Conceptualizing The Indian Identity: 70 years and Counting
India began as an experiment. That such a diverse set of identities could coexist in a democratic framework was not known. That such a democracy could survive, with all its condemnable imperfections, was seldom believed. The Indian identity had to be developed, for the subcontinent was never a single unified political unit. The freedom movement was as much about defining an Indian identity, as it was about freedom from the British. It is that broad and inclusive definition which emerged during the freedom struggle that accommodates the entire spectrum of identities in the Indian identity, which in itself is imperfect and dynamic.
The primary element required in any dispensation leading a country as this is an honest appreciation of this reality. To capture ‘Indian’ness in a single identity is a great disservice to the complexity inherent to this identity. The ideology that governs today’s government has as its central mission the simplification of this complexity. It seeks to capture the Indian identity in a single religion, and further, a single perspective of that religion. It seeks to dictate people to have a single jingoist opinion of their past and an equally exclusivist perspective of their present. Moreover, it demands that we reveal our conformity to their ideas of religion, nationalism and morality day in and day out. In engineering a national identity that suits their electoral and political ends, they end up narrowing it.
When narrowing your nation becomes the objective, every wrong is made right at the altar of nation-love. In its mission of redefining the Indian identity, truth is the greatest hurdle. So they trade it off for pride. Maharana Pratap defeats Akbar at Haldighati. India becomes the pioneer of innovation in every realm: starting at stem cell research and extending to airplanes. Every Muslim king that ever ruled India becomes the ‘foreign oppressor’. For the ideology governing our country today, history has no utility apart from being an instrument of pride. There also, the complexity must be deleted, lest the falsity in their narratives be revealed.
The most potent way of manufacturing truth is repeating lies over and over again. They learn these lessons well from old Goebbels, and implement them by beginning the assault where it is easiest to make: textbooks. This shameless compromise with truth reflects more strongly than ever the inability to digest complexity. Aryabhatta suggesting that the earth rotates around the sun, or Indian mathematicians developing the concept of the zero or the decimal system is never enough. To feel the adrenaline, the invention must be as grand as plastic surgery. The inability to appreciate the interactional nature of scientific or cultural progress is reflected in how quickly these people jump to conclusions that seek to project the Indian civilization as an isolated island of greatness. Not only is the insistence that ‘we are the best and others are trash’ hilariously childish, it is very harmful to development, since development requires one to recognize the imperfections of one’s own society.
From schools to colleges and from virtual spaces to actual spaces, the right wing agenda is being promoted in the most rash manner possible, deriving from untruth and intolerance. Democracy in the actual sense goes beyond regular elections. It is about the extent of choice that citizens enjoy. It is about the degree of restrictions that formal and informal institutions of control place upon any given individual in society. Most fundamentally, a democratic society never approaches its constituents as a herd of sheep, but as a collection of people with different perspectives on how the world must work. The social and political institutions governing us today paint us all in the same color, impose a cultural perspective that we may not agree with and require all of us to chant the same slogans and sing the very same songs. The space for democracy in our society is clearly shrinking.
In the 70th year of independence, it is indeed very sad that many of us still do not understand what ‘freedom’ really means. Is it freedom for the state alone, or freedom for the people it holds? The contradictions in the narratives that some of us throw around are hard to miss. On the one hand, some of us celebrate free markets and on the other, insist that trading beef in the market is ‘anti-Indian’. Others insist that our freedom to express disallows us from saying more things than it allows us to say. Yet others join the ‘development’ parade as Medhatai Patkar’s fast takes her from bad to worse. Her story and that of so many marginalized by the model of development we are speeding towards seldom makes it to the urban elite. These are stories of deprivation and grief the privileged nation doesn’t want to know.
A major problem facing India today is the manner in which the complexity of the Indian identity is being disregarded. The people in power are imposing a false image of the ‘patriotic’ Bharatiya. The Bharatiya must certainly be a Hindu, and must never speak against what the RSS calls ‘Hindu’. Writing an academic work on how beef-eating was common culture among the privileged of the past disqualifies you from the position of the patriotic Bharatiya, since it doesn’t conform to the idea of Hinduism that is politically efficient for the right. Any criticism of the cultures and traditions of Hindus has to be an international conspiracy, and every book critical of the Hindus has to be banned. Caste must only be paid lip-service to. The aspirations and cultures of those belonging to the lower castes are not consistent with the Brahminical Hinduism of the RSS, and hence any radical movement against the institution of caste must be viewed with suspicion. In the meanwhile, the appropriation war unleashed upon the cultures divergent from the Brahminical Hindu culture are absolutely justified, since they ‘civilize the savages’. There would be no discussion on what determines a culture to be superior to validate its assault on an ‘inferior’ culture, since that can lead people to ask questions. And people who ask questions are invariably presstitutes, sikculars, librandus, commies if not anti-nationals.
Dissent and diversity are central to the Indian identity. The Indian identity was never defined to be a homogenous identity, and attempts to straitjacket it shall succeed only in narrowing the Indian nation. The vast pool of ideas and perspectives that emerge from the diversity of India’s people and her cultures are a distinctive feature of our country. They allow for constructive discussion and argument. In the process of labeling few perspectives as less Indian than others, all room for constructive interaction and cultural progress through assimilation is being negated.
On this 70th Independence Day, it is essential that we as a society must introspect, and we as individuals must strive to present the progressive perspective every time narrow-mindedness is passed around under the name of development. The spirit of freedom with which our country was born must always be preserved and the principles we subscribed to at her creation must always be discussed and argued upon. The dynamism and diversity inherent to identity in general and to the Indian identity in particular must always be remembered.
(The writer is a second year student of economics, math and statistics at Ramnarain Ruia College, Mumbai. This is an opinion piece that does not necessarily reflect the views of the publication).