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WORLD'S LARGEST DEMOCRACY INDIA; INDIA and CHINA neighbors who are worlds apart

By David WinderStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 27, 1980



New Delhi

"You have to realize," the Bombay intellectual said loftily, "that we are the inheritors of universal civilizations." He was referring to India and China, proud possessors of two of the world's oldest cultures.

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Together India and China represent, broadly speaking, the great mass of mankind. India has 652 million people; China has 1 billion. And implicit in that Indian intellectual's comment is the conviction that the two vast and ancient societies are destined to play a large role on the world scene.

Similarly, in a spirited conversation among Indians on the role of superpowers, prompted by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, one Indian declared: "The US and the Soviet Union are superpowers. China is next, and India is No. 4."

Well, hardly. India is by no means the No. 4 power in the world today. But the remark underscores the chauvinistic thinking of many Indians, who see both India and China as either actual or potential world leaders.

But the Chinese themselves harbor few such illusions of world grandeur. "The Chinese do not see themselves as a world power, economically or militarily. I think it's realistic. I don't think India is a world power, either," says Prof. Merle Goldman, a China scholar at the Council on East Asian Studies at Harvard University.

Nevertheless, India is fast moving up the world's power rungs. Starting from practically nothing at independence in 1947, it has climbed rapidly to become the world's 10th-largest industrial power.

China, too, has thrust ahead. Says Romesh Thapar, editor of Seminar, a New Delhi intellectual journal: "In the 1940s China was importing everything. In 30 years both countries, passing along different paths, are standing on their own feet."

China has done it through the enforced egalitarianism of an authoritarian communist system. India has taken the democratic route.

Though they represent ancient civilizations, their respective cultures, and therefore their approaches, are vastly different.

For all its huge population China is a homogenous entity. India is not. In China the main ethnic group, the Han, represent all but 6 percent of the population.

For a long time Chinese accepted the same language. If they did not always understand one another's speech, they could always talk to each other on paper. It was like showing photographs.

The same is not true of India. From its Aryan north to its Dravidian south, more than a half a billion heterogeneous people speak 14 recognized languages and some 1,600 dialects. "In India we say that every four kilometers you'll find a new language," says a Punjabi.

Much of India's culture reflects both the contact and collision, and finally the absorption, of different civilizations, including the Aryans, the Greeks, the Moguls, and last, the British.

It helps explain an Indian's awareness of the world around him. "The Chinese are not only largely ignorant of the world around them," Indians say, "they also don't care." They maintain that Chinese culture is nationally self-centered.

Giri Deshingkar, professor at the Center for the study of Developing Societies in New Delhi and reputed in academic circles to be India's leading China scholar, illustrates the effect of India's acceptance, and China's rejection, of outside cultural values and forces.

"A rich, cultivated Indian," he says, "would have Western books and artifacts in his home. A rich, cultivated Chinese wouldn't dream of having Western art in his home."