Apologies for the prolonged silence – I promise this isn’t my idea of a “regular” blogging schedule; I’m in the midst of writing my thesis, and basically living in seclusion until it’s done. However, I couldn’t fully resist the trappings of the Internet; once online, a combination of recent events caught my attention that led to a few brief thoughts on India I wanted to share. (I also wanted to let our dear leader Shaun Randol know I hadn’t disappeared. Anyway, back to South Asia and me). It seemed to me that completely unrelated events that occurred within the past week helped bring to light the many sides of India, whose complex and diverse nature is such that it is almost akin to multiple personality disorder (equating it to schizophrenia would be too simplistic). I don’t mean this as a derogatory statement, simply my way of expressing the difficulties of trying to assess the reality of India.
India’s rising international stature was illustrated by US National Security Council Spokesperson Mike Hammer who reaffirmed the importance of the US-India partnership atthe end of President Obama’s first year in office, a year during which Secretary Clinton vowed to establish US-India 3.0 (a third phase in bilateral relations, based on economic ties). During which Manmohan Singh was honored with the Obama administration’s one and only official state dinner (an event best known in the US for the infamous “crashers” – the photo of the couple with Obama unintentionally captures the absurdity of US news coverage of the event: the Indian Prime Minister, the guest of honor and the whole reason for the event, is in the background, but never mentioned in any caption! Seriously, check out the picture). Finally, Secretary Gates is currently in India to discuss several military agreements, possible weapons sales, and regional security (focusing on terrorist groups’ probable attempts to destabilize relations in the near future).
Meanwhile, on January 19, Chinese premier Wen Jiabao proclaimed that India and China are not “competitive opponents” but rather “cooperative partners” (seriously, can official rhetoric get any more redundant?), and vowed to strive for more balanced bilateral trade, which India is cooling on because of its trade deficit – although what comes of that promise remains to be seen… Nevertheless, these comments reflect the growing importance both the US and China attach to sustained, productive relations with India, an emerging power with seemingly unlimited potential. Despite this positive outlook, India faces many serious domestic challenges and problems, some of them tragic and terrifying – in “Our crimes against children,” The Hindu associateeditor Praveen Swami presents horrifying figures about child-abuse in India. I wanted to quote one or two statistics to illustrate this, but found myself unable to make a selection and have thus copied several passages from the article below (although you should definitively read the whole thing, available here, which covers physical abuse in addition to sexual abuse, and underscores the lack of proper legislation).
For the most part, India’s children live in a nightmare; a dystopia founded on our collective complicity and silence. By the Government of India’s account, more than two-thirds of Indian children experience beatings in their homes, schools, workplace and government institutions — beatings which, if conducted in prison cells, would count as torture. Every second child in India, the government says, also faces one or more forms of sexual abuse.
Yet, no government has found the time or energy to enact a law against the abuse of children — leaving the authorities, when they can bestir themselves to deliver justice, to respond using legalisation intended to prevent prostitution, beggary, trafficking and rape. There is no institutional machinery to investigate schools, homes and children’s workplace for sexual and physical abuse. There are no police officers trained in the special skills needed to deal with child abuse. Barring a handful of organisations and individuals working to address the needs of abused children, there is no resource which victims and their families can turn to for help.
In 2007, the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development released the thoughtful —and terrifying — Study on Child Abuse in India. More than 12,000 children were polled to arrive at an empirical picture of the scale of beatings and sexual crimes that Indian children endure. Fifty-three per cent of the children said they had encountered “one or more forms of sexual abuse;” 68.99 per cent said they had suffered physical abuse, including beatings. More than a fifth reported severe sexual abuse, including assault, having been compelled to fondle adults’ private parts, exhibit themselves or be photographed nude. Well over half of those reporting severe sexual abuse were boys, the study found.
Popular wisdom holds that sexual abuse takes place when children are in environments outside the supposedly safe confines of their homes and schools. That, the study found, was simply not true. Fifty-three per cent of children not going to school said they had been sexually abused in their family environment. Just under half said they had encountered sexual abuse at their schools. These figures, interestingly, were about the same as children in institutional care who said they had been sexually abused — 47.08 per cent. Most vulnerable were children in workplaces, 61.31 per cent of whom had been sexually abused.
Boys in all but four of 13 States — Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Goa — were found to be more at risk of sexual abuse than girls. In Delhi, a staggering 65.6 per cent of the boys reported that they had been sexually abused.
Most at risk of serious sexual abuse, the study found, were children between 11 and 18 — although the group between six and 10 also reported significant levels of assault. Analysed by age group, the study states, sexual abuse was reported by “63.64 per cent child respondents in the age group of 15-18 years, 52.43 per cent in the age group of 13-14 years and 42.06 per cent in the age group of 5-12 years.” Assam, Delhi and Andhra Pradesh were found to have the highest levels of sexual abuse, with Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Goa recording the lowest.
We know, from separate studies, that the use of children in prostitution is also widespread. In their 2005 study, Trafficking in Women and Children in India, S. Sen and P.M. Nair estimated that there are up to half-a-million girl children from across the South Asian region working as prostitutes in India.
The tributes by Indian media to Jyoti Basu, who passed away at the age of 95 on January 17, indirectly fed my thoughts on the paradoxes that define India – rather, on how paradoxes seemingly define India. He was West Bengal’s chief minister (equivalent of a regional prime minister, if you will – good luck translating it into the US political system) from 1977 to 2000, making him the longest-serving chief minister in India (and information about his life can be obtained here, and a good summary of Indian press coverage can be found here). A respected statesman with a proven capacity to manage political coalitions, many expected him to become India’s new Prime Minister in 1996 until his party announced it would support but not participate in the government – something he later termed an “historic blunder.” Leaders from the ruling Congress Party, the main opposition party (the BJP) and many others (including the president and the prime minister of neighboring Bangladesh) paid their respects.
As a foreign observer, one of the reasons this struck me as a paradox is that M. Basu was a towering leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), CPI (M) who in 1962 supported China in its brief 1962 border war against India yet received a state funeral with military honors. But as I thought about it, I realized that aspect was actually secondary at best; following the conflict, M. Basu converted to electoral politics, which nearly led him to the post of Prime Minister. Therein lays part of the actual paradox: had he formed a government in 1996, would India be the emerging power it is today? The 1998 nuclear tests, despite the international outrage they provoked, with condemnations stemming from all parts of the globe, undeniably accelerated India’s rise, albeit indirectly. They led to a sustained dialogue between senior policymakers in US and India that helped clear a new path for their relationship (after a rocky period at first), and helped India break free from comparisons with Pakistan, as their respective ability to withstand the economic sanctions following the nuclear tests showed how different their situations were (and still are).
This leads me to what is the true source and backbone of India’s rise: its economic growth, rather than its military might. Which brings me back to Jyoti Basu as example of India’s paradoxes: it is hard to imagine a communist PM overseeing a continued liberalization of the economy or signing a nuclear deal with the US… Yet Jyoti Basu was popular in part because he sought to achieve better conditions for the poor, because he focused on raising social conditions (although apparently he was not very sensitive to the plight of women). Yet it appears that his administration wasn’t the most efficient, and that several decisions of the CPI (M) proved to be disastrous, such as choosing to no longer teach English at schools.
I just wanted to highlight all these different events that occurred during the past week to reflect upon both the tremendous potential of India and the magnitude of the problems and challenges it faces. The point isn’t to glorify or disparage Jyoti Basu, nor India for that matter; indeed, acknowledging one’s weaknesses and dealing with them is not only the sign of true leadership, but the foundation to a sustainable international presence.