India Gets By

India Gets By

Vir Singh

With ingenuity and blind faith, citizens of the world’s largest democracy navigate a sea of contradictions, conflict, and corruption

FOCUS: The World’s Largest Democracy Is a Land of Contradictions


To help students understand the extremes of life in India, where democracy thrives amid a caste system, where software companies boom despite widespread illiteracy, and where nuclear weapons are developed in the homeland of cradle protest.

Discussion Questions:

* Suppose an Indian student tells you: “Yes, we have problems, but there is also poverty, corruption, and racial discrimination in the U.S., the world’s richest country.” How do you respond?

* What do you think is the root cause of corruption in India?

* Why do you think the caste system is more prevalent in India’s rural areas?


Critical Thinking: Note that India has 15 official languages; only 30 percent of the people speak Hindi, the national language, How does this foster disharmony? Suppose the U.S. had 15 official languages and only 30 percent of Americans spoke English. How would that affect education, business, sports, and entertainment?

Next, discuss four key issues.

Caste: Why, if discrimination was outlawed in 1950, does it remain widespread? Tell students that caste is rooted in ancient Hindu tradition. Does that fact help explain why people in lower castes do not rebel?

Poverty: Compare economic disparity in India and the U.S. While the per capita gross domestic product of the U.S. is $31,500, India’s is $1,720. Yet 32 million Americans, 12 percent of the population, live in poverty. In Varun’s neighborhood, fences separate the poor from the wealthy. How does this segregation compare with the different ways rich and poor live in the U.S.? Do the forces of religion and tradition make it more difficult for poor Indians to escape poverty than for poor Americans?

Religious Conflict: Tell students that Islam arrived with Arab and Turkish invaders in the 8th and 12th centuries. Did the method by which Islam was introduced to India build historic barriers between people?

Corruption: Vir Singh says that anything in short supply creates an opportunity for corruption. Do low wages (a short supply of money) produce corruption? (In March, military and government officials were filmed taking bribes from an arms supplier. Does this incident contradict the argument that poverty alone produces corruption?)

Varun Bhandari’s bedroom window overlooks a well-landscaped park, fitted with a gushing mountain stream and toylike foot bridges, in an affluent neighborhood in the Indian capital of Delhi. Kids growing up here dream of becoming doctors, lawyers, executives, and other professionals.

The surrounding homes boast at least two cars in each driveway; big-screen TVs, stereos, and expensive crystal in the living rooms. In the evenings, the park comes alive, with children playing badminton on floodlit courts, as their parents power-walk to burn calories. Varun, 19, crosses the park to work out at his friend’s home gym.

Two blocks away, a group of boys about Varun’s age is getting a very different kind of workout. They toil at a construction site, carrying bricks and cement up narrow, unfinished stairs to a crew of masons. The boys earn about three dollars for a hard, 10-hour workday, barely enough for two meals. Most of the money goes to their families, who live in cramped quarters less than a mile away.

The two neighborhoods could not be more different. One is orderly, clean, spacious, and green; the other, congested and noisy–an urban village where small stores jostle for space with teetering two-story homes, and cows nose through trash heaps during the day.

A busy road separates the two worlds. The residents of Varun’s neighborhood have erected massive iron gates to protect themselves from the poorer community across the road. As the gap between rich and poor grows, the gates have been raised and boundary walls fitted with broken glass for security. “There’s too much theft,” says Varun. “It’s getting worse.”

This is not the way things were supposed to be. Yet more than half a century after India broke free from British colonial rule, less than 5 percent of Indians live in neighborhoods like Varun’s. More than 50 percent earn less than a dollar a day.

The difference between rich and poor is just one of the contrasts and challenges facing India today as it tries to live up to the ideals of its founders. With a population of more than 1 billion, India is considered the world’s largest democracy, yet widespread corruption eats away at the system. India’s constitution calls for religious tolerance and the separation of church and state, yet conflict between India’s Hindu majority and Muslim minority is on the rise. The constitution also proclaims that all people should be treated equally, yet the caste system–a social hierarchy that derives from ancient Hinduism–assigns people’s status and economic welfare according to their birth. In just 10 years, India has become one of the world’s high-tech leaders, with an $8 billion software industry. But it also has the world’s highest rate of illiteracy.

Even the idea of India as a country is improbable. With more than a dozen major languages, hundreds of dialects, scores of ethnic groups, castes, and religions, it’s amazing that it manages to hang together at all. Nowhere else are so many different communities grouped together under the umbrella of one nation. Before independence in 1947, Indians joined together in a common enterprise: to end more than 200 years of British colonial rule. With the British no longer around as a unifying force, India’s internal differences have become more pronounced, yet somehow the country marches on.


Most Indians have simply learned how to cope. Bribery, for instance, is part of everyday life. School admissions, jobs, homes, water, electricity, telephones, cooking gas, basically anything that is in short supply (and in India this is a long list) creates opportunities for corruption at all levels. Varun says he spent two weeks trying to get the state-run utility company to turn on the power at an off-campus apartment near his law college. Then he was told that for about four to five dollars, the company’s technician would hook up the power supply “in two minutes.” And that’s pretty much what happened.

“This is what the whole thing has come down to–whom you know,” says Sukhmani Singh, 16. “This happens even at our level, at school.” She has seen special favors granted to fellow students from families with financial or political clout. Most irregularities occur during admissions, when parents will do just about anything to set their children on the path to success by placing them in the “right” school.

“The teachers themselves say, `Our hands are tied behind our backs,'” says Varun, who recalls a student who was away for three months campaigning for an uncle in a state election. Despite its strict attendance policy, the school promoted the boy to the next grade.


One of the most stubborn challenges to the ideal of equality is the caste system. The rules governing caste are brutally simple: If you are born into the priestly caste, that or some other white-collar job is what you do. Ditto for being a carpenter or a cleaner of toilets. Reformers had campaigned to abolish the caste system long before India’s independence. India’s best-known freedom fighter, Mohandas K. Gandhi, the founder of the modern nation, championed the cause of the lowest castes, known as “untouchables.” The men who framed India’s constitution outlawed caste discrimination in 1950. And later lawmakers created special quotas for members of certain lower castes in schools, universities, state-owned firms, and government ministries.

The quotas were supposed to be phased out within a decade or two. But politicians quickly learned that doing away with these privileges would mean a loss of votes. Instead, in the 1980s, other underprivileged groups came forward to demand their own quotas. Lower castes formed political parties to secure a voice in politics. Indian politicians learned that to get elected, they had to appeal to various caste-based groups–never mind what the constitution said about all Indians being equal. The result has been some benefits for members of lower castes, but the system that puts them at the bottom remains intact.


Perhaps the biggest contrast to come to light in recent times is the one between India’s image as a tolerant society and the increasing violence between religious communities. In December 1992, a mob of Hindu zealots tore down a 16th-century mosque in Ayodhya in northern India. The incident sparked religious violence across the country, in which thousands of people died.

More than the mosque, however, it was India’s secular image that collapsed. The country’s political leaders, and even its security forces, had turned a blind eye to the mosque’s destruction. The hard-line religious groups behind the action said it was necessary to restore lost Hindu pride and to make India’s Muslims pay for the violence and humiliation inflicted on Hindus in the country’s Islamic neighbors, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The Indian People’s Party (BJP), which made huge political gains by calling for the mosque’s destruction, came to power less than six years later.

Since taking over, the BJP has backed away from hardline Hindu groups, but has done little to curb their activities. During the last few years, these groups have attacked art exhibits, movies, beauty contests, and anything else they consider offensive to Hinduism. Sukhmani’s civics textbook tells her she lives in a secular country. “This is such a joke,” she says.


Some of the extremist religious groups also espouse a fiery economic nationalism that calls for greater self-reliance. They believe Indians should buy more domestic products instead of “frivolous” imports from the West. As recently as a decade ago, politicians lobbied for greater protection from most imports with the slogan “Computer chips, not potato chips.” Yet more recently, numerous international companies have set up shop in India, including Benetton, Nike, Levi’s, Pepsi, CNN, McDonald’s, and MTV. Even Coke and IBM, which were thrown out of India 25 years ago, are back doing business. India may be poor, but even if just 2 percent of Indians can afford to buy these brands, that’s 20 million customers. Foreign firms are betting that this number will grow rapidly in the next 10 years.

As India lurches into the modern world, all it takes is a natural disaster to highlight the problems it still faces. In January, a massive earthquake struck the western state of Gujarat, bringing out both the best and the worst of India. “It’s a sort of uniting force for the country to come together as one,” Sukhmani says. “But then everyone falls back into their small groups.” During the crucial first few days of the disaster, which killed more than 30,000 people, the government’s rescue and relief efforts were grossly inadequate. Later, reports emerged of discrimination by the government’s relief officials against members of lower castes and of aid shipments “disappearing” only to show up later in local markets.

One of India’s former Prime Ministers, Rajiv Gandhi, famously said that only 15 percent of government funds marked for the poor actually reach them.

It may be that the one quality that unites the strands of Indian society is simply the ability to get by. Sukhmani says that there still are some good people around who help to get things done: “It’s the opposite of one rotten apple spoiling the whole lot.”

For instance, if the phone is broken, Sukhmani’s parents would ordinarily have to visit the state-run company. Instead, they contact their friendly neighborhood phone guy, an employee from the same company whom the family has known for years. “If you know someone, you can get the job done faster,” Sukhmani says. “And later on, his children will help us because they know our family.

“This blind faith thing is what keeps things going.”

Trouble at the Top

It has been 30 years since India and Pakistan were last in a declared state of war, but tensions between them remain so high that this status often seems like a mere technicality.

Control over Kashmir, a territory in the Himalaya mountains at the northernmost point of the subcontinent, is the main issue that has poisoned relations between predominantly Hindu India and overwhelmingly Muslim Pakistan since the two countries were carved from the British Empire in 1947. Pakistan says that Kashmir, with its Muslim majority, should vote on whether to join India or Pakistan. India claims Kashmir as one of its states.

India and Pakistan have already fought two full-scale wars over Kashmir, in 1947-48 and again in 1965. The wars failed to settle the issue, and control over the territory remains divided. (They fought a third war in 1971, unrelated to Kashmir.) The Kashmir conflict heated up again in 1999.

Many Asians fear that any fighting could escalate into nuclear war, since both countries are now nuclear powers. But their collective history works against that happening. India and Pakistan both have millions of citizens with relatives across the border, and they share common food, languages, and a passion for cricket.

“There are good reasons for them to resolve the conflict,” says Stephen Cohen, an expert on South Asia at the Brookings Institution. But that won’t be easy, he adds, and it probably won’t happen anytime soon.

–Patricia Smith

COPYRIGHT 2001 Scholastic, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale Group