"There are some things which words cant express,for everything else there is hisam onomics"

Saturday, October 06, 2007

The true Indian identity.

The following writeup, authored by Mr Shashi Tharoor, portrays the idea of India so beautifully that I feel it is imperative for every Indian to go through it.

When India celebrated the 49th anniversary of its independence from British rule in 1996, its then prime minister, HD Deve Gowda, stood at the ramparts of Delhi’s 16th-century red fort and delivered the traditional Independence Day address to the nation in Hindi, India’s ‘national language’. Eight other prime ministers had done exactly the same thing 48 times before him, but what was unusual this time was that Deve Gowda, a southerner from the state of Karnataka, spoke to the country in a language of which he did not know a word. Tradition and politics required a speech in Hindi, so he gave one – the words having been written out for him in his native Kannada script, in which they, of course, made no sense.
Such an episode is almost inconceivable elsewhere, but it represents the best of the oddities that help make India India. Only in India could there be a country ruled by a man who does not understand its ‘national language’; only in India, for that matter, is there a ‘national language’ which half the population does not understand; and only in India could this particular solution have been found to enable the prime minister to address his people. One of Indian cinema’s finest ‘playback singers’, the Keralite K J Yesudas, sang his way to the top of the Hindi music charts with lyrics in that language written in the Malayalam script for him, but to see the same practice elevated to the prime ministerial address on Independence Day was a startling affirmation of Indian pluralism. For the simple fact is that we are all minorities in India. There has never been an archetypal Indian to stand alongside the archetypal Englishman or Frenchman. A typical Indian stepping off the train, let us say a Hindi-speaking Hindu male from Uttar Pradesh, may cherish the illusion he represents the ‘majority community’, an expression much favoured by the less industrious of our journalists. But he does not. As a Hindu, sure enough, he belongs to the faith adhered to by 82 per cent of the population. But a majority of the country does not speak Hindi. A majority does not hail from Uttar Pradesh, though you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise when you go there. And, if he were visiting, say, my home state of Kerala, he would be surprised to realise a majority there is not even male.
There has never been an archetypal Indian to stand alongside the archetypal Englishman or Frenchman.Worse, this archetypal Hindu male has only to mingle with the polyglot, multi-coloured crowds – and I am referring not to the colours of their clothes but to the colours of their skins – thronging any of India’s major railway stations to realise how much of a minority he really is. Even his Hinduism is no guarantee of his majorityhood, because his caste automatically puts him in a minority. If he is a Brahmin, 90 per cent of his fellow Indians are not. If he is a Yadav, or another ‘backward class’, 85 per cent of his fellow Indians are not. And so on.
If caste and language complicate the notion of Indian identity, ethnicity makes it worse. Most of the time, an Indian’s name immediately reveals where he is from or what her mother tongue is: when we introduce ourselves, we are advertising our origins.
Despite some intermarriage at the elite levels in our cities, Indians are still largely endogamous, and a Bengali is easily distinguished from a Punjabi. The difference this reflects is often more apparent than the elements of commonality. A Karnataka Brahmin shares his Hindu faith with a Bihari Kurmi, but they share little identity with each other in respect of their dress, customs, appearance, taste, language or even, these days, their political objectives. At the same time, a Tamil Hindu would feel he has much more in common with a Tamil Christian or a Tamil Muslim than with, say, a Haryanvi Jat, with whom he formally shares the Hindu religion. What makes India, then, a nation? What is an Indian’s identity?
When an Italian nation was created in the second half of the 19th century out of a mosaic of principalities and statelets, one Italian nationalist (Massimo Taparelli d’Azeglio) wrote ‘We have created Italy. Now all we need to do is to create Italians.’ It is striking that, a few decades later, no Indian nationalist succumbed to the temptation to express a similar thought. The prime exponent of modern Indian nationalism, Jawaharlal Nehru, would never have said ‘we have created India, now we have to create Indians’, because he believed that India and Indians had existed for millennia before he articulated their political aspirations in the 20th century.
many Indians have more in common with foreigners than with other Indians
Nonetheless, the India that was born in 1947 was in a very real sense a new creation: a state that made fellow citizens of the Ladakhi and the Laccadivian for the first time; a state that divided Punjabi from Punjabi for the first time; a state that asked a Keralite peasant to feel allegiance to a Kashmiri Pundit ruling in Delhi, also for the first time.
So, under Gandhi and Nehru, Indian nationalism became a rare animal indeed. It was not based on any of the conventional indices of national identity. Not language, since India’s constitution recognises 18 official languages, and there are 35 that are spoken by more than a million people each. Not ethnicity, since the ‘Indian’ accommodates a diversity of racial types in which many Indians have more in common with foreigners than with other Indians – Indian Punjabis and Bengalis, for instance, have more in common ethnically with Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, respectively, than with Poonawallahs or Bangaloreans. Not religion, since India is a secular pluralist state that is home to every religion known to mankind, with the possible exception of Shintoism. Not geography, since the natural geography of the subcontinent – the mountains and the sea – was hacked by the Partition of 1947. And not even territory, since, by law, anyone with one grandparent born in pre-partition India – outside the territorial boundaries of today’s state – is eligible for citizenship. Indian nationalism has therefore always been the nationalism of an idea.
It is the idea of an ever-ever land – emerging from an ancient civilisation, united by a shared history, sustained by pluralist democracy. India’s democracy imposes no narrow conformities on its citizens. The whole point of Indian pluralism is you can be many things and one thing: you can be a good Muslim, a good Keralite and a good Indian all at once. The Indian idea is the opposite of what Freudians call ‘the narcissism of minor differences’; in India we celebrate the commonality of major differences. If America is a melting-pot, then to me India is a thali, a selection of sumptuous dishes in different bowls. Each tastes different, and does not necessarily mix with the next, but they belong together on the same plate, and they complement each other in making the meal a satisfying repast.
So the idea of India, as Rabindranath Tagore and, more recently, Amartya Sen have insisted, is of one land embracing many. It is the idea that a nation may endure differences of caste, creed, colour, conviction, culture, cuisine, costume and custom, and still rally around a consensus. And that consensus is about the simple idea that in a democracy you don’t really need to agree – except on the ground rules of how you will disagree.


Ramesh Jaura said...

Shashi IS an incisive writer and thinker.