On Saturday, March 3, 2007, The Hindu carried an article on its editorial page written by Ramesh Thakur, Senior Vice Rector of the U.N.University in Tokyo, wanting to know why major newspapers in India were not organising a reciprocal exchange of columns with foreign newspapers.
The reason is obvious: Indian readers have an enormous appetite for foreign news, reflecting a colonial mindset while foreigners are almost totally disinterested in India. There is not one British or American newspaper, which cares to consistently publish the views of an Indian columnist or commentator. But Indian newspaper have no hesitation in publishing articles that appeared in The Times (London), The Guardian (London), The New York Times (New York) or The Washington Post. Hardly any newspaper in India seems familiar with European newspapers like Die Welt (Germany), Le Monde (France) or Pravda ( Russia) or newspapers published even in Colombo, let alone in China, Japan, Australia, Ghana or Argentina. Obviously, Indian editors couldn'tcare less of what they think of India. It reflects a deeply Anglo-American mind-set. Which is a pity. We do not know what the world outside of Britain and the United States thinks of us. Surely there are, highly respected papers in Cairo, Accra, Sydney, Teheran, Rio de Janeiro or Lisbon and Madrid and other world capitals whose views should count? Shouldn'tthe Indian reader know about them?
We are confronted with three problems: One is that our newspapers and news agencies cannot afford to dispatch correspondents abroad on a permanent basis. Two, there are no agencies in India which could subscribe to foreign newspapers and get important articles of relevance to India translated and made available to Indian newspapers and three, even foreign embassies in Delhi do not think it worth their while to do so, probably fearing rejection or indifference.
Worst of all, Indian readers are being increasingly brain-washed that they think Page 3 is more relevant to their lives than the media opinion in foreign lands. There is no point in blaming the Ministry of External Affairs, it would, one suspects, rather keep the Indian intellectual ignorant of what the world thinks of India and especially Indian foreign policy than go out of its way to keep him informed. India and Indian news is covered for the world media almost exclusively by western news agencies like Reuters, Associated Press, United Press, Agence France Presse which are known to be embedded with their respective governments. Nothing much can be expected of them.
The Indian Information Service should be the body that should go out of its way to sell columns written by Indians on international affairs to foreign journals on a reciprocal basis. But this calls for a major change in our mind-sets. We speak of globalisation; the approach is highly theoretical and narrow-minded. So far as the average Indian goes, it is a subject mostly for the industrialists, bankers and exporters to think over. It has nothing to do with the man-in-the-street who, it is held, would rather prefer to know how onions sell in the market and when Aishwaray Rai is going to get married. But the intellectual is starved.
Time was when certain Indian newspaper were extensively using The New York Times News Service on a regular basis. For one thing, it gave them access to foreign news at an extremely low, or no cost. For another, they considered it a privilege to be associated with The New York Time, no less. Again, time was when Indian correspondents resident in London and Washington would quote extensively from British and American editorials as if to acquaint Indian readers of what Britain and America thinks.
Happily that attitude of subservience died a long time ago. But while editorial opinion is important, there must be other measures to assess what people abroad think of us as a people, a government and a culture. What, for example, do African, Middle Eastern, Australian, Chinese, Japanese or Latin Americans think of India'sefforts to seek Permanent Membership of the Security Council? Or of our approach to the Iranian nuclear issue? Does anybody care? Or doesn'tanyone? Should the development of foreign policy be the exclusive preserve of the Ministry of External Affairs and the privilege of giving advice be the prerogative of a couple of hand-picked Think Tanks? Shouldn'tthe average citizen have his say, for all it is worth? Obviously our governments don'twant to share decision-making with a well-informed media and the people. It is reminiscent of Jawaharlal Nehru'sdays when foreign policy had become the exclusive prerogative of the External Affairs Minister-cum-Prime Minister and his cronies like V.K.Krishna Menon who proved to be a disaster. We paid heavily for their exclusivity.
If the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone is to be believed, India will be one of the top three nations guiding the world in the next two decades. The Press Trust of India reporting a function held at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan'sLondon Centre at which Shri Livingstone spoke, quoted him as saying that ?if you step forward in 20 years? time, three people who will guide the whole world will be presidents of the US, China and the Prime Minister of India?.
Even conceding that Shri Livingstone was merely being polite, it is necessary for Indians to be alert and to keep abreast of world events. They need to be continuously educated in freshly-established Think Tanks. And in order to be heard, we must see to it that Indian opinion gets expressed in foreign journals and newspapers.
As Prof. Thakur rightly put it: ?The trafficking in the opinions and thoughts of international public intellectuals is almost one-way. This seems to rest on an implicit racist assumption in both camps.? Indians know more about what Americans or the British think of them than vice versa, despite the availability of the internet. Whose responsibility is to convey the Indian message to foreign audiences? Of the Ministry of External Affairs, of course. It must help to negotiate deals between Indian and foreign newspapers for publishing what their respective columnists write. And Indian newspapers, on their part, must also remember that they have a duty towards their readers.
Indians, unlike other people, are greatly interested in international affairs. Indian capitalists especially are moving around to see what industries they can buy abroad. What, in another situation, do Argentinians think of Quattrochi? Or of India'spersistence in having him extradited? We know nothing about Argentina, a country almost as large as India but with barely 30 million people. It is time we awoke from our slumbers. And it is time we tell the External Affairs Ministry what is expected of it. Our bureaucracy has to be tamed.