Stay earoupean people in India


Heinz Werner Wessler

PD Dr. Heinz Werner Wessler is visiting professor for Indology at Uppsala University, Sweden. He is a board member of the "European Association of South Asian Studies" and of the Südasienbüro e.V., whose journal "Südasien" he published from 2005-2011.

Challenges in the 21st Century

The motto "Unity in Diversity", which is used again and again in India, is intended to take account of the great abundance of people, cultures, religions and languages. But it also stands for the cohesion of the country. Because despite numerous regional sources of conflict and occasionally violent problems within society, India has succeeded in maintaining the balance between the many social groups.

National Capital Territory of Delhi: Red Fort fortress / palace complex in Old Dehli, India. (& copy picture alliance / DUMONT picture archive)

There are very different climatic regions between the mountains of the Himalayas and Cape Comorin, the areas on the border with Myanmar and the Thar Desert. People also differ greatly from one another linguistically, religiously and culturally. On the other hand, many Indians rightly attach great importance to the fact that everything is related to everything else - "Unity in diversity" is what a much-cited Indian slogan means. In this respect, India can be compared less with a single state than with the European Union as a whole.

More than 1.2 billion people currently live in India (as of 2011 census) - due to its population growth of still more than 15 million per year, the country will soon replace its neighbor China as the most populous country on earth. Despite the huge area of ​​almost 3.3 million square kilometers, the country is relatively densely populated. The densest people live in the rapidly growing urban agglomerations, but also in large parts of the north Indian Mesopotamia as well as on the lower reaches of the Ganges in the states of Bihar and West Bengal the mean population density is now close to 1000 inhabitants per square kilometer. Desert areas and mountain regions, on the other hand, are extremely sparsely populated. (Total India: 371 / Germany: 227)


Member of the Sikh religious community in Delhi. (& copy Stefan Mentschel)
India's population has more than quintupled since 1901. Even if the population growth has been steadily declining for several decades, today almost every sixth inhabitant of the world is Indian. In addition, the average age of around 25 years (2011) is very low compared to Europe. Life expectancy is around 67 years. (Germany: 79).

Most people still live in the countryside, even if the rural exodus is a major contributor to urban growth. In 2011 there were 46 large cities with more than one million inhabitants. In the gigantic metropolises of Delhi, Hyderabad, Mumbai (Bombay) and Kolkata (Calcutta), new social milieus are emerging that are made up of population groups of very different regional and social origins. These include the countless families of servants, small salaried employees and industrial workers, the absolutely poor and the less well-off, but also a well-educated urban middle class who are developing consumer needs that are very similar to those in western countries and are increasingly able to afford this prosperity.

On the one hand, this layer arrives in the modern globalized world with all its traditional breaks, on the other hand, the pressure for social and religious conformity is still strong. At the latest when it comes to choosing a spouse, this class also finds it difficult to break with the tradition that says that man and woman should come from the same caste. The system is showing cracks, but the big breakthrough has not yet materialized.

In 1956 India was the first country in the world to set up a ministry for family planning. With education and campaigns for the use of contraceptives, attempts were made to get the population growth - at that time it was more than 4 percent per year - under control. Despite a huge budget, the results were disappointing from the point of view of demographic statisticians. In addition, state family planning fell into disrepute due to the forced sterilization of members of the lower classes under Indira Gandhi's emergency regime from 1975-77. Even today, family planning is spread with sometimes aggressive campaigns. After all, the annual population growth has now fallen below 1.4 percent.

The most important reason for this decline is less likely to be government family planning than the increasing spread of education among the population. The slow but steadily increasing literacy of the general population corresponds to a pronounced thirst for education of a large majority of the Indian population. It is always astonishing to learn how Indian parents are willing to invest a significant proportion of their income for their children's school and tuition fees. Graduations from expensive, mostly Anglophone, private schools are often the ticket to a successful professional career. The state also invests huge sums in its elite universities, but at the same time lets its elementary schools remain at a miserable level, thus cementing a two-class system in the education sector. Only those children whose parents could afford expensive private schools have access to adequate education.

One of the major problems facing the population is the drastic decline in the number of women in the population. According to the 2011 census, there are 943 women for every 1000 men - in the rich states of Panjab (Punjab) and Haryana there are districts with a gender ratio of 1000 to under 800 for people under 15 years of age. This dramatic development, which is still intensifying, is primarily a consequence of the gender-specific abortion of female fetuses. The statistics show that the legislature is not in a position to enforce the prohibition of prenatal sex determination for the purpose of targeted gender selection.

Traditional multiculturalism

Hindu woman prays in front of the Jagannath Temple in Puri (Orissa). (& copy Stefan Mentschel)
Traditional multiculturalism throughout South Asia was and is a revelation for many European travelers to India. In Mumbai, for example, with its Victorian Gateway of India, there is a temple next to a mosque, a church next to the "Towers of Silence" burial places of Parsis, a Gurdwara of the Sikhs next to the Bahai Temple. Members of all religions make a pilgrimage to Haji Ali's grave to offer him cloths and incense and here to get the blessing of the Sufi saint.

The charismatic teachers of one denomination are often visited and venerated by members of other denominations and asked for their blessings. The tomb of the great Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi is packed every Thursday evening. Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs circle the simple marble grave in awe, light incense candles, donate floral decorations, sweets and colorful towels. The tradition is liberal: even transvestites, the so-called hijras, join the circle of admirers unhindered.

You know who you are dealing with with the other person - you know their festivals, some of their religious duties and commandments, the foundations of their beliefs. People meet, interact with each other, give each other presents on festive days. But at the latest when getting married, the limits of tolerance are reached. Even with the best friendship and a socially similar hierarchical position, getting married across denominations and castes only creates problems. Those who do not stay with their own people, with their caste, their habits and rituals, have to reckon with draconian measures in an emergency: exclusion from caste and family, disinheritance, even physical violence up to murder. As everywhere in the world there are people who consciously cross borders, but multiculturalism in India is more a mosaic of different identities or communities than a "melting pot".

Religion and politics

Muslims in a mosque in Bhopal (Madhya Pradesh). (& copy Rainer Hörig)
The slogan of "Unity in Diversity", which is a popular political slogan, takes account of the enormous abundance of people, cultures, religions and languages. The modern Indian state not only pays this diversity respect, it resorts to it as a cultural resource of nationalism. While in Europe with its association of nation states this experience of cultural and religious diversity is historically new and thus triggers fears, India can fall back on a variety of historical experiences in multicultural coexistence. From a linguistic, cultural and religious perspective, today's Republic of India is a tremendously diverse country, in which Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Sikhs, Buddhists and Zoroastrians (Parsees) have lived together for thousands of years. And the respective religious communities are by no means monolithic blocks, but in turn are fanned out many times.

Certainly: There are zealots in all religions of India who want to bring the respective believers in line and who rail against the softening of forms of belief through the ubiquitous religious coexistence and confusion. In the last few decades, camp thinking has even increased noticeably. Some Hindu fundamentalists resemble radical Islamists: just as they want to establish a purely Arabic Islam on the basis of the Koran, they try to eradicate Islamic elements from language and culture.

Militant Hindu nationalist organizations declare India the holy land of the Hindus. Politically, these ideas manifested themselves in the rise of the Indian People's Party (Bharatiya Janata Party, BJP) in the 1990s and the simultaneous decline of the Congress Party. The main culture is Hindu, the secular state should define itself through its majority culture. The minorities - especially the Muslim (around 14 percent of the total population) and the Christian minority (2.3 percent) - thus become guests in their own country. From the point of view of many even modern Hindus, the existence of minorities can be traced back to the forced conversion or conversion of population groups that are "actually" Hindus and should have remained so, or bought through economic advantages. The legitimacy of other religions as a whole is therefore in question. In an increasing number of states such as Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat, religious conversion is even a criminal offense.

During the colonial era, the British had suggested that India on its own had insufficient cohesion, that the centrifugal forces were too strong. The civil war between Hindus and Muslims could only be avoided thanks to the mediating power of foreign colonial rule.

Today this claim no longer has any meaning. Despite the traumatic consequences of the partition of 1947, when millions of Muslims had to emigrate to Pakistan and millions of Hindus and Sikhs to India, despite numerous regional sources of conflict and occasionally violent internal societal problems, the major crisis did not materialize.

On the contrary: the Indian state has developed remarkable flexibility in dealing with separatist, social revolutionary, communal or politically targeted conflicts and has gotten a grip on them with a mixture of state violence, offers of negotiation and patient persuasion. On the whole, it has been possible to maintain the vital balance between the many interest groups and thus to maintain the basic loyalty of minorities to the state. India can be proud of this not only political but also social achievement.

The prerequisite for this success is Indian democracy, which enables the many different population groups to represent themselves, to articulate their interests and to negotiate with other interests in political discourse. The secularism enshrined in the preamble to the constitution as a basic principle of the state is also important, although in India this term is to be understood less in the sense of the privatization of religion and the divine distance of western societies. Rather, it is understood as a counter-term to so-called communalism: an attitude in which the solidarity of one's own religious community and not the greater whole of the nation applies.

This means that secularism signals the undisputed equidistance (neutrality) of the state towards all religions, although its implementation, for example in the design of school books, in state ceremonies and in public life, is increasingly controversial. Many Hindus see the secularism of the Congress Party as a method of preferring minorities over the Hindu majority.

Also controversial is the constitutional support for disadvantaged population groups: "casteless", who call themselves Dalits (oppressed), and Adivasi, who are considered India's indigenous population. Together they make up almost a quarter of the population and are supported by the state with targeted measures such as quoting public positions and university places. After thousands of years of oppression, they should gradually find their way into the middle of society, to education and prosperity as well as their own voice and self-confidence.

economy and politics

The strong, albeit undulating, economic growth since the early 1990s is undoubtedly an important element of national cohesion, but it is also an important pillar for India's self-confident action on the world stage. India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, one of the founding fathers of the non-aligned movement, distanced himself from state dirigism as in the Soviet Union, but favored a "mixed economy" with a strong state sector and five-year plans. High tariffs on the import of industrial products remained a cornerstone of Indian economic policy, which was intended to promote the development of a competitive industry, until the 1990s. Nehru's daughter Indira Gandhi even had a large part of the banking system nationalized. In the 1980s, however, it could no longer be overlooked that the state-owned companies produced more and more losses.

When the state got into a serious balance of payments crisis in 1991, under the then finance minister and current prime minister Manmohan Singh, a policy of economic liberalization began, which allowed India to achieve sustained economic growth of in some cases more than 8 percent per year (8.2 percent in the first half of the 2006 fiscal year / 07) - one reason for the great attention India is receiving in the 21st century.

The fact that India is becoming China's major competitor in Asia is entirely in the interests of the USA and the European Union. On the other hand, the fact that India has become a nuclear state at the latest since the nuclear tests in 1998 and that its army, air force and navy are massively equipped with nuclear weapons and the corresponding delivery systems is politically accepted.

The neighboring state of Pakistan is very similar to India in terms of its mentality. But mainly because of the unresolved territorial claims on the formerly independent Principality of Jammu and Kashmir, the two South Asian nuclear powers are still enemies. Despite the continuing potential for conflict, however, it has now been understood in both Pakistan and India that stable economic growth, unaffected by bilateral tensions, is more important than the enforcement of territorial and power-political interests.


In the hype about India’s development progress, it should not be forgotten that a large part of the Indian population does not benefit from all this glamor. So many farmers can no longer operate profitably. The suicide rate among over-indebted cotton farmers who have invested in hybrid seeds and pesticides in recent years is alarmingly high in some regions. It is also a fact that a considerable part of the Indian population still lives in the huge slums of the cities and in the villages on the absolute poverty line and has no chance of education and social advancement.

How long will the international enthusiasm for India last? There are many factors that can seriously threaten development - corruption, separatist movements, religious conflicts, Maoist-inspired fighters, the increasing shortage of women. Perhaps the most worrying thing is that we can hardly speak of ecologically sustainable growth. Land, water, mineral and air resources are being consumed at a historically unprecedented rate. Urban agglomerations are boundless. The volume of traffic has reached frightening proportions.

Small successes are probably there - for example the improvement of the air quality in some metropolises by converting motor rickshaws, taxis and public bus transport to natural gas as a fuel. Indian society has also repeatedly mobilized astonishing powers of self-organization and self-healing.It is also important for India's growth course to get a grip on the potential for foreign policy conflict, especially with China and Pakistan. Domestically, it is important to keep the religions in a balance that is beneficial for all and to noticeably balance out the difference between rich and poor.

Indian intellectuals can wear themselves out at the conditions in their homeland, but they have not lost their basic trust in India's "unity in diversity" to this day. They are not afraid of the future, do not fear major social upheavals or even a nuclear war. Countless civil society initiatives campaign for literacy for the poor, for AIDS victims and the tribal population, against animal experiments and dowry murders, against loneliness in old age and for vegetarianism. Certainly there are also many more or less amiable quirks hidden under it, sometimes a tough political agenda, obsession with recognition or business interests. But all in all, this society is young, lively, impetuous, addicted to education, committed, career-conscious and at the same time proud of its state and its old cultural history. India, an up-and-coming superpower, can count on this potential.