Instructor offers expertise on conflict

Children, both Hindu and Muslim, take a break from their studies during recess before lunch. The Indian government runs this school just outside Hyderabad, persuading many parents to send their children here so they can eat a meal.

Allison Rosewicz

Children, both Hindu and Muslim, take a break from their studies during recess before lunch. The Indian government runs this school just outside Hyderabad, persuading many parents to send their children here so they can eat a meal.

Dr. Karl Schmidt

I first went to India in August 1992 to do dissertation research for a Ph.D. in history. I lived in India for four months, traveled the length and breadth of the place, lost 30 pounds and proposed to my wife in front of the Taj Mahal. Near the end of my stay, I also witnessed my first communal riots: the 3,000 killings that followed the destruction of the Babri Masjid (a Muslim mosque) in Ayodhya by right-wing Hindus upset by what they saw as a Muslim injustice dating back several centuries. Though saddened and disturbed by what I saw that last week I was in India, I have come to realize since then that ironically it is also part of what fascinates me about the country: its complexity. India occasionally erupts into violence, sparked most often by communal violence between Hindus and Muslim extremists. The “otherness” with which each group perceives its counterpart has existed for many centuries but, for the most part, peaceful coexistence in the rule of the day. Unfortunately, on those rare occasions when Hindus and Muslims kill each other, it serves to reinforce the stereotypes Americans have about India.

Despite its growing importance in the world, India is a country few Americans know much about. As former Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs Karl F. Inderfurth once aptly pointed out in a speech to the Foreign Policy Association, “though many Americans can easily identify India on the map and more precisely know that the Subcontinent exists as a geographic entity, they have trouble grasping or remembering that it truly is its own region, separate and distinct from East, Central, or Southwest Asia, much less why it matters.”

In a speech in New Delhi, former Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott pointed out that the United States “recognizes the importance of India – economically, strategically and politically – to the future of a stable and prosperous Asia and indeed to a stable and prosperous world.” The U.S. Commerce Department has listed India as one of the world’s 10 “Big Emerging Markets” along with China and Mexico, among others. The department predicts that the BEMs will be the fastest-growing markets through the turn of the century and that they hold far more promise for large gains in U.S. exports than either Europe or Japan.

In terms of both imports and exports, the United States is already India’s biggest trading partner. This relationship will strengthen in the future.

In addition to its growing economy, India has a rich and ancient culture and is home to one of the world’s oldest civilizations. It is the birthplace of Hinduism and Buddhism, and is home to millions of followers of other important faiths, including Islam. India also has the world’s fourth largest army and has recently joined the nuclear club. Another reason India should be of interest to all Americans is the fact that Indian-Americans make up a significant ethnic group within the United States. The United States ranks fifth among countries in the world with the largest Indian populations. While not large as a proportion of the total U.S. population, Indian-Americans comprise more than half a million individuals and, as a group, are well-educated and relatively prosperous by U.S. standards.

Since winning its independence from Britain in 1947, India has developed its democratic institutions and has been a stable democracy. Indeed, it is the world’s most populous democracy. India’s democratic leaders have sought to address the many problems inherent in governing a country with a large and growing population, poverty, high illiteracy and hostile neighbors. India’s population at independence stood at 350 million. Today, India’s population numbers more than one billion, and is expected to surpass China as the most populous country by 2025. Attempts to cure poverty included a long-term experience with socialism and state-run industries until 1991, when the government began a process of liberalizing the Indian economy. After a weak start earlier in the decade, India’s economy today is strong, with an annual real growth rate in GDP of 4.3 percent, higher than that of the United States even before the recent economic slowdown. Poverty is still widespread, but the Indian middle class is growing steadily, and now numbers nearly 300 million. Consequently, the consumer market is also growing rapidly and both Indian and Western firms are busy supplying products for this increased demand. Illiteracy is also still a problem, but India’s literacy rate has risen steadily from a low of 15 percent at independence in 1947, to nearly 60 percent today. The hostility of India’s neighbors, both perceived and real, is a critical problem for the Indian government. Since 1947, India and Pakistan have fought three wars. Another conflict, in 1962, involved India and China. India’s experiences with both Pakistan and China have made it build up its military and pursue membership in the so-called “nuclear club” of which both China and Pakistan are also members. Despite all of these solid reasons for understanding India, the view many Americans have of that country is limited largely to the three C’s: curry, caste and cows. Most have heard of Gandhi, but few know much about him. What is impressive about what Allison Rosewicz does in this special series of articles for The Chart is to make some of the complexity of India understandable. Her experience of India is fresh, firsthand and vital. She was eager to go to India with me as part of the Southern-in-India program this past summer and to come to terms with what India was all about. That eagerness shows in the articles in this special supplement to The Chart.

(Dr. Schmidt was formerly Associate Professor of History and International Studies at Missouri Southern State University.)