One of the biggest surprises here in India is the intensity of Indian nationalism. I’m always shocked when homeless people living on the sidewalks suddenly blurt out, “India is the greatest country on earth!” They mean it, they believe it. To Westerners, it’s baffling. Many Indians, even those struggling to survive, are thoroughly convinced of India’s greatness.
One college-educated, young professional we encountered proudly informed us that India would be the “world leader” by 2015. Thinking that he meant 2050, we asked for clarification. “No, no” he assured us, “India will lead the world by 2015. In six years.”
“How will it lead the world,” we probed, “economically? militarily? culturally?”
“In every way,” he assured us.
Baffling. But where is this coming from?
Travelers we have met who have been to the country in the past have suggested that this is a relatively new phenomenon. They recall that Indians have always been proud of the country. But the sense of predestination for greatness appears to be new. There’s a bizarre sense of entitlement that is perplexing. Many Indians easily accept the notion that the West is quickly collapsing in on itself as fact. They assume this means the rise of India. The West’s new-found fascination with India and its quick praise seems to be inflating some seriously unrealistic expectations.
Media depictions of Bangalore, Pune and Hyderabad as ultra-modern tech centers modeled on Silicon Valley are misleading. Visions of well dressed Indians working in English speaking call centers and programmers pumping out the latest code leave the impression that India is being catapulted into the 21st century. The media hype is quickly convincing everyone, including Indians themselves, that the future has arrived and that India is the next China. But the reality is that these industries employ a small fraction of one percent of the population.
In no way can the evolution of India be compared to that of China. With all its problems, China has undergone massive societal change involving every aspect of life. India is changing at a much slower pace. Middle-class Chinese we talked to understand many of their challenges. Middle-class Indians generally do not. Most Indians we have met quickly dismiss massive illiteracy, wide-spread corruption, the continued existence of ancient diseases such as leprosy and elephantiasis, and devastating environmental issues. That’s a lot to overlook.
No question that nationalism has made India myopic. Moments after the attackers in Mumbai ran past our hotel, Indians described “Americans shooting people in the streets” despite the fact that the attackers were clearly South Asian. Thomas and I are regularly subjected to baggage/security checks as Indians push by unnoticed by the police. For many Indians, terrorism is solidly the domain for foreigners. That Indians could be implicated in such events is often incomprehensible.
Yet indisputably, there is an upside to this nationalism as well. I have to come back to the homeless people living on the sidewalks screaming that “India is the greatest country on earth!” A year here has proven that these feelings appear to be keeping very desperate people far more content than would otherwise be expected. Indians do indeed love their nation. And that may prove a huge advantage to the country.
How much do Indians love their country? Well, it’s hard to put into words. But it’s not hard to put into video! One of the bizarrest examples of Indian patriotism-gone-wild is the truly odd border closing ceremony near Amritsar in Punjab (which we visited last fall). Every day, thousands of Indians come to the border to sit in an arena and scream and yell and cheer their superiority across the border at a crowd of Pakistanis on the other side. Add to that, a psycho goose stepping soldier showdown and you’ve got one hell of a show. It’s part disco, part cultural meltdown, part Monty Python sketch. If you haven’t seen the border closing ceremony, you haven’t seen India. Keep in mind, this crowded spectacle happens every day of the year, and although this is only a two minute video, the actual ceremony lasts about forty minutes! That’s a lot of screaming, gyrating, and goose-stepping. (Notice in the video that Indians refer to India as Hindustan.)
If you want to get a glimpse of the darker side of Indian nationalism, check out their comments on our tongue-in-cheek YouTube review of the Rajdhani Express. We can vouch for the fact that these comments are quite representative of what you hear every day in India (if you are listening). Just ask Thomas. During one careless moment during a fight with a rickshaw driver, Thomas blurted out, “God, India is so stupid!” Moments later we were being paraded through the streets by an angry mob of police and passers-by. The crowd raged, “Do not call the India stupid!” Our travel documents were taken away from us and as the angry mob swelled we were seriously fearing for our safety. The police marched us out on to a pier as enraged men pounded their chests and threatened us with violence. In the end, the police demanded that we both apologize to the crowd for saying that “India is stupid.” Luckily, their English skills were quite limited because I’m sure I heard Thomas quickly say in his I-hate-you voice, “I’m sorry India is stupid.” God, he is going to get us killed one day.