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India in the world: how we see ourselves

Meera Nanda

As many as 90 per cent of us told the Pew pollsters that religion must be kept separate from government policy. But in reality, how many of us stand up for God-government separation, something we say weare committed to?

“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of us all?” A modern version of the Snow White question was recently asked of people in 47 countries across the world by the United States-based Pew Foundation for its 2007 Global Attitudes survey.

Guess who is the most bewitched by their own self-image? We are. Indians rank number one in the world in thinking that they are number one in the world, at least when it comes to their culture.

The Pew poll asked people in 47 countries if they agreed or disagreed with the following statement: “our people are not perfect, but our culture is superior to others.” Indians topped the list, with a whopping 93 per cent agreeing that our culture was superior to others, with 64 per cent agreeing completely, without any reservations.

Now all people have a soft spot for their own culture. But to see how off-the-charts our vanity is, let us compare ourselves with the other “ancient civilisations” in our neighbourhood. Compared to our 64 per cent, only 18 per cent of the Japanese and only 20 per cent Chinese had no doubt at all that their culture was the best. Indeed, close to one quarter of Japanese and Chinese — as compared to our meagre 5 per cent — disagreed that their ways were the best.

The U.S. — a country universally condemned for its cultural imperialism — comes across as suffering from a severe case of inferiority complex when compared with us. Only 18 per cent Americans had no doubts about the superiority of their culture, compared with our 64 per cent. Nearly a quarter of Americans expressed self-doubts, and 16 per cent completely denied their own superiority. The corresponding numbers from India are five and one per cent.

The strange thing is that for a people who think so highly of our own culture, we are terribly insecure. A startling 92 per cent of Indians — almost exactly the same proportion who think we are the best — think that “our way of life needs to be protected against foreign influences.” Here, too, we beat the Japanese, the Chinese, and the Americans by about 25-30 percentage points. When it comes to feeling embattled and needing protection, we are closer to our Islamic neighbours, Pakistan (82 per cent) and Bangladesh (81 per cent). Indeed, we feel so embattled that 84 per cent of us want to restrict entry of people into the country, compared with only 75 per cent of those asked in the U.S., a country where legal and illegal immigration is of a magnitude higher than anywhere in the world.

So, paradoxically, our vanity is matched only by our persecution complex. The Pew survey did not probe deeper into what exactly we are so proud of, and what we are so scared of. But given that almost all of us grow up hearing how “spiritual” our culture is, it is quite likely that we worry that foreign cultures will corrupt our spiritual values with their crass materialism.

Well, we need not worry. When it comes right down to it, we are as materialistic as the worst of them. Indians turn out to be among the most gung-ho when it comes to support for “free” markets. The Pew poll asked this question: “most people are better off in a free market economy, even though some people are rich and some poor.” The enthusiasm for the market economy in India exceeded that in the U.S., the bastion of unrestrained capitalism: 76 per cent of Indians, as compared with 70 per cent of Americans, are pro-market despite the problem of inequality. A solid 40 per cent of Indian respondents had no reservations and no doubts about the desirability of markets, while only 25 per cent of Americans were so unreserved.

A comparison with China and Russia — two countries with memories of a communist past — is instructive. While China and Russia are as much, if not more, integrated into the global economy as us, only 17 per cent of Russians and 15 per cent of Chinese supported the markets without any reservations and doubts.

More complicated

But we are actually more complicated than these numbers indicate. While we say we like free markets, 92 per cent of us also want the state to step in and take care of the poor. Our level of support for a welfare state is, commendably, much higher than in the U.S. (70 per cent) and is comparable to support for public welfare in Russia (86 per cent) and China (90 per cent). Indian support for state intervention on behalf of the poor is actually higher than it is in France (83 per cent), Germany (87 per cent), both of which have highly developed state welfare economies.

On the whole, Indian public opinion appears to support a benign capitalism where the state ensures the welfare of the poor. At least this is what we tell the pollsters. This would be great if our actions matched our words. While we say that we are for state intervention on behalf of the poor, our upper and middle classes (the kind of people foreign pollsters talk to) have always preferred privatised services in schools, hospitals, transportation, and garbage collection and, down the list, over public goods that the poor can also benefit from. The haves in India, on the whole, do not extend a sense of solidarity to the poor. While the educated professionals who are reaping the gains of globalisation have gained enormously from state-subsidised education and other urban privileges, they see their success as the fruit of their own good karma and …

… the grace of God, of course. In the God department, we Indians simply leave others in the dust. We topped the list at 80 per cent agreeing with the statement that “success in life is pretty much determined by forces outside our control.” No other country came even close: the U.S. stood at a mere 33 per cent, China at 65 per cent, Russia at 59 per cent, and Japan at 47 per cent.

Granted that God or Fate are not the only forces outside our control: indeed, sometimes even a babu in an office can become a “force outside your control” if you don’t have enough money to bribe him. But considering how much time, money and effort we spend on placating the gods and the stars, it is quite likely that our respondents had these supernatural forces in mind.

Indeed, 92 per cent of Indian respondents told the Pew pollsters that “religion was very important” to them. Only Senegal beat us at 97 per cent. But we came out ahead of our South Asian neighbours, with Pakistan at 91 per cent and Bangladesh at 88 per cent. Japan is practically atheist at 12 per cent, while the Chinese simply did not allow the question to be asked. The U.S., fabled for its religiosity among the richer countries, trails far behind us at a mere 59 per cent.

Not only do we think God is “very important,” we hold belief in God as an indicator of personal morality. As many as 66 per cent of us think that “it is necessary to believe in God in order to be moral and have good values.” In other words, a majority of us believe that atheists cannot be moral. We are closer in this to our Islamic neighbours, with Pakistan at 88 per cent and Bangladesh at 90 per cent, than to the Chinese (17 per cent) and the Japanese (33 per cent).

Another striking feature of our views regarding religion is the gap between what we say and what we do. As many as 90 per cent of us told the pollsters that “religion is a matter of personal faith and must be kept separate from government policy.” In this, we are ahead of the U.S. (80 per cent), the country which swears by the “wall of separation” between church and state. Our numbers are right up there with the most secularised countries in the world, with Britain and France at 91 per cent and Germany at 88 per cent.

So we want religion to be kept separate from the government. But when did you last hear anyone protesting when our presidents and prime ministers, in their official capacities, bow before gurus and sants? Idols and pictures of gods and goddesses openly and routinely adorn government offices — from police thanas to libraries in public universities. How many of us stand up for God-government separation, something we say we are committed to?

All said and done, we have many miles to go before we can match the high expectations we have of ourselves. The good news, of course, is that we have such high expectations of ourselves.

(The complete survey can be found at http://pewglobal.org).

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