Indian the popular representations of India, the country has been torn by strife from the moment of its emergence as a modern nation, and at every moment India appears to be falling apart at the seams. The overwhelming image of India is of a country stricken with poverty, consumed by religious hatred, burdened by an excessive population that shows no signs of diminishing, and divided by distinctions of class, caste, ethnicity, and language. Few people, particularly in the West, thought that India would outlive the assassination of Indira Gandhi, and at the death of Rajiv Gandhi there was talk once again of the disintegration of India. Now it is widely recognized that India, which has been holding elections on the basis of an universal adult franchise regularly since 1951, has assumed something of a democratic stability unusual for the times, more unusual still in a ‘Third World’ country, and that its electorate has a sophistication and maturity that is purportedly to be found only in the older democracies of the West.

India’s achievements have by no means been insignificant, and a great deal of stock-taking is occurring as the fiftieth anniversary of Indian independence approaches. The most frequently cited figure as an index of India’s advancement is the figure of 200 million people who are now said to have catapulted into India’s middle class; consumerism, which has already wrought havoc in the West, is now being placed before Indians as the new doorway to paradise. The Indian state, which proudly trumpets its achievements, has frequently called attention to India’s burgeoning industrial sector, India’s accomplishments in space, the phenomenal rise in food production (said to have resulted in self-sufficiency in food, a claim that scarcely squares with the allegation that well over half of the population is severely malnourished), and the well-known contributions of its scientists, engineers, and technicians.

No recognition of Indian achievements in a country bedeviled by heterogeneity can, however, mask the brutalities of everyday life for the vast majority of Indians. The people have been grossly ill-served by the state in such critical domains as health, nutrition, public safety, assurance of employment, and education. The abuse of women continues virtually unchecked, despite the emergence of women’s movements, and daily newspapers abound in stories of the abduction and molestation of women, their sexual exploitation, and dowry deaths. Caste oppression, particularly in rural areas, remains acute; infringements of caste rules of moral and sexual conduct have been known to lead to the death of those who dare to transgress. Living conditions in cities and particularly towns remain appalling, and the problems of pollution, the disposal of sewage, and the provision of public facilities remain almost insuperable.