PEOPLE, MINORITIES AND REGIONS IN INDIA

PEOPLE OF INDIA

India's ethnic, linguistic, and regional complexity sets it apart from other nations. To gain even a superficial understanding of the relationships governing the huge number of ethnic, linguistic, and regional groups, the country should be visualized not as a nation-state but as the seat of a major world civilization on the scale of Europe. The population is not only immense but also has been highly varied throughout recorded history; its systems of values have always encouraged diversity. The linguistic requirements of numerous former empires, an independent nation, and modern communication are superimposed on a heterogeneous sociocultural base. [Source: Library of Congress, 1995 *]

Almost 8 percent of the population belongs to social groups recognized by the government as Scheduled Tribes, with social structures somewhat different from the mainstream of society. Powerful trends of "regionalism"--both in the sense of an increasing attachment to the states as opposed to the central government, and in the sense of movements for separation from the present states or greater autonomy for regions within them--threaten the current distribution of power and delineation of political divisions of territory. *

There are 1,236,344,631 people in India (estimated 2014), making it the second most populous nation in the world after China. Only about 31 percent of all Indians lives in urban areas (compared to 76 percent in the U.S.) and most of the remaining people live in small agricultural villages, many of them in the Ganges plain.

India is a rich tapestry of language groups, tribes and social groups. By one count there are 4,636 separate communities (most of them language groups, tribal groups or caste groups) that speak 325 languages and belong to four distinct ethnic groups: 1) Indo-Aryans (72 percent), Dravidians (25 percent), primarily in the south, and Mongoloids (3 percent), living primarily along the Tibetan, Chinese and Burmese border; and 4) the Negrito tribes on the Andaman Islands (only a few thousand people).

Broken down by language group, the major groups are Hindis (41 percent), Bengalis (8.1 percent), Telegus (7.2 percent), Marathis (7 percent), Tamils (5.9 percent), Urdus (5 percent), Gujaratis (4.5 percent), Kannadas (3.7 percent), Malayalams (3.2 percent), Oriyas (3.2 percent), Punjabis (2.8 percent), Assamese (1.3 percent), Santalis (0.7 percent), Maithili (1.2 percent), other (5.9 percent). Hindus include Biharia (3.8 percent) and Rajasthanis (3.4 percent).

Religious minorities include the Sikhs in the Punjab and the Parsis mostly in Bombay. The people in the south generally have a reputation of being much friendlier than the people in the north.

Ethnicity and India

India has so many diverse ethnic groups it has been compared to the equivalent of Europe being ruled by one bureaucracy, one prime minister and one parliament. Unlike China, where the Han are the dominant group, India has no dominant ethnic group.

Many groups in India are identified based on language. Different languages often correspond with different customs, dress, food and cultural expression such as dance and music. Some are members of castes that have taken on characteristics like that of an ethnic group

Main people groups: Indo-Aryan 72 percent, Dravidian 25 percent, Mongoloid (Tibeti-Burmans) and other 3 percent. Indo-Aryan are generally fair in complexion and are similar physically to Middle Easterners. Dravidians are darker. Tibeti-Burmans have Chinese-Asian features.

The exact number of ethnic groups depends on source and method of counting, and scholars estimate that only the continent of Africa exceeds the linguistic, cultural, and genetic diversity of India. Indo-Aryan, Dravidian, and Mongoloid groups can be further subdivided into various—and changing—combinations of language, religion, and, very often, caste. The Hindu caste system is technically illegal but widely practiced (generally more in rural areas) and comprises four major categories (varnas) that are found India-wide but are often subdivided into hundreds of sub-categories (jatis), many of which are often found only in specific areas. Similar hereditary and occupational social hierarchies exist within Sikh and Muslim communities but are generally far less pervasive and institutionalized. About 16 percent of the total population is “untouchable” (Scheduled Castes is the more formal, legal term; Dalit is the term preferred by “untouchables” and roughly translates to downtrodden); around 8 percent of the population belongs to one of 461 indigenous groups (often called Scheduled Tribes for legal purposes, although the term adivasi is commonly used). [Source: Library of Congress, 2005]

See Tribals

Physical Characteristics of Indians

East Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis are considered Caucasian like Europeans, not Mongoloids like Chinese, Japanese and Koreans. The categories based on skin color and geography to define people often doesn't make any sense. Indians, for example, have dark skin (like "blacks"), Europeanlike facial features (like "Caucasians") but inhabit the continent of Asia (like "Asians").

Norwegians, Arabians, north Indians and the Fulani of northern Nigeria (and their descendants) are sometimes grouped as the "lactase races." Their bodies possess lactase, an enzyme that helps them digest milk sugar. Everyone else in world doesn't possess this gene. Geneticists believe their ancestors did not drink the milk of cows and goats and therefore they did not need the enzyme.

According to the Guinness Book of Records in the 1990s, the shortest man was Gul Mohammad of Delhi. He was measured at 22½ inches tall in July 1990.

Diverse People of India

Churchill once said, "India is an abstraction. India is no more a political personality than Europe...no more of a united nation than the equator." The economist John Kenneth Galbraith described India as a "functioning anarchy."

India's ethnic, linguistic, and regional complexity sets it apart from other nations. To gain even a superficial understanding of the relationships governing the huge number of ethnic, linguistic, and regional groups, the country should be visualized not as a nation-state but as the seat of a major world civilization on the scale of Europe. The population is not only immense but also has been highly varied throughout recorded history; its systems of values have always encouraged diversity. The linguistic requirements of numerous former empires, an independent nation, and modern communication are superimposed on a heterogeneous sociocultural base. [Source: Library of Congress, 1995 *]

Almost 8 percent of the population belongs to social groups recognized by the government as Scheduled Tribes, with social structures somewhat different from the mainstream of society. Powerful trends of "regionalism"--both in the sense of an increasing attachment to the states as opposed to the central government, and in the sense of movements for separation from the present states or greater autonomy for regions within them--threaten the current distribution of power and delineation of political divisions of territory. *

It is no surprise that story of the elephant and the five blind men—each feeling a different part of the elephant and having a completely different idea what an elephant is like—was originally a Jain story that originated in India. The easiest way to comprehend India as a whole it break it down into manageable pieces.

"Despite some intermarriages among the elites of the cities, Indians still largely remain endogamous, and a Bengali is easily distinguished from a Punjabi," wrote novelist Shasji Tharoor in the New York Times. "So pluralism emerges from the very nature of the country. It is a choice made inevitable by India's geography, reaffirmed by its history and reflected in its ethnography."

You can often tell where somebody is from by the way they are dress (See Clothes, Saris) and by their name (See Names). With that information one can surmise what a person eats, and other information. According to the Kama Sutra even sexual preferences vary from place to place: “The women of the central countries dislike pressing the nails and biting, the women of Aparitka are full of passion, and make slowly the sound, ‘Seeth.’”

Diversity of Languages in India

The constitution of India recognizes 15 official languages (most countries have just one). There are 35 Indian languages spoken by more than a million people. Many of these languages have their own scripts and are as different from one another a English is from Chinese. Countries with the most languages: 1) Papua New Guinea (832); 2) Indonesia (731); 3) Nigeria (515); 4) India (400); 5) Mexico (300); 6) Cameroon (300); 7) Australia (300); 8) Brazil (234).

People speak between 300 and 3,000 languages and up to 22,000 dialects, depending on who is doing the counting, The total number of languages and dialects varies by source and counting method, and many Indians speak more than one language. The Indian census lists 114 languages (22 of which are spoken by one million or more persons) that are further categorized into 216 dialects or “mother tongues” spoken by 10,000 or more speakers. An estimated 850 languages are in daily use, and the Indian Government claims there are more than 1,600 dialects. Dialects that belong to a particular language are not always mutually comprehensible. [Source: Library of Congress, 2005 *]

India's ethnic, linguistic, and regional complexity sets it apart from other nations. To gain even a superficial understanding of the relationships governing the huge number of ethnic, linguistic, and regional groups, the country should be visualized not as a nation-state but as the seat of a major world civilization on the scale of Europe. The population is not only immense but also has been highly varied throughout recorded history; its systems of values have always encouraged diversity. The linguistic requirements of numerous former empires, an independent nation, and modern communication are superimposed on a heterogeneous sociocultural base. [Source: Library of Congress, 1995 *]

Almost 8 percent of the population belongs to social groups recognized by the government as Scheduled Tribes, with social structures somewhat different from the mainstream of society. Powerful trends of "regionalism"--both in the sense of an increasing attachment to the states as opposed to the central government, and in the sense of movements for separation from the present states or greater autonomy for regions within them--threaten the current distribution of power and delineation of political divisions of territory. *

Sir George Grierson's twelve-volume Linguistic Survey of India , published between 1903 and 1923, identified 179 languages and 544 dialects. The 1921 census listed 188 languages and forty-nine dialects. The 1961 census listed 184 "mother tongues," including those with fewer than 10,000 speakers. This census also gave a list of all the names of mother tongues provided by the respondents themselves; the list totals 1,652 names. The 1981 census--the last census to tabulate languages--reported 112 mother tongues with more than 10,000 speakers and almost 1 million people speaking other languages. The encyclopedic People of India series, published by the government's Anthropological Survey of India in the 1980s and early 1990s, identified seventy-five "major languages" within a total of 325 languages used in Indian households. In the early 1990s, there were thirty-two languages with 1 million or more speakers. *

Diversity, Nationalism and Regionalism in India

There is strong regional loyalty and identity in India. "Indian nationalism is a rare animal indeed," Tharoor wrote. "It is not based on language. It is not based on geography—the "natural" frontiers of India have been hacked by the partition of 1947. It is not based on ethnicity—Indian Bengalis and Punjabis, for instance, have more in common with Bangladeshis and Pakistanis than with other Indians. And its not based on religion...Indian nationalism is the nationalism of an idea. This land imposes no narrow conformities on its citizens; you can be many things and one thing. You can be a good Muslim, a good Keralan and a good Indian all at once."

The term Punjabi is used to describe both the inhabitants of the Punjab and speakers of the predominate language there. Punjabi is an Indo-European language, related to Hindi and clearly related to languages spoken by neighboring people particularly Pahari. There are six major dialects, each associated with a different area. Majhi and Malwa are considered the most “pure.” Maharashtra state was created after independence in 1947 by cobbling together Maharashtra-speaking areas. About 100 million people live in Maharashtra. Marathi is the native language of Bombay and Maharashtra. About three quarters of the population of the state speak it as their first language. The area is a stronghold of Hindu nationalists and has traditionally been dominated by upper caste Brahmins and landowning Maratha Kunbi.

What makes India India is it multiplicity and diversity. The only thing consistent is inconsistency. Salman Rushdie once wrote, "The country has taken the modern view of the self and enlarged it to encompass almost 1 billion souls. The selfhood of India is so capricious, so elastic, that it accommodates 1 billion kinds of difference. It agrees with its billion selves to call all of them "Indian."

The formation of states along linguistic and ethnic lines has occurred in India in numerous instances since independence in 1947. There have been demands, however, to form units within states based not only along linguistic, ethnic, and religious lines but also, in some cases, on a feeling of the distinctness of a geographical region and its culture and economic interests. The most volatile movements are those ongoing in Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab. How the central government responds to these demands will be an area of scrutiny through the late 1990s and beyond. It is believed by some officials that conceding regional autonomy is less arduous and takes less time and fewer resources than does meeting agitation, violence, and demands for concessions. [Source: Library of Congress]

Where People Live in India

The vast majority of Indians, nearly 625 million, or 73.9 percent, in 1991 lived in what are called villages of less than 5,000 people or in scattered hamlets and other rural settlements. The states with proportionately the greatest rural populations in 1991 were the states of Assam (88.9 percent), Sikkim (90.9 percent) and Himachal Pradesh (91.3 percent), and the tiny union territory of Dadra and Nagar Haveli (91.5 percent). Those with the smallest rural populations proportionately were the states of Gujarat (65.5 percent), Maharashtra (61.3 percent), Goa (58.9 percent), and Mizoram (53.9 percent). Most of the other states and the union territory of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands were near the national average. [Source: Library of Congress, 1995 *]

The results of the 1991 census revealed that around 221 million, or 26.1 percent, of Indian's population lived in urban areas. Of this total, about 138 million people, or 16 percent, lived in the 299 urban agglomerations. In 1991 the twenty-four metropolitan cities accounted for 51 percent of India's total population living in Class I urban centers, with Bombay and Calcutta the largest at 12.6 million and 10.9 million, respectively. *

An urban agglomeration forms a continuous urban spread and consists of a city or town and its urban outgrowth outside the statutory limits. Or, an urban agglomerate may be two or more adjoining cities or towns and their outgrowths. A university campus or military base located on the outskirts of a city or town, which often increases the actual urban area of that city or town, is an example of an urban agglomeration. In India urban agglomerations with a population of 1 million or more--there were twenty-four in 1991--are referred to as metropolitan areas. Places with a population of 100,000 or more are termed "cities" as compared with "towns," which have a population of less than 100,000. Including the metropolitan areas, there were 299 urban agglomerations with more than 100,000 population in 1991. These large urban agglomerations are designated as Class I urban units. There were five other classes of urban agglomerations, towns, and villages based on the size of their populations: Class II (50,000 to 99,999), Class III (20,000 to 49,999), Class IV (10,000 to 19,999), Class V (5,000 to 9,999), and Class VI (villages of less than 5,000). *

The majority of districts had urban populations ranging on average from 15 to 40 percent in 1991. According to the 1991 census, urban clusters predominated in the upper part of the Indo-Gangetic Plain; in the Punjab and Haryana plains, and in part of western Uttar Pradesh. The lower part of the Indo-Gangetic Plain in southeastern Bihar, southern West Bengal, and northern Orissa also experienced increased urbanization. Similar increases occurred in the western coastal state of Gujarat and the union territory of Daman and Diu. In the Central Highlands in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, urbanization was most noticeable in the river basins and adjacent plateau regions of the Mahanadi, Narmada, and Tapti rivers. The coastal plains and river deltas of the east and west coasts also showed increased levels of urbanization. *

Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes

Two other categories of population that are closely scrutinized by the national census are the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.The greatest concentrations of Scheduled Caste members in 1991 lived in the states of Andhra Pradesh (10.5 million, or nearly 16 percent of the state's population), Tamil Nadu (10.7 million, or 19 percent), Bihar (12.5 million, or 14 percent), West Bengal (16 million, or 24 percent), and Uttar Pradesh (29.3 million, or 21 percent). Together, these and other Scheduled Caste members comprised about 139 million people, or more than 16 percent of the total population of India. [Source: Library of Congress, 1995 *]

Scheduled Tribe members represented only 8 percent of the total population (about 68 million). They were found in 1991 in the greatest numbers in Orissa (7 million, or 23 percent of the state's population), Maharashtra (7.3 million, or 9 percent), and Madhya Pradesh (15.3 million, or 23 percent). In proportion, however, the populations of states in the northeast had the greatest concentrations of Scheduled Tribe members. For example, 31 percent of the population of Tripura, 34 percent of Manipur, 64 percent of Arunachal Pradesh, 86 percent of Meghalaya, 88 percent of Nagaland, and 95 percent of Mizoram were Scheduled Tribe members. Other heavy concentrations were found in Dadra and Nagar Haveli, 79 percent of which was composed of Scheduled Tribe members, and Lakshadweep, with 94 percent of its population being Scheduled Tribe members.

Diversity within Indian Groups: the Khoja

The Khojas are a group in India and Pakistan. Founded on the 14th century by a famous saint, they used to be a Hindu trading caste but are now known best as being followers the Agha Khan. They live in the Punjab, the Sind, Kachchh, Kathiwat, the west coast of India, Zanzibar and the east coast of Africa. They are known as the Mawakus in the Hindu Kush, the North West provinces of Pakistan, in Afghanistan, in the Khanates of Central Asian, in the hill district of eastern Persia and in the Persian Gulf. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]

“Khoja” is derived from the Persian term “Khwajah,” meaning “a rich or respectable man.” The group has a reputation for being clean, neat, sober, competitive, ambitious, enterprising and good at business and trade. They are also known as travelers and have business connections in almost every part of the world. They are involved with trade between India and places as diverse as Africa, Japan, Sri Lanka, the United States and Australia and have been involved in the trade of spices, ivory, opium, horns, silk, shark fins and fish maws.

The Khojas are a diverse group. They are a major Muslim trading caste in western India. Those that live in the Punjab are largely descendants of the Hindu Khatri caste. Those that live in Bombay are derived from the Hindu Lohana caste of the Sind and but are Shiites, not followers of the Agha Khan. Many groups follow Hindu customs. Some have their unique ceremonies. The Chatti Khojas of Gujarat perform a special six day ceremony in which various presents are offered to the mother and the bay is covered in rice while firecrackers are lit.

The Khoja have their own marriage customs which differ from those of other Muslims. The marriage is registered under the order of Agha Khan and the father of the groom gives a symbolic payment fo a few rupees to the father of the bride. Before copper or brass vessel containing sugar the names of the Prophet Mohammed, Ali, Fatima, Hasan and Hussein are said. The gaur is paced before the bride’ father. If he accepts it regarded as an authorization of the marriage. he tastes the sugar and distributes some among the people that are present. The written contract is drawn up the next day and authorized by representatives of the Agha Khan or the Agha Khan himself.

Any agreements about divorce have to approved by representatives of the Agha Khan. When deal is near Khojas are sprinkled with holy water to the reading of sacred texts.

Telangana Movement as an Expression of Indian Regionalism

An early manifestation of regionalism was the Telangana movement in what became the state of Andhra Pradesh. The princely ruler of Hyderabad, the nizam, had attempted unsuccessfully to maintain Hyderabad as an independent state separate from India in 1947. His efforts were simultaneous with the largest agrarian armed rebellion in modern Indian history. Starting in July 1946, communist-led guerrilla squads began overthrowing local feudal village regimes and organizing land reform in Telugu-speaking areas of Hyderabad, collectively known as Telangana (an ancient name for the region dating from the Vijayanagar period). In time, about 3,000 villages and some 41,000 square kilometers of territory were involved in the revolt. Faced with the refusal of the nizam of Hyderabad to accede his territory to India and the violence of the communist-led rebellion, the central government sent in the army in September 1948. By November 1949, Hyderabad had been forced to accede to the Indian union, and, by October 1951, the violent phase of the Telangana movement had been suppressed. The effect of the 1946-51 rebellion and communist electoral victories in 1952 had led to the destruction of Hyderabad and set the scene for the establishment of a new state along linguistic lines. In 1953, based on the recommendation of the States Reorganisation Commission, Telugu-speaking areas were separated from the former Madras States to form Andhra, India's first state established along linguistic lines. The commission also contemplated establishing Telangana as a separate state, but instead Telangana was merged with Andhra to form the new state of Andhra Pradesh in 1956. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The concerns about Telangana were manifold. The region had a less developed economy than Andhra, but a larger revenue base (mostly because it taxed rather than prohibited alcoholic beverages), which Telanganas feared might be diverted for use in Andhra. They also feared that planned dam projects on the Krishna and Godavari rivers would not benefit Telangana proportionately even though Telanganas controlled the headwaters of the rivers. Telanganas feared too that the people of Andhra would have the advantage in jobs, particularly in government and education. *

The central government decided to ignore the recommendation to establish a separate Telangana state and, instead, merged the two regions into a unified Andhra Pradesh. However, a "gentlemen's agreement" provided reassurances to the Telangana people. For at least five years, revenue was to be spent in the regions proportionately to the amount they contributed. Education institutions in Telangana were to be expanded and reserved for local students. Recruitment to the civil service and other areas of government employment such as education and medicine was to be proportional. The use of Urdu was to continue in the administration and the judiciary for five years. The state cabinet was to have proportional membership from both regions and a deputy chief minister from Telangana if the chief minister was from Andhra and vice versa. Finally, the Regional Council for Telangana was to be responsible for economic development, and its members were to be elected by the members of the state legislative assembly from the region. *

In the following years, however, the Telangana people had a number of complaints about how the agreements and guarantees were implemented. The deputy chief minister position was never filled. Education institutions in the region were greatly expanded, but Telanganas felt that their enrollment was not proportionate to their numbers. The selection of the city of Hyderabad as the state capital led to massive migration of people from Andhra into Telangana. Telanganas felt discriminated against in education employment but were told by the state government that most non-Telanganas had been hired on the grounds that qualified local people were unavailable. In addition, the unification of pay scales between the two regions appeared to disadvantage Telangana civil servants. In the atmosphere of discontent, professional associations that earlier had amalgamated broke apart by region. *

Telangana Movement in the 1970s and 80s

Discontent with the 1956 gentlemen's agreement intensified in January 1969 when the guarantees that had been agreed on were supposed to lapse. Student agitation for the continuation of the agreement began at Osmania University in Hyderabad and spread to other parts of the region. Government employees and opposition members of the state legislative assembly swiftly threatened "direct action" in support of the students. The Congress-controlled state and central governments offered assurances that non-Telangana civil servants in the region would be replaced by Mulkis, disadvantaged local people, and that revenue surpluses from Telangana would be returned to the region. The protestors, however, were dissatisfied, and severe violence, including mob attacks on railroads, road transport, and government facilities, spread over the region. In addition, seventy-nine police firings resulted in twenty-three deaths according to official figures, the education system was shut down, and examinations were cancelled. Calls for a separate Telangana state came in the midst of counter violence in Andhra areas bordering Telangana. In the meantime, the Andhra Pradesh High Court decreed that a central government law mandating replacement of non-Telangana government employees with Mulkis was beyond Parliament's constitutional powers. *

Although the Congress faced dissension within its ranks, its leadership stood against additional linguistic states, which were regarded as "antinational." As a result, defectors from the Congress, led by M. Chenna Reddy, founded the Telangana People's Association (Telangana Praja Samithi). Despite electoral successes, however, some of the new party leaders gave up their agitation in September 1971 and, much to the disgust of many separatists, rejoined the safer political haven of the Congress ranks. * In 1972 the Supreme Court reversed the Andhra Pradesh High Court's ruling that the Mulki rules were unconstitutional. This decision triggered agitation in the Andhra region that produced six months of violence. *

Throughout the 1970s, Andhra Pradesh settled into a pattern of continuous domination by Congress and later Congress (I), with much instability and dissidence within the state party and constant interference from Indira Gandhi and the national party. Chenna Reddy, the erstwhile opposition leader, was for a time the Congress (I) state chief minister. Congress domination was only ended by the founding of the Telugu National Party by N.T. Rama Rao in 1982 and its overwhelming victory in the state elections in 1983. *

Polls taken after the end of the Telangana movement showed a certain lack of enthusiasm for it, and for the idea of a separate state. Although urban groups (students and civil servants) had been most active in the movement, its support was stronger in rural areas. Its supporters were mixed: low and middle castes, the young and the not so young, women, illiterates and the poorly educated, and rural gentry. Speakers of several other languages than Telugu were heavily involved. The movement had no element of religious communalism, but some observers thought Muslims were particularly involved in the movement. Other researchers found the Muslims were unenthusiastic about the movement and noted a feeling that migration from Andhra to Telangana was creating opportunities that were helping non-Telanganas. On the other hand, of the two locally prominent Muslim political groups, only one supported a separate state; the other opposed the idea while demanding full implementation of the regional safeguards. Although Urdu speakers were appealed to in the agitation (e.g., speeches were given in Urdu as well as Telugu), in the aftermath Urdu disappeared from the schools and the administration. *

The Telangana movement grew out of a sense of regional identity as such, rather than out of a sense of ethnic identity, language, religion, or caste. The movement demanded redress for economic grievances, the writing of a separate history, and establishment of a sense of cultural distinctness. The emotions and forces generated by the movement were not strong enough, however, for a continuing drive for a separate state. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the People's War Group, an element of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), renewed violence in Andhra Pradesh but was dealt with by state police forces. The Telangana movement was never directed against the territorial integrity of India, unlike the insurrections in Jammu and Kashmir and some of the unrest in northeastern India. *

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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