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Friday , January 13, 2012 at 16 : 38

The joke's on us


The Top Gear controversy reflects hollow outrage of a notoriously thin-skinned country

Here we go again.

Official India has got its knickers in a twist over Jeremy Clarkson's boxers. A few, arguably tasteless, jokes by the Top Gear host are apparently enough to dent national pride to such an extent that the sarkar has lodged a protest with the Beeb and demanded an apology.


This indignance is so unnecessary and such an over-reaction. Top Gear and Jeremy Clarkson are barely known in India. Why are we breaking into a sweat if a few hundred NRIs and/or Brits of Indian origin are foaming at the mouth? Those who live abroad tend to be hyper-nationalistic anyway. Who in India cares about what Clarkson thinks of us? It wouldn't matter a hoot - even if he were a huge celebrity here.

Come to think of it, the government's failure to get the joke is amusing. What did Clarkson say that has got the mighty government so angry? Do we not have filthy public loos? Do we not have grinding poverty in parts? Are slums not an Indian reality? Why not just laugh off the rude jokes? Or laugh with him? Or actually concede that certain things suck and deserve fixing in our individual and collective way. That would be a mature, more honest reaction.

Frankly, the sarkari outrage is embarassing - so, if I may say, Third World and so defensive and so out of sync with today's India. An India where more Indians are younger, better educated, richer, and better travelled today than ever before. An India whose sons and daughters are successes in any country they emigrate to. An India that is increasingly assertive in its dealings with the rest of the world. But then maybe that's the problem. In this case, the foreign ministry may have confused arrogance with assertiveness. Of the 'you see what we want you to see or else we will block you from future travel to India, or from doing business with us' kind.

But why single out the government? If it's setting a poor example, we are worthy followers. We will object to a book without reading it; to a movie without watching it; we will bristle with anger about so-called neo-colonial Englishmen and their embarrassing stories about how we treat the Jarawa tribe. It's almost as if being thin-skinned remains a national hobby. As also being hypocritical.

It truly astonishes me that we will complain about the Top Gear team when we routinely crack rude jokes about ourselves and foreigners. There are too many of us who don't think twice before taking pot shots at other Indians who look, sound, and dress differently than us; who may be darker than us or who have features different than ours. There are also those of us who think it's funny to call an African student in Delhi kaalu or a Caucasian tourist gora. That to me is more, if not as, inappropriate as bawdy toilet humour. But the national outrage at these rude jibes is limited, if not missing altogether. It's almost as if we as a nation are saying that it's okay for us to critique ourselves but the foreigners can't.

Humour in India, apparently, is a rare commodity and selectively deployed.

Thankfully, social media is less intolerant and more able to laugh off imaginary insults. It has been cold to India's protest registered with the BBC and hugely critical of the government move to regulate so-called offensive online content. This new medium is more in sync with changing India. Those online appear to be comfortable in their skins, comfortable shedding baggage of the past. Now, if the rest of us can please just understand that the joke's on us.


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Paarull Malhotra is CNN-IBN's Chief Diplomatic Correspondent. When she's not reporting, she's a newscaster. She considers herself very lucky because she enjoys what she does - which is covering India's relations with the world, with a special focus on the neighbourhood. Her areas of interest are Af-Pak, West Asia and China. She's an East West Centre fellow, and prefers to relax by blogging, tweeting, reading and travelling. You can reach her on her blaze page via ibnlive.com or on her facebook page. Paarull's twitter handle is @paarull