NATIONAL progress and prosperity is a result of stability and stability a by-product of a secure nation, but nationhood is critically linked to identity. In this article, Sanjay Kaul argues that India’s issues with identity are not resolved due in most part to the evasion of its common cultural heritage by its founding leaders and their progeny.
Sixty three years after independence, even as we ponder what we have made of this nation, we are tempted to ask whether we have crossed the Rubicon or still languishing. That question would not have arisen if we had indeed achieved most of the grand objectives we launched ourselves with after a millennia of slavery. That question is underlined by severe lacunae in our system even today to deliver equitable opportunity, growth and basic rights to most of our 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.
The fractured democracy we see in operation in India mimics the constitutional template only bookishly. It does not save it from ridicule as real practitioner democratic countries, even non-democratic in some cases, seem like constellations of prosperity and peace when put in contrast to ours. Why is it like that after six decades of a free existence?
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. Contrarily, the development of our cohesive sense of identity has been stunted due to a misunderstanding of the idea of identity and a misreading of its manifestations within the framework of the nation state.
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 Gandhiji and Nehru-and therefore the Congress-on the question of a national identity and which remained unsettled mostly due to Gandhiji’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 partly accrued due to the force of character of a few leaders, and by force in other ways but the real convergence of a self image was never allowed to take place.
The breakdown of our states along linguistic patterns is no explanation, even as it is flawed, for 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 Marathi manoos or sometimes responds violently like the Kashmiris do, or some Sikhs did with a bit of help from our friendly neighbour or the demand for new states to satiate this urge for differentiation as 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. Many have argued, even justified these demands as administrative necessities and projected them as desirable for good governance. But it is clear that these demands did not arise out of a sense of administrative neglect in most cases but were held together with the glue of ‘other-ness’, a tendency for segregation, and an identity bias. That remains evidence of the problem.
In the absence of any mass movement or a subsuming strategy to tackle this challenge of integration politically, across party lines and across the country, it fell to social intiatives such as the one pioneered by the RSS or other local leadership to try and find a balance in our views and rejuvenate the latent commonality of our traditions and culture. Within government, however, national integration came to be understood as a departmental activity and was relegated to propagandist campaign on state owned radio and later TV but which faithfully followed the same flawed state policy-the diabolical path set by Nehru and the Congress-of glossing over the Hinduvistic pallete of the land and accommodating religious sentiments against cultural ones. That too stopped far short in achieving its objective, and although revived fancifully during Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure, such programmes and some would argue the concept died an unnatural death owing to upheavals in the nation’s polity and the multi-party combinations at the Centre and the coming of private broadcasts over which the government applied little or no oversight beyond nominal and passive control.
Part of the reason national integration has not received due attention in real terms 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. Gandhiji’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. Gandhiji’s terminology, his instruments of action, his humanity was seeped in Hinduvistic grammar 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 Gandhiji and the Congress avoided the conundrum of accessing the nation’s prevailing Hindu identity as a leitmotif for the new nation brought with it no rewards and only punishment? Pakistan was born, lives were lost to religious sectarianism and the two nation theory found justification. This failure, to his credit, was not lost on Gandhiji, and that is why he 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 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, remain an Englishman’s coin-or a man who studied in English-in a language that no person living in the area understood and still does not.
Those who have attempted to ask for a replacement of 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. The man in that remote village in Kalahandi does not know of a place called India, but he knows Bharat by heart.
India stands at the crossroads today only for the missing pieces that should have been in their places and 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 denudation 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.
(The writer is an Executive Member of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Delhi and can be reached on [email protected])