The year 2002 will go down in history as a worried year, one in which the majority of Americans were trying to recover from twin shocks: one, the 9/11 events which shook American self worth more than anything else in recent history, even Vietnam; two, the recession that has extended to almost all sectors of the economy. All in all, a rather depressing year.
Among the headline-grabbing items in the U.S. of greatest relevance to Indian Americans in 2002 were the following:
• The possibility of another war with Iraq. There is fear that war may exacerbate tensions with Europe and the Muslim world, leading to further shocks to the already fragile consumer confidence in the U.S.
• The misdeeds of large corporations such as Enron and Worldcom. Hitherto seen as among the world’s most transparent and stockholder friendly firms, the sudden emergence of hanky panky among former stock market darlings such as Enron has been shocking to investors.
• The continuing downturn in the economy and the stock market. As the economy continues to slide, with more interest rate cuts in the offing, competition is beginning to heat up. For instance, the number of H-1B visas granted has dropped drastically, while the number of companies outsourcing software and IT-enabled services to India is going up.
• The murder of Daniel Pearl in Pakistan. In further evidence that Pakistan has now become the source of Islamist terrorism, journalist Daniel Pearl of the Wall Street Journal was kidnapped and murdered.
• The saga of the Virginia sniper. The assault on the safety and security of common folks in the U.S. continued with these seemingly random acts of terror.
• The Republicans’ feat of retaining the Senate in mid-term elections. The Republicans managed to keep the Senate. Traditionally largely Democratic, Indian-Americans are taking a long, hard look at whether they need to hedge their bets by raising their profile in the Republican Party as well.
• The defeat of a virulently anti-India Congresswoman. Cynthia McKinney of Georgia lost her seat in the U.S. Congress after a campaign in which her opponent was heavily supported by Indian-Americans. The point will not be lost on other India-bashers like Dan Burton of Indiana.
• The increase in incidents of racial profiling following tough new legislation. As the effects of Homeland Security related measures go into effect, Indian-Americans may find themselves at the receiving end of rude security searches.
There were a number of important events in India that will also affect Indian-Americans or their loved ones back in India.
• The election of Abdul Kalam as President of India. After fractious and divisive jockeying among all the political parties of the country, it was a positive sign that the apolitical APJ Abdul Kalam was elected President. That this aerospace engineer of humble origins—his family are fisherfolk in Rameswaram, Tamil Nadu—was elevated to the highest constitutional post in the country was a refreshing indicator that indeed it is possible for any child to aspire to the top jobs in the nation.
• The “free and fair” elections in Jammu and Kashmir. Despite many gloomy predictions, a boycott by the separatist Hurriyat alliance, and many acts of violence by Pakistani-aided terrorists, almost half of the eligible electorate in Jammu and Kashmir chose to exercise their franchise in a poll that was widely seen as a referendum on how interested Kashmiris were in staying within the Indian Union. The ruling National Conference were reduced to being the biggest single party, and an alliance of the Congress and a local party, the PDP, came to power.
• Supreme Court decisions on education. In two landmark decisions, comparable to the Brown v. Board of Education civil rights decision in the U.S., India’s apex court set the stage for dramatic changes in education. In the first, the court upheld the constitutionality of a newly revised curriculum, with greater emphasis on Indic concepts. In the second, the court held that all communities had an equal right to run their own educational institutions, and that if they were aided by the State they would all be subject to the same criteria. In the past, the majority community had been prohibited from running its own schools.
• The carnage in Godhra and Gujarat. After 59 Hindu pilgrims returning from Ayodhya were burned to death by a Muslim mob near Godhra, revenge killings erupted into massive communal riots. The government estimates roughly 850 people were killed, including some 600 Muslims and 200 Hindus and security men.
• The Tamil Nadu Ordinance and Bill on religious conversions. Alarmed by widespread religious conversion of poor Hindus, especially by militant Protestant Christian sects which often use money or other inducements, the Tamil Nadu government issued an ordinance, which was later passed as a bill by the legislature, banning all occurrences of forced conversion as unconstitutional.
• The PIO factor. The Union government has declared Jan. 9 as “Person of Indian Origin” day, and will have a grand gala celebration on that day in 2003. The PIO card, which confers rights including visa-less entry and ownership of real estate, now costs $310 as opposed to $1000 when it was first introduced. The government is still silent on dual citizenship, citing security risks.
• Troop deployment by India on the Pakistan border. As a result of the attacks on Parliament and on Kaluchak, an army camp where mostly dependents of servicemen were killed, the Indian government ordered a full-fledged troop deployment all along the entire Indo-Pak border. The objective was coercive diplomacy, indicating to Pakistan and the international community that India was fully prepared to go to war if necessary to defend its interests. In many ways, it worked, so that the all-important J&K elections could be held.
• The attacks on Hindu pilgrims at Amarnath and at Akshardham. As part of Pakistan’s continuing “war of a thousand cuts” inflicting pain on India, terrorists attacked and killed Hindu pilgrims making the annual pilgrimage to the Amarnath shrine in Kashmir. Later, two terrorists entered the Akshardham temple in Gujarat, killing Hindu worshippers. The intent in both cases was to incite fury among Hindus, leading to retaliatory attacks on Muslims. However, Hindus refused to rise to the bait.
• Revelation of Pakistan-North Korea links in missile and nuclear proliferation. American sources announced that Pakistan had been instrumental in North Korea’s development of its clandestine nuclear bomb. The quid pro quo, apparently, was the transfer of Korean missile technology (possibly originating in China) to Pakistan. The proliferation activities of Pakistan and its mentor China should come as no surprise to anyone.
• Gen. Musharraf’s speeches promising to eliminate cross-border terrorism. Under substantial pressure from the Americans, and confronted with the Indian Army’s mobilization along his borders, Pakistan’s dictator made speeches in January and June promising to cut down on cross-border terrorism inflicted on India by his protégés. Unfortunately, he was lying, but Pakistan admitting its guilt was a step forward.
• The discovery of huge natural gas reserves in the Godavari basin. Reliance Industries announced that they had found a large gas field off the Andhra Pradesh coast. At a time of increasing oil prices, this news boosted the outlook for India’s energy companies. Gas is also a relatively clean-burning fuel.
• Disinvestment in public sector companies. Despite many obstacles along the way, the privatization program made some progress under Arun Shourie’s leadership. For instance, loss-making hotels under the India Tourism Development Corporation umbrella were sold off to the private sector.
• The Golden Quadrilateral highway project. In a giant public works project reminiscent of the 1950s U.S. efforts, the government has embarked on three large highway building efforts: 1. The Golden Quadrilateral connecting Bombay, Delhi, Kolkata and Chennai 2. The North-South corridor connecting Jammu & Kashmir to Kanyakumari 3. The East West corridor connecting Gujarat to Assam. The GQ project is moving ahead steadily, by rapidly converting existing highways into six to eight lane expressways. Amazingly, the date of completion has been pulled in by one year, to late 2003.
• A breakthrough in computer science: the invention of a prime number algorithm. Manindra Agrawal and graduate students Neeraj Kayal and Nitin Saxena of the IIT, Kanpur have come up with a remarkable advance in theoretical computer science, which may eventually mean that current security mechanisms on the Internet are no longer unbreakable.
• The SIMPUTER was unveiled. A simple and inexpensive computer designed for rural users, received mostly positive reviews. Even though it is a little late into production, the highly innovative device has been recognized as one with the potential to reduce the dreaded digital divide.
• The performance of Indian athletes in the Commonwealth and Asian Games. Indian athletes, lifters, hockey players, and others did well in both the Commonwealth Games and also in the Asian Games. While India’s total medal tally was only moderate, the arrival of new stars on the horizon bodes well for the future of Indian sports.
• The rise of Indians in chess: Koneru Humpy becomes the world’s youngest woman Grand Master. Indians continue to do very well in chess, with a slew of youngsters emulating Grandmaster Viswanathan Anand. India is fast becoming one of the recognized powers in both the men’s and women’s versions of the game.
As we look forward to 2003, most Indians are hoping for less terrorist violence at home, stability in oil prices, and an improvement in the global business environment. An increasingly globalized Indian economy, which has set its sights on intellectual property development, and a role as the back office to the world, is looking for a recovery in the advanced economies.
Rajeev Srinivasan considers San Francisco and Kerala his two homes. His columns also appear in Rediff on the Net and The Sunday Observer.