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Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Reflections on US and Indian society

Even when living in India, it’s not easy to escape US presidential elections: elections in world’s oldest democracy and most powerful country, elections that shape, to use hyperbole, world’s future. Nothing I write can add more value since everything has already been written to death. But elections are also time when social differences in US and India magnify. I merely wish to highlight my understanding of differences in American society and culture from that of India from my brief interaction. Clearly, my limited window to opportunity provides only limited view.

When I was new in US, I used to think that India can catch up to US, in terms of standard of life, infrastructure support, freedom and public attitude in next twenty years. More I knew about US and more I knew about India, I am not sure now if even fifty years are sufficient. There are surely many many things good in America, and if it were to be either this or that, I would rather want India to become US than to remain India. But, and you knew that was coming, Indian brief history has also few amazing things that over 230 years of American couldn’t master. Indian public takes these for granted but you need to see US to appreciate them.

India is known for its continuing caste discrimination, and we do abominable things done to people of lower caste even to this age. Witch huntings are infrequent but steady news even in 21st century India. Treatment of women in India leaves much to be desired. I’ve met many people who want their sisters and mothers to leave India if they can manage that, since even if you are in educated non-chauvinistic household, scums of society are constant menace to normal life of woman. Despite that we have had people of all caste and all religions in various top political and administrative positions without batting an eye lid. We might have quibbled over tyranny of Indira Gandhi and foreignness of Sonia Gandhi, but that she was a woman was not even a point of debate in India. In limited history one can consider it coincidence but among over 40 elections, US still has not been able to select woman president says something to me. This year too, people exclaimed aloud about Democratic nominee: woman or black, both first time in American past. And with rumours about Obama aplenty, seems like this election will be run on purely false propaganda. And it’s not a small point that spouses of ministers and presidents in India are practically unknown public persona. We may vote based on caste, but we don’t vote based on ‘who is sexy’. Not that either is better.

Undoubtedly there is more religious freedom in States but our experience of living life of unbelievable diversity since ages has taught us something which is different than there. Sure, we’ve riots, but India officially remains secular country and celebrates festivals of all religions, not something you can say about US. In my office in Los Angeles, a Jewish colleague took offence to my ‘Merry Christmas’-ing him, something that didn’t even think about since saying Happy Diwali to Christian and Happy Eid to Hindu has never been a problem here. Some people have commented that secularism in India and US takes different forms. We believe equal treatment of all religions by state, they believe separation of state and religion. I am not expert into give philosophical explanation to this but a crude analogy will help you what I mean. There have been objections in US about putting a picture of Jesus in public school or a Christmas tree in airport lounge since it is mixing religion with state. Indian schools have had pictures and symbols of all religions together. Indians have been taught about “unity in diversity” throughout their cultural history, but meaning only becomes clear now.

To me it appeared political correctness or religious antagonism gone too far when US stores had to advertise ‘happy holidays’ rather than ‘merry Christmas’ so as not to offend their non-Christian customers. I feel that it is ruining the whole fun and meaning of festival. If Diwali, Eid and Christmas just turned into ‘holiday’ in India, I would find it very bad. Therein lies a difference, I think. Maintaining and celebrating distinct identities of all religion, rather than eliminating that identity itself completely.

08/11/2008 03:02AM Edit: See what I meant?