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Impressions of India in 2000


Poverty and religion

India offers the tourist a wide range of impressive sites to visit but the problems that crush it blot out the splendor of its monuments and temples.

India is a poor country. Sixty percent of Indians survive with less than 60 US$ a year; 30 percent can spend up to 180 US$ a year and only four percent have more than that. Only one percent of the population earns enough (more than 1000 US$/year), to pay income tax while taxpayers reach 60 percent in developed countries. (Agriculture is exempt from tax). Three out of four Indians live in villages where traditional religious values still dominate and make them accept anything without complaining. The middle-class, which is a majority in developed countries, represents only 10 to 20 percent here depending on the criteria used. Industrial capital is owned either by the State or by an oligarchy of great families such as the Tata, Mahindra, Birla, Bajaj etc. Half of the population is still illiterate and almost a third of it lives below the poverty line which is defined here as a food intake of 2200 calories per day.

These numbers are indicative of the poverty of the Indian masses but one has to go there to see the misery of hordes of skeletal, ulcerated or crippled beggars, to grasp the extent of the problem. I have stayed in many a dump in the course of my backpacking adventures but I must say that India gets the first prize for the unhealthiness, filth and stench of its crowded slums where the homeless camp out on sidewalks and in vacant lots. And on top of that, sacred cows feeding on garbage heaps at every street corner, whose dung is gathered to be used as fuel for cooking food. And everywhere, the big red splashes of betel nut chewers' spittle...

Life here is so difficult that the people in the streets see all tourists as walking banks. Strangers are immediately targeted by honnest beggars who ask openly, and by the crafty ones who first engage a personal conversation before formulating their demands when they feel their victim's defenses are down. It is a pity. Harassment by these predators puts off visitors and reduces their availability for authentic exchanges.

In Varanasi, I spent an afternoon in the library of the Baranas Hindu University perusing books on poverty in India to try to understand. The situation was cleverly analyzed, blame was cast on overpopulation (failure of birth control), illiteracy, corruption, the International Monetary Fund, America, globalization and a million other causes but nothing, in that inner sanctum of Hindu thought, pointed the finger to the caste system.

Also in Varanasi, I met a European couple heaping praise on the piousness and religious devotion of the Hindus whose "spiritual life was so intense and profound that it had become more important for them than the material hardships they had to endure". They had inadvertently put the finger on part of the problem of poverty in India: the apathy of the interested parties.

The Hindus with whom I've been able to talk about this, confirmed that more than 95% of the people were actively religious and did not fail to pray to their favorite gods at least once every day. They also recognized that caste discrimination was still commonly practiced and explained that it was borne without revolt because the underprivileged believed that their misfortune had been earned by their own inadequate behavior in their previous lives. According to that belief, to attempt to improve one's lot in the current life would be tantamount to challenging the will of the gods. Thus, the illiterate and underprivileged majority have no other choice than to endure extreme social inequalities without revolt so as to earn a better life in a subsequent existence. This kind of fatalism is much more demotivating than the Islamic "Inch' Allah", because the Muslim is at least allowed to hope that Allah might consent that he succeed in improving his lot.

Religion and the caste system

India is a land of believers. All Indians take religion quite seriously whatever their faith (Hindu 82%, Muslim 12%, Christian 2%, Sikh 2%, Buddhist 1%, Jain 1% or Parsee). Freedom of religion is garanteed by the constitution that established a secular state when India became independent in 1948.

The Hindu religion does not feature fixed dogmas like the revealed Christian, Islamic and Jewish religions. It is rather a system of interrelated spiritual and social beliefs  that has evolved over the past 3000 years (or 4000 years if its origins are traced back to the pre-aryan culture that flourished from 2500 to 1500 BC at Moenjo Daro and Harrapa in the Indus valley). The Hindu system is made up of many sects and cults and its pantheon is said to comprise 330 million deities.

Some educated Hindus hold the view that these deities and spirits are all diverse manifestations of the same unique God which is also the God of Muslims, Christians and Jews. They recognise however that this belief is held only by a small minority and that the vast majority of Hindus believe quite litterally in the myths and legends they have been taught about the various deities they worship.

Education, litteracy and the right to worship in braminical temples are in practice reserved for high caste members. The Brahmins claim that the lower castes are part of the Hindu system but the latter do not know the mainstream Hindu gods and they worship their own local gods which they associate with their everyday village life. For example, the Dravidians in the south worship Potaraju the protector of the fields and crops, Polimeramma the protectress of the village, Pochaama the protectress of health, Kattamaisamma the guardian of the water supply for irrigation etc, gods unknown to the Brahmins.

Even today, the overwhelming majority of the people are pigeon-holed into innumerable castes and sub-castes according to their occupation and region of origin, effectively fragmenting them into small isolated groups. Caste members are forbidden to marry outside of their caste or to eat at the same table with anyone of a lower caste. In a southern village for example, the Brahmin would direct the rituals of religious ceremonies, the Kshatryas would administer and the Banias speculate and control commerce while the Kaapu do the ploughing, the Kurumaas and Golaas raise sheep, the Goudaas collect toddy (palm sap) to make sugar, the Chakali wash clothes, the Chandelas make shoes and, at the very bottom of the scale, the untouchable Maalas and Maaligaas handle the dead or work leather.

Naturally, the Brahmin, Kshatrya and Banias of the village own the most land. They control the village panchayat (local government), and exert an overwhelming political influence on the lower caste villagers for they are also the money lenders everyone is indebted to.

This caste system and belief in the migration of the soul through endless cycles of rebirths (samsara) distinguish Hinduism from other polytheist and animist religions that were widespread in the millenium before our era (Egypt, Greece, Rome, Aborigines in the Americas and Autralia) and that are still practiced in remote areas of Africa and South-East Asia.

According to the Hindu system, the quality of one's current life is the direct result of good or bad behaviour in past lives. This theory of successive reincarnations allows the rich and powerful to believe that the privileges they enjoy have been earned by an accumulation of positive karma during their exemplary preceding lives. It is the official consecration of social inequalities by the gods, the lower castes and the untouchables having deserved their misery by their own bad conduct in past lives. Consequently, the powerful are encouraged to believe that they can do no wrong. That explains the hardness of inter-class social relations in India and also why corruption is so widespread in that country in spite of some efforts by the government to combat it. ( More on corruption in India.)

Castes and politics

India's social and political evolution was retarded by the caste system that effectively fractionated any forces that could have possibly challenged the supremacy of the competing Brahmin and Kshatrya castes. Buddhism had managed to cut through caste distinctions and provide a common vision of India during Emperor Asoka's reign that unified most of the subcontinent around 250 BC. (Gautama Sakyamuni and Asoka were Kshatryas and so was Manohir who founded Jainism also around 500 BC).The importance of castes held in check during three centuries but the influence of the Brahmins grew as the original Hinayana Buddhism evolved into the Mahayana form and lost popular favour around 200 AD. The Brahmins then regained an even tighter control on peoples minds and the caste system was further developped to ensure their social supremacy in the following centuries. India had to wait until the struggle for independence led by Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru to find a common cause able to cut through caste barriers and mobilise all strata of the Indian society.

Nehru's pragmatic socialism and Gandhi's disinterested holiness launched independent India on a sea of optimistic idealism, trusting that secular state capitalism and pro-active support of the disadvantaged castes (Dalits) would promote the development of democratic reform of the power structure. In practice however, the actions of the Congress Party corresponded less and less to its rhetoric.

Investment for economic development did not go to agricultural infrastructures which would have benefited 80 % of the population but was diverted to state owned heavy industry, creating more government jobs for the already favoured middle class. During the same period, investment in education went mainly to develop higher education facilities for the so-called middle class rather than to provide primary schooling to reduce illiteracy in the villages. (Now, India sends 6 times more people to universities than China does while 52% of Indians are still illiterate compared to less than 17% in China).

Nehru's death in 1964 marked the end of the Gandhi-Nehru moral leadership. Indira Gandhi benefited from the Gandhi-Nehru legacy but corruption scandals soon devastated that ethic and idealism was no longer a value in public life. After her assasination in 1984, her son, Rajiv, reluctantly succeeded her but he fell in 1989 following huge corruption scandals (the Marutti and Bofors affairs). India's politics had definitely entered the no-holds-barred struggle for power mode that still characterises it to-day.

At first glance, there seems to be a certain form of democracy in India. The press appears free and anyone can follow the complex games of a political scene where almost 40 parties vie for power on the federal and regional levels. This, however, is only illusion for the political class is still largely controlled by the Brahmins.

India and China were more or less at the same level of economic development when they took on the control of their own destinies 50 years ago. India preserved the democratic heritage of the British but its close ties with the Soviet Union made its bureaucracy more cumbersome and proved once more the inefficiency of state capitalism, protected from competition in a planned economy.

Today, there is a sharp contrast between China whose remarkable economic boom has changed the life of all its citizens and India, where the benefits of growth have gone mainly to a small high-caste minority, leaving the lower castes poor and illiterate like they were 50 years ago. Today, China is seeking its own way towards a greater liberalisation while in India the growth of a fundamentalist Hindu nationalism seeks to reinforce high caste privileges.

The Indian constitution guarantees a secular state but recent proposals to redraft it cause deep concern to the Muslim minority. It is common knowledge that the Bharatiya Janath Party (BJP) that controls the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in power for the last two years, emanates from the politico-religious right-wing RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) founded in 1925 by the Hindu nationalist Keshav Baliram Hegewar to promote the interests of the Brahmin caste in the British Raj. The Hindu fanatic Nathuram Ghose who assasinated Gandhi was tied up with the RSS and so were the religious extremists who destroyed Ayodhya's Babri mosque in 1992.

Today, the RSS operates and extends its influence through benevolent institutions in education, health and mutual help between Hindus. Thereare 75 of these institutions and they are strategically dispersed all over the sub-continent. The movement has broadened its base in the last decade by allowing certain non-Brahmin Hindus to join its 30 000 local "Shakhas" which are local sport and physical training centers whose members wear a uniform (white shirts and khaki shorts). The RSS, which represents a considerable force, makes no bones about its ultimate goal of "One Nation, one People, one Culture" which is strikingly similar to the infamous "Ein Volk, ein Führer" of the thirties.

There is cause for apprehension. The partisans of a Hindu fundamentalist fascism are waiting in the sidelines and are prepared to go on-stage if given half a chance. A serious economic crisis and a triggering event like the Reichstag fire could be all that is missing for history to repeat itself at the expense of Muslim Indians and of Pakistan. After the Balkan religious wars, we could witness another one between Hindus and Muslims in the 21st century!

Personally I would give a low probability to this dramatic scenario for I trust in the common sense of the Indian electorate which should be called to the polls again in 2003. Nevertheless, a possibility, however minimal, of a religious conflict that could become nuclear is absolutely intolerable!

All the Indians that I was able to question on politics expressed their dissatisfaction with the government and complained about the reign of corruption at the central and state levels. Those I met naturally belonged to the so-called middle class for I do not speak the local languages that I would have needed to sample the opinions of the poor majority who continue voting for politicians that do not promote their interests. That situation could change if these people wake up and free themselves from the religious and political manipulation that has kept them subservient.

It could happen. India is the land of the faithful today, but minds can change very quickly when the time is ripe for a change. Even well brainwashed minds. I know for I lived through such a mental revolution from 1960 to 1965 when priest ridden Quebec threw out the Catholic Church whose excessive power caused their downfall.

I would never attempt to predict what will happen in India in the next decade but I think that the present situation is highly unstable and that it can not last very long. Will the Hindu fundamentalists make a clean bid for still more power or will the "unwashed masses" liberate themselves from the Hindu and caste beliefs that bind them?

In spite of the negative aspects of its religion and castes, India remains a fascinating country that must be visited. The world should make the effort to get to know it better, even if only for its numerical importance. There will be more Indians than Chinese on our planets around 2020. We are therefore all concerned by what is really going on there.


Akbar M.J.: India: The Siege Within
Allchin B. & R.: The Birth of Indian Civilisation
Ambekdar, Dr. Babasaheb:
-- Who Were the Shudras, How they came to be the Fourth Varna
-- The Untouchables, Who Were They and Why They Became Untouchables
Bharucha Rustom: The Question of Faith
Ghurye G.S.: Caste and Race in India
Hasnain Nadeem: Indian Anthropology
Kancha Ilaiah: Why I am not a Hindu
Varma Pavan K.: The Great Indian Middle Class
Selbourne D.: An Eye to India, The Unmasking of a Tyranny
Srinivasachari Sastri: Advanced History of India
Thapar Romila: Interpreting Early India



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