India has come under an increased international gaze in recent months for a variety of reasons. Headlines have been made about farmers protesting against new agriculture laws, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s push for a “Uniform Civil Code,” the second-highest number of COVID-19 cases in the world (behind the U.S.), and continued religious conflict.
Former Press Secretary of India Ashok Malik follows a doctrine of pragmatic optimism when speaking of these issues. Though he apolitically reserved both criticism or support of his government’s actions in our interview, he defended his country against concerns that I raised from the “outside-looking-in” perspective.
As I pressed him on these topics a few months ago, not everything could be answered in his role as a current bureaucratic official in India’s Ministry of External Affairs. But from what he did, his patriotism and hope for India’s future shone through.
More of our interview will be posted to AYCE’s website.
Here are some of the main highlights of what the former press secretary had to say as a journalist, policy analyst, and bureaucrat in our discussion.
When you were the Press Secretary of India, it was obviously a very different role compared to what our audience is used to, which is that of the American Press Secretary (a very biased, partisan administrator). What’s the difference between what your role was serving the head of state, an apolitical official, instead of the head of government?
“As you correctly said, the President of India has no executive authority, just like the Queen of England or other monarchs. In this role, he or she is above politics. The nature of the job does not require the President to make controversial statements, so the less that he was in the news, the better I was doing my job. But it’s worth noting that I was the first political appointee in this role, chosen by a committee of politicians.
In that sense, my job was to… keep [the president] out of controversy (which I think I managed). I had an advisory role beyond the media and I also wrote his important speeches, which was a very educative experience. As President, he’s speaking for the entire country: not just for one party, one position, or one school of opinion.”
If we were to look at Indian journalism in a global scope, we can’t say that Indian news sources are necessarily rivaling big news outlets like the BBC or CNN. What is the biggest challenge facing these news outlets to become more globally influential, even as India gets closer to becoming the most populous country in the world?
“The BBC World Service and CNN International were designed from day one as international outlets. The Hindustan Times or the Times of India were designed from day one as being newspapers for Indians (or for those interested in India), rather than a global audience. If you live in New York, for example, you’ll probably log onto one of those websites only if you’re interested in India.
Is there a need for an Indian voice out there internationally? Yes, there is. But let’s not kid ourselves: even as the Indian economy grows, it’s still nowhere near a major Western economy in terms of global linkages. But as it continues, it will wire out a much larger footprint. Then, we’ll see the desire to put out the India story and a greater receptivity for news coming out of India.
We’re still in the beginnings of that journey.”
Religion and Farmers
In 2017, the Pew Research Center determined that India ranked 4th in religious intolerance around the world. Even the United States’ International Religious Freedom Commission just categorized India as a “country of particular concern.” We’ve seen political theories like the Hindutva doctrine or policies like the Citizenship Amendment Act greatly polarize Indians, and the world is closely watching these tensions. India has had a long history of religious disputes since Partition, but why has the country recently become more concerning to the international community now, compared to, say, 10 to 20 years ago?
“Surya, you’re quite frankly asking me a question of a political nature, which as a public servant I cannot really answer. Having said that, I’ll leave you with some broad thoughts:
India is a pluralistic society with multiple religions. The number of Christians is in the millions. Islam came here in the lifetime of the prophet. For someone to tell me that India is not tolerant, whatever surveys or reports may say, isn’t in line with a large, collective lived experience here. There are so many communities and beliefs here that we can’t be anything but tolerant. I speak for many people saying that, including the Indian Government.
Sometimes, as you have some very raucous internal debates in the U.S. in a time of very great political churning, our issues perhaps tend to be exaggerated to seem bigger than they actually are.”
It’s very hard to get a clear understanding of the exact tensions causing the farmer protests in India right now. Why is there so much controversy surrounding the three Farm Bills passed by the Lok Sabha?
“Going back 100 years, we had a law that prohibited farmers from selling their produce whenever they wanted and wherever they wanted. This was instituted by the British Empire to prevent Indian farmers from selling their cotton to Indian cotton mills, who ordered them to sell it to Great Britain instead. But that was 100 years ago. More recently, in a country of chronic food shortages, which was India in the ‘50s and ‘60s, this was done to prevent some rich “fat cat” from walking in, taking all the grain, and saying “I’m buying it and keeping all the people of India hungry by raising prices.” So the government made farmers sell it to government-backed local markets so they could distribute it to the people during shortages.
Now what’s happened is, thanks to the farmers who are protesting, actually, we’ve become more self-sufficient in Punjab and Haryana, for example. These farmers have done a great job in transforming food security. But the question is: what happens next? How do you link these farmers to global food chains to access better prices?
These new laws give farmers more freedom to sell. We’re hoping this gives them more opportunities to sell to domestic retail and also internationally. But this has caused controversy among farmers who are used to the old system and also to those who have been part of the old traditional markets that see competition as a problem for small farmers.
But maybe it’s just because we, as the government, haven’t communicated the laws as well as we could have. I think it’s a combination of all of that, but some of it could easily be politicized just as everything in the world today is. In the end, these extraordinary farmers, I bet you, will be among the biggest beneficiaries going ahead.”
Advice to our Audience
After all your years of experience in government, what is your advice to young Asian-Americans, and anyone, about the value of forming relationships with people, understanding the issues that they’re concerned about, and using their potential to make the voices of others heard?
“Goodness, I can speak about that until breakfast tomorrow morning! The importance of having a conversation with another person who has another point of view, especially when you won’t immediately reach an agreement, can’t be understated at all: while it’s important to talk to those who agree with you, it’s more important to talk to those who don’t. You have to remember to do it with an open mind.
I often find myself in the midst of very polarizing debates when it comes to making policy. But when I disagree with both sides, I can still see some value in their positions. It’s often in the grayness -- not some black and white polarization, but rather in those uncertain shades of gray -- that is what truly defines the human condition, whether in society, in politics, and ultimately, in public policy. It’s what takes our countries, our systems, and our societies forward. Black and white [in politics] is very attractive, but ultimately, life is about negotiating the ‘grays.’
My advice is this: keep the conversation going. Keep searching for the gray.”
“Ashok Malik is a policy advisor/additional secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, having been appointed to the position in October 2019. From August 1, 2017, to July 31, 2019, Malik served as press secretary to the President of India. In 2016, he was awarded the Padma Shri, India's fourth-highest civilian honor.” - Wikipedia