Wednesday Night #812 – India

Written by  //  September 24, 1997  //  Michael Judson, Misha Crnobrnja, Reports, Wednesday Nights  //  1 Comment

24 September 1997

As Misha Crnobrnja has just returned from India, this Wednesday was a revisit to the sub-continent seeing it through his eyes. It was his first visit in a very long time and he will most certainly have interesting observations about the changes he noted. Special Guests Nimi and Simon Potter have also recently returned from India – a trip that combined work & play

The Report

We turned our attention to another continent now that we have “done” Africa, Canada and Mexico in recent weeks.
Michael Judson brought two guests, Prof. John Hill of Concordia University and Carey A. Watt , a Doctoral candidate in Indian history at Cambridge University. Carey was published in May of this year in the prestigious Modern Asia Studies Review. His topic was Education for National Efficiency: Constructive Nationalism in North India, 1909-1916. His thesis examines the rise of self-help movements imbued with notions of public service, national efficiency and a new conception of Indian society amongst Hindus of North India. This represented a new type of constructive nationalism which quietly displaced and undermined the British colonial state from within — a fascinating topic about which most of us learned a great deal from our guests.

David Nicholson attempted to bring some structure to the discussion by asking: – Is India better off without England?
Not in the view of many around the table. It was also pointed out that India will never be entirely rid of England. The English language is the common language in a country with hundreds of languages and dialects. However, the English spoken there today has evolved in its own way and is often very different from British English.
-Why, asked another guest, are the British so attracted to India, a climate and a culture so different from their own?
One answer , “because many modest individuals (with much to be modest about?) could live like royalty in India compared to their situation at home.” Yes, there were fortunes to be made, but also, many scholars were attracted, and people of different backgrounds found work and fulfillment in India which they could not have found at home. Exploitation of Indians by Indians is often greater than that suffered under the Raj. And, don’t forget that those who worked as servants for the British were frequently better off than they could have otherwise been.
Returning to the present, Misha described his recent visit to India, his first visit since he had lived there as a young boy. He mentioned that in 40 years, little has changed for rural India, – no electricity, dirt roads, poor sanitation. There is pervasive filth institutionally although Indian people are personally fastidious The contrast between the rich and poor is even greater than before. And in the cities, the environmental situation is worse than in the ’50s. In Delhi the exhaust fumes are suffocating the city.
The women’s issue is a pivotal one. The treatment of women as chattels continues. Many Indian women continue to perform heavy labour. When you read the Indian daily papers, you suddenly become aware of how many women die in kitchen fires. These are related to dowry issues. The burden of existence falls on women in the villages and the increasing women’s literacy rate is helping to improve the lot of villagers. But, there is a dichotomy in the role of women in India. Women with access to political power do not encourage other women. Women professors in the universities are role models for the next generation, but there will be fierce opposition from the men.
At the same time, the pervasive influence of Western “culture” is apalling; 300 million people watch TV and their own rich cultures are being eroded by trashy, Western pop culture.
India is a land of contrasts. Where else would Mother Theresa, an Albanian, have been given a State Funeral? Galbraith said that ” India is a functioning anarchy”. Independent India inherited huge problems created initially by partition which prevented the Hindus and Muslims from working and living together, creating common solutions to common problems. Remember that India’s history is largely one of religious tolerance before the end of the Raj. Other problems come from the pressure on the economy to industrialize a nation which was principally agrarian.
One guest comments that we should not forget what is going right in India. Literacy is advancing. Population growth is in check. Progress and improvements are evident. People, even in the slums, generally look healthy and happy. Others disagree, stating that only a small percentage (albeit several hundred million) are actually living happier, healthier lives and that the Middle Class is not as large as one might think, while the number of poor is increasing. One guest wondered how many individuals are filing tax returns.
Misha is alarmed by the emergence of nationalism in India. It is a weak democracy. The Nehru family used to run the show and there is no tradition of stable government without a strongman, nor does it appear likely that a stable government will emerge in next year’s election. Historically, the majority Hindus have been ruled by the Muslims. Is it perhaps a cultural weakness that prevents the majority from forming stable, effective government? One guest suggested that Spirituality is the glue that binds India. Another disagreed, stating that India is over-run by Spirituality, “it’s their disease”. Cows are sacred. Philosophy is doomed!

One Comment on "Wednesday Night #812 – India"

  1. Diana Thébaud Nicholson October 6, 1997 at 8:26 pm ·

    6 October 1997
    Dear David,
    You asked me to send you my questions on India – here they are:-
    Many people talk about the emerging “middle class” in India of some 270 million people. Yes, these people are better off than the other 730 million, but to put things in perspective –
    1. Out of the total Indian population how many have sanitation at home which includes a tap with clean running water, and a toilet that flushes? For the “middle class” what is the percentage?
    2. The same question, except have reliable electrical power at home? For the “middle class” what is the percentage?
    3. What percentage of Indians completed a tax return in the last year?
    While I do not know the exact number for any of these items, having visited Indian many times, including long train trips into the “outback”, I would guess the percentages are very low – ~10%.
    If 27% make up the new “middle class”, I doubt that 27% of the Indian population can say yes to all three questions above.
    The point is – that while people talk of an Indian “middle class” that is making progress, do not confuse their standard of living with what we consider “middle class” living in Canada.
    A visit to India will change your perception and your definition of “standard of living” and make a deep impression of you. You have to see the poverty, the homeless, the beggars, the lack of sanitation first hand to really appreciated it. Yes 270 million people are making progress, but they still have a long way to come.
    Gerald Ratzer

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