Indians take uneasy look at themselves

''What's the matter with us?'' was the question the Indian national daily newspaper was posing in a published panel talk with distinguished citizens.

Back came a host of gloomy assessments. Indians seem satisfied with mediocrity, disdainful of hard work, indifferent to excellence; political leadership and morality are going downhill, corruption and nepotism are on the rise.

The exercise in the Indian Express was not unique. In a flood of articles and in numerous heated discussions, Indians are critically probing themselves and their society.

A nation of 700 million, the second most populous in the world, India is in the throes of what prominent political commentator G. K. Reddy calls ''a crisis of confidence.''

For all of India's industrial advances, widespread poverty and hunger remain. Brilliant scientific feats mix incongruously with mass ignorance. Only one woman seems able to keep together the world's largest democracy. The question being asked is whether India's massive potential or its enduring problems will win out.

Thirty-five years old as an independent entity this August, ''the nation is passing through one of those uneasy phases in its chequered history, one when it is equally possible to be optimistic or pessimistic about its future,'' G. K. Reddy wrote in a Madras daily, the Hindu.

Right now pessimism seems to be winning.

Former President Neelam Sanjiva Reddy has warned that increasing caste and interreligious violence and the ''disregard of moral values in public life'' threaten to undermine Indians' faith in their democracy, the largest in the world. The consequences, he said, ''are too frightening to contemplate.''

Columnist Shamlal wrote in the Times of India, ''More and more people here are beginning to feel that nothing will be done, whoever is in power, to stop the rot or buck the trend.''

Scanning a grim horizon of guerrilla insurgencies in the troubled northeastern states, the sharp gap between rich and poor, political violence, and the death toll from clashes between majority Hindus and minority Muslims, a former Hindustan Times editor, Hiranmay Karlekar, warned, ''Chaos will engulf the republic of India within the next 10 years.''

No less a personage than B. K. Nehru, governor of Jammu and Kashmir State and former Indian envoy to Washington and London, has charged that ''corruption has spread to every part of the governmental apparatus.''

Even Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who normally dwells on the country's many forward strides since independence, sounded a note of warning in her Aug. 15 independence day address to the nation. Citing ''fissiparous tendencies raising their ugly head in the name of religion, region, and caste,'' she called for ''a concerted effort to maintain unity to preserve the hard-earned freedom.''

Spasms of self-doubt have occurred before and likely will occur again in India - a nation piquantly described by John Kenneth Galbraith, former United States ambassador, as ''a functioning anarchy.'' Indeed, predicting its decay and demise has long been an international parlor game.

Some say the end will come in a great revolutionary upheaval by India's impoverished masses against a system that has left them poor, hungry, and illiterate after 35 years of independence. Other experts foresee a different fate: the splintering of India into some or many of its distinctive regional, linguistic, and religious groupings.

Still another forecast is that India will simply stagnate, weighed down by the rigid social ordering of its de facto caste system and the majority Hindu religion's concentration on the next life in a cycle of reincarnations rather than the mastery of the here and now.

One longtime Western observer, who asked not to be identified, expressed a middle-of-the-road view. ''I don't see this country unraveling in a hurry,'' he said. ''I see it kind of lurching along pretty much the way it is.''

The India of 1982 is a complex mosaic of feudal and modern, advanced learning and illiteracy, tolerance and violence, riches and abject poverty.

Its space scientists smile as they recall transporting their APPLE satellite to a field test by bullock cart. During a total solar eclipse in 1980 scientists conducted sophisticated experiments while most of India simply shut down, afraid to venture outdoors during the ''inauspicious'' event.

After several peasant women had committed sati, the long outlawed custom of immolating themselves on their husbands' funeral pyres, the sites became instant shrines and a women's group paraded in Delhi commemorating the sati tradition.

When policemen deliberately blinded 31 prisoners awaiting trial in backward Bihar State, parliamentarians wept for shame in Delhi. But in Bhagalpur, where the blindings took place, civic associations marched in the streets to commend police for their novel crime-fighting techniques.

Sharp regional differences mark the dress, food, languages, and customs of India's 700 million people, who account for nearly one-sixth of mankind. They have no common language except the de facto link to English, which about 10 percent speak. Their Constitution recognizes 15 official tongues, and hundreds more dialects are spoken.

Nearly 83 percent of India's people are Hindus, who worship a staggering variety of gods and goddesses in one of the world's most decentralized religions. Nevertheless the country is a secular state, home to the second largest Muslim community in the world after Indonesia.

Nonviolence and tolerance are hallmarks of Indian philosophy. But when India and Pakistan were partitioned in the first great breaking up of the British Empire, an estimated half a million Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs were killed in a fury of interreligious slaughter. Communal, or interreligious, violence continues to plague contemporary India. In 1981, the Home Ministry reported 196 people killed and 2,613 injured in 319 clashes between the majority and minority communities.

Also persisting are attacks and discrimination against untouchables, Hindus considered so lowly that they fall outside the caste system and whose very touch is considered ''polluting'' to orthodox caste Hindus. Outlawed on paper, social discrimination against untouchables prevails in Indian villages. Attacks, particularly by low caste Hindus just a rung above on the poverty ladder, are expected to increase as untouchables gain education and try to assert their statutory rights.

An official Ministry of Information and Broadcasting publication explains, ''When the scheduled castes (untouchables) seek the payment of statutory minimum wages for agricultural labor or when they try to resist the practice of bonded labor or forced labor or untouchability, vested interests try to cow them down and terrorize them.''

Indira Gandhi said in Parliament last year, ''I have no hesitation in saying that communalism and casteism are worse than almost any other threat we have.''

What holds it all together, this disparate nation of contrasts and contradictions, of vast potential and of promises still to be redeemed by its impoverished masses? Mrs. Gandhi, India's leader for a total of 14 years, sums it up as ''Indianness.''

''Our whole tradition has been one of unity,'' said Mrs. Gandhi in an interview. ''At a time when it wasn't one country, when there were hundreds of small kingdoms, even then the concept of this whole thing being one unit, the concept of India, was always there. There's a very strong feeling of what we call Indianness.''

She added, ''India's genius is to absorb and change. And I think because it keeps on changing, adapting, that is what has kept it going through all the vicissitudes of history.''

Other articles in series ran Sept. 7, 8, and 9

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