These photos of a very strange anti-U.S. protest in India speak volumes

December 19, 2013

Members of the Indian nationalist group Rashtrawadi Shiv Sena protest the strip-search of an Indian deputy consul general last week in New York. (Saurabh Das/AP)

Many Americans may not even be aware of the ongoing diplomatic spat with India, which began last week when U.S. authorities arrested and strip-searched Indian Deputy Consul General Devyani Khobragade in New York for allegedly lying on her maid's visa application. But it is a very, very big deal in India, where it's widely seen an insult to national pride and a scandalous breach of propriety.

Just as in the United States, India has its political fringes. Also as in the U.S., those fringes tend to come out at moments of major political controversy. These photos show a protest staged this week at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi by a right-wing Hindu nationalist group called Rashtrawadi Shiv Sena. The name means "Nationalist Shiva Army" and you can get a sense of the group's political message pretty easily from the photos. Most Indians outraged by the scandal are much more civil – and much more normally clothed – than this. But the Rashtrawadi Shiv Sena protest actually does a good job of distilling Indian reaction.


(Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images)

The half-naked man is meant to represent both the United States (see: American flag) and President Obama; he is naked both to symbolize the affront of Khobragade's strip-search and as a declaration that the United States and Obama deserve similar humiliation as punishment. The man in the suit with the Obama mask is tied up to likewise symbolize Khobragade's arrest.

It might seem strange, to an American, for these protesters to imply that the U.S. as a whole and Obama personally are responsible for what was surely a low-level decision by U.S. law-enforcement officials to strip-search Khobragade. But America's level of responsibility is not the point. The point is that India, as a nation, feels insulted; it feels it's been treated as inferior. This sense of national woundedness can only be remedied by bringing America down a peg and thus narrowing the perceived status gap between the two countries.


(Saurabh Das/AP)

To be clear, this group doesn't represent mainstream Indian politics any more than a fringe American group would represent the U.S. mainstream. (You would not have to work hard to find an American group likely to put on a similarly ostentatious display.) But this does represent an iteration -- albeit an extreme one -- of India's rising nationalist sentiment. The sentiment is relatively widespread; it's also consequential for Indian politics and, as this weeklong episode shows, Indian foreign policy.

Nationalism is a funny thing. Ostensibly an assertion of national pride, whether in India or any other country, it often betrays a significant degree of national insecurity and self-doubt. That comes through, however inarticulately, in these photos from the Delhi protest.

It's a bit like looking into India's political id. And it helps explain the country's highly disproportionate reaction, with Indian leaders removing security barricades from the U.S. Embassy, revoking the passes of American diplomats and one politician even suggesting that India imprison and "punish" any gay partners of American diplomats. (Again, this isn't to single out India; the U.S. certainly has its own nationalist political id.)


(MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP/Getty Images)

The Associated Press's Tim Sullivan put it well: "The arrest mingled with long-harbored worries that the U.S. condescends to India, treating it as a poverty-wracked nation with poor sanitation instead of as the world’s largest democracy and a nuclear power."

“It is no longer about an individual,” Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid said Wednesday. “It is about our sense of self as a nation and our place in the world.”


(Saurab Das/AP)
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