“Why do so many people pee in public?”
“Madam, they have freedom. They can’t wait.”
This was a conversation we had with an Indian tour guide during our two-week trip in Northern India. We are journalism students from Shantou University, in southern China's Guangdong province. Last month, we had the opportunity to travel to and report on India, our largest Asian neighbour and competitor, yet a country few of us knew much about except from Bollywood films and Life of Pi.
It was an eye-opening experience. Looking back on the trip, three major impressions pop up in our minds - a half-finished democracy, a harmonious co-existence between past and present, and Indians who are good at thinking.
India is the largest democracy in the world. It achieved universal suffrage at the same time as independence in August 1947. A local campaign event happened when we were in Jaipur. Political ads with candidates' photos were everywhere, on leaflets scattered on the roads, plastered over walls, cars and on bridges. Even elephants joined the campaign, with huge photos hanging from their backs. Young people standing on top of cars enthusiastically cheered for a handsome candidate. It was exciting to see a large democracy at work.
However, the clamour and excitement aside, India’s democracy still seemed messy and unfinished. It seems that the highly diverse population, divided by so many languages, religions and sub-cultures, makes it difficult for the Indian government to develop unified social rules.
To maintain the pro-forma democracy, the Indian government has to guarantee various kinds of freedoms, which leads to an inefficient and somewhat disordered democracy. People have the freedom to choose their leaders, yet we saw some people being offered refrigerators and TV sets in order to get their votes. The Indian press enjoys the freedom of speech, but they cannot report any scandals involving the Nehru–Gandhi family, a political dynasty that has ruled India more than 40 years since independence. Many Indians we interviewed said corruption was a big problem. One retired businessman said people could not do business without committing bribery.
In democratic India, people from the lower castes still cannot enjoy equal opportunities like people from higher castes. Gender inequality was also very severe and visible. Most interesting, almost every Indian we met was extremely proud that India was a democratic country. They believed democracy would serve India in the long-term and eventually India’s national power would overtake China's. Not only does democracy seem to be the best excuse for the fact India is still far from being an effecient or just society, it is also Indians’ hope for a better future.
Although India’s democracy is far from satisfactory, widespread political suffrage is truly a remarkable achievement from a Chinese point of view, given that many Chinese have never voted or stood as deputies to the National People’s Congress. Like China, India has a long history of feudal autocracy and hierarchy. Nurturing the spirit of democracy and removing the deep-rooted autocratic culture from such a large population is never an easy job. Adapting to democracy in countries like ours is even more difficult. There is no question that both countries have a long, long way to go.
While Indians strive to reduce the side effects of democracy such as inefficient governance. China badly needs to maintain its efficiency and order while laying down roots for a democratic framework. In addition, to achieving more democracy, the two countries should focus on eliminating illiteracy, promoting universal education and, on top of that, cultivating people’s ability to participate in politics.
We are not sure whether India will outpace China because of its democracy, but we did observe two positive things there.
When travelling in India, one is amazed at how people and animals harmoniously co-exist. Buffalos, monkeys, camels, elephants and other animals have their places on the road. And there are so many pigeons in squares, at crossings, on wires. Although their droppings are said to cause respiratory diseases in humans, people still voluntarily feed them. Some may regard these as symbols of a primitive society, but we prefer to believe it is a special gift for India, where people enjoy getting along well with the natural world.
When we asked for an interview in India, we seldom got turned down, even when we touched on sensitive topics like corruption, the caste system and the wealth gap. People did not feel nervous or uncomfortable discussing these topics. Under most circumstances, our interviewees were willing to give us their full names and contact information, whereas in China, it is very hard to get someone in the street to talk about controversial issues on camera, let alone giving their names. Many Chinese are still not comfortable expressing opinions in public.
In fact, we believe this has led to an unexpected aftermath: Chinese people’s thinking ability is declining. In comparison, we were surprised to hear ordinary Indians explaining some social issues in articulate and scientific language, for example: “About 30 per cent of Indians live below the poverty line, and 60 per cent have basic literacy skills.” “There are eight companies providing online service nationwide.” It seemed they had done some preparation before expressing their opinions.
On the other hand, we could feel the creeping influence of the caste system on Indians’ thinking and behaviour. Different groups of Indians know full well their status, consciously obeying the lifestyle ordered by the caste system. Indians carry this kind of label while making life-changing choices from education to marriage. Some seem to take the caste system for granted as a part of reasonable explanation for some social problems.
After the trip, we finally understood why Indians chose "Incredible India" as their tourism promotion slogan. It sums up the whole picture of India: marvellous scenery, unique cultural traditions, a seemingly disorderly and messy society, ruled by a feeble government. We admire Indians' confidence and enthusiasm in describing their country. How would we Chinese describe our nation to the world, when given the opportunity?