India ready to help in Ukraine; urges diaspora to contest biased narratives

Updated on Sep 27, 2022 01:04 AM IST

Responding to a question on the difficulties he may have faced in the past in putting forth India’s perspective, Jaishankar said that for most of his career, that had been the case.

External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar.(HT_PRINT)
External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar.(HT_PRINT)

Kicking off the Washington DC leg of his visit on Sunday, India’s external affairs minister S Jaishankar said that the biggest change in his career, a change that he was privileged to be a part of, was the nature of the India-US relationship. He hailed the role of the Indian-American community “as a living bridge” in enabling that shift, and claimed that the street had been ahead of policymakers.

In an expansive interaction with the Indian-American community, the minister also spoke about Russia’s war in Ukraine and expressed India’s willingness to help bring an end to the conflict. He rejected framing the international situation as a battle of civilisational narratives while underlining the need to push out one’s own civilisational narrative, across domains with the participation of the diaspora.

In an apparent reference to the debates on Indian democracy that have been a dominant strain in American academia and media, the minister suggested that those who had “lost out their monopoly to shape narratives in India” and were uncomfortable with India’s own way will continue to try to shape India from outside – he urged the diaspora to contest these narratives.

The minister also emphasised that India had seen a real change in the way needs of the people are being addressed, using technology and a digital services backbone, and invited diaspora to engage with this new India with their expertise. While terming US the number one partner for India in the field of science and technology, the minister also lauded the deepening of ties between India and Israel in recent years under the current government.

Jaishankar was speaking at a community event in Washington DC — soon after he arrived on the Amtrak from New York — to discuss a book on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 20 year in elected political office. He read out short passages on Modi from his own chapter, besides the ones written by the late Lata Mangeshkar, home minister Amit Shah, writer Amish Tripathi and Indian-American community leader Bharat Barai, in the book.

On India-US ties

On the evolution of the India-US relationship, Jaishankar said: “The only embassy I have served in twice in my career is Washington… I say this not as a matter of sentiment of personal attachment but during my professional lifetime as a diplomat, the biggest change I saw and [was] privileged to be a part of was the change in relationship between India and America.”

He added that it took many years and decades to change, but those who saw it from the inside could sense there was a big shift in the making. “This was not a diplomatic or sarkari thing, but a profound shifting of the view of two societies about each other. When societies shift in that manner, it is possible because at the popular level, perceptions have changed. And to my minds that has happened because of the living bridge you represent — the Indian-American community”.

The street, Jaishankar said, taught policymakers what the change was about. “The role and passion of Indian-American community in this relationship, I can’t say enough about it. We have seen the trend accelerate in the last few years. And Madison square was a high point of this.”

Responding to a question on the difficulties he may have faced in the past in putting forth India’s perspective, Jaishankar said that for most of his career, that had been the case.

“There was a time when you had to struggle every day to get your point of view across… In this town, when I first came here in 1984, you had to explain to people where you are from. There were no Indian restaurants here. If they didn’t know your food, where do they start placing you?”

Jaishankar recalled how during his first stint in the Indian embassy in DC, one of his responsibilities was going to the Congress. “We used to struggle to get into people’s offices because that was not the image we had, respect we had. We didn’t count in American calculations. Honest answer is that I spent most of my professional life in a period when we were going up the ladder. It was a daily struggle”

The minister also said that India was a much poorer country. “I talk to younger colleagues and they don’t believe what we were paid. It wasn’t just in the government. Even for people who went out, there was a time when foreign exchange allowance was seven dollars a day or something.”

India, he said, had worked its way up. “We have picked ourselves by the bootstraps and worked our way up…Because we have sharp elbows and held our own even when we didn’t have resources. But precisely because we have the resources, it is important to establish our place, weight, opinion in the world today.”

Ukraine mediation

To a question on whether it was in India’s strategy to mediate between Russia and Ukraine, the minister said what was happening today was not in anybody’s interest. “20 years ago, a conflict would take place in some part of the world. You would read about it, see it on television, have views about it, but your personal life would be less impacted it. But today, a big conflict by definition has enormous ripples across the world… The world has stakes in bringing the conflict to an end.”

But Jaishankar said that there was no easy answer to how to do this because it was also a conflict “between two neighbours, who speak similar languages, who know each other well”.

“Often when you say mediation, it is when there is a lack of communication, lack of understanding and distance. But that’s not the case right now. We have already seen, for example, an effort to bring grain shipments out of Ukraine. This was an effort led by the UN Secretary General. Other countries were very prominent, especially Turkey. We did our little bit in support of that.”

The conflict today had different facets. “If we can help in some ways, we would be obviously responsible enough to do that. Participants know that, the rest of the world know that. Beyond that what happens is in the realm of diplomacy and I can’t say anything more.”

The battle of narratives

When asked about “anti-India narratives” in American universities — both academia and media in the US have been at the forefront of critiquing India’s “democratic backsliding” — the minister said that there were also intense debates underway within India on what India is, what ought to be its aspirations and what is politically correct or not.

Placing the debates within US in perspective, he said, “In a globalised world, the extension of the debate is inevitable outside your country. Debates are no longer conducted within national boundaries. And because we have an Indian-American community here, the debate carries on here.”

But Jaishankar, who is also a Bharatiya Janata Party member of Parliament from Gujarat, said that it was an important issue because it will define what India is about. “Are we proud of our civilisation or are we in denial about it? Are there periods in our history we want to whitewash or are we honest about our history? When we speak about democracy, is democracy an exercise in the expressions of opinion or is it that in the name of political correction, opinions which you don’t like are suppressed?”

In this backdrop, he claimed that more India went its way, people who believed they were the “custodians and shapers of India” lost out, the more some of these debates would come outside because they “are not winning in India”.

“So, they will try to win outside India or try to shape India from outside. It is important to contest it. Most of the Americans don’t know nuances and complexities of the world. It is important not to sit back, not to let other people define you.”

On the narratives about Kashmir and terror, the minister said that it was instructive to look at coverage when a terrorist incident occurs, when Indian soldiers and policemen are killed or abducted, if citizens going about their lives are killed. “How often do you hear people talking about it? Look at the media coverage, what it covers and what it doesn’t cover. That is how perceptions and opinions are shaped.”

Jaishankar, referring to the post-August 5, 2019, criticism of India’s approach to Kashmir, said that there was a big “song and dance” about the internet being cut off. “If you have reached a stage where you say an internet cut is more dangerous than the loss of human lives, what can I say? If you look at the 370 issue, if what was a temporary provision of the Constitution was finally out to rest, this was supposed to be majoritarian. So, tell me what was happening in Kashmir was not majoritarian.”

He added that the way facts were slanted, things were played up, what was right and what was wrong was confused, and it was “actually politics at work”. Urging everyone to join this battle of narratives, Jaishankar said, “We should not let it rest, we should contest it, we should shape the narrative. We need to get our messages out. We are not serving our country well or our beliefs well or even our sense of what is right and wrong by staying out of these debates.”

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    Prashant Jha is the Washington DC-based US correspondent of Hindustan Times. He is also the editor of HT Premium. Jha has earlier served as editor-views and national political editor/bureau chief of the paper. He is the author of How the BJP Wins: Inside India's Greatest Election Machine and Battles of the New Republic: A Contemporary History of Nepal.

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