So Long Sarees, Hello Blue Jeans

New Delhi, India -- Globalization has fueled a cultural revolution in India -- an American cultural revolution. The changes, spurred by the last 10 years of U.S.-centric economic policies, have forced a transformation almost as monumental as the 200-odd years of British colonial rule.

Until the 1990s, India's semi-socialist regime had waged a fairly successful battle against American consumerism, but financial crisis finally forced the government to open up the country. Today, America's influence is corroding India's rich culture and unique traditions.

Young people, mesmerized by popular television programs like "Baywatch" or "The Bold and the Beautiful," have taken to emulating program characters. Indian teens are also increasingly obsessed with going to the gym or jogging in name brand sneakers -- Reeboks or Nikes -- like their American peers. Western-style fashion shows are now common, and sexual promiscuity is on the rise.

Teens today know the inside scoop on Madonna's private life, but often have not heard of Khudi Ram Bose, one of India's freedom fighters against British rule. This stands in stark contrast to the 1960s, '70s and '80s, when students were at the forefront of social and political struggles in India. Today, most youth dream of getting to the United States -- on a scholarship, through a job, or by marrying a green-card holder.

"The Indian elites have never been more adrift from their cultural roots than at present," says Pawan K. Verma, author of The Great Indian Middle Class, about the social attitudes of Indians in the post-globalization era.

Traditional dress for Indian women, the saree and the salwar kameez, have been cast aside in the bigger cities for Wrangler or Lee jeans with skimpy half-shirts baring the mid-riff. And countless Indian girls have taken to dying their hair blonde, as more and more beauty parlors pop up to fill the demand.

America's influence has turned Indian values on sex and marriage upside down. Divorce rates have multiplied. In bigger cities, an increasing number of Indian women are deciding to live and stay alone, forming a new identity for India: 'the single woman.'

The penetration of American values in India has forced a market shift towards greater service orientation, and a corresponding increase in manufacturing activity. Credit fever has infected Indians, encouraged by the greater availability of bank loans and credit cards.

"The process of globalization in the West was spread over a period of more than 200 years. In India, it has come in a compressed form of 10 years," says Sheo Narayan Singh Anived, a senior government official and prominent intellectual. "And [the globalization process] rides piggyback on the American communications systems -- the world's most efficient and powerful communications systems. Therefore, [globalization] is bound to have the sort of impact that it is having in India and the rest of the Third World."

Cellular phones have become indispensable for urban Indians. Internet use has skyrocketed as more and more Indians spend time in cyber chat rooms debating a range of subjects -- from love to politics or pornography. Hindi versions of programs like "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" and "Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire" have also sprung up.

Still, while American culture is revolutionizing India's urban centers, rural India largely remains untouched. Last year, then-U.S. President Clinton visited a village called Nyala, but 37-year-old Shahnawaz Khan, who lives in a village nearby, doesn't remember Clinton's name. He refers to Clinton simply as "Duniya Ka Shahenshah" -- "ruler of the world" in the local Urdu language. Khan, a father of six, is from Garhi Mewat, a village 140 kilometers from New Delhi in the northern state of Haryana. Khan recalls that Clinton talked about empowering Indian women and donated six computers to the village.

"The [ruler] comes here and whiles away his time with silly women and donates these useless machines. If he had to donate, he could have given us cows, buffaloes and tractors. Or he could have taken us to America to work as laborers," Khan says.

For Khan and his generation in Garhi Mewat, known as the Village of Thieves, life was fine up until the 1990s -- when globalization began to fully penetrate India. The villagers had been traditional thieves. But now, with globalization and the bombardment of American ideas, thievery as a profession is out of fashion. Today, the younger generation migrates to nearby towns in search of work as brick kiln or construction workers. One enterprising fellow even set up a cyber café in a nearby town.

Life is tough now for Khan. Thievery is out. And villagers do not have the resources or training to be farmers. Many of the village wives and daughters turned to prostitution to make ends meet. Now, the Village of Thieves has come to be known as the Village of Prostitutes, and Khan blames Bill Clinton -- or George W. Bush -- and the past 10 years of the free economy.

"The Indian economy has been, or is being, liberalized while the [rural] society has continued to remain feudal and closed," says Singh Anived, the government official. "Only small bits of modernity have been released into the Indian society from time to time."

For most urban middle-class Indians, essentially upper caste Hindus, there is nothing wrong with India's changing economic priorities, nothing misplaced about the investments in golf courses, ultra-modern mansions or five star hotels, no harm done if the world's biggest fast food chains -- from Pizza Hut to Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonalds -- have set up shop. In Bangalore, the capital city in the state of Karnataka, a group of America-returned Indians set up an institute to familiarize Indian businessmen with the mannerisms, culture and work ethic of Americans.

In the predominantly Hindi-speaking northern state of Rajasthan, the stage for an anti-English movement about a decade ago, tens of thousands of Indians are scurrying to English language institutes. Even villagers from adjoining areas of the capital, Jaipur, have enrolled in English language school. On last count, 40 such centers had opened in Jaipur, including institutes with high-sounding names such as the Gothe et Rolland Forum de Lingua and Havard Finishing School (a humorous misspelling of the renowned New England ivy league university).

While globalization may have brought prosperity to some, studies show that for 80 percent of the population economic circumstances have remained virtually unchanged. More than 50 percent of the population in Indian cities live in degrading squalor, and about the same number are unable to afford two meals a day. Illiteracy is near 40 percent. Tens of thousands in India continue to die of malaria, tuberculosis, or even diarrhea. And every third person in the world without adequate drinking water is Indian, according to the Center for Science and Environment, an Indian nongovernmental organization.

Other than a few notable incidents like the 1998 stoning of a Kentucky Fried Chicken shop, there has not been a significant public reaction against American cultural intrusion. In the Western state of Maharashtra, activists wage a continuing campaign against an Enron power project. And the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, a group affiliated with one of the main political parties, recently launched countrywide protests against the government's "sell out" to multinationals. The group recently began a campaign to support domestic consumer goods.

Sudheesh Pachouri, a New Delhi-based media critic and sociologist, says U.S. influence has not been all bad. "Americanism essentially incorporates universal values of human rights," he says. "What this has come to mean in India is that a new space has been created for the oppressed sections and these sections have found a voice. Or, how would one explain the sudden demand that has emerged in India for the inclusion of the Dalit question at the United Nations Conference on Race?"

The condition of the Dalit, or lower-class Hindus who make up 80 percent of India's population, is a sensitive and volatile socio-political issue. The debate over Dalit rights was re-ignited following the demand by some Indian groups that the issue be included in the agenda of the United Nations Conference on Racism, held earlier this year in South Africa.

In some ways, globalization has drawn members of India's left and right together against what they see as the imperialistic designs of the United States. They say India is a battleground for the United States, eager to maintain a substantial presence in the region in order to contain China's perceived expansionist designs. They also say American business interests have dealt a deathly blow to India's self-reliant economy and are making Indians economically dependent on the United States.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

alternet logo

Tough Times

Demand honest news. Help support AlterNet and our mission to keep you informed during this crisis.