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February 16, 1999

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Loss of Image, what?

We English-literate Indians as a class must be a hypersensitive lot. And it's a considerably big lot --- right from President Narayanan and Madam Jayalalitha down to the editors, their chosen columnists and the part-time writers who have their letters printed in the press.

Witness, for instance, the ceaseless spate of statements from May last expressing anger or agony or both that have appeared in the sophisticated, civilised section of our Fourth Estate about the "damage" to the country's "image" over this or that happening ---from the nuclear tests at Pokhran to the rape of some nuns in Jhabua, the murder of the Stains and the digging up of a cricket pitch in Delhi.

It is time perhaps to reflect on what are the ingredients that constitute a country's international image. History seems to indicate that a nation's status in the world depends on its military might or economic might or both; only in rare cases does it hinge on the universal appeal of a towering leader like Mahatma Gandhi or a Nelson Mandela, but such an association can be but a temporary phase. The Soviet Union's international clout rested on its military might; the USA's stands solid on its stunning economic prosperity as well, while China is now heading for that position. The erstwhile West Germany, the post-World War II Japan, all of Western Europe ---all hold a high stature based on their superior ranking in the human development index measured by various factors such as per capita income, literacy rate, health care and extent of poverty.

India's post-Independence image rests on its adherence to unbridled democracy for over half a century, barring the brief Emergency period; the national effort to advance in multifarious fields has been strictly on democratic lines despite the frustrating constrictions imposed by that system of governing a massive population of bewildering diversity in the matter of language and literacy, beliefs and behaviour. Another ingredient of our image is that we are not a hegemonistic country. Thus, anything that violates the majority canon of democratic governance or any act of unilateral aggression on another sovereign state could alone be construed as a debasement of our nation's image.

It is therefore time to remind the hypersensitive that neither internal strife nor the degree of willingness to kowtow to homilies from other countries determines national image; why, as in Communist China, even the rape of human rights does no more than brush the fringe of a country's reputation.

It is also time to remind the hypersensitive English-literate Indians that the world beyond India is not all that pure and upright and clean and cultured as they would want us ordinary citizens to believe and hang our heads in shame by comparison. Below are recent examples picked at random,and picked quite easily at that.

Bill Clinton, president of the USA, has been proved as one who had kinky sex in his hallowed office with a temporary female employee and lied about it to the whole world. Yet, the bulk of the superpower's population has rated him high and stood behind him. Nobody there has talked of presidential moral turpitude being a slur on the USA's international image. Does that fact simultaneously make the Republican Party's Congress members "anti-national"?

On February 4 this year, four New York policemen fired 41 bullets at 22-year-old Ahmed Diallo, a street peddler from Guinea without a police record. Diallo was shot while in the vestibule of his home and died with 24 bullets in his body. Hundreds of protestors denounced the incident but nobody seems to have agonised about the USA's loss of image because of the dastardly and explosive racially tinged case.And unlike our own President wrought over the murder of a white man in Orissa, Uncle Sam's hasn't issued any emotional statement lamenting the brutal killing of an innocent Negro from abroad.

Prosecution trial against a religious group called Jehovah's Witnesses has been resumed in Moscow under a Russian 1997 law on freedom of conscience and religious organisations which requires all religious groups to re-register by the end of 1999. Despite criticism of the law by the United States and the Vatican, and despite Russia's economic plight making it so dependent on American and European bail-outs, no Russian leader has talked of any loss of face on account of his country's policy on religion.

In China, bomb blasts that killed 20 people and injured more than a hundred in the last month have been linked to a violent rural revolt arising from abuses of local power, illegal taxes and levies, confiscation of property and issue of IOUs instead of cash for crops bought by the State, Now we haven't heard anybody talk of China meting out such treatment to peasants as a loss of image, have we? Indeed, China has gone on to threaten the USA with setbacks in bilateral relations if Washington went ahead with its move to provide a missile shield to Taiwan.

Japan is now talking of developing a $ 222-million theatre missile defence system ostensibly against North Korea but in reality meant to ward off China. Nobody there or elsewhere is speaking of the blow to Japan's 50-year-old image of being a peace-loving nation fanatically opposed to nuclearisation.

In Japan again, the most popular choice for its prime minister now is the daughter of one who was the disgraced and most corrupt prime minister of the country since World War II. Some image that!

South Africa has reported an annual murder figure of around 25,000 for the last five years. Yet, nobody has even whispered about Nelson Mandela's image being sullied by that shattering statistic.

Two senior ministers in Tony Blair's cabinet have had to resign --- one because of his soliciting a gay and another for taking a big loan with a nexus. Brittania's image hasn't nose-dived, has it?

Towards the end of last month, after the killing of a former IRA murderer, England's House of Commons heatedly debated the growing level of punishment beatings, intimidation and arson in North Ireland despite the much-touted peace agreement there. But no one has debunked the nation's image as having fallen on its face after the world-acclaimed and Clinton-backed Good Friday agreement.

Early last month, gunmen opened fire at Shia worshippers praying in a mosque in Pakistan's eastern Punjab province. The carnage resulted in 17 killed and 25 wounded, 13 critically. Soon thereafter, the USA acceded to a massive IMF loan package to Pakistan despite the prevalent "nuclear" sanctions. Loss of image, did you say?

A fortnight ago, Sheikh Hasina, prime minister of Bangladesh, was officially charged with contempt of court. Was that deemed a slur on the national image?

On February 2 this year, a high-ranking leader of an Opposition party in Singapore was found guilty by a court of making a public speech without obtaining the permit ordained by law. Loss of prestige there for Asia's much-praised city state? Imagine a law of that kind itself --- loss of prestige for the law makers and the people?

Malaysia threw out at least 25,000 foreign workers in 1998 because they were either sick or pregnant. Jyoti Basu surely would have described that as "barbaric"(his favourite word) but Malaysians aren't talking of any loss of image.

On February 10 this year, the judge in the trial of the ousted Malaysian deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, ordered a media blackout on remarks allegedly made by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed and former police chief, Rahim Noor. The judiciary gagging the media --- loss of image?

Towards the end of last month, after an earthquake in Armenia, a city of Colombia, had left 250,000 homeless, armed gangs continued to roam the streets, looting supermarkets and stores, throwing stones at soldiers and police officers. Loss of face, know?

Venezuela's president-elect is someone who was cashiered from the country's army and later spent two years in jail. A convict for a president --- sullying of national image, surely?

In Zimbabwe, a newspaper editor recently narrated how he was huddled with drunks and wife beaters on the stone floor of a police cell after he was arrested for writing a report which angered the government. Intolerance of media criticism plus police cruelty against a journalist --- reasons enough to spoil national image, don't you think?

After reading the preceding dossier of events in a wide enough spectrum of countries, our sophisticated and civilised English-literate Indians may well conclude that those firangis are utterly insensitive about national PR. They would have a point if --- and only if --- they themselves agreed to express angst and anguish and anger over the latest happening in Ambernath, a Mumbai suburb, reported in Express Newsline which Mumbaiites get with their copy of The Indian Express.

According to that happening, reported under the by-line of one Yogesh Pawar, an evangelist priest, George David Manuel (48), was arrested by Ambernath police on February 9 following a complaint that he had burnt portraits of Hindu gods and goddesses to exorcise evil from the home of a family which, failing in all efforts to cure a male member suffering from violent fits, were led to George who was supposedly "good at exorcism". When reporter Pawar met Manuel after the latter was booked under Section 295 of India Penal Code, the arrested priest said, "I was only doing God's work, nobody understands."

Now, the "fascist fundamentalists" and "goons" of the Sangh Parivar didn't plant George Manuel at Ambernath, did they? For all you know, the hypersensitive English-literate Indians may say -- and write -- just that!

Tailpiece: An excellent example of the highly imaginative and hypersensitive breed of people is that bunch which thought that my sentence in a previous column that "his (Thackeray's) thinking was right, his tactic was wrong" in the matter of opposition to Pakistan's cricket tour was actually meant as a defence of all that Thackeray was doing. They all forgot that, in 1974, India gave up the chance of a lifetime to win the prestigious Davis Cup when it refused to play the final against South Africa as a continuing mark of our protest against that country's apartheid policy. Was that decision of Indira Gandhi's government of India a matter of sport or politics? And remember, South Africa was not sponsoring terrorism in our Kashmir or elsewhere in our land.

Arvind Lavakare

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