January 18, 2020
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Two Far Paradises

Hindus and Muslims here have a heritage that's richer than American fads and the shimmer of Arabia's sands.

Two Far Paradises
illustration by Saurabh Singh While middle America's insular ignorance about the world at large has been dented by the events of September 11, India's middle and upper classes have, since that day of infamy, gone into overdrive in their long-standing obsession with foreign affairs. Unwilling and unable to tackle our awesome economic and social crises, our dominant classes constantly turn towards an endless mental involvement with international issues which is reflected in the priorities of our pseudo-nationalist government. It's an age-old, self-deluding, psychological trick: avoid looking at the dung heaps at your doorstep by gazing at the distant stars.

The pathological fallout here of September 11 has also brought into the open a hitherto hidden fracture which has long divided us. It's considered politically incorrect to examine the Hindu-Muslim societal fracture but it's about time we faced this gap squarely, without engaging in sanctimonious humbug. Far too many upper-class and upper-caste Hindus have psyched themselves into believing that they are the kissing cousins of 'Aryan' white Americans and far too many lower-middle class Muslims see themselves as pan-Islamic brothers of sundry Arabs, Iranians and Uzbeks. (The poorer Hindus and Muslims have no time for such exotic diversions, involved as they are in seeking their daily starvation diets.) These ludicrous pretensions are currently mirrored in the increasingly bitter feelings of betrayal by the 'other' community, triggered by the generally conflicting Hindu and Muslim reactions to America's war against terrorism/Afghanistan/Islam.

Muslims are embittered by Hindu indifference over the deaths of innocent Afghan children and women in the US bombing while Hindus are angered by Muslim admiration for the defiant Taliban and Osama bin Laden. Hindus embrace the US as an ally in the global battle against Islamic terrorism while Muslims vilify the Americans as global oppressors who back brutal regimes like Israel. The Hindu-Muslim crossfire is basically motivated by the obsequious cultural adoration by upper-class Hindus for every vulgar American fad and the ridiculous search for spiritual solace by Sunni Muslims in the arid sands of Arabia and by Shia Muslims in the pomegranate groves of Iran. So, we end up deriding or ignoring the lustre and refinement of our own cultural-spiritual tapestry woven through millennia with the purest silken strands of saffron, green and other brilliant colours.

There's much to appreciate in the wider western and Islamic worlds but we've gone overboard in veneration for their least attractive segments, the US and the Arabian-Persian Gulf. Though materially wealthy, in every indicator of human development the US and the Gulf region are backward. Within the western world, the US lags behind in public health, social welfare and human rights and leads in criminal activity and police brutality. According to the UN Human Development Report 2001, the US ranks sixth in the world human development index (hdi) after Norway, Australia, Canada, Sweden and Belgium, though it has the second-highest per capita income after the tiny banking haven of Luxembourg. In women's empowerment, it ranks 10th. In public expenditure on health as a percentage of total national income, the US falls behind 19 countries, including its former bete noire, Nicaragua. It has the highest number of people in prison in the entire world and its police forces have an international reputation for running riot.Along with its friend, Saudi Arabia, it's one of the handful of countries which executes juvenile offenders.

Saudi Arabia, despite being one of the richest countries in the developing world, is medieval. It is controlled by an avaricious, promiscuous and despotic royal family which publicly executes people for minor offences. In the past 20 years, Saudi Arabia's per capita income has dwindled by 40 per cent due to being squandered by the royal family on its thousands of opulent princelings, on wasteful defence purchases and by selling its oil wealth at depressed prices dictated by the US. Saudi Arabia ranks 42nd in per capita income but is much lower in the hdi at the 68th position. Iran is less medieval, but it ranks 69th in per capita income and 90th in the hdi. The smaller Gulf countries are better off but are in no hurry to become progressive.

Most Gulf Arabs, Iranians and Americans are deeply ignorant about the Indian subcontinent which is lumped together by them as an area of dismal darkness and degrading poverty. They have vague notions of a seething mass of dark-skinned South Asians who can't be differentiated between Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and pagans, all clamouring for immigration into their fair lands. These subliminal prejudices have surfaced forcefully in the US after September 11 in the form of vengeful attacks against South Asians. In the Gulf, South Asians are exploited routinely by their Arab employers. In contrast, Muslim-majority Indonesia, Malaysia and Egypt are vibrant, liberal societies which have a genuine affection for Indians of all faiths. They're probably the only places left in the world where Indian visitors—not immigrants—are warmly welcomed.

Yet, so many Indian Muslims continue to be enchanted by Arabia and the Gulf region while upper-class/caste Hindus remain entranced by the US. The schizophrenic Indian Muslim mind has been examined ad nauseam since September 11 by the Indian print media and by yuppie TV channels hosting verbose boxing bouts. It is seriously worrying that the same media have failed to investigate the paranoia of the upper-caste Hindu psyche which feels insecure despite claiming to be the proud guardian of the cultural essence and historical memory of 850 million Hindus.
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