An American Gets Political at Indian University

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American Tyler Walker Williams is a political leader at India's Jawaharlal Nehru University. How did a 29-year-old born in rural California find himself leading a politically minded student body in New Delhi?

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, Pete Dexter's day job before he started writing novels. But first, we turn to the unusual career of a young American, Tyler Walker Williams, who comes from a rural community in Northern California, but he became a college student in India and then became a student leader in the country's most politically active and radical university.

NPR's Philip Reeves paid him a visit.

Mr. TYLER WALKER WILLIAMS (Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union): (Unintelligible) that's why we've given all this to the CPWD.

PHILIP REEVES: Like a (unintelligible) politician, Tyler Walker Williams wades through the business of the day.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Okay. And I can put that in. But, sir, you know, then we said that the administration...

REEVES: He holds a top student post at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, or JNU. JNU is one of India's most prestigious institutions; the source of many of its top politicians. It's a busy campus. Williams is never short of work.

Mr. WILLIAMS: On any given day, I'm doing everything from helping people with their registration to helping them with hostel problems to dealing with - to writing posters or giving speeches on the war in Iraq, or the World Trade Organization.

(Soundbite of chanting)

REEVES: Barely a day passes without a student protest.

(Soundbite of chanting)

REEVES: These students are demanding the university pay the minimum wage to its workers. Williams says JNU is considered a hotbed of radical student politics.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Oh, my goodness. People live and breathe it here, truly. The student politicians here, student activists literally sleep about five, six hours every night and spend the rest of every day just doing politics and nothing else.

REEVES: Anti-Americanism is widespread, particularly because of the Iraq War. Yet late last year Williams was elected vice president of JNU Student Union. He's from an organization affiliated with the Communist Party. He campaigned on a program highly critical of President Bush's foreign policy.

Mr. WILLIAMS: The common kitchen idea of...

REEVES: Williams says the difference between the political life of Indian and U.S. universities is striking. Indian students are far more politically engaged.

Mr. WILLIAMS: When I went back to the U.S. this December and saw that in some of the most prominent universities like Harvard and Columbia, there were no posters, there were no notices, no seminars going on, even about the current war that the U.S. is involved in. Whereas here there are discussions and seminars and meetings going on every single day. And so here people are not only involved in Indian politics but also are concerned about global politics. So that's something U.S. students can learn from.

REEVES: That much is clear from the walls of the university buildings. Angry slogans denouncing imperialism and capitalism yell out from large, brightly colored murals, all painted by hand. Williams read out one that's typical.

Mr. WILLIAMS: To destroy the bourgeoisie, suppressed tyranny, we must have hearts strengthened. And - by John Reed. And you know, it says smash capitalism, which is very much still a very alive ideological stream here.

REEVES: India's politics, he says, are generally more complex than America's.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Coalition politics takes years to understand. And also, of all the issues, you have the complications of caste, region, language.

REEVES: Yet in the six years he's lived in India, Williams, who's 29, appears to have a pretty good command of his subject, and not only politics.

Mr. WILLIAMS: (Speaking foreign language)

REEVES: He's good enough at the Hindi language, which he's studying, to teach it.

Some JNU students have asked why an American should take charge of their affairs. One even accused him of being a CIA agent. But Williams says these issues are only ever raised by his political opponents.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Otherwise, people are extremely receptive. In fact, I would say out of the few countries I've visited, Indians are by far the most receptive to hearing, quote-unquote "outsiders'" statements or comments.

REEVES: Williams does seem to be getting generally good reviews. This is a student who'd only give his name as Elanka.

ELANKA (Student): He has been thoroughly involved with the political atmosphere of JNU. He has one of the finest oratorical skills amongst the students of JNU. And I would certainly say he's representing us in the best possible manner, and we are very proud of him.

REEVES: There are some mutterings.

Unidentified Woman: There are so many capable Indians also. Why an American?

REEVES: Literally mutterings in the case of this student, Dehri Namahi.

Ms. DEHRI NAMAHI(ph) (Student): We have so much better Indians. Why American?

REEVES: You'd expect that question also to be asked back at Williams's home in California. He says most people there find his life in India hard to imagine.

Mr. WILLIAMS: They just kind of smile and nod.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILLIAMS: Because, you know, it's difficult over there to really grasp what's going on here, what it's all about. When you say you're involved in student politics or studying Hindi literature, they say, oh, nice. Or when you say I study an Indian language, they say, oh, Navajo.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News.

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