groups who blame the Indian government for not supporting Muslim causes across the world strongly enough.

However, it is important to realize that extremism as such has few supporters amongst the Indian Muslim community, and Muslim scholars believe this to be so because Indian Islam is “integrationist and suffused with Sufi elements,” which flies in the face of the philosophy propagated by Al Qaeda. Therefore, India joining hands with the west to fight Al Qaeda is not likely to worry the community much.

The intelligentsia, which also constitutes the press, is pro-west. This has been brought out well by their reactions to the nuclear deal. The press, at least the English press, supported the nuclear deal with America and insisted that cooperating with America was not the same thing as being a slave to America.

An insightful piece of writing on the subject is a piece by Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar in the Times of India. A couple of days ago he wrote about the futility of trying to project America as the enemy. He wrote:

A good way to approach these issues is by asking whether India is any different from the US. The US is a muscular bully globally. So is India in the South Asian region. The US is hated in many countries globally for its muscularity. So is India in South Asia. Obviously, global muscularity is far greater than regional muscularity, but the principle is no different.

Aiyar goes on to explain with live examples, how both the United States and India, while being perceived as ‘bullies’ because they tend to use their military muscle, do not try to grab foreign territory. The point that Aiyar tries to make is that if our neighbors in Asia refuse to cooperate with us because they see us as an ‘imperialist’ force, how irrational we all think they are being! But that is how some people in India view the west, or rather, America. As an ‘imperialist’ yoke that needs to be kept at bay.

As for India’s right-wing parties and their attitude towards the west, the less said the better. Their hypocritical moral posturing and views based on political expediencies are not worth mentioning.

About the question of China, well, historically, the relationship between India and China has been one of mutual suspicion, but right now the main rivalry seems to be in the area of business. True, both America and India realize that India has reasons to be wary of China. In a threat scenario, both America and Japan could be valuable allies of India. In fact, the recent diplomatic row over China’s stand on Arunachal Pradesh was quite embarrassing, but most of the time both sides try to be politically correct.

If someone asked me personally whom I trusted more with India’s sovereignty and independence…the United States or China, I would say the United States. The communists would probably not agree.

Related Reading: Asians don’t each other but they like America
Indian Americans in the United States
NRI’s want dual citizenship but the Indian government has said no

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26 Comments leave one →
  1. September 11, 2007 10:44 am

    Nita, you again beat me to it! I was building up a post on SSA’s article in my mind for the last two days…then when I started reading this post, I thought of commenting about SSA’s article, and then…!

    Nice, balanced, comprehensive response. Good writeup.

  2. September 11, 2007 11:06 am

    Mahendra…great minds think alike! 🙂

  3. September 11, 2007 2:34 pm

    I think there is a strong school of thought amongst educated Indians that distrusts the US. Though I am not aware of stats, it is possible that this number is gradually going down, as more and more people are exposed to American style life, and their kids are shifting to the US.

  4. September 11, 2007 4:07 pm

    This is a quite interesting article, Nita. Very helpful. I agree with you that it would be wise for Japan, India, and the United States to make common cause in dealing with China. I have great respect and admiration for the Chinese people, but no love for their government, and I do not see their economic rise as trouble free for our three nations.

    A friend of mine from Bosnia thinks that a Chinese superpower would be a good thing. I keep trying to tell her: “If you think America is a lawless imperial bully, just wait until the Chinese are the world’s leading superpower!”

  5. krenim permalink
    September 11, 2007 4:19 pm

    Thanks a lot.Will be watching this space for a few days.Will comment later.

  6. Vivek Khadpekar permalink
    September 11, 2007 4:41 pm

    In a world where each nation is guided primarily by its economic and military self-interest, Krenim,s terms such as “natural ally”, “common values of democracy”, “rule of law”, “tolerance for other religions”, “similar threats” etc. are meaningful only to the extent that they make for impressive-sounding rhetoric. In practical terms they carry little meaning.

    The USA, while proclaiming itself as the guardian of democracy worldwide, has always propped up despotic regimes that help protect and fulfil its global designs. In recent years Britain and France, whom one fondly regarded as the champions of liberty and human rights, have sought to restrict these basic freedoms in the name of ridding the public domain of overt expressions of religious faith. There is no logical reason why India, despite its traditionally holier-than-thou stance vis-à-vis the rest of the world, should be any different.

    The rise of China a threat? I don’t know. For whom? India in the short run, maybe. But if wisdom prevails on both sides, then India and China working in mutual complementarity in the global economic arena pose a greater threat to the West and the Pacific Rim than to each other.

    Islamic extremism, save for its terroristic face, is no different than Hindu or Christin extremism, and no one can deny these have been increasingly rearing their ugly heads in the regions where they hold sway.

    Nita, you said:
    “If someone asked me personally whom I trusted more with India’s sovereignty and independence…the United States or China, I would say the United States. The communists would probably not agree.”

    I am not a card-carrying communist; but still I would not agree with you. The only country I would trust with (safeguarding) India’s sovereignty is India itself. But we need to be pragmatic and dispassionate about what we consider as “sovereignty”.

  7. September 11, 2007 5:21 pm

    Paul, you have echoed my feelings.

    Rambodoc, I am not aware of this, but could it be region based? You live in West Bengal for example. The Maharastrian middle class has been going out to America for long time now, before this ‘exodus’ from almost every family. Ditto with Punjabis, Sikhs, Gujaratis. But you have brought forward a very interesting point…that the middle-class people views about the west can be greatly shaped by their personal experience.

    Vivek, I too hope that India and China work peacefully together as I like the Chinese people and in fact admire them greatly, but like Paul, I have great distrust of their government. This latest hacking controversy which is making headlines around the world is another thing that makes me doubt the good intentions of their government.
    Also, their intentions on Arunachal Pradesh, which I consider an integral part of India are publicly known.
    When you said that “the only country I would trust with (safeguarding) India’s sovereignty is India itself” I agree with you. My statement was concerning a choice between the US and China…a purely rhetorical question.
    P.S Another thing I read today in the newspapers. China is considering banning ALL sites which have the comment feature turned on…blogs, forums, networking sites etc. Many sites are already inaccessible there…

  8. September 11, 2007 6:01 pm

    Dear Nita,

    I do hope that I can shed some light on opinions in America vis a vis the attitudes and desires of the public. I claim no special knowledge in terms of politics or business. Again I am struck by your remark that the Indian middle class is 200-300 million.

    As I stated before, that is the entire population of the United States at the top end. Our middle class is shrinking, not growing, and that single fact is why there is so much unrest in America. Our standard of living is stagnant and for many it is falling.

    First of all, when the ‘average’ American thinks of India, if they have any knowledge at all, they think of four things.

    1. A local Indian restaurant.
    2. Any motel or hotel owner or manager.
    3. Customer Service calls are answered in India.
    4. Their doctor.

    To view America through the prism of the military or government would be in error, because the vast majority of Americans couldn’t find India or China on a map. American’s think with their wallets and if they perceive that ‘they’ are the problem, they as in the people that live someplace else and are stealing our jobs, that is when there is trouble.

    Ignorance is bliss and in America, that applies to most of the population, rich or poor. That is the truth.


  9. September 11, 2007 6:34 pm

    Brian, you say you have no special knowledge, but frankly your comment seems to be bang on!
    From relatives that I have in the US, I have realised that the average American is not very interested in India or China, except with reference to the things you mentioned. China perhaps might be more intriguing to them in fact as it is growing as a world power and Chinese goods are flooding American markets.
    However, I am not sure what you mean by unrest. Do you mean dissatisfaction with the government?

  10. September 11, 2007 6:34 pm

    “The only country I would trust with (safeguarding) India’s sovereignty is India itself”//
    And believe me, India has done nothing to deserve your trust. It has been lucky not to have been blown up by a dirty bomb or two. It has tried hard to divide its society, be selective in its interpretation of rights, and, additionally, kowtowed to all manners of thugs and terrorists.
    All in the name of democracy!

  11. September 11, 2007 7:20 pm

    Thank you Nita.

    By unrest I mean the American tendency to lash out at others. We have an unfortunate national myopia when it comes to acknowledging our own faults and responsibilities. Americans as a general rule believe that it’s the government’s job to provide them with a high standard of living. Yet the paradox is that the majority of people will also state that they want less government interference in personal liberties.

    American history is replete with episodes of public and private anger at foreigners both inside and outside this country. Being an American has always meant primarily being white and that racial bias is the driving force behind the publics approval of military adventures. ‘They aren’t like us’ is the rallying cry.

    China is another case entirely. Consumer spending in America represents 2/3rds of the GDP. Those consumers have long demanded lower prices instead of quality and this has artificially kept the middle class afloat. However, when those lower prices goods are proved to be harmful and dangerous, then the public turns around and blames the government for allowing them to be sold.

    You see?

  12. September 11, 2007 7:33 pm

    Wow Brian, thats a very candid and objective response! Thank you.

    Rambodoc, you seem disillusioned with the government and well, to a large extent so are all of us.

  13. Vivek Khadpekar permalink
    September 11, 2007 8:02 pm


    Granting ALMOST everything you say, I would still trust our own government (I believe that’s what you mean) to safeguard our sovereignty than any other country’s.

    Who was the Central American despot whose atrocities Nixon defended, saying, “He may be a bastard, but he’s OUR bastard!”

  14. Vivek Khadpekar permalink
    September 11, 2007 8:15 pm

    I just got the following from an Indian friend who has settled in the USA for the last 25 years, got his doctorate in Physics from Princeton, opted out of scientific research to become a school teacher in a school for less privileged kids in Brooklyn, is married to a Chinese woman, and is a human rights activist. I don’t know if what he has written really has a place in this blog, but thought I would share it anyway.


    a funny antiwar (and, unfortunately, anti-usa) video from india,with
    a female singer and dancer, who sings in a caricature of a strong
    south indian accent and dances in a bizarre caricature of a south
    indian classical dance style…

    she sings “bombs follow when bribes don’t work” or something to
    that effect, and dances on george bush’s shoulder…

    unfortunately, this is probably a reasonable expression of how much
    of the world views the usa nowadays, as a consequence of our long
    history of military ventures abroad, and, in particular the blatant series
    of outright lies that led up to the current iraq war, and which still continue.

    although these lies probably fooled large segments of the isolated u.s.
    population at first, they did not play well in much of the rest of the globe.

    although the U.S. was a major player in the alliance that defeated the
    fascist axis powers in the 40’s, its military actions since then have not
    been looked upon favorably by the general population in most places
    outside its borders

  15. September 11, 2007 8:44 pm

    nita – I think the question is a very deceptive one:

    Does India see itself as a natural ally of the west sharing common values of democracy, rule of law and tolerance for other religions and similar threats such as the rise of China and Islamic extremism?

    It first points out the main positives of one side and contrasts against the negatives of the other side. It implies that “we are all about the positives” and “they are all about the negatives”. Then it asks you to be an ally, which involves a huge commitment – one which in reality requires you to overlook any negatives on the western side (which includes compromising democracy as you see fit, bullying small guys etc.) But an astute, “not yet decided” country must look at the whole package before becoming an “ally” – atleast the way it is used here.

    It is not very different from Bush’s “you are either with us, or you are against us”. It is just phrased much better.

    Don’t get me wrong – I certainly think just on big positives vs. the big negatives, the west is a better alternative for India. They certainly are the highlights of the main differences. But this message is offered always with the western spin (media, goventment) on this. It has too much marketing, and too much hype for my taste. The trouble is that the people who can make a difference believe in it fully, and hence they never look at themselves with a critical eye when it comes to foreign policy. They can do better but they think since they are better than others, this is not only good enough, this is damn close near to the ideal! Hence it strokes their ego more and more. The american public (and for that matter the public of any country) is easily convinced of this because this is a nationalistic/patriotic drug. They lap it up in no time.

    Also, I guess I am too out of touch with India. Isnt it a far too big, complex and (now) powerful country, to be still wary of chinese domination? This is not the India of the 60s. I would wager that the chinese government is neither dumb nor trigger-happy.

  16. B Chopra permalink
    September 11, 2007 8:48 pm

    India already in the past had lost several opportunities to be at the front in line with west.. India as an emerging economy, should be invigorated with maximum possible support policies.

    It’s interesting to watch next 10-15 years.. Things are very much focused on USA-China-India.. hope to see constructive cooperation b/w all three in new era..

    I think It’s still a mystery with China’s intention in international relation.. I hope it will also come forward and strengthen the hands of unity and prosperity.

  17. September 11, 2007 9:00 pm

    Thanks Vivek for sharing that. Very interesting, specially as it comes from a human rights activist.

    Bharat, I agree with you about the mystery about China. I simply cannot make up my mind whether it is a friend or not…and am open to be convinced either way. I do want to believe that China intends to be a friend…

    Arunk (I know k is an initial but I quite like the way it sounds as Arunk), your comment has set me thinking! You are absolutely right, one cannot think just on “big positives vs. the big negatives.” The issue is far more complex than that. About China, I cannot say for sure.

  18. September 12, 2007 3:53 am

    First, Brian:

    First of all, when the ‘average’ American thinks of India, if they have any knowledge at all, they think of four things.
    1. A local Indian restaurant.
    2. Any motel or hotel owner or manager.
    3. Customer Service calls are answered in India.
    4. Their doctor.

    I take that as a tribute to the U.S. How many Chinese or Indians would think of those things, when they think (if at all they do) of America?

    About “the American tendency to lash out at others”, do you know how often and for what fantastic things, Indians who can read and write had lashed out at the CIA and Cocoa Cola? It doesn’t matter what nationality, ethnicity, class, or caste that you may belong to, nothing is more exulting than lashing out at “others” responsible for one’s woe’s! It’s a universal palliative.

    Next, Vivek:
    Why is it that the so-called human rights activists have a 20/20 vision when it comes to American misadventures abroad, but are practically blind to those of Russia and China. It make me wonder if they were even born when the Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest, Kabul, Prague, Latvia, Poland … and never left until the empire (oops, that’s a title reserved for another country in those circles, is it not?) collapsed. China is only a short term threat to the region? You must ask the Tibetans and the Vietnamese for an answer.

    Islamic extremism is no different from Hindu or Christian extremism? I urge you to read the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Which sections of the Indian Penal Code do you think reflect the Laws of Manu, or the French “droit pénal” the Biblical laws? How about the criminal law in Saudi Arabia and Sharia?

    As for the video of a woman dancing on President Bush’s shoulders that your friend in New York saw, does he think that he can write to you about watching Madonna dancing on Hu Jintao with Dalai Llama’s head in his hand, while vacationing in Beijing? He’d be lucky to read your emailed link to the video, and still stay alive!

    To paraphrase what Queen Sheelavati says to the King of Shravasti in the movie Anaahat, “wisdom is knowing the difference between the transient and the eternity”. The differences that India and the U.S. have are transient. The values that they share are eternal.

    Sorry, Nita, for taking up so much of your comment bandwidth 😦

  19. September 12, 2007 7:29 am

    Rational Fool, you are welcome! 🙂

    True, the tendency to lash out and blame everybody else except ourselves is an universal human tendency.

    Also you have put it very well:

    The differences that India and the U.S. have are transient. The values that they share are eternal.

    These are words that will remain in my mind.

  20. September 12, 2007 7:50 am

    Why is it that the so-called human rights activists have a 20/20 vision when it comes to American misadventures abroad, but are practically blind to those of Russia and China.

    TRF: Which human rights activists are you referring to? I hear and read plenty about the journalists in Russia being knocked off who were critical of Putin. I read about beheadings in China and their cleansing policies in Tibet. In fact, I think that Indian (and USA) democracy is a huge advantage over China.

    One reason for the 20/20 vision could be that USA at every opportunity flaunts it’s credentials of being a champion of freedom, democracy, liberty etc. so indulging in misadventures abroad and participating in human rights abuses is simply hypocritical, IMO. Plus, a democracy gives us the right to question such misadventures as it’s our tax money being wasted. It’s a case of not walking the talk – muh mein Ram, bagal mein churi.

    Sorry to nit-pick, but I agree with the general idea of your comments, and the other points you made.

  21. Vivek Khadpekar permalink
    September 12, 2007 2:51 pm

    Rational …. ,

    I was about to dash off an immediate response to your post, but stumbled on Amit’s en route, and find he has articulated some of my thoughts much better than I could.

    Just a couple of points more: Every comment, like every truth, has a context. I am sure every thinking person who makes a seemingly sweeping negative comment on anything, is also aware of the alternative perspectives on the subject, and would adopt them in the appropriate context. It is just that an Indian or an American, both members of rather excessively self-righteous societies, attract more flak than others when they make a comment that does not fit into an all-accommodating world-view, or runs contrary to their own actions that contradict the self-righteous stance.

    It is one of my great regrets that I have not seen “Anaahat”. I should have — not only for whatever intrinsically positive qualities it has as a film, but also because it happens to be in my mother-tongue Marathi; one of the very few films in that language to have won critical acclaim in the last 50+ years — but never had the opportunity. And mere critical acclaim is not enough to win a film a place on the shelves of a video library.

    One is, of course, aware of the nature of wisdom (even though one may not have internalised it as thoroughly as one should), but life itself is transient, and its “vyakta” dimensions tend predominantly to be responses to transient realities.

  22. September 12, 2007 6:11 pm

    I must applaud The Rational Fool for his excellent comments. His erudition is reflected as much in his comments as in his screen name!
    I encourage readers to read his articles. The truth in them hits one between the eyeballs.

  23. September 12, 2007 6:12 pm

    I really don’t know why many of my comments go into spam or moderation. A similar thing sometimes happens to Mahendra’s comments in my blog, though not recently.

  24. Sahil permalink
    December 21, 2007 12:56 am

    “Does India see itself as a natural ally of the west sharing common values of democracy, rule of law and tolerance for other religions and similar threats such as the rise of China and Islamic extremism?”

    Yes. All democracies in the world should be united. It is in the interest of India to be allyed with present democratic nations,including the US. That is the sure direction of progress and scientific development in our country. A fully-democratic world consisting of India, USA, Western nations, Japan, Korea etc. should eventually pressurise non-democratic nations such as Russia, China, Saudi Arabia or Pakistan to become one among us!

    Culturally, even though India is different from the West-I’m sure there is enough room for development of a “fusion” culture in the long term: Indian + Western + Chinese/Asian. After all, India has always embraced multicultural melting-pot experiments. We really need to borrow some things from other countries: punctuality from the Germans, innovativeness from the British, enterprise from the Americans, sporting culture of the Australians, work culture of the Japanese.

    If someone asks me to define Indian culture, I always keep a simple description ready with me, “Indian culture is a 5000-year old melting pot of all contemporary civilizations, and its future course lies in acting as a stabilizing agent for the whole world, in terms of peace, scientific progress and universal brotherhood.”

    Therefore, I welcome Western culture or any other culture to make inroads into India’s as they call it, the Ganga-Jamuna sargam. As India rises to become a superpower in future, more nations would naturally see the benefit of following this time-tested way of thinking unique to Indian culture: Gandhian values, vegetarianism and teetotalirism, respect for family and elders, etc.

    My only concern is about Islamic nations. Their value system is at odds from the rest of the world. Even though Muslims can be the same as other human beings, Islamic nations are living out-of-step with 21st century- radical Islam is what we don’t need in today’s world. Let it be replaced by moderate Islam – there is a need for reform in this religion.

  25. vish permalink
    May 13, 2008 12:35 pm

    A good article…

  26. Chandergurpt Maurya permalink
    April 26, 2009 12:48 am

    America is odds with itself. On the one hand it is a freedom loving nation, yet at the same time it is restricted and races harldly mix with each other on the weekend. It supports dictators and has been Pakistans life line. It stopped India by threatning nuclear war from destroying Pakistan in 1971. The Indian youth and politicians have no national sentiment nor appreciation of finer cultural and national aspirations. They copy the west because they suffer from deep seating inferiority complexes to fair skined people. China over came this. This is the main reason China is becoming a super power and India gets attacked from Islamic terrorists who owe their training to American hands in the Afganistan conflict. America made India’s neiborhood into the worst in the world. And what has India done about it. Nothing, it wants to find common goals and cultural ties, with it’s former colonizers and dividers. Bravo, that is exactly what we needed freedom and democracy for!

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