Evidence of Tolerance: Clashes Are Rare

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune

I maintain my faith in India as a highly tolerant — if imperfectly so — country. I believe that the nation’s sporadic episodes of communal violence represent aberrations rather than the norm, inevitable clashes that are remarkable for the extent to which they are, indeed, sporadic.

When I consider the nation’s major outbreaks of communal violence since independence, I am struck by the fact that nearly each one was instigated by an act of political demagoguery. Politicians seeking votes have regularly fanned hatred and chauvinism. And as the Indian scholar Asghar Ali Engineer has pointed out, religious concerns are frequently a front for material interests. Riots between Hindus and Muslims are often thinly veiled property disputes or clashes over commercial interests.

India has a problem with communal violence. But it is not, and I believe never will be, a Beirut, a Yugoslavia or even a Northern Ireland. In a country as diverse and poor as India, the persistence of general communal harmony amid occasional outbreaks of disharmony suggests an essentially accommodating nation, one that is capable of living with and absorbing difference

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Upholding a Tradition of Tolerance

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune

It’s true that I live in an especially tolerant part of India, but I think it’s fair to say that India is an especially tolerant country. The Hindu teacher and mystic Vivekananda once said that pluralism was the “backbone of our national existence,” and that India stood for the “grand idea of universal toleration.” He was echoing a widely held view of India as a country particularly receptive to difference, capable of absorbing a multitude of faiths and cultures into its own society.

For all its troubles, Nehruvian secularism is still the guiding principle of Indian political life. Its concept of equidistance among faiths, of state indifference rather than hostility to religion, is more benign (and tolerant) than European-style secularism, which positions itself aggressively against religion.

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Agriculture Left to Die at India’s Peril

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune

Agriculture in this area, and in much of India, is dying. The village economy is in crisis, assailed by migration to the cities, decades of ecological neglect, and the growing unsustainability of farming.

Since the late ’90s, when agriculture represented more than a quarter of the nation’s G.D.P., its share has dipped to just over 16 percent. Over the last five years, the Indian economy as a whole has grown more than three times as fast as agriculture. The trend is clear: agriculture is being squeezed out of the new India.

Earlier this week, President Pratibha Patil called for “a second green revolution” to stem spiraling food prices and declining supplies. Such calls have emotional resonance in a country that still remembers the humiliation of American food aid in the 1960s. It’s not clear, however, how Ms. Patil’s goal can be achieved. The forces arrayed against Indian farming are formidable; they are part of the country’s great leap toward modernity.

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A Test Ahead for India’s Defiant Optimism

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune

As we enter the second decade of the millennium, I feel a tremendous sense of anticipation in the nation: Is this the decade when India will finally achieve its potential?

The past 10 years have been marked by substantial excitement — and more than a little hype — over the nation’s possibilities. But over the next 10 years, rhetoric will meet reality. The question is whether rhetoric will bump up against reality, or whether reality will finally match the rhetoric.

India has always been a country of contrasts, but there is something particularly striking about the gulf these days between those who have benefited from the fruits of economic reform and those left out. At times, it has felt like the past decade was one big party — with only half the nation invited.

Sometime over the next 10 years, I suspect within the next five, we will know whether India can live up to its own expectations — whether achievements will match words, and whether the nation’s self-confidence will prove prophetic or mere bravado. Either way, as we move from rhetoric to reality, the coming decade promises to be a lot more complicated than the one that has just passed.

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In Tsunami’s Wake, an Unexpected Second Chance

A version of my first article on the tsunami’s aftermath ran in the Week in Review section of The New York Times.

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/03/weekinreview/03kapur.html

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Aid Money Brings a New Social Order

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune
Part two of a two-part series

The social transformation Kannan described — and that I saw all along the coast — never comes easily. When one group rises, other groups get jealous. As the conflict over the crabs suggests, rival castes fight to protect their interests. For all the progress communities around here have seen over the last five years, they have also seen violence and social disruption.

Such conflict is probably inevitable. Development is a disruptive process, and the money that has poured like a second tsunami over this stretch of the coast — more than $1 billion, by some estimates — has swept into complex societies that had remained essentially unchanged for centuries, perhaps even millennia.

In a way, what’s happening around here is simply another version of what’s happening across India. As I have driven along the coast over the last few weeks, I have come up against familiar sights: rapid transformation, a new order in which there are many winners and fewer losers, and a sense of traditional societies bending, cracking, and in some cases breaking under the strain of new money.

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Changed Forever by Disaster

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune
Part one of a two-part series

Five years ago, I woke up on a Sunday morning, checked the news online and saw that a tsunami had hit my part of the world. Early reports were sketchy. I read about just a few casualties (in Sri Lanka, as I recall), and I remember thinking that the whole thing sounded exciting.

I went down to the beach, about a 15-minute drive from my house. I walked the sand. I saw a crowd of villagers standing in a circle. They were looking down at something. It was a dead boy.

I knew at that moment that this wasn’t exciting. I was witness to a horrible tragedy.

In the weeks and months that followed, as the full, almost unimaginable scale of the tragedy became apparent — more than 200,000 dead across Asia, and almost 8,000 here in the southeastern state of Tamil Nadu — I returned again and again to the coast. Signs of devastation were everywhere: in the thatch and cement debris tossed far inland, in the village schools and temples crowded with refugees, and in the ambulances and hearse vans that drove up and down the East Coast Road.

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From Places of the Heart, a New Order

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune

To an outsider, those alleys have little meaning: They’re just a jumble of houses and satellite dishes and stray dogs and kids playing in mud. But Molasur is, in fact, highly organized. The village layout is a reflection of society — and, now, of a social order that’s disappearing.

For Sathy, Molasur’s layout represents stability, a form of continuity with the past. Sometimes, when he talks about his village, I feel that its geography gives his life a framework. As that geography changes, he seems to be questioning his own place in the world.

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Growing, Yes, but India Has Reasons to Worry

Week in Review, The New York times

Accompanying Graphic: Looking Outward at Trouble on Many Sides

For all the talk of a new era of Indo-American collaboration, Americans tend to view India through the narrow prisms of two shared concerns — a battle against Islamic extremists, and the benefits of international trade. But India is a complicated country in a complex part of the world — buffeted by internal insurgencies, surrounded by hostile neighbors, marginalized until recently as underdeveloped.

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India’s Path Was Paved by Soviet Fall

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune

The breakup of the Soviet Union had a profound impact on India. In many ways, it paved the way for a reinvention of the country: from a stultified, socialist economy to a more dynamic, capitalist one; from a foreign policy defined by suspicion of America to one defined by shared interests and even mutual affection; and from public attitudes that frowned on individualism, consumerism and ambition to a nation that today exalts those same qualities.

Most important, the death of Communism had a psychological and intellectual impact that paved the way for India’s transformation. As the economist T.N. Srinivasan (among others) has argued, it provided an opening for would-be reformers, who had already recognized the need for some form of liberalization but who had run up against ideological resistance.

The collapse of the Soviet Union wasn’t just the collapse of a political and military behemoth. It was the collapse of an idea, too, and with the discrediting of Communist ideology, Indian socialism, long the guiding philosophy of statecraft and economic policy making, confronted a crisis of confidence. Ideas that had until then been anathema to the nation’s governing class — ideas about markets, about profits, about entrepreneurship — suddenly seemed, amidst the detritus of Communism, to be incontestable.

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