Obama in India (October 6, 2010)

Now that the media seems to have shot the appropriate holes in Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann’s outlandish claims that the President’s visit to the subcontinent will cost taxpayers $200 million a day, we can focus on what’s important about this journey. On a personal level, I will be paying close attention to the events of the next few days, because the diplomatic trip represents the collision of two vitally important worlds for me. On the one hand, I feel the need, like RIGHT NOW for Obama to pivot and change strategy, to regain the approval of the American public in order to avoid becoming a one-term President. As much as I may lament the public’s bad opinion of our Commander-in-Cheif, facts are facts and on Tuesday, we learned that independents and moderates have turned from “the One” in droves.

Secondly, India, the birth nation of my husband and home to my in-laws, is one of the two fastest growing economies on the planet, along with China. Given that, it is almost hard to believe that the landing of Air Force One in Mumbai will be the first of the President’s term. So much takes place in the region that is critical to America’s interests: the war in Afghanistan and security concerns in the larger Af-Pak region, oil, energy and climate change issues, outsourcing, education and more.

Finally understanding after Tuesday’s rebuke that Americans care about one thing and one thing only right now – jobs, jobs, jobs – Obama is using this instance of foreign outreach as an important opportunity to demonstrate his new focus on domestic problems. The Associated Press quotes the President as stating his mission thusly: “As we look to India today, the United States sees the opportunity to sell our exports in one of the fastest growing markets in the world. For America, this is a jobs strategy.”

However, this diplomatic exchange is far from one-sided, and on the other hand, we have the interests of India, a nation far less enthralled with our current leader, and nostalgic for the outsourcing/H-1 visa boom of his predecessor George W. Bush. Beyond that discussion, India remains concerned about our ties to its enemy and neighbor Pakistan. It wants acknowledgement and respect for what it has accomplished, in terms of economic and military growth.

According to certain factions within India’s political environment, the visit is off to a rough start. According to the Indian Express, “[political party] BJP on Saturday voiced disappointment over US President Barack Obama making no direct reference to terror emanating from Pakistan in his first speech on arrival in Mumbai, saying his words were not backed with action and intent.”

On a somewhat more humorous, though still serious note, AllVoices is reporting that in anticipation of Obama’s visit to the Gandhi museum, the coconuts from surrounding trees are being removed. This is to prevent angry, tempted locals from lobbing the fruit at the visiting President.

Clearly, it’s going to be an interesting and politically charged few days. Tense as our leader’s tour of India will be, I for one welcome the opportunity to shift the headlines away from Republican party gloating.

India’s Double Standard (May 29, 2010)

Instead of jumping right in to make my argument, allow me to relay a personal anecdote which I believe crystallizes the issue.

On Thursday evening, my sister, a connected member of Chicago’s local media, called me as I made my way home from the gym, to relay the first reports of the bomb exploding beneath a packed passenger train in northeast India. The coach was headed for Mumbai, where my in-laws reside, and my thoughtful sister figured I might like to check up on them. As it was 5:00 AM local Mumbai time, I assured my sister that there was no danger of my family being on that train, but the moment I finished that thought, I had another, and it went something like this: “Crap, I am going to have to listen to a three hour diatribe against jihadists this evening.”

Because rightly or wrongly, my initial assumption was that the act of terrorism was the work of Muslim extremists. My husband, an Indian national who has very strong feelings on the long running India/Pakistan conflict, and isn’t shy about sharing them, was likely to be set off anew with this latest crime against humanity. Though he has friends of the Islamic faith, and our beloved brother-in-law, a devotee, is the embodiment of all that is pure and good, Eddie has a tendency to paint the world in broad strokes when incensed.

When he reached home later in the evening, my husband made the inevitable beeline to the computer to get the scoop from his favorite newspaper, The Hindustan Times. I puttered around the house in order to give him a few minutes of breathing room as I braced myself for the verbal onslaught. So imagine my surprise as he emerged from our office, relatively calmly, and headed for the porch to have a cigarette.

Naturally I asked Eddie what was up, and he relayed to me in a composed fashion more or less, that there was nothing to worry about. Because it hadn’t been jihadists who blew up the train after all. No this time, it was the work of the Adivasi National Liberation Army, a fringe, right wing group of Hindus. He relayed this news in a nonchalant fashion, as if reporting that our naughty, but beloved cat had just broken a precious vase. Because you can’t stay angry with your own pet right?

As I felt righteous indignation welling up inside me, I took a moment to gather my thoughts. I then posed one question to Eddie: so it’s OK to ready your war cries against Pakistan when under the impression that they are responsible for the murder of innocent Indians. However, upon learning that the destruction is the work of the majority Hindu population, you feel comfortable shrugging your shoulders and adopting a “kids will be kids” attitude? That was wrong on so many levels I hardly knew where to start.

Eddie is a highly educated man who has lived in the U.S. for eight years. He comes from an upper middle class family that travels the world and could hardly be considered sheltered. My husband follows global headlines, has an inclusive group of friends, and is a fairly forward thinking guy. Yet in the blink of an eye, he downshifted to the tried and true double standard that runs rampant in the highly populous third world nation. Hindus call the shots and Muslims are second class citizens.

And herein might lie the reason, beside the overpopulated cities, unfortified infrastructure and first world economic aspirations, that India is such a frequent target of violence by Muslim extremist groups. The message since long before Gandhi’s time, has been clear. Though there are more Muslims living inside India’s borders than there are in the rest of the Arab world (between 165 and 220 million), Muslims who have lived and died fighting for the nation and its progress, they are, by and large, treated as outsiders by the dominant Hindu majority. This thinking is so ingrained, so institutionalized that a man like Eddie, who has been exposed to much, can’t resist the stereotype.

But even more insufferable to my mind is the idea that, had Thursday’s bombing been the work of anyone else, there would have been a loud baying for the heads of those responsible. Instead, upon discovering that the destruction came at the hands of the Maoist Adivasi National Liberation Army, Eddie launched into a lengthy justification of their behavior, on the grounds of their extreme poverty and frustration with the government. Say what? Pardon me, but we have tons of disenfranchised poor right here in the U.S. These folks do not go about wantonly destroying, and if they did, I hardly think Americans would excuse them on the grounds of their poverty.

But such is India. On the one hand, the nation is growing, economically and socially, at the fastest pace in the world (China gets demerits for atrocious human rights). Yet on the other hand, there is a damaging laissez faire tolerance to the work of backward thinking Hindu groups that sends absolutely the wrong message to minority enclaves. I told Eddie that it was now more than clear to me why Muslims chose to secede and found Pakistan in 1947.

My point is this. My husband is quite representative of the thoughts of Indian citizens, and if anything, he leans farther to the left than most due to his education, experience and residency within a major Western City. Though newspaper reports have described the Adivasi as a “little known militant group,” Eddie tells me that, in fact, these people have been allowed to run lawless, murdering innocent citizens at will for quite some time. Why? Because it is considered politically unpopular to put down a movement, no matter how violent, of the “true” Indians, i.e. Hindus. Why is that thinking acceptable?