In India, focus is on local life, not global strife

Indian public has positive sense of U.S. counterparts

India 2005

By Michael Hirten

June 10, 2009

We published an article on page 3A last week: "Suicide bomber kills 60 seeking jobs as police."

Sixty dead, 150 wounded. And it doesn't even make page one at the Lansing State Journal or other newspapers.

This is how conditioned we've become to the drumbeat of death and destruction in Iraq. It's hardly news anymore.

The insurgency in Iraq is fueled by hatred of the United States and the abhorrence of democratic government. It is what boils the political pot throughout much the Middle East, a region that readily accepts the caricature of the Ugly American.

Again, hardly news anymore.

So, I was ready for a heavy dose of anti-American sentiments during my recent two-week visit to India with the International Reporting Project.

What I found instead was that feelings toward the United States were generally positive. People in India seem to like America or, at least, Americans.

One expects this sort of measured response from savvy political and business leaders. But it's more than superficial; the cultural links with the U.S. are remarkably tight.

Everyone - and I mean everyone - had family ties here. Their children: More than 80,000 Indian students attend American universities. Their brothers or sisters: There are now 2 million to 3 million Indians living in the United States, working in professions or in businesses. This sort of cross-breeding and understanding naturally builds strong cultural bonds.

But even on the streets, in the markets, on a college campus, with young and old, there was little ill will toward us.

It wasn't that the people I met weren't aware of the United States, its issues and challenges. It just wasn't high on their list.

They have other concerns. India is a democracy, the world's largest. As such, it offers its people a voice, a measure of control over the issues that really matter: jobs, health, education, roads.

Why rail against American devils when you can fight for a share of the political pie that will get you a new village school, another teacher or clean drinking water?

These nationalistic impulses certainly apply to India's 150 million Muslims, a community described as "liberal and secular" by Syed Shahid Mahdi, former vice chancellor of Jamia Millia Ismamia, one of the nation's premier Islamic universities.

Muslim interests are expressed through political, social and commercial institutions, rather than Islamic jihads.

They are integrated - perhaps imperfectly - into a society that has democratic machinery to sort out its differences and order its priorities.

It also has experience. India has been a democratic republic since 1950. Understandably, Indians see their democratic society as a model for the developing world.

And it may be.

The country's embrace of a market economy seems to smooth out religious differences. Its high-tech enterprises blend Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs - anyone with the skills and drive to shape their destiny.

The combination of economic opportunity and a political freedom are powerful forces.

They work in India and certainly they complement our national interests.

We can only hope it's the direction other countries choose.