Sharper divide in T&T than India


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Category: Diaspora Date: 27 Jan 02

India’s 52nd Republic Day, yesterday, was a time for stock-taking. In this interview, Indian High Commissioner to Trinidad and Tobago, Virendra Gupta provides a panoramic view of India today.


Q: What is India’s biggest achievement as a Republic?


A: In our infancy there were a lot of doubting Thomases who said democracy could not take root in a poor, large, unwieldy, illiterate country like India, that it was a luxury. We proved everyone wrong. We’ve steered steadily on the path of democracy, despite socio economic obstacles, despite external hostilities.

Religion may be an intrinsic part of our everyday lives but not at the expense of secularism, which is deeply imbedded in our system: equal opportunity, freedom from coercion or fear, peaceful elections, freedom to practise and propagate religious and political beliefs.


Q: What about the communal problems between Hindus and Muslims over Kashmir?


A: The ugliest manifestations of the Hindu-Muslim divide was the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1991, but immediately following that, the State Government was dismissed, elections held, and the electorate soundly rejected the party that advocated its destruction.

The people gave their verdict, not for demolition but communal harmony, despite the surfacing of inter-religious tensions. When you compare India to the Middle East, you will see, unlike Israel and Palestine, there is no separation.

In every village, Hindus and Muslims live together. Even in areas given to the worst communal flare-ups, which are politically motivated by groups inimical to our interests, you will find Hindu families giving refuge to a Muslim being mobbed and vice versa.


Q: Despite strides in equal rights for middle-class women, there are frequent reports of the brutal exploitation of many Indian women, who are harassed over dowries, are totally dependent on husbands and sons, and treated as outcasts if widowed. Is this changing?


A: In the Vedic period women were highly venerated in India. They were considered the more important of the two sexes in terms of their influence. By medieval times, Indian women were confined to an inferior status, like most women worldwide.

That may have been the result of the many outside influences to which India has been subject. But there is progress.

In my lifetime the small town of my birth has undergone deep transformation. Girl children are being treated differently, allowed opportunities and rights they hadn’t 40 years ago.

Although women, they are equal in the eyes of the state. It is difficult in a huge, ancient country such as India to eradicate deeply embedded systems such as harassment over dowries, although it is an offence by law.

But we are moving in the right direction. We have had the example of a competent and powerful woman Prime Minister. In India today many women occupy senior positions. More women are working, and women continue to perform better than men if you look at high-school or university results. Women today stand up for themselves and won’t put up with what their mothers did.


Q: People who visit India are often struck by its poverty…


A: Poverty is an embarrassment for us because despite the fact that we have made rapid progress in technology, industry, shipbuilding, astronomy, and infrastructure, up to 10% of our people (approx 150 million people) are under the poverty line. The government has employment, poverty eradication, and rural schemes, but can’t go it alone.

The cycle of poverty, of high rate of reproduction among the poorest feeds this vicious cycle. A problem of this magnitude requires an enormous collective effort of all our people, in India and abroad.


Q: The fact that both India and Pakistan have nuclear capability, have tested them, and are now antagonistic to each other is worrying. In this context, can you comment on the standoff between India and Pakistan?


A: Even at the height of the stand off with Pakistan, we reaffirmed that India will never be the first to use nuclear weapons. They were developed purely for defence purposes.

Pakistan has been waging a low-intensity warfare against India by stage-managing terrorist activities. But we cannot talk as long as Pakistan continues to financially, morally and logistically support terrorist activities in India such as the attack on our Parliament, the hi-jacking of an Indian Airlines plane. In fact, there are more imported terrorists in Kashmir than the Kashmirs themselves.

Once Pakistan abandons the use of terrorism as foreign policy then there can be dialogue. For now, we have a ‘wait and see’ stance because we have been taken in by words before.


Q: What can India and T&T learn from one another?


A: If you look at the multi-ethnic and religious canvass here, there is a sharper divide than there is in India. But India can learn from the unique manner in which people participate in one another’s festivals and make it into a tool of integration. There is also that wonderful humour which allows people to keep a level head. I wish the tolerant, warm and intelligent people of T&T well.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur