Frontline World

INDIA, Starring Osama Bin Laden, June 2003

Related Features THE STORY
Synopsis of "Starring Osama Bin Laden"

Backstage With the Producer

Confronting New Myths

Background, About Jatras, Freedom of Expression

Indian Theater, Reaction to September 11, Media




Images of Indian culture
Facts & Stats

• Background: India
• India and September 11
• Indian Theater
• Freedom of Expression

Background: India

India is the second-most populous country in the world, with more than a billion citizens, and the most populous democracy. The country's landmass is one-third that of the United States, and it shares borders with Pakistan, China, Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh.

In 1947, India gained independence from Britain and split from Pakistan. Since then, India and Pakistan have fought three wars against one another. The disputed region of Kashmir continues to be a source of tension between two nuclear-armed neighbors.

India is a secular nation with a Hindu majority. Its 12 percent Muslim minority constitutes one of the largest Muslim populations in the world. Other religious minorities include Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and Zoroastrians.

The country has 18 official languages, in addition to hundreds of unofficial languages and dialects. Although Hindi is India's national language, only an estimated one-third of Indians speak it. English is widely used in business and government.

India's GDP is $390 million. Although the country's middle class is growing, the average Indian earns only $420 a year, and almost half of the country's children under age 5 are malnourished.

Literacy in India is on the rise, with 76 percent of men and 54 percent of women demonstrating the ability to read and write.

Calcutta, with more than 13 million residents, is the second-most populous metropolis (the first is Bombay). Once the capital of British India, it is now the state capital of West Bengal. The city is known for its literature and arts, as well as for its vast slums. It was officially renamed Kolkata in 2000.

An estimated 20 million people of Indian origin live outside the country, primarily in Britain, North America, Africa, the Caribbean, Southeast Asia and the Persian Gulf. There are 1.7 million Indians and Indian Americans in the United States. The Indian government encourages NRIs(nonresident Indians) to invest in India's economic development.

back to top

India and September 11

Thirty-five people born in India died in the September 11 attacks, making India the country with the third-highest number of deaths, after the United States and Britain. The Indian embassy estimates that a total of 250 Indians and people of Indian origin were killed.

Government officials in India immediately denounced the attacks and offered to cooperate with the United States in its war on terrorism. In response, the U.S. government lifted sanctions imposed after India tested nuclear weapons in 1998. The United States approved arms sales and conducted joint military exercises with India.

India has suffered from terrorism (including assassinations, hijackings, and suicide bombings by separatists and religious extremists) within its own borders in recent years. The government draws parallels between the U.S. war on terror and its own struggle to stop terrorist attacks at home, which it blames primarily on its neighbor and rival, Pakistan.

An attack on India's parliament building in December 2001 provided the impetus to pass a broad antiterrorism act, which expanded the state's powers to investigate and detain suspected terrorists. Human rights groups denounced the measure as draconian and accused the government of using it against minority groups and political opponents.

The 2002 Pew Global Attitudes Project poll found that 65 percent of Indians favor the U.S.-led war on terrorism. Only 10 percent oppose it. A smaller proportion -- 54 percent -- hold a favorable opinion of the United States and 27 percent hold a negative view.

back to top

Indian Theater

Jatra is a popular genre of Bengali theater performed outdoors with musical accompaniment. The word "jatra" literally means a journey or a pilgrimage, often in the form of a procession from place to place. The drama is transportable, and performers take their show from one village to the next throughout Eastern India.

Jatra has been performed since the 16th century, when many of the plays dealt with religious themes. During the Independence Movement, it was used to inspire resistance to British colonialism. Beginning in the 1960s, urban jatra took root in Calcutta. Recent plays have portrayed such historical figures as Hitler and Ho Chi Minh.

Jatra serves an educational purpose, especially in rural areas where many people are illiterate and only 17 percent of the population reads newspapers or magazines. Less than half of the country's literate adults read periodicals.

Activists in India often use street theater to educate audiences about political and social issues. Recent street performances have concerned Hindu-Muslim violence, the U.S. war in Iraq and HIV/AIDS prevention.

India boasts the largest film industry in the world, with an output of almost 1,000 films a year in more than a dozen languages. "Bollywood" refers to Bombay's star-studded movie industry. Its immensely popular Hindi-language films are characterized by melodrama interspersed with exuberant song-and-dance sequences. Some critics blame the popularity of movies for a decline in folk theater traditions.

back to top

Freedom of Expression

India has more than 4,000 daily newspapers -- more than any other country in the world. Hindi dailies account for almost half of that total, followed by papers in regional languages and English. After years of state control, India's airwaves are now open to competition. Since 1992, when the government gave up its television monopoly, the number of television stations, including cable and satellite channels, expanded dramatically.

Television reaches more than 80 million Indian homes, which means that 384 million of 1 billion Indians have access to it. In late 2002, the government also gave the nod to low-power educational radio stations, ending its domination of radio news broadcasts. The Indian constitution guarantees freedom of speech and expression, but also permits those freedoms to be restricted in the name of national security, public order, decency and morality. The government censors films, often cutting love scenes, and has banned controversial books -- including Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses and The Moor's Last Sigh. In addition to denouncing its overt censorship, human rights agencies accuse the government of harassing its critics in the press.

The government reviewed the scripts for three jatras about Osama bin Laden and the September 11 attacks, but allowed only one play to be produced. The censors reportedly feared that the other two plays might incite Hindu-Muslim violence.

back to top

Sources: Frontline; Reporters Without Borders; Discover India; BBC Country Profile: India; Constitution of India; The Independent; CIA World Factbook 2002: India; Central Institute of Indian Languages; U.S. State Department Background Note: India; World Bank Country Report: India; Census of India 2001; Report of the High Level Committee on the Indian Diaspora; Indian Embassy; City of New York Department of Health; Human Rights Watch; The New York Times; Pew Global Attitudes Project 2002; Discover India;; Agence France Presse; BBC Monitoring International Reports; Time.