Editor's note: This is the second of six weekly installments of "Dispatches from India" about Southern Oregon University Honors College students' trip to India this month to learn more about democracy in action. Read the first dispatch here.
BENGALURU (BANGALORE), INDIA — Growing up in the United States in the first decade of the 21st century, one often heard the dictum, “America has the greatest degree of freedom and the best political system in the world.” While traveling in India and speaking to a wide range of Indians, including members of Parliament, Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials, journalists, and academics, we have concluded that the reality is more complex.
When we asked them what India could learn from the United States, several Indian government officials emphasized the importance of controlling corruption. In India, government programs struggle with corruption in almost all levels of government. Although Indian laws are clearly articulated, with a population of approximately 1.2 billion, it is difficult to uniformly enforce these laws. Combining these logistical challenges with much more opaque political processes leads to a considerable number of opportunities for corruption in the government.
The United States, although it has a much smaller population, also has much clearer political processes and systems in place to deal with government corruption. India could learn from the United States’ strict system of checks and balances and our ensuring the honesty of our elected and appointed public officials.
When asked what India could teach the United States, a common theme was that of assimilation versus inclusive pluralism. The US seeks to make a “cultural melting pot,” while India allows more of a “tossed salad” approach, which allows greater diversity of accepted identities.
One individual pointed out that when a group immigrates to the U.S., they have one generation to learn English and the customs of the country. Even then, it is questionable if one has that long, with comments such as “This is America, learn English,” and “Go back to your home country,” being fairly common. With comments such as these, one can see the pressure to assimilate in the U.S.
In India, there are many different cultures that one can readily see. There are 18 official languages and they all appear on India’s currency, which helps unite the country. Our tour director is a Hindu, our bus driver is a Sikh, and the bus driver’s assistant is a Muslim. Each is from a different region of India. However, there is never any issue at all regarding their acceptance and mutual respect of one another.
On one stretch of road one may find a mosque, a Baptist church, and Hindu temples, all side by side. There is much that can be learned from India’s acceptance and celebration of different cultures within their country. A society such as this allows different viewpoints to thrive, and tends to avoid “tyranny of the majority.” A member of the Indian Parliament told us, “to be an Indian means by definition to be a minority in one way or another.”
Another thing that we can learn is how to encourage higher voter turnout. India has 815 million voters, which amounts to about three times the population of the U.S. In the last Indian national election, there was a 66 percent voter turnout. Last year the United States had a voter turnout of 36.4 percent, according to the Washington Post.
The Delhi Electoral Commissioner told us that some voters will travel many days just to vote. To accommodate this, they hold their elections over a month-long period, starting on April 7 and concluding on May 16. Every adult, including prisoners, is encouraged to vote.
India is also one of the only countries to implement universal adult suffrage at the time of their independence, with no restrictions based on gender, race, or any factor other than age. This commitment to democracy is evident in the high voter turnout rates in India, and is an ideal from which the U.S. would greatly benefit.
As we learned, like the U.S., India is a very complicated country. While no single nation has everything right, each nation must find its own way. However, if we can learn from each other, facing common challenges, we can each help inform the other on the most effective path forward toward more effective democratic systems.
Heather Buchanan and Giovani Velasco are students at Southern Oregon University. Next week, other students will write about “Human Rights and the Quality of Life Index."