For a country that wants to be recognised as a great power it’s a strange, if not debilitating, paradox that we remain parochial, obsessed with ourselves and unconcerned with what’s happening around us. The bizarre bit is we’re not even curious. We simply don’t care.
Nothing illustrates this better than Aung San Suu Kyi. Did anyone question why the foreign minister, who last week visited Burma, did not call on her and why that courtesy was relegated to the foreign secretary? Suu Kyi is a Nehru Prize winner and spent much of her early life in India. She’s a self-acknowledged Gandhian and stands alongside Nelson Mandela as one of the few truly heroic personalities of our time. It should have been an honour for SM Krishna to meet her, not an embarrassment and certainly not a chore.
The truth is he was scared of what Burma’s tin-pot rulers would say and the press implicitly accepted that argument by its convenient silence. But if we accept Burma is now a democracy — and, sadly, we do — how could its generals-in-mufti object to a simple call on a Nobel Peace Prize winner? Moreover, she is Aung San’s daughter and he remains the greatest hero of this tragic country. Yet it’s not just unthinking governments that blind us to the realities of Burma. Our press is equally unwilling to open its eyes and see.
For the last two weeks, Britain has been enthralled by Suu Kyi’s Reith Lectures, recorded in secret and effectively smuggled out of Rangoon. The first was broadcast on Tuesday and the second is day after. They are a passionate, personal and profound commitment to the values all democracies share. And they acknowledge her deep allegiance to Mahatma Gandhi’s creed of non-violence. But do we in India know anything of this? To ask that question is to also answer it.
For our media Burma is not just another country but one that doesn’t matter. Suu Kyi may be a name, a face and a dimly recalled story but the details are forgotten, if they were ever known, and the questions that cry out for an answer in Rangoon evoke no interest in Delhi. Even the two neighbours we bother about are not really understood and their internal struggles or challenges are ignored. For example, we devote great attention to the terror we face from Pakistan but precious little to what terror has done to Pakistan and the trauma of Pakistanis living with this permanent threat. Again, we’re easily aroused by cross-border incursions from the north but blissfully unaware of the tensions — both creative and destructive — that are transforming China. We may be rivals but we remain uninterested in our neighbour. In both cases, I suspect, we don’t even want to know.
To reduce the sublime to the ridiculous, even the hundreds who migrate to London for the summer aren’t interested in Britain. Apart from shop, all they do is spend evenings with each other. They may be in Britain but few meet the British or are interested in the country. Their interests remain desi though they’ve transported themselves to vilayat.
I’m not sure what will change this Indian insularity and unconcern with the outside world. I doubt if it could be the press. It’s more concerned with giving readers what they want rather than what they should be informed about.
So perhaps we’ll carry on like this — wanting to be world leaders while cheerfully ignorant of the world we want to lead.
The views expressed by the author are personal