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January 05, 2007

India after the Millenium
Posted by Michael Signer

First, I want to thank Jordan Tama for doing such a crackerjack job guest-blogging while I was gone.

I just returned from a 3-week trip to India and have some thoughts on this fascinating nation that, while they're not on the Iraq surge or Nancy Pelosi, might interest some of you.  And I offer these thoughts healthily aware that you flirt with cliche anytime you try and offer insights about a country that thousands of travel-writers, editorialists, and general India-philes.

I found two things about the country most interesting, especially when thinking about India from the economic-powerhouse, largest-secular-democracy-in-the-world perspective. 

#1.  This country is polytheistic and derives belief, and therefore meaning, from a constellation of different sources.  I know that Hindus believe that Brahma is the ultimate god, from whose spirituality all the other deities descends.  But, still, they do believe in the divineness of the other deities, and these beliefs play powerful and operative roles in everyday Indians' financial, personal, and political decisions. 

For example:  I was in Varanasi, India's holiest city, which sits on the banks of the Ganges River and which is where many Indians go to die, and then be cremated, because the soul is purified by virtue of ascending from that city.  With our guide, my mother and I visited the Hanuman Temple, which exists to worship the "monkey God" Hanuman, the deity of power and of financial success.  On a pleasantly cool Tuesday afternoon, we watched as several hundred Indians crowded into two barely-moving lines, their hands full of offerings (tiny cakes in perfectly-wrapped boxes, chains of bright orange marigolds) ready to hand over to the priests inside the temple, where the deity of Hanuman sat deep inside, shadowy and exuding authority.  Actual monkeys -- dozens of them -- wandered around the grounds, seemingly more at ease and at home than the humans there, all of whom shifted restlessly and regularly broke into group call-and-response chants to Hanuman, complete with percussion, as they waited to pray to this god for something they needed -- success in their business or investments, power for their ambitions, to win in general.

These Indians were wearing sweaters and glasses -- they were ordinary lay Indians praying to a god they believe was a historical figure, for things they wanted in their day-to-day lives.  It struck me, with the intensity that you encounter things in India, that these secular democrats who are fully engaged in developing a market system and in engaging with the world (and not just the western world) basically inhabit an entirely different universe of belief than we westerners do.  It actually reminded me very much of the world of ancient Athens that Peter Shaffer describes in his play Equus, populated by a god for everything.  This world of differentiated and fractal belief and meaning is exactly the opposite of the linear, Western model. 

But does it matter?  I asked a friend of mine whose father is from Gujarat this over lunch yesterday.  He said that he thought maybe it did -- that the different spiritual world could generate a different worldview -- more fatalistic, more inclined to defer blame (and therefore responsibility) for altering conditions, more varied and wayward in its ambitions.  I wondered about this as I reflected on the astonishing poverty in India, the utter and total lack of basic infrastructure development (we spent a week basically living in the bush visiting an intentional community of westerners in the state of Tamil Nadu, and watched and talked with many Tamils who are still living on dirt floors and sharing communal water supplies), and the lack of attention to basic cleanliness even in public spaces (the carpet in our $150/night Delhi hotel's dining room appeared never to have been cleaned, and a cockroach walked across our table at breakfast). 

On the other hand, the explosive and astonishing amount of warmth, energy, entrepreneurial energy, and diffuse but ambitious projects also seemed to stem from and compliment the spiritual variety of Indian life.

These lead me to lesson #2...

#2:  While Indians are committed to the same political/economic goal much of the West is -- a secular democracy and a market economy -- they are arriving at that goal without stopping through the set of fundamental classic-liberal prerequisites that we take for granted in America.  Namely, Indians are not invested in the Rawlsian precept that each individual life is worth the whole enterprise, and that you must help the least well-off before you help the most well-off.  Only this can explain the incredible predominance of children begging on the street with matted hair and dirty clothes.  While many American cities have tons of "homeless kids," which is a depressing and unsettling phenomenon, at least these are usually either emancipated older teens, or legal adults.   

In any American city, a child under 10 attempting to beg would be snapped up by social services and whisked to some kind of agency -- in part because of the fundamental violation of the liberal idea that someone's life should not be so predetermined, as such an early age, by something that's not their fault (poverty).  It just violates every one of our principles to allow a 6 year old kid to live on the street.

Not so in India, where it was common -- whether in Pondicherry, Delhi, Mahaballipuram, or Varanasi -- to see little kids making their living on the street.  I understand that the country has an astonishingly wide range of income and that many people subsist on thousands or even hundreds of dollars a year.  But, still, if the nation wants to move forward into a different category, I believe that, at the very least, taking care of children -- and thereby making one of the most fundamental precommitments of a modern classical-liberal society -- should become a priority.  And perhaps the fatalism and variety and diffuseness of meaning helps generate such an eclectic approach to liberalism and democracy. 

India is indeed fascinating, thrilling, a land of incredible contradictions and excitements, and an incredible ally for America in Asia.  To the extent that the vaunted affinity between India and America can go even farther, not just in the market economies developing among the middle class in the cities, but in the entire country, I believe the nation could do a lot to spread not just the wealth downward, but the basic ideas of equality of opportunity and justice. 


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This is the second post of Michael Signer's that just makes me shake my head in disbelief. To attribute the large numbers of street children in India to some sort of cultural defect absent from Western civilization is to show blinkered arrogance as well as historical illiteracy on a rather amazing scale.

Alternatively, Google the phrases "street Arab" or "guttersnipe". Hell, just read OLIVER TWIST. Child abandonment combined with urban poverty is a longstanding feature of Western civilization and relief only came when government resources were applied to the task. India obviously faces a far greater problem of rural and urban poverty than anything that confronted the U.S. or Britain at their respective periods of industrial development.

"Child abandonment combined with urban poverty is a longstanding feature of Western civilization and relief only came when government resources were applied to the task."

Um, Tequila, that's kind of my point... India should "apply government resources to the task" of getting children off the street, just as was done in the West -- particularly in cities, where the regional financial base is so much stronger.

I'm not sure why this would make you shake your head in disbelief but it seems kind of obvious to me...

The governmental resources available to India are obviously far more limited than in Britain or the U.S. at the time. The size of the poor population in India is also far greater than in Britain or the U.S. However, to claim as you do that India has abandoned large numbers of children to the streets as some sort of cultural choice, one that would be unthinkable in the West, is obviously wrong. The West did tolerate large numbers of homeless children, just as India does now, when its governmental resources were as limited. At least India does not currently hang child pickpockets or throw them out of the country, as Britain once did.

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