The Lucky Indians

For most of the past 50 years Indians were lucky not to be victimized by what Edward Said has called the "Orientalism" of the West, whose powerful media, academia and political propaganda machines habitually paint the "other" as strange and inferior cultures or people.

If you read any book written by a Westerner about India in the 1930s and 1940s, for example, you would not find anything good being written or spoken about this country, its people, its culture, or its religions — almost nothing at all. But after independence in 1947, the West did an about-face and had little negativity in its impressions of India. Yet the country itself had changed very little in matters of culture and religion.

This was not the case for many Arab countries, however. The attitudes of Western Orientalism continued unchanged from the 1940s until the present day and two reasons for this outcome are easily identified. India was viewed as a poor country with no oil reserves, so the West was not interested in re-colonizing it. Of course, this was not the case in most Arab countries.

The second reason is the Israel factor. Influential pro-Israel lobbyists in Western politics, media, and academia made sure that the Arab world — its religion, culture, people, and governments — was painted along the worst lines of "Orientalism."

In 1942 Prof. A. C. Bouquet of Cambridge wrote about the religions of India, listing them as Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, and India’s "Animists." He also compared India’s religions to his assumed superior Christianity.

Canadian-born economist and political scientist John Kenneth Galbraith lived in India for a time and was a friend of the late Prime Minister Jawharlal Nehru and his family; he described India as "a functioning anarchy." Although democracy has survived in India, political assassinations have taken the lives of many of its most respected leaders.

Today, India is a country of vast contrasts. The Indian economy is the world’s fourth largest in terms of purchasing power, but a large proportion of Indians nevertheless make barely one dollar a day. India is also the world’s largest democracy, but its social culture still tolerates a religiously based, discriminatory caste system.

India has more religious diversity within its borders than any other country, but its Hindus practice "untouchability" against a large number of their own faith and against those of all other faiths. Some Hindus bathe in the Ganga River for spiritual reasons, while others worship Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth.

Mahatma Gandhi was credited with motivating a non-violent defeat of the British occupation, but in more recent times India has discarded his model of peaceful change. With the explosive test of a nuclear device in 1998, India’s international strategy radically shifted.

Its economy has also changed while keeping enormous contrasts entrenched. On the one hand, urban Indian software specialists can earn a very decent salary (even by North American standards), while the 70% who live in the countryside are disadvantaged by systemic poverty, perpetuated by a lack of good roads, clean air and clean water.

While India’s vast population of more than 1 billion somehow seems to hold together, the country itself has failed to resolve major problems, such as the status of Kashmir and the Sikh separatist movement. Moreover, the collective Indian psyche is still profoundly wounded by the 1947 partition; no healing process has yet begun.

Now India is being called the world’s "call center superpower," with more than 40% of the 500 largest multinationals doing at least some of their back-office and customer service processing in the country. But, another contrast, India still has not globalized its domestic economy and is very protective of its local industries.

In 1995 former U.S secretary of state Henry Kissinger predicted that the 21st century would be dominated by at least six major powers — the U.S., Europe, Russia, Japan, China and "probably India." I wonder if he has changed his mind during the last decade and included India in his top six list, minus the word "probably."

But still, Mark Twain’s vivid 19th-century description of India also remains surprisingly true. He wrote: "This is indeed India! The land of dreams and romance, of fabulous wealth and fabulous poverty, the country of a hundred nations and a hundred tongues, of a thousand religions and two million gods, cradle of the human race, birth of human speech, mother of history, grandmother of legend, great grandmother of tradition."