Sunrise at the Dasaswameda Ghat: A Brahmin performs sacred ceremonies at the edge of
the River Ganges, the holiest pilgrimage site, Benares, India
Photograph by Leticia Alaniz © 2008 All Rights Reserved
Sometime early in the Twenty-First century, India, a nation of more than a billion people, will overtake China as the most populous country on earth. It is an ancient and vast nation rooted in sophisticated civilization, furrowed by cultural crosscurrents unique to the Subcontinent. It is glorious and exotic, a land of mythology and epic, of philosophical introspection and spiritual flight; the home of Rama and Shiva, Gautama Buddha, St. Thomas the Apostle, and dynasties of muslim sultans and emperors whose architects transformed the landscape with palaces, gardens, and tombs. But India is also a modern democracy in fact, the worlds largest. In India's fate there will be lessons for all democratic nations, including those who have only recently turned their backs on Communism.
India has slowly been distancing itself from the political culture left behind by colonialism. After the British ended their colonial rule, the new nation chose democracy. It has not been without its never ending challenges and as a nation they have had to confront authoritarianism and militarism to meet the challenges of poverty, caste, ghettoization, regional rebellion, religious strife, and political gangsterism. The road ahead has never been more obscured by obstacles and doubts. Despite new free-market economic policies, thrust on India in 1991 as much by world events as by a bold government under Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao and his visionary finance minister, Manhoman Singh, this ancient nation remains divided on how to tackle the challenges ahead.
India, the jewel in the crown of imperial Britain has worked hard to strengthen itself and has made its strife by expanding its power abroad. Yet along with the struggle, according to the indexes measuring the quality of life, parts of India are slipping into more and more poverty. In the poorest states, literacy is low and malnutrition rising. High on India's agenda over the next few decades, along with better schooling for children, must be the improvement in the status of women, a factor international development agencies are beginning to stress as a cure for chronic underdevelopment in many countries. There are still many restrictions imposed on women. Many do not have a chance at literacy or have been denied career choices or marriage partners. Girls are restricted to social or religious traditions that inhibit their freedom and personal growth. Both men and women are further restricted by the persistent system of caste.
Yet India had the courage that few other countries could match when in 1947, the once colonized nation won independence from Britain and became a pioneer and model for the post-colonial age. A poor nation divided by ethnic, linguistic, sectarian, and caste dared to choose the most difficult path of all: to lead its people into a multiparty parliamentary democracy. No other nation emerging from imperialism had a leader like Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the Mahatma as he is dearly remembered, whose example of peaceful resistance and nonviolent protest would reach out to inspire the downtrodden worldwide, including those who struggled for civil rights in the American South. Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, ranked among the great international personalities of his age. Under his tutelage, huge and impressive dams were built across mighty rivers and steel mills were fired. India would match its moral power with industrial muscle.
Half a century later, the country with the noblest heritage has become the most divided democracy in the world. Gaps widen daily between the interests of opportunistic politicians of all parties, often allied to the few and very rich in urban centers, and the ever-growing multiplying population of the deprived whom are crushed by the gigantic inequalities and handicaps. Indian social scientist Rajni Kothari, whom has been studying and analyzing Indian politics and society for more than a quarter of a century, says that in the late 1980's corruption exploded frighteningly. It is a harsh critique and he insists that corruption is a disease that has spread "to all but very few positions of power." Among its causes is "a pervasive sense of insecurity and uncertainty about the future." Rich or poor, Indians can sense the pressures of dwindling resources and feel the rising social tensions. The power of the ballot means little when party goons shoot their way into polling stations; institutions cannot function for the public good when there is no accountability.
At only a generation or two removed from the freedom struggle, this complex nation is searching for a way to define itself. Hinduism is the largest religion and forms more than 80% of the population. It is followed by Islam at 13.4%, Christianity at 2.3%, Sikhism at 1.9%, Buddhism at o.8%, and in lesser degree Jainism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and the Bahá'i Faith. Even though the diverse population follows mostly Hindu beliefs, India has the third-largest Muslim population and largest Muslim population for a non-Muslim majority country. Hindu India proclaims itself the most tolerant society in the world.
|Bharat Mata ki jai! Victory to Mother India!|
Ancient India is singularly rich in written texts, from the hymns and verses of the Vedas, dating to the second millenium B.C., and the later Upanishads and ritual Brahmanas to the epic Mahabarata (containing the holy Bhagavad-Gita) or "Song of the Lord") and the Ramayana. But when myth masquerades as chronology, as in the Puranas with their catalogue of avatars and dynasties descended from the sun and moon, the old texts open themselves to considerable interpretation. And when other more mundane records have been lost or rewritten to conform the views of newer generations, popular legends fill the gaps, taking the place of history and getting in the way of scholarship.
With the dynasties derailed, India started over. Many of its problems may seem bigger than those of other democracies, because everything about India, is and some of its crises arrive inevitably out of the country's singular cultural environment. Mythical India is facing a terrifying and exhilarating moment in their history, a time of daunting problems and tremendous possibilities, a time to throw off all burdens and seize new opportunities in a community of nations being remade geopolitically and economically. For decades if not centuries, India has lured and seduced soul-hungry seekers from the outside world with its intense spirituality. No one who traverses India is untouched by its devotional sense or the brilliance and color of its worship and the nations character. In India Hinduism in its many forms is woven tightly into the history of the nation. So powerful are the touchstone myths and legends, so pervasive the thought processes rooted in Hinduism, a culture as much a religion for more than 80% of Indians, that from anthropology to political science, in medicine, psychiatry, and the arts, the Hindu context cannot be ignored.
India set for themselves the political task to make democracy work in a diverse society. In the next century, numerically speaking, there will be far more democrats in the developing world than in the industrialized West and Japan. Strategically, politically, culturally, and as a great story of sheer human endeavor, India cannot be ignored as its nearly one billion people, their immense human potential still untapped, move toward the twenty-first century, still seeking good leaders to whom they can again cry with conviction, Bharat Mata ki jai! Victory to Mother India!
India Facing the Twenty First Century
Indiana University Press
The Argumentative Indian
Allen Lane Publisher
State Against Democracy - In Search of Humane Governance
New York: New Horizons Press