Opinion: India’s Image Gets A Boost – By Rajmohan Gandhi

When, at prime time, with millions of Americans watching, a CNN reporter interviewed “Anmol Gupta from northern India”, as the young man was described, India’s image got a healthy boost. Anmol was assisting Ukrainian families who had just entered Hungary’s border town of Zahony. A month earlier, Anmol himself had fled from Ukraine, where he had spent nine years, culminating in medical studies in the eastern city of Kharkiv.

Matt Rivers, the CNN reporter, had run into Anmol in what Rivers called “the play area of a temporary refugee shelter”, a tent in Zahony where Ukrainian “kids were sketching out their recent traumas on paper”. Some children drew “burning tanks in crayon”.

Interviewed by Rivers just outside that tent, Anmol said that while he could not “erase the kids’ pain”, he could “give one of them a stuffed animal and a smile”. The CNN transcript also records the following conversation:

RIVERS: What do you say to them when they say they’re scared?

ANMOL: We tell them they’ll be taken to a safe place, so they don’t have to worry. Then I start joking with them.

RIVERS: You’re good at that?

ANMOL: Yes. Yes. That I know. A smile goes a long way.

RIVERS (to viewers): Anmol is a volunteer, having spent the last month just across the Ukraine border helping weary Ukrainians navigate the first few steps of new lives as refugees in Hungary. The native of northern India is fluent in Russian. A skill honed over his years studying for a medical degree in Kharkiv.

Anmol was living there when the bombs first started falling. His apartment was destroyed, his motorcycle hit by bullets and shrapnel, his nights spent in bomb shelters. He fled to Hungary but still he wanted to help. As a foreigner, he says, he lost very little, while his friends, Ukrainians, have lost everything.

ANMOL (to Rivers): I have been with them for nine years. It feels like they are also my family.

RIVERS (to viewers): Hundreds of refugees are headed in the direction of Hungary’s capital, Budapest. Anmol picks up some tickets, hands them out, picks up some bags and walks people to the train. He has done this every single day for a month now.

RIVERS (to Anmol): How long do you think you’re going to stay here?

ANMOL: As long as needed.

RIVERS (on camera): I asked Anmol how his family feels about the fact that he’s still here and not back in India. And he said that, first, they weren’t thrilled but now, they’re proud of him.

This prime-time coverage of what people like Anmol Gupta are doing goes a long way to answer the disappointment repeatedly expressed by US leaders over India’s abstentions at the UN on resolutions about Ukraine, and over India purchasing Russian oil.

The U.S. is one of the world’s biggest producers of oil. It also keeps a strategic reserve of this indispensable fuel, a store that Biden has just begun to tap into. India, one of the world’s biggest consumers of oil, has no such reserve. “Unhappiness” that India, feeling the harsh pinch of escalating oil prices, maybe willing to import Russian oil at a discounted rate is not a realistic response. The Modi government’s willingness is totally understandable.

What can be questioned is the willingness of sections in both India and Russia to drum up majority victimhood. As far as Russia is concerned, polling there (viewed as fairly credible by American analysts) suggests that thus far, at least, Putin has succeeded in defending his costly war and the serious hardships the war has invited on the Russian people. Putin has secured this success by portraying “the US-led West” as an anti-Russian alliance that must be resisted by Russia’s patriots, no matter the price.

In India, a so-called “Hindu Sena“, which had earlier demonstrated in New Delhi in favour of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, has now accused the Biden administration of “continuous bullying of India”.

There is no evidence that these gestures by the “Hindu Sena” have the blessing or approval of the party that has been in power in New Delhi from 2014, even though the BJP openly champions “Hindu interests”. However, there is no doubt that victimhood is a powerful sentiment behind the energy of India’s Hindu nationalism, just as it seems to be the dominant emotion behind the Russian nationalism on which Putin has relied thus far.

The contrast between responsibility and victimhood is clear. On the one hand, there is a young Indian who chooses, after being forced to leave Ukraine, to stay near its borders to help uprooted children and families by smiling to them and in other ways. On the other hand are angry young bands, in Karnataka and elsewhere, who want to protect the purity of the nation’s vast and strong majority from Muslim girls who wear a headscarf, and from humble Muslim sellers of toys for children at fairs held on temple grounds where they have sold those toys year after year.

It’s goodwill in one case, and victimhood in the other. Calm, cheerful, confident goodwill or resentful, angry victimhood, even frightened and panicky victimhood. A victimhood apparently drawn from the mere presence of Muslims, a victimhood magnified by demonstrably false predictions of “their exploding numbers”.

Muslims may only constitute one-seventh of the population, may be under-represented everywhere, with a per capita income well below the national average, but their hijabs annoy us. Their beards annoy us. Their mosques annoy us. Their food annoys us. Their names annoy us. Words we use annoy us because they too use them. And if a distinguished woman among us, a courageous woman in Bengaluru who has brought jobs and prestige to the land, asks us to calm down and realize that we must live together, that “us” versus “them” is a trap, then she should be “corrected”.

Brave people will one day pull the train of the Indian nation to a finer place, where strangers “are also my family”. Until then we are stuck in a sorry station called “Victimhood” at one end and “Us and Them” at the other.

(Rajmohan Gandhi is currently teaching at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.

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