India and the Idea of Identity.

 Written to commemorate India’s sixty-third year of Independence, this post argues that without a well defined sense of identity, nations fail to be great. And that Nehruvian political tradition has asphyxiated  our natural oeuvre.

Sixty Three years after independence, even as we ponder what we have made of this nation, there will be tributes to the country that it has stayed the course – in spite of a few stressful years during emergency and has exemplified a democratic temper. That it has come at a cost is clear to many, and we are tempted to ask whether we have crossed the Rubicon or are we still in need of a review of our system of governance. That question would not have arisen if we had indeed achieved most of the objectives we launched ourselves with in this wide world after millennia of slavery. That question is validated by severe lacunae in our system to deliver equitable opportunity, growth and basic rights to most of its people. The shine of the new India and the call of its bourses is merely a diversion from its real problems, some serious enough to challenge its unity and its validity as a nation state.

It comes as no surprise to any social scientist that the fractured democracy we see in operation in India mimics the constitutional template only bookishly. But that does not save it from ridicule as real practitioner democratic countries, even non-democratic in come cases, seem like constellations of prosperity and peace when put in contrast to us.

A recent exercise over the state of democracies in Africa by a leading international newsmagazine diagrammatically portioned out just 2 of the 48 countries that make up the African continent as having functional democracy. Of the others – eighteen got lumped as authoritarian regimes, eight as hybrid regimes, nine as flawed democracies and one, Somalia, as a failed state.

It is a matter of embarrassment that I pondered where we would put ourselves had there been a vote on India. Even though the worst case scenario would have us only as a flawed democracy, the question to ask is if the threats and fissures we see today are really only a marginal flaw or indicators of deeper flaws.

It is worthwhile to remember that the parameters on which these African nations were evaluated ran the scope of military dictatorships, civil unrest, famine, poverty, death not only by disease but by incipient wars within. If we take those indicators, can we absolve ourselves honestly from such nomenclature for  a nation that even sixty three years after independence struggles with issues of statehood, nationality, identity, religious distinctions, lingual dissections, poverty and suicides, secessionist and terrorist activities, disease and death and non-delivery of basic rights.

And if we cannot stand that test, why has this come to pass? I will wager that our problems stem from one fundamental mal-adjust – our vision of who we are as a people.

My Name is Kaun.

It is frequently evidenced of successful nations that the concept of the state emanates from a cohesive view of their identity – of who they are in the context of the world. It is a necessary instrument of recognition, to say the least and it is the basis of what we want the nation to be and stand for, and how we conduct ourselves on the global stage.

The interest of the international community in bucking us up as a model for democracies must not be mistaken for any great evidence of our status because there is a design to such largesse and one must weigh the indulgent back patting that we constantly receive against the economic interest of nations in accessing our markets freely. Like the article in question above suggested, the ability to hold elections must not be mistaken to be a representation of democracy at work. Irrespective if the fouling at elections has reduced, the irrelevance of them to most of the country cannot be ignored.

The idea of India, as a book is also titled but incorrectly expounds, was not only a wrong idea, it was a bad idea and although I mean it philosophically, actually the terminology is the real suspect.

But first let us look at the evidence. Historically, India suffered two setbacks to its development as an integrated nationality. One was of course the well documented invasions and foreign rule over its last 500 years of history that would not allow the already fractured polity to integrate, but another more insidious has been of our own making and starts with the underlying contradictions in the views of Gandhi and Nehru – and therefore the Congress – on the question of a national identity and which remained unsettled mostly due to Gandhi’s subversive, if maverick spin to the issue of identity and Nehru’s idealistic avoidance of it. Neither settled the questions that needed to be settled first and before we could come to terms with the departure of foreigners, we were handed out a not-so-foreign idea of ourselves, as India.

Resultantly, a nation rid of the foreigner immediately started to look around for other foreigners it needed to expel and the national campaign to throw the British out turned to haunt the nation as each state argued for differences instead of commonality. That we held together in whatever form was part accrued by force of character of a few leaders, and by force in other ways but the real conversion of opinion never did take place. The breakdown of our states along linguistic patterns is only a chimera of explanation, even as it is flawed; in reality, the states were divided on the basis of identity. That Andhra Pradesh is a different state from Karnataka has less to do with a different tongue and more with the collective and essential difference in living mores, styles of dressing, eating, cohabiting, the role of women in society, the nature of the people, the weather patterns which dictated their plantation cycles which dictated their crops, which dictated their eating habits and so on and so forth. It is natural therefore that once established, this norm of differentiation would not cease at a corner convenient to us but keeps raising its head even today with demands for further segmentation and sub-segmentation or shows up in a new class of identity like those of the Marathas or responds like the Kashmiris do, or the Sikhs did with a bit of help from our friendly neighbour or the Telanganists will now do. Those who live by the sword will die by it, goes an old saying, and we continue to deal with fragments of the original sin.

Hum Hindustani.

In the absence of any political campaign across the board or a subsuming strategy to tackle this challenge of integration politically, across party lines and across the country, it fell to social movements such as the one pioneered by the RSS or other local leadership to try and find a balance in our views and try and rejuvenate the latent commonality of our traditions and culture.

Superficial, but crucial instruments of the state pitched in and thus in the intermediate period when Indira Gandhi was at the helm of affairs there was a definite policy that addressed the reality of India’s fissiparous tendencies and although propagandist in nature  it was designed to make up for this anomaly in our national character. That stopped far short in achieving its objective, and although revived fancifully during Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure, it died an unnatural death owing to political upheaval, the coming of private broadcasts over which the government applied little or no oversight beyond nominal and passive control.

Part of the reason this has come to pass is once again an inability and a decided hesitancy of Nehru’s ilk – and his political descendents later – in the Congress to take the issue of identity head on. Gandhi’s views were misread by all except Jinnah and the Muslims of the time. They saw in his actions a subversive attempt to extol Hinduism through his own means of communication and action and symbolism. Gandhi’s terminology, his instruments of action, his humanity was cloaked in Hinduvistic grammer although his political astuteness led him to cloak his real direction and source of strength. Nehru, on the other hand was beguiled by western thoughts of secularist egalitarianism or chose to be so for the attainment of the political end of freedom, like everyone else.

But how was it missed that the sole reason they – Gandhi and the Congress then – avoided the conundrum of accessing the nation’s prevailing Hindu identity as a leitmotif for the new nation, brought with it no rewards? Pakistan was born, and lives were lost to religious sectarianism and the two nation theory found life. This failure, to his credit, was not lost on Gandhi, and that is why that freedom was not what he claims he desired and decided to pursue his principle to its end by preparing to go to Pakistan. Nehru and his acolytes in the Congress felt nothing of the sort – they had founded a kingdom to rule nevertheless, it would seem, even as their principled position of a secular state lay torn to bits in the euphoria of freedom and its shadow of partition.

 The India that is not Bharat.

The rest, as they say, is history and the aspect of identity was given short shrift, or even a quick burial, you could argue, as Nehru unfolded his vision of India, that, as many will recall was not Bharat.

Nations are not titles. They are not words, but the beating heart of a people and the cumulative pattern of their thinking that evolves with years of interaction, thought, and which results in broad traditions of ancestry, habit and culture. To import a new version of who or what the people should think of themselves is always a conspiracy but it has to fail in its intent because of its inherent disconnect with the people it is supposed to represent. It for that reason I argue that the idea if India, and the word itself, were an Englishman’s coin – or a man who studied in English manner – in a language that no person living in the area understood and still does not.

Those who have attempted to replace the term India with Bharat have not been asking for anything illogical – except they have been understood from the other side of the word’s value. In calling ourselves India, we are looking out and making ourselves understood to the other – the foreigner. In calling ourselves Bharat we are asking for instinctive recognition inwardly – by using a term that supercedes the apparent differences of caste, colour, language and go back to the common mythology of the people and their heirloom, their socio-cultural inheritance – the Mahabharata – the essential link between us all. And that is more important because that man in the remote village in Kalahandi does not know of a place called India, but he knows Bharat by heart. For more evidence of the foreign implant, consider that the national anthem has no word called India in it either.

India stands at the crossroads today only for the missing pieces that should have been in their places; not for any shortcomings of its young today, but for the lassitude of its elders in the past. The idea of India is misplaced not only because the integration of India is incomplete, but also because the term ‘Indian’ is a geographical construct, a contextualized impersonation of a man who is the descendent of thousands of years of historical connect which is being overwritten in a new language that is alien to him. Consequently, unsure of himself, in conflict with his past, he faces a second emaciation of his character – after the hundreds of years of foreign rule, he is again being asked to compromise his identity. That is what obstructs the integration of India and that is the reason of our weakness as a democracy, and as a nation.


This post has also been published under the headline ” The integration of India is not complete” in the Independence Day special issue of the Organiser Weekly in August 2010.

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