Also published at Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 2, Dated Jan 17, 2009
India breathes through her multiplicity, not her fragmenting voices
THERE IS a buzz about India becoming a superpower. But, are superpowers confused about national identity or inviting others to solve their civilisation’s “backwardness”? Does a superpower allow foreign nexuses to co-opt its citizens as agents? India graciously hosts foreign nexuses that treat it as a collection of disparate parts. Is super – powerdom delusionary?
The Mumbai massacre painfully exposes flaws in our national character, the central one being the absence of a definitive, purpose-filled identity. Who is that “we” whose interests are represented, internally and internationally? How should Indianness be defined? Where is the Indianness that transcends narrow identities and vested interests, one that is worth sacrificing for? Is it in the popular culture of Bollywood and cricket? Or is it deeper? The national identity project is at once urgent and compelling.
The need for national identity
In their pursuit of personal goals, Indians are intensely competitive. But we lack consensus on a shared national essence and hence there is no deep psychological bond between citizen and nation. National identity is to a nation’s well-being what the immune system is to the body’s health. The over-stressed body succumbs to external and internal threats, and eventually death, as its immunity weakens. Similarly, a nation stressed by a vacuum of identity, or multiple conflicting identities, or outright confusion, can break up. Just as the body’s immune system needs constant rejuvenation, so too a nation needs a positive collective psyche for its political cohesion.
Major nations deliberately pursue nation building through such devices as shared myths, history, heroes, religion, ideology, language and symbolism. Despite internal dissent, Americans have deep pride of heritage, and have constructed awe-inspiring monuments to their founding fathers and heroic wars. Where are Delhi’s monuments honouring the wars of 1857 or 1971, Shivaji, the Vijayanagar Empire, Ashoka, or the peaceful spread of Indian civilisation across Asia for a millennium? Where are the museums that showcase India’s special place in the world?
Forces that fragment
Voices of fragmentation drive India’s internal politics — from Raj Thackeray to M Karunanidhi to Mamata Banerjee to the Quota Raj to the agents of foreign proselytising.
While social injustice, in India and elsewhere, demands effective cures, proper treatments do not follow faulty diagnoses. Since colonial times, influential scholars have propagated that there is no such thing as Indian civilisation. India was “civilised” by successive waves of invaders. The quest for Indianness is futile since India was never a nation. The noted historian Romila Thapar concludes that India’s pluralism has no essence. Like a doughnut, the center is void; only the peripheries have identity.
Such thinking infects Indian elite. Supreme Court Justice Markandey Katju, citing western historians, asserts that the Munda tribes are the only true natives and that 95 percent of Indians are immigrants; that all so-called Aryan and Dravidian classical languages are foreign, ruling out anything as pan-Indian in our antiquity; and that worthwhile Indian civilisation begins with Akbar, “the greatest ruler the world has ever seen.”
This accelerating crescendo, portraying India as an inherently artificial, oppressive nation, is directed by western academics advocating western intervention to bring human rights. It is supported by private foundations, churches and the US government and promotes fragmentation by bolstering regional identities, “backward” castes, and religious minorities. Sadly, our own people, such as many activists and the westernised upper class, have internalised India’s “oppression of minorities.” The human catastrophe that would envelope diverse groups — especially the weakest — in the aftermath of India’s break up is blithely ignored.
Beyond tolerance and assimilation
Critics worry that national identity promotes fascism. But while many civilisations have used identity for conquest, my vision of Indianness is driven by mutual respect. We respect the other who is different provided the other reciprocates with respect towards us, in rhetoric and in action. The religious “tolerance” of Judaism, Islam and Christianity is a patronising accommodation; it puts up with others’ differences without respecting their right to be different. In contradistinction, Indian civilisation embraces differences reciprocally.
Movements that eradicate differences span the ideological spectrum. Some religions claim mandates from God to convert the religiously different. Although the European Enlightenment project dispensed with God, it enabled erasing ethnic diversity through genocide of Native Americans and slavery of African-Americans. Asians were luckier, because they could become “less different” via colonisation.
Today, many Indians erase their distinctiveness by glamorising white identity as the gold standard. Skin lighteners are literal whiteners. Media and pop culture incorporate white aesthetics, body language and attire for social status, careers and marriage. The venerable “namaste” is becoming a marker of the older generations and the servants. Pop Hindu gurus peddle the “everything is the same” mumbojumbo, ignoring even the distinctions between the dharmic and the un-dharmic. Intellectuals adopt white categories of discourse as “universal”.
Difference eradicating ideologies are hegemonic. Either you (i) assimilate, (ii) oppose and suffer, or (iii) get contained and marginalised.
But Indian philosophy is built on celebrating diversity — in trees, flowers, matter, human bodies, minds, languages and cultures, spiritualities and traditions — and does not see it as a problem to be dealt with.
All social groups manifest an affinity for in-group relations but in the ideal Indian ethos, in-group affinity is without external aggression. Before colonial social engineering, traditional Indian castes were fluid, informal containers of identities, interwoven with one another, and not frozen hierarchically. This applied to Muslims, Christians and Hindus. Each caste had its distinct norms and was respected by others. My India is a web of thousands of castes encapsulating diverse genes and memes. This ideal is the exact opposite of fascist ethnocentrism.
More posts by this author:
- Hindu Identity
- American Exceptionalism
- World Peace – Challenges and Impact of Globalization
- Does South Asian Studies Undermine India?
- Critique of Hindu American Foundation’s Report on ‘Caste’-LINK