Six months ago I had no idea how to hail a rickshaw, when to eat curry with my hands, or that a 2-rupee coin is engraved with a peace sign
. I didn't know that every Indian state speaks its own language, and I certainly didn't know anything about Indian politics, education, or culture.
I went to India for a four-month study abroad program in Hyderabad (a city of 6 million in the heart of South India) to study sociology and culture, both in and out of the classroom. As a journalism major, I also wanted to improve my writing and reporting skills, but I had no idea that I would have a chance to cover the complex Telangana
controversy threatening to split Hyderabad's state of Andhra Pradesh in two (separatists claim that Telangana has been exploited in terms of natural resources, funding and representation in government since Andhra and Telangana merged to form Andhra Pradesh in 1956).
My first interview in India was with local political activists
-- part of a group that became violent in December and January. I spoke with 25 men fighting for an independent Telangana state. They ushered me into their tent and patiently told me about the history of Telangana, the problems it's facing, and their protest strategy, but I was still lost. I had done my research beforehand, but I couldn't wrap my mind around the caste oppression, the process of becoming a new state, and the politics behind it all. To understand Telangana, it seemed I needed to understand the entire culture and history of India-British rule, independence, caste, class, economics, family life, and politics. More than a few times, I sat on my bed, pulling my hair out, trying to find the truth and understand a different way of life.
India is the world's largest democracy, and it's only 60 years old. There are numerous political parties, three major religions, two national languages and over a billion people. Each state has a different language and government system. Poverty is rampant. Drug use and unemployment are major issues. Sexism, racism, caste-ism, and religious discrimination have caused deep rifts in society and inhibited national unity. There are official "backwards" tribes and "scheduled" castes -- people who are so poor, in areas that are so underdeveloped, that they need government funds and affirmative action for jobs and education. India is growing, but it's struggling to reconcile thousands of years of tradition with the global pressure to modernize.
Telangana's plight is decades old, so everyone but the protesters thinks it will drag on for years before any change happens, despite the dramatic agitation that flared up six months ago. The last chief minister of Andhra Pradesh kept the protest movement under control, but he died last September. The transition to a new minister opened the door for unrest to spark again
. People said that politicians paid students to keep demonstrating, and every time a student committed suicide
, their family could receive money from political groups supporting the movement (and seeking opportunities for increased power that separation might provide).
Ninety-eight percent of Indian civilians think that politics is affected by corruption, according to a 2005 Transparency International study
. Sixty-two percent have had to pay a bribe or "use a contact" to get a job done in a public office. I quickly learned to be skeptical of the media, government, and other authority figures.
It also became unnervingly clear that the media does not serve as the watchdog of the government as in America. Accuracy and ethics are not held to the same standard in Indian media, at least among the English-language papers. Newspapers print contradictory information, and some reporters are paid to write favorable stories for the highest bidder
. In New Delhi's inner government sanctums, the "cash for questions
" method of reporting is not uncommon. And just two years ago, a reporter lost his TV news job and was arrested after reporting that a teacher named Uma Khurana
had been accused of selling her students into prostitution, when the whole thing was a hoax created in concert with a businessman who claimed Khurana owed him money. Another reporter posed as a schoolgirl and victim of the prostitution ring.
As a foreigner, I never knew which papers to believe or which people or organizations were most or least corrupt. These were things most Indians seemed to know, but never wanted talk about, either out of fear or apathy. I once asked my resident director which paper was the most trustworthy. He pointed to one of three on his desk and said, "This one is usually pretty good."
Many news websites steal content from each other. They report different figures and misspell names and places. Often I found conflicting information in reports by prominent Indian papers. The omnicient "admin
" author writes most stories, instead of a writer with a real byline. And blogs
and personal websites often seem more professional and credible than newspapers.
Organization and government websites can be unreliable anywhere, but India's are even worse than usual -- they occasionally look like the work of a child with finger paint and a computer
. "Contact Us" pages are hard to come by, and more often than not, I heard "the number you have dialed is not valid," when trying to reach a source.
In my time researching the Telangana movement, I only read one investigative report
that challenged the movement's legitimacy. Most news articles simply reported riots, protests, and speeches as they happened, often with obvious embellishments. It saddened me to see politicians and the media orchestrate events and play the movement for maximum attention, though such practices are standard in other parts of the world. But I was impressed by the protesters' resolve to change things. I admit that their concerns are often more extreme, but I saw more unity and determination from the Indian youth in less than five months than I have ever seen from American youth.
People ask me all the time how I liked India. I tell them I loved traveling by rickshaw, and I was slowly learning to eat with my hands, but I never mention my frustration with the "don't-question-The-Man" mentality and the lax attitude toward lies and corruption. I found myself homesick for American media and the freedom to speak one's mind. The most challenging -- and humbling -- lesson I learned during my 180-degree jaunt is how lucky we are in my home country.