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Of images and perceptions--- Essay writing

Of images and perceptions
What constitutes the image of a country? This is a particularly complex question for a country like India which is not only a young Republic but also an ancient civilisation. To my mind, India’s image, for the outside gaze, rests on several factors: the fact that it is the world’s largest functioning democracy; it is an ancient land, with a culture that is marked by antiquity, diversity, assimilation, continuity and peaks of unparalleled refinement; it is a country which has consciously chosen the path of respect for plurality; it is a nation which believes in religious tolerance, as is only befitting a land where four of the world’s great religions — Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism — were born, and which also has the second largest number of Muslims on the planet; it is a country which has the potential to emerge as a “super power”, with a great deal of economic promise, including the incentive of a very large market, notwithstanding the fact that it still has too many of the abjectly poor, the malnourished and the illiterate; and, finally, that it is a country that is essentially liberal in its outlook, with space for dissent and debate, and, therefore, unrelentingly opposed to the monolithic fundamentalisms that are sweeping across large parts of the world.
Report on religious freedoms

The image of a country is thus a holistic construct. Many deep-rooted pillars underpin it, while on the surface several banners flutter perennially: Bollywood, yoga, the Taj Mahal, Ravi Shankar and chickentikka. The big mistake is to believe that a single desirable factor, such as a “stable” government, or a period of high economic growth rate, or an effective machinery of propaganda and projection, are sufficient to give a country an “attractive” image. Hard power, soft power, a certain value system, and an unmistakable civilisational “mystique” must combine in the right proportions to give to a country like India the right image globally.
It is in this context that we must see the annual Report for 2015 of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). The report places India in a group of 30 countries that meet “a systematic, ongoing and egregious” standard for failing to protect religious freedoms. In its five-page focus on India, the commission expresses deep concern over the Ghar Vapsi campaign of forced conversions, the attacks on churches, and the hate diatribe carried out against Muslim minorities. What is significant, and possibly in terms of emphasis unprecedented, is that the report indicts the government for not reining in the “Hindu nationalist” groups that are carrying out the attack on the minorities. To deal with this situation, it advocates a new level of activism for the U.S. government. The concerns regarding religious freedom must become a part of the India-U.S. bilateral dialogue, it says. The U.S. must urge the Indian government to “publicly rebuke” those making derogatory remarks about religious communities. Taking activism a step further, it even recommends that the U.S. Ambassador should visit places where “communal violence has occurred or is likely to occur”. To be fair, the report also takes positive note of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech to Catholic Bishops in February 2015 where he spoke of the need to ensure “complete freedom of faith”. But it does so by citing the fact that Mr. Modi faces long-standing allegations of being complicit in the anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002, and was denied a visa for this very reason under the U.S. International Religious Freedom Act.
Disturbing perception

Such intrusive comments on our internal matters by other countries are neither desirable nor necessary. As a democracy, and with established institutions to safeguard our Constitutional commitments to secularism, we are quite capable of fighting our internal frictions. Besides, no country has the right to lecture to others from a self-anointed pedestal. There are several areas where American society too falls short of acceptable standards of behaviour, both in terms of equity and equality.
Creating disharmony

This being said, the Congressional report does convey a certain disturbing perception about India. Perceptions affect image. And, while our reservations about outsider comments remain relevant, we should be concerned about why a friendly country has articulated such a damning perception. Is it just bias, prejudice and condescension? Or, is there something we need to wake up about, take stock, introspect and apply the right correctives?
The truth is that, notwithstanding the gratuitous U.S. comment, there has been — ever since the new government came to power — a sharp increase in organised attempts by elements of the Bharatiya Janata Party-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the affiliated Sangh Parivar to whip up communal disharmony. A consistent hate campaign against the minorities has been orchestrated using artifices like “love jihad” and “ghar vapsi.
Under watch

It is not often realised how closely foreign powers follow matters of this nature unfolding in India. The perception that India is regressing from its avowed commitments to secular peace and social harmony is under constant watch, and could affect other areas of bilateral interaction. The French President, Nicholas Sarkozy, actually took up with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, when he was on an official visit to France in September 2008, his “anguish” about the massacre of Christians in India. Consider the facts. Some 40 Indians of the Christian faith had been killed when suspected Hindu extremists resorted to violence in the States of Odisha and Karnataka, ostensibly to protest against perceived missionary activism in converting Hindus to Christianity.
The reaction of U.S. President Barack Obama was not very different. Amidst pivotal talks in Delhi last January on furthering the nuclear agreement and giving more substance to the strategic dialogue, and notwithstanding the fact that Mr. Modi referred to him familiarly as “Barrack” not less than 19 times during their brief radio interaction, Mr. Obama used the occasion of his final speech in New Delhi to emphasise that India would succeed only if it respects all faiths and “didn’t splinter along religious lines”. On his return to the U.S., during his National Prayer Breakfast address, he again referred to the targeting of certain faiths in India, adding that this kind of religious intolerance would have shocked Mahatma Gandhi.
The image of a country is not only about the size of its economy, or its future potential for economic growth. It is a complex compound of many interrelated perceptions, each important unto itself. In the case of India, the liberal and secular nature of our democracy is a fundamental part of our image. If this image is tarnished, there will be a spillover into other areas of bilateral and multilateral interaction. The world is watching India, and India must, therefore, watch itself.

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