Symposium sheds light on culture in modern India

MIDDLEBURY — As part of the recent “De-Romanticizing India” 2010 Spring Symposium at Middlebury College, a panel on “Domestic Issues and Challenges in Contemporary India” focused on three themes: environmental degradation, party politics and the Hindu-Muslim conflict.
Environmentalist Saleem Ali from UVM, Walther Anderson from John Hopkins University and Safa Mohsin Khan, a sophomore at Middlebury College, were part of the panel that gave a multi-dimensional view of those domestic challenges.
“The talk was great because people were addressing similar issues like religion and development from different perspectives and backgrounds,” said Middlebury College senior Kyle Olsen.
Saleem Ali highlighted the need for India to adopt a more environmentally friendly road to development.
“Overall, the Indian government has not been very forthcoming on these issues. There is a normative debate between development and environment,” he said.
When asked what suggestions he had for a more environmentally friendly development in India, he suggested the Taiwan and Malaysia models, but did not elaborate how India would reconcile its huge population and coal intensive productions methods with these smaller models. On a positive note, Saleem Ali pointed toward the strength of India’s civil society and grassroots organizations for environmental protection.
“Because India is a democracy, better sense will prevail in terms of reducing this rampant degradation,” he said, in comparison to the Chinese efforts to reduce environmental degradation.
On the political side, Walther Anderson discussed the consequences of party politics in India. “The Indian parliament mirrors the population of India,” he said. He gave a brief history of Indian politics, stressing the long domination of the Congress, eclipsed only recently by the Hindu nationalist party, the BJP. He also talked about the inevitability of a coalition government in India due to “social issues.”
He predicted two crucial trends in the future of Indian politics. First, “Indian politics will be centrist. It was already moving toward being centrist because of its complexity.”
Second, he said, “Change is going to be incremental. You won’t have revolutionary change. It just won’t happen.”
Safa gave a more personal account of her experience of the Hindu-Muslim conflict in India. Clashes between Hindus and Muslims, she said were “not new.”
“The tension between the two groups is such that it simmers beneath the surface and can explode at any moment,” she explained, adding that the polarization of Hindus and Muslims within neighborhoods, like in her hometown of Meerut, was “unhealthy.”
She specifically mentioned two events, the Babri Masjid Demolition and the Gujarat riots, which really shaped relations between the two communities. “It’s not the riots themselves, but their aftermath which is the scariest part,” she said.
She lamented that Muslims in India were also politically under-represented with Hindu parties like the BJP being one of the dominant parties. “My family votes for the Congress because it is the lesser of the two evils,” she said.
She ended her talk with the question, “Is India really secular?”
The audience seemed to appreciate Safa’s personal accounts.
“I found it very intriguing to hear personal experiences because sometimes to hear about unfamiliar things in very abstract,” said Grace Gholke, a freshman at Middlebury College. “The academic way is hard to connect, so it’s always good to hear about how these issues are experienced by people within the country.”
The symposium, which ended with a performing arts show of various Indian dances and music, found a diverse audience not only in the college but also in the town.
“I thought there was a good turnout from both students and townspeople. It shows the depth and breadth of interest in India, not just in the college but in Middlebury as a whole,” said Professor Jeffrey Lunstead, diplomat in residence at Middlebury College.

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