14 May 2004

Rushdie's Two Wishes for India's New Era

In a Washington Post column headed "India's New Era," Salman Rushdie articulates two wishes for India under the Congress Party after the latter's upset victory in the latest elections.
I have two immediate wishes for the new era. The first is that the debates about "foreignness" can be laid to rest. Those of us who are part of the Indian diaspora, and who have fought for years to have Indians recognized as full citizens of the societies in which we have settled and in which our children have been born and raised, have found the attack on the Italian origins of Sonia Gandhi, the Congress Party's leader and widow of the slain prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, to be highly unpleasant. Even more unpleasant were the BJP's suggestions that her children, the children of Rajiv Gandhi, were also somehow aliens. You can't have it both ways. If Indians outside India are to be seen as "belonging" to their new homelands, then those who make India their home, as Sonia Gandhi has done for 40 years or so, must be given the same respect. Gratifyingly, the electorate has shown it just doesn't care about the "foreignness" issue. A BJP leader foolishly said in the immediate aftermath of his party's rejection that he thought it "shameful" that India might be led by a foreigner. Such slurs are part of the reason for the BJP defeat. They are essentially racist, and must cease.

My second wish is that the study of India's history can now be rescued from the extremists and ideologues. The outgoing government's politicization of historical scholarship -- its determination to impose textbooks peddling a narrow, revisionist, Hindu-nationalist vision of India's past on the country's schools and colleges, and its deriding of the work of the greatest Indian historians, such as Professor Romila Thapar -- was one of its most alarming initiatives. The BJP has often seemed to want to inflame our perceptions of the past in order to inflame the passions of the present. Congress and its allies have it in their power to restore the atmosphere of cool objectivity that true learning requires.

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