Dear Uncle Sam…
Why do India and Pakistan see America in such opposite ways?
Early in the 1950s, Saadat Hasan Manto, arguably Pakistan's greatest prose writer, defined, almost inadvertently, a type of "Ugly American" that the Cold War would fix in popular imaginations across Asia: the representative of the world's greatest superpower who, though superficially friendly and generous, pursues America's national interest at the expense of all other concerns; an often blundering figure who never ceases, while leaving destruction and chaos in his wake, to claim the highest virtue for his deeds.
American cultural cold warriors, then clustered at U.S. Information Services (USIS) offices, had approached Manto with a lucrative commission -- write a short story for publication in an Urdu journal they subsidized -- after he publicly ridiculed Pakistani camp followers of Stalin. Spurned by nonaligned India, the United States was trying to persuade Pakistan's generals, along with artists and writers, into joining its anti-Soviet crusade. The famously mercurial Manto insisted on taking less money than was offered by the Americans and then submitted, in place of the promised short story, a caustic "Letter to Uncle Sam," mocking America's claims to moral superiority over the Soviet Union.
His red-faced editors at Lahore's USIS office killed the letter and banned Manto from their pages. But Manto kept writing more letters to Uncle Sam, publishing nine altogether in local periodicals from 1951 to 1954. Today, they seem to have brilliantly foreshadowed not only the fraught triangular relationship between the United States, Pakistan, and India, but also its consequences: vicious wars, the rise of ruthless ideologies on the subcontinent, the proliferation of Indian and Pakistani versions of the Ugly American. The letters also appear to have anticipated the profound distrust of America to take hold in Pakistan in the decade since the 9/11 attacks, even as India moved in the opposite direction to an easy, even eager, accommodation with Pax Americana.
Early in the 1950s, Saadat Hasan Manto, arguably Pakistan’s greatest prose writer, defined, almost inadvertently, a type of "Ugly American" that the Cold War would fix in popular imaginations across Asia: the representative of the world’s greatest superpower who, though superficially friendly and generous, pursues America’s national interest at the expense of all other concerns; an often blundering figure who never ceases, while leaving destruction and chaos in his wake, to claim the highest virtue for his deeds.
American cultural cold warriors, then clustered at U.S. Information Services (USIS) offices, had approached Manto with a lucrative commission — write a short story for publication in an Urdu journal they subsidized — after he publicly ridiculed Pakistani camp followers of Stalin. Spurned by nonaligned India, the United States was trying to persuade Pakistan’s generals, along with artists and writers, into joining its anti-Soviet crusade. The famously mercurial Manto insisted on taking less money than was offered by the Americans and then submitted, in place of the promised short story, a caustic "Letter to Uncle Sam," mocking America’s claims to moral superiority over the Soviet Union.
His red-faced editors at Lahore’s USIS office killed the letter and banned Manto from their pages. But Manto kept writing more letters to Uncle Sam, publishing nine altogether in local periodicals from 1951 to 1954. Today, they seem to have brilliantly foreshadowed not only the fraught triangular relationship between the United States, Pakistan, and India, but also its consequences: vicious wars, the rise of ruthless ideologies on the subcontinent, the proliferation of Indian and Pakistani versions of the Ugly American. The letters also appear to have anticipated the profound distrust of America to take hold in Pakistan in the decade since the 9/11 attacks, even as India moved in the opposite direction to an easy, even eager, accommodation with Pax Americana.
"Dear Uncle," Manto wrote in one of the letters, "My admiration and respect for you are going up at about the same rate as your progress towards a decision to grant military aid to Pakistan."
"You are," he speculated, "seriously concerned about the stability of the world’s largest Islamic state since our mullah is the best antidote to Russian communism."
This was shrewd. The anti-Soviet jihad in neighboring Afghanistan was decades away, but the CIA’s adventurers had already realized the anti-communist potential of radical Islamism, secretly supporting, among other outfits, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood exiled in Munich. Soon many other Pakistanis would come to share Manto’s suspicion that the United States would ally itself with the most anti-democratic elements in Pakistan — military generals and Islamists — in order to advance its geopolitical interests. Even as Pakistan’s strategic and military relationship with Washington flourished, popular sentiment turned wary of the United States.
No such ambiguities clouded early Indian visions of the self-interested and unreliable American. India and America, the world’s two largest democracies, should have been, it is tirelessly argued now, natural partners from 1947 onward. But, having spent decades in the struggle for independence from British rule, India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was unlikely to help the United States assume the burden of defunct European empires in Asia and Africa. The "concert of democracies" would not take place until after the Cold War, when economic globalization would create harmonious new alliances of elites in both countries. For much of the 1950s and 1960s, discordant noises marked political and cultural exchanges between India and the United States.
U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles denounced nonalignment as "immoral." Nehru, in turn, regarded the American as "constitutionally stupid" and worse: "dull, duller, Dulles." Nehru’s aristocratic disdain for American cold warriors like Dulles blended well not only with a populist strain of anti-imperialism in India but also with an older Indian prejudice, derived from the British upper class, about America as a land of upstarts. Visiting India in 1962, V.S. Naipaul was astonished by the snobbish Indian response to American novelist John O’Hara: "You couldn’t get," a Madras Brahmin (unnamed, but most likely the writer R.K. Narayan) told Naipaul, "a well-bred Englishman writing this sort of tosh." Narayan’s own novel, The Vendor of Sweets, in which the self-contained life of a small-town shopkeeper is ruined by his overly ambitious son, who goes to America to learn creative writing ("It’s the only country where they teach such things," marvels one character), underlines a conservative Indian perception of the United States as the source of much modern outlandishness.
The Vendor of Sweets appeared in 1967, just as a spike in Indian immigration to the United States began to make Narayan’s snobbery look passé. This immigrant generation would eventually become America’s wealthiest minority; it included well-placed Indian-Americans like pundit Fareed Zakaria, economist Jagdish Bhagwati, venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, and Rajat Gupta, former managing director of consulting giant McKinsey, all of whom came to offer an indispensable interface between India and America.
But already by the 1960s, India’s small middle class, empowered by top-notch educational institutions while materially and intellectually thwarted by Nehru’s import-substitution model of economic growth, had begun to look to America as a lodestar of modernity. The many American Centers in Indian cities could never match the Houses of Soviet Culture sponsored by their Soviet rivals, an entire network of pro-communist libraries and bookshops across small-town India. But upwardly mobile Indians tended to be more seduced by the images of American life brought cheaply into their homes by the Indian edition of Reader’s Digest and Span, a USIS-produced "glossy" (when the word was unknown) carrying photographs and reprints from American magazines.
A tiny minority of urban Indians also enjoyed direct access to American music and cinema. The novels of Salman Rushdie, who grew up in an upper-middle-class family in Mumbai, chart an increasing Indian fascination with America, from the simple pop-culture enthusiasms of Midnight’s Children to the garish fantasies of sex and power in The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Fury, and Shalimar the Clown.
In Rushdie’s Fury, Indian academic Malik Solanka travels to America "as so many before him to receive the benison of being Ellis Islanded, of starting over."
"Give me a name, America," Solanka begs, "make of me a Buzz or Chip or Spike. Bathe me in amnesia and clothe me in your powerful unknowing."
In reality, most Indians in America eschewed such radical self-invention, settling into their new routines hesitantly and awkwardly, as the delicate fictions of Jhumpa Lahiri reveal. Nevertheless, by the 1980s just about every middle-class family in India seemed to have a steadily prospering relative in the United States. The Hindu nationalist firebrand exposed recently by WikiLeaks pleading his pro-U.S. credentials to American diplomats may not have exaggerated when he claimed to have several nieces and sisters residing in the United States and "five homes to visit between D.C. and New York."
For Indians who stayed behind, their relatives in America became the source of goodies (toys, gadgets, comic books, magazines). The endless daydreaming they provoked would seed the imaginative landscape of "rising India" in the 1990s, when Archie comics, set in a hormonally charged American high school, inspired some of Bollywood’s most successful films.
The Indian middle class’s pursuit of the American Dream managed to survive even the relentless anti-American propaganda of the Indian government, which regularly blamed the CIA for everything that was going wrong in the country — and much did go wrong in the 1960s and 1970s. The loudest exponent of the "foreign hand" theory was Indira Gandhi, Nehru’s daughter and prime minister for nearly two decades. Growing up in a small town, on a diet of Soviet-subsidized newsmagazines, I, like many of my compatriots, was quickly persuaded by her. Indian paranoia reached a hysterical pitch after Richard Nixon "tilted" toward Pakistani military generals during India’s war in 1971 with Pakistan. In Rohinton Mistry’s 1991 novel, Such a Long Journey, which takes the war as its backdrop, the character who asks angrily, "Did you read today about what America is doing?… CIA bastards are up to their usual anus-fingering tactics," spoke for many outraged Indians.
But even as we obsessed futilely about the "foreign hand" in India, it had begun to seriously blight neighboring Pakistan, where the dreaded local spy agency, the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence), first acquired its malign power as a conduit between the CIA and anti-communist jihadists. In 1954, Manto had satirically exhorted Uncle Sam, "Once military aid starts flowing the first people you should arm are these mullahs." And so it happened. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, Pakistan’s American-funded military dictator, steadily silenced all democratic opposition and empowered Islamic extremists in the nine years between 1979, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, and his death in a plane crash in 1988.
This U.S.-enabled ravaging of Pakistan’s civil society, which forced some of the country’s most distinguished writers into exile, shaped the geopolitical education of a whole Pakistani generation — and it has come to be a major theme of Pakistani writing, especially in the decade since 9/11. The Wasted Vigil (2008), a novel by Nadeem Aslam, whose family migrated to England after an uncle was tortured by Zia’s police, excavates U.S. recklessness in Afghanistan and Pakistan through two generations of CIA agents. Mohammed Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes (2008) takes a scathing view of the U.S. officials complicit in turning Pakistan into a base of global jihadism. Kamila Shamsie’s novel Burnt Shadows (2009) spans a history of America’s violent remaking of the world, from the bombing of Nagasaki through the anti-Soviet jihad to the last decade’s "war on terror." Mohsin Hamid’s novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) records the souring of the American Dream for an Ivy League-educated Pakistani who can’t suppress a vindictive smile as he watches the Twin Towers collapse: "Yes, despicable as it may sound, my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased."
Post-9/11, the American mollycoddling of another Pakistani dictator (Pervez Musharraf), the resulting delay in Pakistan’s transition to civilian rule, and the great domestic toll of the "war on terror" — with more than 30,000 Pakistanis dead since 9/11 — definitively fixed the image of the Ugly American in the Pakistani imagination. Indeed, one disturbingly recurrent image in recent Pakistani fiction and film is of the remorselessly brutal American. The Wasted Vigil shows an American interrogator directing a blowtorch into the eye of a young Taliban fighter. In 2007’s Khuda Kay Liye (In the Name of God), one of Pakistan’s most popular films ever, a Sufi musician suspected wrongly of links to al Qaeda is brain-damaged after being tortured for more than a year in U.S. custody.
These Pakistani specters of a morally unhinged America have no counterparts in Indian fiction and literature, even in the Bollywood imitations spawned by Khuda Kay Liye‘s international success. There are some apparently strong claims to victimhood in My Name Is Khan (2010), which features India’s most famous actor, Shah Rukh Khan, a Muslim by birth, as an autistic immigrant. In the film Khan plays out a classic Indian-American success story: a Muslim from a hardscrabble Mumbai background who finds emotional and professional fulfillment in San Francisco. But then his stepson is killed in a racist assault after 9/11, and Khan wanders across the United States, looking for George W. Bush, for whom he has a simple message: "My name is Khan, and I am not a terrorist."
Doggedly rejecting all identification of Islam with terrorism, the film became a massive hit across the Muslim world last year. The scenes in which the autistic Khan is being tortured by American counterterrorism officials may have stoked an ever-simmering Muslim outrage over U.S. conduct. But My Name Is Khan is also suffused with a recognizably Indian sense of wonder at America’s material plenitude — the film was made by one of the Bollywood admirers of Archie comics. And it ends by affirming the middle-class Indian infatuation with America through a liberal feel-good fantasy of Barack Obama, who in the film’s last scene is shown eloquently amplifying Khan’s message.
Certainly, Uncle Sam, disowned by Pakistanis, has found innumerable devoted nephews in India. Indian and Pakistani perceptions of America now wildly diverge: A 2005 Pew poll conducted in 16 countries found the United States in the highest regard among Indians (71 percent having a favorable opinion) and nearly the lowest among Pakistanis (23 percent). Indian politicians, bureaucrats, and businessmen have worked overtime to make up for what a Hindu nationalist foreign minister called "50 wasted years" of Indo-U.S relations — a frantic courtship that reached its apex of passion in 2008 when, visiting the White House, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh blurted out to arguably the most disliked U.S. president in history: "The people of India love you deeply!" Having helped push through the Bush administration’s exceptionally generous nuclear deal to India, the Indian-American lobby is bidding to be one of the most powerful special-interest groups in Washington. Cheerleaders for the new special relationship are already installed in think tanks and the media in both India and the United States.
And their first order of business is — business. While reinforcing the Pakistani military, the United States has lobbied hard for the sale of U.S. nuclear expertise and weaponry to Pakistan’s traditional enemy, India, now the world’s biggest arms market. Manto saw through this cynical game, too: "As for your military pact with us," he long ago advised Uncle Sam, "it is remarkable and should be maintained. You should sign something similar with India … and your armament factories will no longer remain idle."
Peace in the region looks as remote as ever, with militant nationalists in both nuclear-armed countries still routinely rattling their sabers. A day after U.S. Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden, the Indian Army and Air Force chiefs thundered that India was capable of hunting down its own Geronimos in Pakistan. The ISI chief responded with the boast that the Pakistani military had already rehearsed retaliatory strikes on India. "Everyone can now become a smartass," Manto had lamented as Uncle Sam first stumbled into South Asian geopolitics, envenoming an already bitter rivalry. For the next half-century, aggressively self-interested elites in India and Pakistan would exalt preparedness for war over socioeconomic progress. And it now seems that Manto, prescient though he was about the Ugly American, didn’t fully warn us about the Ugly Indian and the Ugly Pakistani.
More from Foreign Policy
What’s the Harm in Talking to Russia? A Lot, Actually.
Diplomacy is neither intrinsically moral nor always strategically wise.
Ukraine Has a Secret Resistance Operating Behind Russian Lines
Modern-day Ukrainian partisans are quietly working to undermine the occupation.
The Franco-German Motor Is on Fire
The war in Ukraine has turned Europe’s most powerful countries against each other like hardly ever before.
How the U.S.-Chinese Technology War Is Changing the World
Washington’s crackdown on technology access is creating a new kind of global conflict.