Indian was a mispronounced word that started out to be an insulting term. As a starting point, Indian is an inaccurate label that stuck to Europe after 1492. Native people have always referred themselves to their own tribe(s) in their own native languages and referenced their tribe’s name in their own tribal dialects. Explorers and colonizers from Spain, France, England, Netherlands, and Russia, amongst other nations, started calling tribes that they met in North America ‘Indian.’ By the mid-nineteenth century, most North American settlers could correctly identify the tribes by their own native dialects and language.
However, in more recent times, the use of indian as a title has fallen into disuse and/or misuse. The Indian in India is portrayed in many ways: as rebellious, uncultured, a victim of Western prejudice, a thief, a killer, a terrorist, an artisan, etc. In popular movies and media, the stereotypical image of the Indian is being used to good effect (e.g., Brighter Side, Ram Gopal Varma, Rajkumar Kohli, and more). However, these images are incorrect portrayals of the true nature of Indians. Most westerners and many Indian Americans fail to see the reality that the typical Indian is far from such a criminal, violent, or “thief-like” image.
To accurately depict the true nature of Indians, one needs to disabuse himself or herself of the misconceptions that exist about them. For example, while it is true that there are criminals and offenders among the indigenous people of India, the general misperception is that all Indians are violent. While the crime rate in the country is relatively high, it is by no means indicative of a low level of societal conduct. And while there are isolated incidents of gruesome execution-style murders and crimes against humanity (e.g., mass lynching), most crimes against Indians (including highway robbery, theft, house burglary, pickpockets, petty theft, terrorism) are committed by people of Indian decent.
The truth is that Indians have faced a lot of discrimination in the United States and Canada, but that hardly constitutes an excuse for the people of the world to malign an entire race – especially when the country is being called on for its woefully ineffective handling of the September 11th Attack in America. One can’t help but note that there is not one word in the two most popular English-speaking newspapers regarding the incident that would remotely justify the writers’ biased sentiments. Moreover, there is no national commemoration of Indian victims of the attack, despite the fact that there is one each year on the anniversary of the tragedy. Most of the world’s attention is focused on the participation of the Indian baseball team in the forthcoming World Baseball Cup.
Rather than examining the Indian contribution to the success of the tournament (which is not much), let us focus on the conduct of American officials while managing the situation on the field. As it turns out, some of them showed a callous lack of sympathy for the grieving families of the victims as well as a gross over-the-top celebration of the victory. It’s hard to find any American who is even remotely related to baseball whose heart doesn’t burn with pride at the sight of an Indian competitor winning a match for his country. Further, there were umpteen numbers of fans from India, many of whom travelled over in order to be at the match. It’s hard to find anyone who could find anything negative to say about the Indian performance.
What this says about the present American way of thinking about India is a subject for another article. Nevertheless, it is worth observing how Indians in the United States and Canada have been demonized in the aftermath. This is a problem because, as the world becomes more urbanized and fragmented, it is increasingly difficult for governments to maintain unity among its various ethnic and linguistic communities. The end result is inevitably that government policies and actions are contradictory and incongruent from what most citizens want or need. For many in the developed world, including Canada, a strong and united India is something that cannot be wished away.
This calls for a detailed look at what the recent developments in India have really meant for those who wish to see unity and progress in India and around the world. There has been a grave disambiguation, I would say. Rather than celebrating the rise of an independent and powerful India, Americans and Canadians have tended to characterize the past fifty years as a period of Indian disunity and chaos. To this end, the recent incidents in Delhi – where police opened fire without provocation in a rioting incident that killed at least nine people – have only reinforced the perception that India is an increasingly volatile and insecure country.
Rather than embracing all aspects of the new India, Americans and Canadians have tended to depict India as a country in crisis. Whether or not this is justified, it is clear that the new India is fraught with tension and many Indians (and others) are worried by this. Whether or not this disallows greater economic and social interchanges between Indians and Americans and Indians living abroad, the implications are still significant and should be considered in the larger context of global trends.