Can history be shed like outgrown clothes?

Inside Out

Aarthi Ramachandran

2019 will probably go down as the year when India acknowledged how much it has changed since Independence. Three big instances this year serve as reminders of this change.

But before we come to them, it’s good to recall that this is the year when Narendra Modi was elected back to office with a mandate that bettered 2014.

What are the contours of this change? Think of it like this: This is a time when many, many Indians seem to think that they have outgrown the historical selves they have been wearing since Independence and are also coming to terms with the fact that they have an alternative. There is a new, different set to be tried on. And yes, many are giving it a shot. Selves cut from a completely different fabric and made to a different fit compared to the old — and what, in some quarters, is deemed as alien — ones India adopted at the time of Independence.

There are many signals by now that Indians are experimenting with a new identity. Here are the three big instances from this year that seem to indicate this. The first has to do with the government’s decision to amend Article 370 and make it a dead letter of the Constitution. This is perhaps the biggest of the decisions taken this year because it involved a wholesale change in the way India dealt with how to settle the Jammu and Kashmir question. What J&K stood for in the psyche of the nation when it was first founded – a Muslim majority state part of a secular India – and what it subsequently came to stand for over several decades – the ground from where separatism and Pakistan-backed militancy emanated – may have had something to do with the acceptance of the government’s actions. But there it is.

The second instance has to do with the Ayodhya judgement. The lack of popular debate about the Supreme Court’s order, allowing the disputed site in Ayodhya to be used for the construction of a Ram temple and the decision to award an alternative piece of land to the Muslims for the construction of a mosque, may be a sign that Indians are reviewing some fundamental questions – what are the rights of the Hindus in India and what role and place must minorities occupy in the scheme of things?

The third decision – and it’s still in the works – has to do with the announcement of the National Register of Citizens (NRC). This nation-wide enumeration of ‘rightful citizens’ will tell us literally who are Indians and who are not. It will also serve as the first instance of people being asked to prove that they are inhabitants of this land, and it will work subliminally to separate those who have chosen to remain faithful inhabitants from those who are not.

As these three decisions work themselves out through the land, Indians will confront the choice of shedding their historical selves again and again. The old cloth may have been coarse and prone to fraying but it did the job it was meant to do – it kept together the body and the soul of the nation; it managed to bandage the wounds of Partition and protect a disparate and divergent nation with a patchwork weave that made up the greater whole. Sure, it was a cloth cut and stitched to fit many needs rather than the preferences of one group or another. But it was the best that could be done and it did its job reasonably well.

Are Indians going to ask if the new cloth, too, can do the job it is supposed to do? Can it keep the nation together? People are experimenting for now, and some are being vocal about their new preferences. But hopefully, many are still assessing and will wonder about the enormity of what is being asked of them.

Old selves cannot be shed in an instant. They become second skins because they grow out of shared values, the lived experience of cohabiting with differences and the remembrance of this way of life, no matter how marred by contemporary experience as during Partition. This, then, is the nature of what is confronting us now: Will current fashions override the claims of history? Or will people see the merit of what history made them and use it to shape their destinies -- both past and future?

(Aarthi  Ramachandran often works on the assumption that to feel is to believe   @homernods)

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