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MARCH 27, 2000 VOL. 155 NO. 12

The Faces of India's Future
As Bill Clinton will see firsthand this week, the world's next great power is a nation of promise and tumult
By ROMESH RATNESAR New Delhi

The story line for Bill Clinton's visit to India this week, the first by an American President in 22 years, is a travelogue in the "new," high-tech India. But India's realities are far messier. The nation's ongoing cold--and at moments hot--war with Pakistan became more dangerous still when both nations tested nuclear weapons in 1998. And nowhere are the contradictions of globalization more manifest. India's economy is growing at 6%, and software exports are increasing 50% a year; last month an Indian technology magnate--Wipro's Azim Premji--became one of the world's five richest men. And yet more than 300 million Indians live in poverty.
At its current growth rate, India will surpass China as the most populous country by 2015. Because India is a democracy, its destiny--whether it becomes a confident, peaceful global power or remains shackled by nationalist insecurity--depends less on the policies of its government than on the vision of its people. The following are four confident citizens shaping the face of India today and providing a glimpse into its tomorrow.

Nandita Das
Dreamy young movie stars usually don't worry about much--other than perhaps how to conceal their age. But Nandita Das doesn't like life to be quite so ordinary. Cross-legged and barefoot in her modest New Delhi apartment, she's steaming about the opposition of Hindu fanatics to a movie she's set to appear in, fretting about the state of artistic freedom in India and getting set to join relief efforts for victims of last October's deadly cyclone. She's also in mid-production on three movies. "I don't think I want to do acting all the time. I don't think it's so important to specialize and be like the No. 1 in something," she says. "Maybe I'll regret that when I'm 50, I didn't make anything of my life." She doesn't say when she'll turn 50.

Her hair cropped for a current role, the petite, doe-eyed Das could pass for a teenager. It is easy to forget she's a bona fide, head-turning celebrity, in part because there aren't too many actresses like her in Hollywood, or even in its Bombay counterpart, Bollywood. She has a master's degree in social work, for one thing, and she regularly takes on politically charged pictures like her latest, Water, which is about the lives of widows in pre-independence India.
The film has placed Das amid a national tempest. In late January, one day before shooting was to begin in the holy city of Varanasi, a group of Hindus stormed the set and burned part of it down. City officials ordered a production halt. Shooting won't resume until fall. Frustrated by the disruption to her work, Das is even more worried about how the uproar has distorted the image of her country. "What is interesting and fascinating about this country is that everything coexists," she says. "You have the extreme fanatics, but there are also very progressive and very open people. What is sad is that the extremists are really much smaller in number. They're just more organized."

So Das hopes the controversy will spur a broader debate about intolerance in Indian democracy. "India is going through a very strange phase," she says. Das is cautiously enthusiastic that the growing influence of Western culture will loosen things, but she also says, "If I ever had to live anywhere, in spite of everything, I would live here." And she volunteers that "I'm not all for privatization. We set up a mixed economy in the constitution, and I'm sure a lot of thought went into that." It is the first time in a while that any movie star has used the term "mixed economy."

As Indian cinema grows in worldwide appeal--last year movie exports topped $100 million--actresses such as Das will become global brands. "A lot of people have told me I should get an agent in the U.S., that this is the right time," she says. But she has little interest in stardom. "If it happens, great, but if it doesn't happen, I'm not depending my life on it." She wears her celebrity sufficiently loosely that as the interview ends, she even lets her real age slip out. (Sorry­it was off the record.)

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Subhash Chandra
Subhash Chandra's office is located on the rooftop floor of the 35-story Oberoi Towers building in Bombay. The headquarters of his company, Zee Telefilms, are 45 min. away, but Chandra prefers to work here. It's easy to see why: the city's coastal skyline gleams below, and the murky waters of the Arabian Sea appear almost crystalline. "The view's superb, isn't it?" Chandra says, rubbing it in.

There is a campy, master-of-the-universe aspect about it too. But Chandra has reason to gaze from commanding heights. Seven-year-old Zee Telefilms is India's media powerhouse, delivering programs through seven Indian cable-TV channels and reaching 180 million viewers in Asia--and 15 million homes in Europe, Africa and the U.S. The company has expanded into Internet content, and its market capitalization of $10 billion makes it one of India's most valuable firms. While much of India's entrepreneurial talent, energy and money have poured into the booming software industry, Chandra, 49, says he's after "convergence."

The latest piece of his strategy is the launching of a $755 million satellite venture called Agrani (Sanskrit for "staying ahead"), which aims to provide satellite telephone service to the more than 50% of Indians who still do not have reliable phone access. "What satellites do best is provide connectivity to remote areas," he says. The satellites will also allow Zee to beam its programs around the world. Once he gets "sat phones" into the hands of ordinary Indians--he thinks it will happen within two or three years--Chandra will start pumping Internet content and e-mail services through them. Other firms have tried this satellite stuff and failed; Chandra dismisses those as "marketing failures. We've shown we know how to market things."

Chandra, who didn't go to college, was one of the country's first self-made media moguls: he earned his initial fortune in plastic tubing in the 1980s, before turning to entertainment. He speaks in a low, measured voice that rumbles with assurance, but he is still hungry for respect. (It rankles, for instance, that American businessman Craig McCaw, one of his principal partners in the satellite venture, has never come to India.) "People used to think that only the large billion-dollar companies from the U.S. could succeed here," he says. "We have proved that wrong." And Chandra thinks there's an audience for Indian programming in the U.S. He won't give out particulars, but he does mention a hookup with Nickelodeon. There are more deals coming. From up there, the view is endless.

Kavita Srivastava

In 1992 Kavita Srivastava, then 30, was a sociologist working in a government-supported program in Rajasthan state devoted to raising awareness among rural women about their legal and social rights. Srivastava, whose previous exposure to rural life had come entirely through train windows, believed she was making real progress toward improving the lives of Indian women--until a brutal act demonstrated how powerful the repressive force of misogyny can be. Bhanwari Devi, a local woman who was working with Srivastava, was gang-raped by upper-caste men after she tried to stop a Brahman child wedding. Though the rape was witnessed by Bhanwari's husband, the police refused to investigate, and Bhanwari was ostracized. Bhanwari eventually managed to file a police report, but the high court acquitted the alleged rapists. One judge said simply that he did not believe upper-caste men could commit a crime so heinous. Srivastava was so shaken that she helped Bhanwari file an appeal in the Supreme Court--it is still pending--and later quit her job. "I realized I couldn't spend my life writing reports that would simply gather dust," she says. After hearing of Bhanwari's ordeal, Srivastava started lobbying the Rajasthan government to toughen police accountability. She spearheaded a successful drive to ban sexual harassment in the workplace and led a push for a citizen's right to information that has become a national cause.

All this has made Srivastava one of the most powerful activists in her state. Her organization, People's Movement Against the Oppression of Women, is working on women's rights in Rajasthan, a province in western India still redolent of premodern customs: sandstone palaces, bejeweled maharajas, turbaned men leading camels across the desert. The condition of women there is often wretched. There are just 910 women for every 1,000 men, a result of female feticide and infanticide as well as sheer neglect and malnutrition--and barely 20% of them are literate. Spousal abuse, child marriage and mistreatment of daughters are all common. "This is a movement to strengthen the democracy," Srivastava says of her protests. "It is a long journey, but it is bright."

Laxmi Narayan
Talk to Laxmi Narayan, and you will find out that the war for India's soul is being waged in places like the Samskrita Bharati, a tiny school housed inside a temple complex somewhere amid the tangle of dark, narrow alleyways in the heart of New Delhi. There Narayan, 27, along with scores of other pupils, spends his days studying the sacred and literary language of ancient India, Sanskrit. Narayan could just as easily learn Sanskrit in a university, but at Samskrita Bharati he is part of something larger: a crusade to restore the purity of Hindu culture and promote greater adherence to it among young Indians. "We have to change the thoughts and attitudes of my generation," he says.

The enterprise sounds laudable enough, but it has become bitterly divisive. Young Hindu fundamentalists have gone on violent frenzies in the past year, assaulting missionaries and heckling couples in Kanpur on Valentine's Day--a Western invention, they asserted, that should not be observed in India. Many of the toughs were enlisted by youth and student groups affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu revivalist organization that is the parent to India's ruling right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party.

Narayan is one such recruit. The son of a farmer, he went off to college carrying his family's hopes that he would become a lawyer. For a while, Narayan tried to play the part--"I would wear ties, go out drinking with my friends and keep looking for fun"--but he soon fell into the company of some rss members. "I began to understand the emptiness of my life," he says. "I decided to struggle for the preservation of our glorious culture, which is under threat."

The survival of Hindu traditions has been imperiled for centuries, first by Muslim invaders and then by British imperialism. But both were minor nuisances next to the colossus of Western--which is mainly to say American--culture. "My friends are enthralled by the West," Narayan complains. He believes Sanskrit is the way to lure them back. He frequently holds 10-day workshops throughout India, teaching people spoken Sanskrit. When he visits his boyhood village, his father watches him instruct local youngsters. "I think he feels bad because I am not making much money," says Narayan. "But he is proud because I am serving the nation."

With reporting by Meenakshi Ganguly/Jaipur and Maseeh Rahman/ New Delhi


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