India: Slowly Down the Democratic Road

Students Restive While Village Developments Push Nation Along Path to Internal Stability

The writer of this article traveled to India last summer on a friendship mission with 11 students from the University of California at Les Angeles under Ford Foundation sponsorship.

"These Indians have no sense of the road," bellowed an American business representative as he steered his new Dodge through a crowd of laborers on the narrow mud lane to Bombay. Between blasts of the born he pointed at a young worker crowding his left fender and growled, "Take that fellow over there--you never know which way be may turn."

Two months in the world's second largest country is enough to convince an American visitor that India does have a "sense of the road." Hazards exist, of course: elements on the extreme right and left that seek to pull it off its course; economic pitfalls of land inequality and industrial backwardness. But basically, Indians are moving forward toward a stable, democratic government.

Student Discontent

The most dangerous block to Indian democracy may come from the young intellectuals. Although the students are proud and sincere, few are satisfied, and some favor violent change.

The primary fact of the Indian student's life today is his economic poverty. A recent study shows that over 40 percent of college students in Calcutta, where all contrasts are magnified, suffer from malnutrition. Most live at home, many in one or two-room flats housing a whole family.

Almost equally important is the outdated educational system. Established by the British to prepare lower class civil servants for the colonial government, the present system of university education gives students theory when they need practical training, allows almost no free student-faculty relationships, and emphasizes rote memory instead of the individual thinking needed in a new democracy. The students are young, too, entering college at about age 15. Emerging from the universities with one or more degrees, most students face almost certain unemployment, for "white collar" jobs are scarce and few are willing to accept manual work.

It is no surprise, then, that students in such an economic and educational position look for total solutions to their problems. With sparse part-time employment and extra-curricular activities, and short study hours, the students gather in coffee houses to debate the future.

A barrage of questions about America meets a foreigner. "Why do Americans like McCarthy? Why is the divorce rate so high? Why have you lost spiritual values? Why did America kill Japanese fishermen by exploding the H-bomb? Why is it impossible for Negroes to go to college? Why do you still support Chiang Kai Shek?" And, the most frequent one of all: "Why did America send arms to Pakistan?"

These questions might indicate revolutionary sentiment among Indians. And indeed, one does meet violent leftists who are card-carrying members of the Communist-dominated All-India Student Federation. Especially strong in Calcutta, this organization urges strikes and demonstrations to solve the students' problems.

But despite a closely-knit Communist student movement most students do not follow the Communists, no matter how revolutionary most try to sound. The questions really indicate sincere interest in the U. S.

One young student of history, after belligerently rattling off question after question, quietly added, "You know, we're not going Communist. Don't judge us by the way our questions sound." Many students, of course, are highly critical of the ruling Congress Party; most have some sort of pet economic or political theory; but fundamentally, the changes the students desire are to be achieved by peaceful means.

The radicalism of the students is, nonetheless, a real problem, for the lack of a strong, non-Communist student organization keeps the democrats walking around in groups of two or three. And the attitude of many top government officials is to ignore the problem. As one top Congress Party officer said, "Oh, they're just students." This widespread disinterest, combined with historic opposition to the British, makes many students despair with the government, a dangerous trend in such a young nation.

Many students urge, along with political changes, various adjustments in the social system. Influenced by American movies, which most see at least once a week, and by Indians who have studied in American universities, many young Indians are rebelling against the established marriage customs, by which parents make the matches in childhood. An intelligent 20-year old in Calcutta had to meet his girl secretly because his mother had already chosen his bride, a girl of 14 who lived in Bombay.

Village Social Work