India is wearing new clothes, and putting on a new face — but behind the mask of economic progress and cosmopolitan values is a deeply conservative nation fighting change. A nationwide opinion poll across 16 cities has thrown up surprises: results very different from popular perceptions about the way India thinks. They are a reflection of how this overwhelmingly young nation, where three-fourths of its billion-plus people are under the age of 35, is looking backwards far more than it looks ahead. Surprise: there seems to be no great difference in the opinions of the different age groups, even on issues like culture, clothes and the immoral influence of TV or homosexuality. And if you thought northern India was the cow heartland trapped in medieval values versus the progressive south, think again. The poll was carried out in street corners and homes by GfK Mode for Hindustan Times and the CNN-IBN news channel among male and female adults in metros, large towns and small towns with a sample size of 3,500 people. And to give faces to those numbers, Hindustan Times reporters from across India bring stories of those social attitudes from the by lanes and the living rooms in a six-part national reporting project this week, leading up to Independence Day. The college principal in Kanpur who banned jeans for women can smirk in private — nearly two out of three youngsters between the ages of 18 and 35 support a dress code in public, and far more people favour it in big cities than small towns. And all those who support clothing restrictions — that the media slam as ‘Talibanisation’ — seem to be reflecting what a large part of urban India thinks. An overwhelming 70 per cent of respondents actually endorsed a ban on Western clothes in schools and colleges. Did our youth recoil in horror at the idea? Not quite. Sixty-four per cent in the 18-25 age range actually liked the idea. Some 85 per cent people between 26 and 50 complained that Western values are replacing Indian values, and two-thirds of the respondents felt that young Indians are blindly following Western values and culture. Most dissed the TV – 79 per cent say television is promoting immoral values that are against Indian culture. About 64 per cent of the men interviewed in big cities and small towns, and 82 per cent in small towns, said that sex before marriage is still taboo in Indian society. Seventy-nine per cent of urban Indians feel that rape and sexual harassment are linked with the way women dress. Eight out of 10 women agree with that. A saving grace: 67 per cent feel women make better bosses at work, with small towns giving them an even a bigger thumbs-up (75 per cent) than metros (70 per cent). Even a majority of men agree. The English language is a winner for India, urban Indians say. Nine out of 10 respondents think speaking it is important to succeed. But four out of 10 respondents feel that English speakers are only concerned about themselves. Sixty-two per cent of parents in metropolises, and 80 per cent in small towns, are worried about their children using social networking sites like Orkut, Facebook and Twitter. The north actually appears more liberal than the south and the east on several counts, and thinks like the south on many other issues.