Monday, April 07, 2008

What is India?

How does India connect? Apart from the telephone networks, and the so called caste networks that many publications want us to believe?

India connects to itself through its way of life. Most Mumbaikars will share this feeling. You can spot a Mumbaikar from a distance. The very mention of the city creates a bonding. I am sure Delhites will agree to the same feeling when they meet people from their cities. So, will
Chennaites, Maduraites, Lucknowis and Bhopalis. Right?

Ask anybody who has worked in the Gulf. The Tamils there are a group unto themselves as are the Malayalees as are the other linguistic groups. Many collegians will tell you of a Gujarat group or a Bihar group at their hostels. Of course, the said group will hate any other said group, but that will not translate into anything other than a dinner conversation.

Ever met anyone from the US? Someone who has worked there? The Telugu and Kannada association is pretty strong there – as are the others, including the Marathi Mandals.

There is nothing wrong about this. This is how India connects. India, the nation, has carved out millions of identities and the people have done it for themselves. Each of these is independent in itself and is both tolerant and non-destructive of the other. So, the Telugu and Kannada association can at once represent South India as much as they can represent the Indian IT community or the Indian Diaspora. The Mumbaikars can represent all commuters at one time and can represent the state of Maharashtra or even the middle class of India or just the urbanized India. Each of these groupings view themselves as defenders of India and its way of life.

So, what is the identity that is India? Is it the states? If that is the case, there are quite a few of them, created and in creation, in the minds and on paper. Is it the language? If that is the case, there are hundreds, if not thousands of them. Is it just a mishmash of where we are born and brought up? Or is it more of the festivals we celebrate? Is it perhaps the places where we were educated? Or is it where we work?

Is it just the cricket team that makes us collectively root for it? Or is it the star power of Shah Rukh Khan? Or is it the dialogues of Rajinikanth? The baritone of Amitabh perhaps? The sublime cricket of Sachin? The mellifluous music of Ilayaraja or AR Rahman? Or the Suprabhatam of MS Subbalakshmi? Or the rush Tirupati? Or the beaches of Goa? What holds us together? Just the flag or the nation?

It is these micro identities, ever fluid, ever changing, yet tolerant of every other identity, that has characterized India so far. So far, because change is in the air. Those who wish to divide the nation have seen this as an evil that needs to be ripped apart. These identities are being tugged and pulled at in various directions to the detriment of this nation.

A couple of years back, we had a big argument in Hyderabad with an auto driver who did not want to speak to us in Telugu. He gave us a big bhashan on how Hindi is the national language. The whole thing ended by us walking out of his rickshaw. Obviously, he had been brought up with the belief that he did not identify with the "rest" of Hyderabad.

Recently, I was talking to someone from that 100% literate state and the person persistently refused to talk to me in Malayalam. Not that I realized it then, I continued and it was only later that I realized that all the while I spoke in Malayalam, he preferred to speak to me in English. Simply put, he did not want to identify himself as a "Keralite".

As we drove near the border of Kerala, into Tamil Nadu – this is somewhere near Tenkasi, I spotted a school of Arabic in a place that is basically a ghetto. An Arabic school in the middle of Tamil Nadu? Will they identify themselves with the Tamil Nadus way of life? And then you wonder where the students of this school will find jobs? Of course, they can serve their Arabic masters, when the time comes , as their bootlicking servants. In due course, these students will grow up as aliens in their own country with their grievances which we can sit down to address, by creating more Arabic schools and Arabic quotas, for example. And perhaps that is the intent of those who have funded a school like this in a poor area.

You might say, so what? It is the denial of the national identity, the heritage, which to date has been an identity to stand by, that is disturbing. The national identity of India closely identified with its linguistic identity and heritage irrespective of religion is being attempted to be superimposed by a "superior " identity, that of religion, that wants people to deny their heritage and accept a new one.

Religion, until recently here has always found its way in India through its heritage. Kerala Christians and Kashmiri Muslims are an example Religions have modified their presence in India, much like McDonalds customized its Aloo Tikki and it is this customization that is in danger. The India that has been held together by strands of language and customs that cut across religion suddenly finds itself being cut apart by the scissor of religion. Make no mistake. This is a trend that will have far reaching implications. This may be a little premature, but the signs are clear.

Too far fetched? Think about this example. Bengal and Bangladesh, once upon a time, were linked by their common language and customs. Today, there is no real link between WestBengal and Bangladesh anywhere except in the cobwebs of nostalgia that people weave in their senile brains sitting in their decrepit armchairs. In any case, the East Bengal will never resemble what the West Bengal was or is. It is well on its way to slavishly emulating something else, denying every single thing that its heritage once stood for.

The linguistic state formation, however wrong, was an endorsement of how we identified strongly with our heritage and languages that we grew up with. And that was there on the ground to see. Today, that fabric is being slowly torn apart. By educating in English (including myself) without education in their local languages, by choosing not to highlight our heritage to our children and of course, by external forces, for whom it is beneficial that we live in denial about our heritage.

Yet I am not entirely pessimistic about this. There are many more pieces that hold India beyond this. Yet, my sense is that every single icon that holds us together is in danger of being attacked by these divisive forces.

What can hold us together inspite of these forces? Many things. India is a land of many icons, starting from Shivaji to Gandhiji and Buddha to Asoka. This is one example of strong glue that can hold us together. Somehow, deliberately, slowly, through our education system
there is this puzzling inability to highlight what some of these historical successes. The tolerant India is rapidly losing many strands of its fabric. And that is to the advantage of some who wish to divide this country. And our politicians, willy nilly play into their hands little knowing that their short term gain will cost us a country...

And this by the way is post number 1000 on this blog. Wish you all a happy Ugadi.


Venkatramanan said...

Congrats on your 1000! Have you ever had a thought of compiling your selected posts as a book? Atleast an ebook? Give it a thought! Really interesting & insightful posts! Keep it up!


Neelakantan said...

Great idea that. Will try and do that.

Miti said...

I second Venkatramanan on the idea. Though you already have "Selected Posts", having all the good ones collectively at one place will be great. Your posts always make intresting read.


Amit Panhale said...

Have you been reading Amartya Sen's Identity and Violence recently?

Very pertinent to your post. if not read yet, I'd say 'recommended reading'.

mshripad said...

thanks for your ideas
I love this article

Siva Rajendran said...

Neelakantan, congrats for the 1000th post.

sanjana said...

Well written article. It will be great if you can also write in SiliconIndia as I am a member of SiliconIndia, I am sure that most of the members will like reading it.

sanjana said...

Well written article. It will be great if you can also write in SiliconIndia as I am a member of SiliconIndia, I am sure that most of the members will like reading it.

Sunil Deepak said...

"Bengal and Bangladesh, once upon a time, were linked by their common language and customs. Today, there is no real link ..." - actually in Bologna (Italy) Hindus from Bangladesh & W Bengal are together in an association. They organise wonderful Durgapuja each year. Most of them are manual labourers and they don't come to Indian association that is more educated and speaks in English or Italian, while they prefer speaking in Bengali. I guess our identities are complex & difficult to put in a box.

gregory said...

i do notice something that i refer to as "so busy being indian that he forgets to be human" and i cannot figure its source in ego identity, never found it so strong in any other culture

Anonymous said...

Gregory, thats a good observation, but to most people Indian = human :)