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Defining Indianness

Last updated: 25 June, 2011

MULTIPLE VOICES

Given the tremendous diversity of India, is it possible to construct a coherent Indian identity? But, hasn't defining Indianness become more important than ever? Omair Ahmad tries to decode the concept of Indian identity.

I was in Egypt at the end of last year, walking the same paths where the street battles raged for freedom only a few weeks later. Seeing the Egyptian youth take on the strength of the government, to defy the bullets and tear gas as they demanded that their military dictator step down, made me think of our own freedom struggle. I am sure I was not the only one nostalgic for our own heroic moment. Very quickly afterward we had something very much like it — the fast undertaken by Anna Hazare and his supporters in favour of the Lokpal Bill.

Unfortunately, the old saying that history repeats itself as farce was truer than we would like. Anna Hazare is no Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, and the movement for the Lokpal Bill, as well intentioned as it may be, is not a patch on the national struggle for independence. Despite the initial enthusiasm whipped up in support of the movement, it seems that most of the country simply shrugged its shoulders and moved on.

For many commentators, this seemed like a failure. That somehow India could not unite together to deal with a problem like corruption which affects all of us: weakening the country, killing the poor, limiting the life chances of hundreds of millions. That observation immediately raises the question of what it means to be Indian. Looking back at the independence movement, it seems we were all united. That might be something of an illusion. Not everybody bought into the independence movement, even excepting the Pakistan movement, there were numerous groups that supported the British, or like the Nagas, Manipuris or Kashmiris, dreamt of their own independence. Nevertheless, India was forged into one country, and as Ramachandra Guha observes in his book, India after Gandhi, despite the many tensions, the vast majority of Indians held together. Certainly in my schooldays, during the 80s, you could pretty much say that most of us were bound into an idea of what it means to be Indian.

Inevitable change

Something changed in the 90s, or maybe it was already changing before that, but became politically relevant only then. V S Naipaul was probably the first observer to give it a name, calling the book he wrote in 1990, India: A Million Mutinies Now. Reading the book more than a decade later, I found its observations hardly surprising, but by that time we had become accustomed to how sub-movements in India’s large wave had started to assert themselves. While Naipaul primarily saw movement among the Shiv Sena as part of the broader history of Marathis claiming Maharashtra, we now have also become used to the Dalits asserting their own identity and history, the OBCs, the GLBT movement, and many, many others. Today, it is difficult to speak of an idea of India that is able to encompass everything. Just as no one political party can seem to unite all of India, no one idea seems to unite all of us. The idea of India changes from one person to the next, being chopped up and divided, and giving the Indian identity the look of a many-headed hydra.

Many people find this frustrating. They long for order and stability, and one single way to lead us forward, but as someone once said, “There is no road to freedom, freedom is the road.” That someone was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi who, despite his flaws and mistakes, remains the greatest political leader we have seen. It would be wise to try and understand what he meant.

Gandhi’s vision of swaraj meant an India that was not just free from bondage outside, but also free from social ills inside. In real terms, much of this is translated into our Constitution as the fundamental rights of individuals. The idea of freedom in India is not simply the freedom of the country to do what it wishes, but also the freedom of its own individuals to do as they wish, as long as they do not harm others. The overarching idea encoded in the Indian Constitution is that of a free country made up of free people.

At the time of independence, this was manifestly untrue. Everybody from Ram Mohan Roy to Sir Syed Ahmad had expounded on the way that social ills, superstition and lack of education had held the country back. Gandhi railed against the caste system, communal conflict and the disempowerment of the poor. And yet, at the time of independence, we inherited a society that was still largely based on old social models. The brown sahibs quietly took the seats of the white sahibs, and we sang a different song when we raised a different flag. It seemed little beyond that had changed.

The first dramatic proof of what had changed was the fast unto death of Potti Sreeramulu. Sreeramulu, a follower of Gandhi, wanted to bring to the notice of Prime Minister Nehru the interests of the Telugu speaking people of the then Madras Presidency. Although Nehru promised to look into it, the issue was put on the backburner. Nehru was deeply unwilling to look into the demands of linguistic separation and did not want to divide the country, thinking this would make it weaker. At this, Sreeramulu went on a fast again, and died in his endeavour. Upon his death in December 1952, the ensuing political storm forced Nehru to appoint a State Reorganisation Commission, which eventually led to the creation of Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Karnataka, and in the following years, Gujarat and Maharashtra.

One person had fasted to death before independence — Jatin Das — and while his death, in September 1929, energised the freedom struggle, it did little to change the official politics of British-ruled India. The crucial difference was that by the time of independence the location of power had changed. Up until 1947 the British government had owned India, after August 14, 1947, the people of India owned the country.

Sense of equality

It is also important to note that the creation of Andhra Pradesh did not weaken India. It would be ridiculous in this time for somebody to say that the people of Andhra Pradesh are somehow not citizens of India. But, had New Delhi continued to pressure the people of the region, and denied them the dignity and self-identity that they demanded, we would have had a full rebellion on our hands. Until the 60s, more than a decade after independence, the greatest fear was that India would split up along linguistic lines.

This has not happened. If anything, the decisions of the State Reorganising Committee strengthened the country as it allowed various citizens to deal with each other with a greater sense of equality. This is crucial. In a country based on democracy, the state is strengthened or weakened depending on the strengthening or weakening of its citizens. If today the state is still in the process of force-feeding Irom Sharmila, to suppress her protest against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act — an Act that the Union Home Ministry’s own Justice Reddy Commission has suggested to be revoked — we are a weaker country for it. If today women are economically empowered to protest against sexual harassment in the work place, or to refuse to be married if a dowry is demanded, we are a stronger country for this. Each and every citizen contributes to the strength of a country.

This is the key difference between a democracy and an authoritarian state, and between the Anna Hazare, Irom Sharmila and Sreeramulu-led protests and Gandhi’s. When Gandhi protested, he was challenging our rulers, who had the power to grant his demands, but in independent India, people occupying the big houses in New Delhi are not the rulers — the voting public is. The government at the Centre will not regard a lone protestor, however worthy his or her cause, as a true representative of the people because there is already a system to determine who that is - elections. At the time of the Sreeramulu protest, this system was new, voting as an experience was young. Since then we have moved forward, our interests are many, and our democracy has deepened.

While protests by civil society actors may energise the public, and swing votes one way or another, as a way to change the institutional structure of the country, the most reliable and representative way is to have a discussion among our elected representatives. That is why a Parliament exists, and that is why the vote exists, to remove those representatives that do not fulfil our wishes. And maybe that is the biggest difference between the Egypt I saw, and the protests that followed, and India. We already have our independence. There is no reason to keep asking for it.

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