INDIA TURNS 50
AUGUST 17, 1997
Five decades ago, British troops pulled out of India and Pakistan, and the world's most populous democracy was born. Today in the primarily Muslim Pakistan, colorful parades and military displays are marking that country's 50th birthday. Across the border, Indians are taking pride in the new industries that are rapidly building a middle class. Shashi Tharoor, author of India: From Midnight to the Millennium, and executive assistant to the United Nations Secretary General, discusses the rich tapestry that is India with David Gergen, editor-at-large of U.S. News & World Report.
Follow up on this dialogue by asking Mr. Tharoor your questions about the history and future of India.
A RealAudio version of this NewsHour segment is available.
Online NewsHour links
August 17, 1997:
A report on the business climate in modern-day India.
August 17, 1997:
Pakistan celebrates 50 years of independence.
January 31, 1997:
Elections in Pakistan
Browse the NewsHour's complete coverage of Asian affairs.
DAVID GERGEN: Shashi Tharoor, 50 years ago, India emerged from colonialism, one of the first of many nations to gain its independence after the world war. Reading your book, I wasnít sure whether you thought this anniversary should be a time for celebration or a time for solemn introspection.
SHASHI THAROOR, Author, "India": A bit of both I think, David, because the solemn introspection is unavoidable. There are still enormous challenges, enormous problems. More than half the population is still illiterate. More than half the population live below a poverty line thatís been drawn just this side of a funeral pyre.
But thereís a great deal to celebrate, above all the fact that India has tried to confront these enormous challenges, the challenges to the diversity of the country, the complexity of its makeup through democracy; that it has managed to preserve a pluralist state, a state where it doesnít matter that there are enormous differences of caste and creed, of costume and custom, of cuisine, of culture. And yet, people have decided to work together for the same objectives to dream the same dreams together. That, I think, is really worth celebrating.
DAVID GERGEN: And you said democracy makes diversity safe in India?
SHASHI THAROOR: It does, indeed. I think, in fact, the democracy has made a strength on diversity because I think an autocratic state with this kind of diversity would have found itself contending with rebellions all over. It would not have been able to hold the country together. Democracy is a way of containing diversity because it gives everyone a chance to play by the same rules and to aim at the same objectives to find their own place in the sun.
DAVID GERGEN: Give people a little sense of just how diverse it is, the number of languages.
SHASHI THAROOR: Nine hundred and forty million people. We have 35 languages, if you count the ethno-linguistic approach, and 17 languages according to the constitution, and 22,000 dialects. Youíve got a huge diversity. And these arenít--I mean, youíre talking about languages completely different from each other, with different scripts, different vocabularies, different grammatical rules.
Youíve got every ethnicity known to man. There are people whose complexions are not far removed from yours and people whose complexions are closer to Jesse Jacksonís, all sometimes in the same village, the same family. You find diversities of cuisine, of the kinds of clothes people wear, the kinds of foods they eat. The range of the countryís topography and climate is also enormous--from deserts to lush jungles, from snow peaks and mountains to sandy tropical beaches. Itís an extraordinary diversity. India is like a continent.
DAVID GERGEN: India has made a great deal of progress in allowing people at the lowest caste--the untouchables--to rise, just elected a new president who was an untouchable.
SHASHI THAROOR: Thatís right. The untouchability is something that the constitution of India abolished. In fact, the principal drafter of Indiaís constitution was, itself, an untouchable, was able to break out of the past by getting a scholarship to Columbia University, Dr. Omedka.
Untouchability was abolished but 3,000 years of social discrimination doesnít die overnight. Political democracy has enabled the untouchables, former untouchables, who now prefer to be called the dalits, which is a word that means "the oppressed," has allowed them to rise because politics and the strength of numbers has given them the opportunity to exercise a real power.
In Indiaís most populous state, the state of Uttar Pradesh, we have a woman untouchable as chief minister, something that would have been inconceivable for 3,000 years and unimaginable even 30 years ago, but the ballot box, the power of democracy has done that.
Plus, India has the worldís largest and oldest affirmative action program. Not only are jobs in government, places at university reserved for the people on the basis of their caste to undo these millennia of discrimination, but also seats in parliament are reserved. There are 85 seats out of our 535 seats in the Indian parliament for which only the former untouchables can run.
DAVID GERGEN: An American finds a resonance in the Indian story in part because Martin Luther King, obviously, looked at Mahatma Gandhi and the resistance effort that he led there as a model and as a moral model for the world and for the civil rights movement here. And yet at the same time you write in your book about India having had this emphasis upon race and caste--caste and race are becoming more important in their politics, and people are identifying almost too much with that. And we worry about that here in this country as well.
SHASHI THAROOR: Thatís part of the good and the bad, as it were, about the democratic process. Politicians inevitably, at least in a country like India, appeal on the grounds of identity.
And identity can ultimately focus on what divides us, rather on what unites us, whether itís caste, whether itís religion, whether itís region. Identity as an appeal can, of course, bring you votes on the short-term but can divide in the longer-term.
What is, of course, reassuring is that though these divisions worry those of us who would like to believe it, the Indian idea is greater than the sum of its contradictions, the fact is that the only hope in this overemphasis on individual narrow identities is that no one identity can rule by itself in India.
We are a country where everyone belongs to a minority, a minority of faith or of caste or of region or of language, and therefore, even if people do emphasize caste and other identities, ultimately, they will have to work with others of other castes and other identities.
DAVID GERGEN: Population--youíve got over 900 million people there now. Youíve made progress in terms of population control and yet soon, within a matter of twenty/twenty-five years, you--
SHASHI THAROOR: Weíll overtake China.
DAVID GERGEN: Overtake China.
SHASHI THAROOR: Thatís right.
DAVID GERGEN: The most populous country on earth.
SHASHI THAROOR: 1/6 of humanity will be Indian. And that is worrying because, obviously, the country has finite resources, and a lot of our problems, including some of our political problems, have been because thereís not been enough growth to cater to the needs of the large population we have. Our population has more than doubled since independence. In fact, it is two and a half times as large.
There is an important understanding in India that people--itís not that Indians have too many--Indians arenít poor because they have too many children. They have too many children because they are poor. They see children as a source of investment for the future, of security, extra hands in the field, people to look after them in their old age.
So if you can move development along the right way, with health, with education, with maternal care, and more children are guaranteed to survive, then we feel that people will not feel obliged to have more children in order to have their investment for the future.
DAVID GERGEN: Do you feel--you wrote that India for a long time had gone down the wrong road economically partly as a response to colonialism--it went to a socialist system--didnít like capitalism, rejected it, but you feel in the last few years itís begun to find the key to development?
SHASHI THAROOR: Itís changed. In fact, part of the problem is that the British East India Company came to trade and stayed on to rule. But, of course, after that, every Indian nationalist became suspicious of every foreigner with a briefcase. The fact is that one of the lessons you learn from history is that history sometimes teaches you the wrong lessons.
And because of the fact that nationalism became identified with protectionism, we condemned ourselves to an economic system where we were regulating stagnation and trying to distribute poverty. Now, with the economic reforms that have been introduced in India in the last five or six years, there has been a definite opening up of the Indian economy, perhaps not fast enough, because India is a country where of every bureaucrat it can be said that red tape runs in his veins.
The fact still is that we are opening up with the liberating of the creative energies of the Indian people Iím confident that that wonít be at a stagnation for a change. Our growth rateís already up, and if India continues in the way with the opening up, with more foreign investment coming in, Iím confident with a skillful, educable work force weíve got, we will have a thriving and successful India in the 21st century.
DAVID GERGEN: A new tiger.
SHASHI THAROOR: If not a tiger, at least the missing lynx.
DAVID GERGEN: Fifty years from now, what kind of India do you think the world will see and what do you think Indians will be feeling as they approach that anniversary?
SHASHI THAROOR: Well, I think thereís a great prospect for India to be, if not an economic superpower, certainly a prosperous country thatís been able to do a great deal for this vast proportion of humanity that Indians represent, a country which I hope will not be afraid of what the outside world has had to offer. The colonialism will be a distant memory, an India that will stand self-confident, that will be productive, and that at the same time will be able to carry its own weight in the world, an India, above all, which will fulfill the human potential of its richest and largest resource, and thatís its people.
DAVID GERGEN: Shashi Tharoor, thank you for joining us during this anniversary period.
SHASHI THAROOR: Thank you very much.