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Inside India

June 18, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT


PHIL PONCE: Joining us is Kenneth Cooper, who covers South Asia for the Washington Post. He’s based in New Delhi. A Pulitzer Prize winner, he’s been on this assignment for two and a half years. Welcome, Ken. The big news out of India, of course, has been the testing of nuclear devices. Just how popular was that decision for the average Indian on the street?

KENNETH COOPER: Well, even before they tested in India, all the opinion polls showed about 70/75 percent of the people approved of such tests. In the aftermath of the test, the first Saturday thereafter there were celebrations in Delhi and other major cities, organized to a certain extent by the ruling party, where you had people distributing sweets, which is a form of celebration, glasses of cold milk. It’s very hot weather.

This is also a sort of celebration, throwing firecrackers, and the like. And average people-I remember right after the announcement I rushed into my home, which is also my office, and rushed out again to go to a briefing where there was more explanation given, and I ran into my neighbor, who’s an insurance agent, and I told him what had happened. And his response was very nice, very nice.

PHIL PONCE: Why is that? Why were people so pleased about it? What did that reaction tap into?

KENNETH COOPER: A sense of some insecurity in the nation, a great deal of it associated with China, a larger neighbor, which with India was very close in the first couple of decades of their independence in modern China, and then in 1962, China, in the view of Indians, betrayed India and attacked them in a border war that some historians credit with leading to the death of Jowala Neru, the first prime minister, he was so heartbroken by his miscalculation about how friendly the Chinese were. And it’s widely remembered not just by people who were alive at the time but they’ve passed on the sense of distrust and insecurity about China to their children.

PHIL PONCE: How about when Pakistan set off its nuclear devices, what was the reaction in India then?

KENNETH COOPER: Well, in-between-I think it serves to talk a little bit more about what it was like before that. I spent a lot of time at cocktail receptions of the sort that go on in this town in Washington in-between the two tests, surrounded by English-speaking, educated, elite, upper caste Indians, who were very defiantly proud in a very bullish way. We showed the United States. We’re important. This shows we’re important. And it was a very upbeat mood, sort of gleeful.

The moment that Pakistan tested that glee started to turn to a bit of fear, because of the palpable feelings we had in this country during 40 years of a Cold War and the thought of being vaporized in a nuclear attack started to set in. I think before that time there was an illusion that maybe Pakistan didn’t have the technology to do it, maybe the United States would buy off its Cold War ally with a package of aid and Pakistan wouldn’t test, but as soon as they did, the mood changed dramatically.

PHIL PONCE: How is-are you in a position to say how the average Indian feels about Pakistan, how the average Pakistani says he spent time in Pakistan as well, how the average Pakistani feels about India, is it hatred, is it something else?

KENNETH COOPER: It’s mutual hostility, and there’s a lot of deep resentment on both sides about the events of partition in 1947 August, when British Columbia, India, was divided into predominantly Hindu/Indian predominantly Muslim Pakistan. Millions of people moved in either direction to settle with their religious community, and in the process at least ½ million people, maybe more, were killed.

So there’s bitterness about that and also about the fact that these migrants had to pick up and leave behind all of their property. Some very prominent leaders of the Hindu nationalist Barta Janitu Party, which leads India’s government, are such migrants from Pakistan. And I think that a lot of their feeling and animus towards Pakistan has really been their family’s own personal experiences.

PHIL PONCE: What preconceptions have you encountered in India about the United States?

KENNETH COOPER: Well, there’s a view among some members of the educated elite who have not been to the United States, that the United States is sort of the source of all things bad: pollution, over-development, materialism, greed. It’s almost a caricature of our country. I find, by the way, that Indians who’ve gone to school here or visited had quite different views, more balanced views about the quality and nature of this country.

PHIL PONCE: Have you talked to any Indians who previously held one view and then came here and thought something else?

KENNETH COOPER: My wife and I have a good friend who’s become a good friend, who was a yoga teacher, a man in his 40’s, went to sort of a left-leaning college and developed Marxian views in his youth and have moved more toward a Hindu Nationalist position, and he and his wife stayed with us for a week, week and a half one time, and every night at dinner we had these long debates that basically revolved around his premise that the United States basically represented all that was wrong with his country and caused all its problems.

And there were some pretty intense debates, some of which made my wife uncomfortable. It was all very honest and open. And then maybe a year later a man and his wife came to the United States and his comment on his return was something like completely different from his previous view, he said, “It’s a land with many possibilities.”

PHIL PONCE: How about you, did you have any preconceptions about India or Pakistan when you went that have subsequently changed?

KENNETH COOPER: Well, I knew India was a complex place. But, quite frankly, I’m not sure an outsider could ever fully fathom it. And, as I’ve been there, I’ve sort of peeled away layers. One of the things that makes it an exciting place to work is that you discover more things as you’re there. I often say that traveling around India, one of the things that makes it really engaging to be a journalist there, that when you go around a curve, around a corner, you literally never know what you might see. And you do see things that surprise you, that shock you, that amuse you.

PHIL PONCE: Give me an example of something that surprised you or shocked you or amused you.

KENNETH COOPER: Well, I went to Kashmir, the disputed Himalayan territory that’s a subject of dispute between India and Pakistan, and I went there for an election. And it was an election in an area that had-there’d been an insurrection, a separatist insurrection that had been suppressed enough to have an election, and early one morning on election day myself and other reporters, western reporters, were in a car. We went around a curb and I saw something that I thought I could never imagine seeing.

I saw security offices with long batons forcing people to go to the polls to vote. Now one of the reasons this was shocking to me as an African-American I remember when-I don’t remember but we had a history where people were intimidated-my people were intimidated with force and the threat of force so that they wouldn’t vote. So here you had force being used people-to compel people to vote. And it was very shocking, in fact, to see.

PHIL PONCE: As an African-American, how were you perceived and how were you treated, how do treat it, how do people greet you in India and Pakistan?

KENNETH COOPER: I would say by and large there’s no difference in how they deal with me most of the time and how they would deal with an American who’s living there, representing a corporation, and has a certain lifestyle. I’m a Farengi.

PHIL PONCE: Farengi meaning?

KENNETH COOPER: Foreigner. Slightly pejorative, with some colonial connotations. But I also find there are occasions when I talk to some Indians, again with limited exposure to this country, who because of what I look like are a little confused about who I am. And they often ask me, what is your country? And I said, America, and they say, “America?”. And there’s usually an awkward pause, and I say, yes, African-American. And they still look confused, and if they look confused for too long, I say, hey, we come in all different colors.

PHIL PONCE: Ken, thank you very much for joining us.