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Why are Indians thin-skinned?

February 18, 2003

Congratulations to all those who threatened to picket Maxim over its portrayal of Mahatma Gandhi being punched, thrown, and getting bejeezus smacked out of him in the course of a kick-ass workout routine.

Thanks to such overwhelming numbers, Maxim issued an apology. And so did MTV, which has a caricature of Gandhi as a wannabe rapster in its upcoming Clone High, USA. It also promised it would not show the program outside the US. Yippee!    

Just shows how non-violent civil disobedience can bring even the biggest corporations to heel, abjectly seeking the forgiveness of thousands of Indians who go on the moral offensive anytime India is lampooned.

Make no mistake. I, like many of you, quite disagree with the manner Gandhi was represented. But only the manner, mind you. Sure, it was in bad taste. Gandhi is a revered figure for many Indians and even non-Indians. To show him being bashed up certainly shows little understanding of his contribution to India's independence as well as to global peace politics.

Nelson Mandela, the architect of the downfall of South Africa's State-sponsored apartheid, based his model of revolt on Gandhi's non-violent, civil disobedience movement. Martin Luther King Jr, one of the prime movers of the racial desegregation movement in the United States, was a great believer in Gandhi's policies. Even the Reverend Al Sharpton, often seen as little more than a rabble-rouser and sometimes as the most visible voice of the African American community, claims to be a Gandhi bhakt.    

Some have wondered what if an Indian magazine had carried something like this about Martin Luther King Jr?

The way I see it, it is almost a compliment � albeit backhanded � that Maxim should choose Gandhi (over a more American figure). Given Maxim's target audience (18 to 25) and brand of humor, no one would, or should, be sacred. Look at this way � the magazine chose Gandhi over MLK or Mandela because Gandhi is -- and I say this with all the conviction I can muster -- the largest icon of peace and non-violence in the world.

When it comes to non-violence and peace, his name is the one that will come to mind first, even for non-Indians. His is the face that is the most recognizable in the gallery of peace activists. See it in that light and the fact of the graphics becomes just another blip on the radar that is American sophomore humor. Nothing more, nothing less. Certainly nothing to froth at the mouth about. In fact, the minute you give into anger of that sort is the minute you violate all of Gandhi's teachings and practices which emphasized an almost ascetic self-control over such passions as anger and retribution. 

Some magazine's inane projection of Gandhi as the victim of a vicious attack in no way detracts from the Mahatma's greatness or his contribution to humanity. If anything, it only raises Gandhi's profile, not that it is at all needed.

The larger point here is: Why are Indians and a large number of Indian Americans thin-skinned?

We just don't seem to be able to stomach anything that is remotely caricaturish, even if it is obviously meant as humor. Sure, some sentiments are to be respected, but we shouldn't get our backs up at every little thing.

In India, for example, there is virtually no political humor besides newspaper cartoons and Shekhar Suman, likely India's only standup television comic. A television show in which the main characters were allegedly take-offs on Laloo Prasad Yadav and his wife Bihar Chief Minister Rabri Devi was yanked off the air. Can you imagine taking Saturday Night Live off the air because it lampoons George Bush or Al Gore?

The political -- and to some extent cultural -- setup of India is such that you cannot laugh at anyone. God help you if you don't have someone to cover  your ass for you (I know, I know, I'm not supposed to talk that way, that's exactly my point).

How come I have never seen Indian organizations talk about what needs to be done in India instead of taking offense at every incident of India-directed humor, justified or otherwise.

The unkindest cut of all in the Maxim controversy for me came when Om Parkash Chautala, chief minister of Haryana, led a dharna near Rajghat, Gandhi's mausoleum, to protest the portrayals in Maxim and MTV USA. 'The article and the cartoons mock not only the Father of the Nation but the entire non-violent, peace-loving and tolerant civilised world,' Chautala was reported as saying.

He said he was exploring if he could sue the two companies. For what? On whose behalf? Chautala is the chief minister of only one state; he can't speak for the federal government or even the rest of India, let alone Indian Americans. 

This is the same man who was cited for one of the most violent electoral incidents in Meham. Now this man talks of non-violence, peace and tolerance! It is precisely because of people like this, and Indians at large who have stood by while such individuals operate, that we have lost not only the ability to poke some good-natured fun at others but also the moral base upon which to stage our protests at other people's humor, no matter how offensive it may be.

Perhaps it is just another case of being more Indian once you are out of the country. Perhaps it's just another case of misplaced nationalism, at the cost of accepting a different brand of humor.

But in conjoining ourselves to the same cause as someone like Chautala, albeit for different reasons, we do ourselves as well as Indians and Indian Americans a great injustice.


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