Can smartphones speed secularism in India?
Published: Jun 14, 2017 08:33 PM
"Hello sir, can we take a photo together?" During my travels in India, I often encountered young Indians who wanted to take a picture with me, an older Chinese man. They held brand-new smartphones, with smiles on their faces.

The brands the Indians mostly use are VIVO, OPPO and Lenovo, all of which are Chinese brands. It has not been long since these brands marched into the Indian market, so the smartphones they were carrying were probably their first.

In India, people from stall keepers to security staff at office buildings all use smartphones. Once I went to a local branch of a telecommunications service provider to change my SIM card. I found more than 40 people were squeezed in a room that was only 30 square meters. I waited for an hour and a half to get called.

A recent Statista report said that India will exceed the US in two years to become the world's second largest market for smartphones. Figures from CyberMedia Research show that VIVO, Xiaomi, OPPO and Lenovo rank among the top five smartphone providers in India. The market share of the four Chinese companies accounts for 40.3 percent in total, surpassing Samsung.

Like many remote areas in China, quite a number of families in India have started to use mobile phones, skipping landline telephones. The young Indians I encountered are part of the 4G era, because the first mobile phones they have are smartphones.

A few days ago when I talked with some French friends about the role of the China-proposed Belt and Road initiative, I shared my experience in India with them. I told them that as more and more Indians start to have smartphones, their perceptions of globalization and China's Belt and Road initiative will gradually change.

But I wonder if more usage of smartphones in India will advance the secularization process of Indian society.

When I was in India, the Chinese smartphone manufacturer OPPO was facing major backlash as a Chinese employee allegedly "tore the national flag and dumped it in a dustbin."

The protests from Indian employees are understandable and the situation was eased soon thanks to the appropriate handling of the Chinese side. Nonetheless, the religious factor involved is worth pondering.

According to Hindustan Times, the members of the Vishva Hindu Parishad, an Indian right-wing Hindu nationalist organization, participated in the demonstrations.

The resurgence of nationalism in developing countries is a normal phenomenon and China is no exception.

The rising nationalistic sentiment in India is associated with the Hindu religion. This even serves as a solid foundation for the rule of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Will religious nationalism guarantee India's ambitious goal of realizing modernization? Will India become a country dominated by the single religion of the Hindu or a secular nation, as pursued by the "father of the nation" Mahatma Gandhi and former leader Jawaharlal Nehru?

Professor Rajeev Bhargava said during his recent China trip that the confrontation between secularism and religion is a product from Europe in the 16th and 17th century, but now we are part of the confrontation.

Smartphones can be exploited by religion, but they also can offer young Indians viewpoints outside their religious perspective, just as smartphones are changing the perception of the Chinese young people.

No one can predict how long the rivalry between secularism and religion in India will last. But it is certain that such rivalry is the key factor to what kind of reforms and opening-up India will adopt.

The author is a senior editor with People's Daily, and currently a senior fellow with the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China. dinggang@globaltimes.com.cn. Follow him on Twitter @dinggangchina