Thursday, May 05, 2005

Retracing ancient friends: India, Iran and West Asia

By yours truly

Most Indians look bewildered when told the Middle East is not the Middle East for us but actually West Asia. Some may go on and insist that the two are different geographical entities and, given a chance, they would probably even point them out on a world map. Few evince any interest in the difference that, even though being fine, has an important story to tell.

Hair-splitting and senseless, do you think? Certainly not. This is perhaps the best example to show how India’s perception of West Asia, a region that has had independent and deep ties with us since antiquity, has always been shaped by that of Europe and, now gradually, the United States. To the point that most Indians, even leading dailies and scholars here, refer to it as Middle East. This despite the fact that West Asia has always been diametrically opposite to India’s east. Our ‘Middle East’, if at all, could be somewhere in China’s southeast!

It defies reason how we have come to accept an Euro-centric term as the norm in the Indian context and evokes a sense of pity how this attitude may have harmed and distanced the two regions. So, why carry on viewing West Asia, an immensely important region, through an inherited and an outsider’s perspective? Can’t we enhance an independent understanding based on our ancient ties? How do we tap our mutual potential and break the mould we seem to have set into? And could we offer the rest of the world a fresh perspective on the region? Questions that have to be answered as India seeks a greater role internationally, including a permanent seat in the UN Security Council.

But alas, even today the region’s coverage in most Indian journals is largely restricted to wire service reports, such as Reuters and AFP, which are essentially crafted for a global (read western) audience. Even comments and editorials are reprinted, word for word, from leading newspapers in the west such as The New York Times and The Guardian. So, for example, we have Thomas Friedman’s columns on West Asia that are replete with references to George Bush’s national energy policies and the lack of credible opposition from the Democrats.

Not that I intend to debase his writing, which would undoubtedly rank as one of the most incisive in present day journalism, but do Indians really have to sift through the trends in US politics to understand West Asia? In other words, why should our understanding of the region be shaped by or routed through those in the west? Surely, Indians would have a different take on the region, including the west’s obsession for the veil as a symbol of oppression. There are notable exceptions in India like Saeed Naqvi, a veteran journalist who has covered the region, and Chinmaya Gharekhan, who has been appointed as India’s Special Envoy for West Asia. Naqvi has even called for the creation of an “Indian BBC or CNN”. We need more Naqvis to change things the way they are now.

Recently, we have been assailed with news coverage, again mostly from western news agencies, about how Iran, one of the three coordinates of the “axis of evil”, allegedly poses a nuclear threat to the US and the rest of the world. Does that hold good also for India? What could be India’s interest in Iran at this critical juncture and can we play a role to defuse the emerging conflict? There has been so little discussion on that in the Indian media.

(But, to be fair, I must mention that Iran has of late generated interest in the Indian media because of a proposed gas pipeline from there to India that would pass through Pakistan. But then it is just the pipeline. And when has oil been out of the media radar’s attention range?)

Coming back to my point, even today there are few scholars and journalists who cover and write habitually on the region. For that matter, I struggle to recall when was the last time I read an authoritative piece on India vis-à-vis the Israel-Palestine conflict – one that has defined global politics for over half a century. And isn’t it cruel when you hear from Indians who fail to distinguish between Iranians and Arabs? It is like hearing from an Iranian that all Indians are “Hindis”!

But it is not just current political issues that lack coverage. Even human interest stories, which have a far greater strength to move people, have rarely appeared in the media. Isn’t there a need to focus on people that bind India with that region, like the Indian Jews in Israel or the Zoroastrians in Iran? And these are the obvious subjects. For example, very few media reports were carried on the recent decision by Chief Rabbi of the Sephardic Jews, Shlomo Amar, that 6,000 members of the Bnei Menashe community in India’s northeast are “descendants of ancient Israelites”. There is so much more we have in common and that deserves to be written about but unfortunately all of it is being shelved in an increasing world of uni-polarised information.

Add to that India’s large untapped soft-power in the region that many western scholars are now writing about and think might prove crucial to break the nuclear impasse with Iran, among other current crises in that region. “India has strong untapped soft-power in the world stemming from its democratic government, support for human rights, independent judiciary, and political stability. And Delhi has the bomb and international legitimacy while Tehran has neither. Of any country, India would be an ideal negotiator between the Western countries and Iran,” wrote Ryan Floyd, a member of the Yale Grand Strategies Program, in The Indian Express on December 7, 2004, in reference to the ongoing nuclear crisis.

And do I need to say anything about Bollywood – India’s popular Hindi film industry that has always had an appeal across the region? One of India’s first exports to Afghanistan, after the fall of the Taliban, included copies of Indian films. It is also worth mentioning here that Dokhtar-e Lor, Iran’s first “talkie”, was shot and produced in Mumbai (Bombay). Ferdowsi, Shirin and Farhad, including other famous films, were also made in India.

Like Iran, nations there we must remember have had deep-rooted links with India. So much so that, a lot of their heritage goes unnoticed in our daily life. Like words borrowed from Persian in Bengali and Hindi. Or stories that have been passed down to us from our ancestors. Or the fact that there was more Persian literature being produced in India at one point of time that in Persia itself. These links need to be rediscovered to foster understanding, something the world can never have enough of in times that we live in today. It is a pity that they rust today, instead of serving as the reenergizing factor in our ties. It is time we moved on from the conventional “news spots” and the routine “news stories”.

West Asia continues to be one of the most misunderstood regions in the world, which is evident from mostly ignorant and arrogant comments like 'with us or with them'. However, just a gentle breeze and a scratch would reveal a different outlook. The region is a dynamic and vibrant land like any other, subject to the same global forces that are sweeping across India. And like our country, West Asia is also demographically youthful, offering us tremendous scope to bring the youth together on issues that concern the two region.

Why do we only gaze together at the west when we could also gaze at and learn from each other?


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