India breathes through her multiplicity, not her fragmenting voices
THERE IS a buzz about India becoming a superpower. But, are superpowers confused about national identity or inviting others to solve their civilisation’s “backwardness”? Does a superpower allow foreign nexuses to co-opt its citizens as agents? India graciously hosts foreign nexuses that treat it as a collection of arate parts. Is super – powerdom delusionary?
The Mumbai massacre painfully exposes flaws in our national character, the central one being the absence of a definitive, purpose-filled identity. Who is that “we” whose interests are represented, internally and internationally? How should Indianness be defined? Where is the Indianness that transcends narrow identities and vested interests, one that is worth sacrificing for? Is it in the popular culture of Bollywood and cricket? Or is it deeper? The national identity project is at once urgent and compelling.
The need for national identity
In their pursuit of personal goals, Indians are intensely competitive. But we lack consensus on a shared national essence and hence there is no deep psychological bond between citizen and nation. National identity is to a nation’s well-being what the immune system is to the body’s health. The over-stressed body succumbs to external and internal threats, and eventually death, as its immunity weakens. Similarly, a nation stressed by a vacuum of identity, or multiple conflicting identities, or outright confusion, can break up. Just as the body’s immune system needs constant rejuvenation, so too a nation needs a positive collective psyche for its political cohesion.
Major nations deliberately pursue nation building through such devices as shared myths, history, heroes, religion, ideology, language and symbolism. Despite internal dissent, Americans have deep pride of heritage, and have constructed awe-inspiring monuments to their founding fathers and heroic wars. Where are Delhi’s monuments honouring the wars of 1857 or 1971, Shivaji, the Vijayanagar Empire, Ashoka, or the peaceful spread of Indian civilisation across Asia for a millennium? Where are the museums that showcase India’s special place in the world?
Forces that fragment
Voices of fragmentation drive India’s internal politics — from Raj Thackeray to M Karunanidhi to Mamata Banerjee to the Quota Raj to the agents of foreign proselytising.
While social injustice, in India and elsewhere, demands effective cures, proper treatments do not follow faulty diagnoses. Since colonial times, influential scholars have propagated that there is no such thing as Indian civilisation. India was “civilised” by successive waves of invaders. The quest for Indianness is futile since India was never a nation. The noted historian Romila Thapar concludes that India’s pluralism has no essence. Like a doughnut, the center is void; only the peripheries have identity.
Such thinking infects Indian elite. Supreme Court Justice Markandey Katju, citing western historians, asserts that the Munda tribes are the only true natives and that 95 percent of Indians are immigrants; that all so-called Aryan and Dravidian classical languages are foreign, ruling out anything as pan-Indian in our antiquity; and that worthwhile Indian civilisation begins with Akbar, “the greatest ruler the world has ever seen.”
This accelerating crescendo, portraying India as an inherently artificial, oppressive nation, is directed by western academics advocating western intervention to bring human rights. It is supported by private foundations, churches and the US government and promotes fragmentation by bolstering regional identities, “backward” castes, and religious minorities. Sadly, our own people, such as many activists and the westernised upper class, have internalised India’s “oppression of minorities.” The human catastrophe that would envelope diverse groups — especially the weakest — in the aftermath of India’s break up is blithely ignored.
Beyond tolerance and assimilation
Critics worry that national identity promotes fascism. But while many civilisations have used identity for conquest, my vision of Indianness is driven by mutual respect. We respect the other who is different provided the other reciprocates with respect towards us, in rhetoric and in action. The religious “tolerance” of Judaism, Islam and Christianity is a patronising accommodation; it puts up with others’ differences without respecting their right to be different. In contradistinction, Indian civilisation embraces differences reciprocally.
Movements that eradicate differences span the ideological spectrum. Some religions claim mandates from God to convert the religiously different. Although the European Enlightenment project dispensed with God, it enabled erasing ethnic diversity through genocide of Native Americans and slavery of African-Americans. Asians were luckier, because they could become “less different” via colonisation.
Today, many Indians erase their distinctiveness by glamorising white identity as the gold standard. Skin lighteners are literal whiteners. Media and pop culture incorporate white aesthetics, body language and attire for social status, careers and marriage. The venerable “namaste” is becoming a marker of the older generations and the servants. Pop Hindu gurus peddle the “everything is the same” mumbojumbo, ignoring even the distinctions between the dharmic and the un-dharmic. Intellectuals adopt white categories of discourse as “universal”.
Difference eradicating ideologies are hegemonic. Either you (i) assimilate, (ii) oppose and suffer, or (iii) get contained and marginalised.
But Indian philosophy is built on celebrating diversity — in trees, flowers, matter, human bodies, minds, languages and cultures, spiritualities and traditions — and does not see it as a problem to be dealt with.
All social groups manifest an affinity for in-group relations but in the ideal Indian ethos, in-group affinity is without external aggression. Before colonial social engineering, traditional Indian castes were fluid, informal containers of identities, interwoven with one another, and not frozen hierarchically. This applied to Muslims, Christians and Hindus. Each caste had its distinct norms and was respected by others. My India is a web of thousands of castes encapsulating diverse genes and memes. This ideal is the exact opposite of fascist ethnocentrism.
Diversity yes, fragmentation no
The socially mobile castes that had preserved India’s diversity were frozen into castes to serve the British divide-andrule. Independent India adopted caste identities to allocate quotas instead of safeguarding individual rights. When the Congress party failed to integrate a vast mishmash of subidentities, regional vote-banking entrepreneurs captured India’s political fragments. Now, national interests are casually disregarded for fear of offending these fragments.
Globalisation has opened the floodgates for minority leaders to tie-up with western churches and NGOs, Saudis, Chinese and just about anyone wanting to carve out a slice of the Indian elephant. Such minorities include the Nagas, now serving as a foreign subsidiary of the Texas Southern Baptist Church; Tamils who first got Dravidianised and are now being Christianised through identity engineering; Maoists in over 30 percent of India’s districts; and Saudifunded Pan-Islamists expanding across India. These fragmented identities weaken Indianness due to their loyalty to foreign alliances. The leaders depend on foreign headquarters for ideological and financial support.
Such groups are no longer minorities, but are agents of dominant world majorities. They are franchisees of the global nexuses they serve. They are adversaries of the Indian identity formation. Do they truly help India’s under classes? These global nexuses have a disappointing track record of solving problems in countries where they have operated for generations, including Latin America, Philippines and Africa where most natives have become converted. The imported religion has failed to bring human rights and has often exacerbated problems. Yet, Indian middlemen have mastered the art of begging foreign patronage in exchange for selling the souls of fellow Indians.
Towards an Indian identity
Hindutva is a modern political response lacking the elasticity to be the pan-Indian identity. Other popular ideas are equally shallow, such as the Indianness defined by Bollywood and cricket. Ideals like “secular democracy” and “development” do not a distinct national identity make. It is fashionable to blend pop culture with European ideologies and pass it off as Indianness. Such blends cannot bind a complex India together against fissiparous casteism and regionalism coming in the orbits of Islamist jihad and evangelical Christianity.
Indianness must override fragmented identities, no matter how large the vote bank or how powerful the foreign sponsor. Gandhi articulated a grand narrative for India. Tagore and Aurobindo saw continuity in Indian civilisation. Nehru had a national vision, which Indira Gandhi modified and defended fiercely. The Ashokan, Chola, and Maratha empires had welldefined narratives, each with an idea of India.
Debating Indianness fearlessly and fairly
A robust Indianness must become the context in which serious issues get debated. Everyone should be able to participate — be it Advani or Sonia, the Imam of Jama Masjid or Hindu gurus, Thackeray or the underworld — in a free and fair debate on Indianness, and no one should be exempt from criticism.
But the Indian intellectual mafia, which built careers by importing and franchising foreign doctrines, suppresses debate outside its framework, and brands honest attempts at opposing them as fascism. I offer a few examples.
A few years before 9/11, the Princeton-based Infinity Foundation proposed to a prestigious Delhi-based centre to research the Taliban and their impact on India. The centre’s intellectuals pronounced the hypothesis an unrealistic conspiracy theory and unworthy of study. Even after 9/11, the American Academy of Religion refused to study the Taliban as a religious phenomenon while persisting with Hindu caste, cows, dowry, mothers-in-law, social oppression, violence and sundry intellectual staples.
Some analysts hyphenate Islamist terror with Kashmir, imputing that terrorism is a legitimate dispute resolution technique. “The plight of Muslims” is a rationalisation; and Martha Nussbaum, a University of Chicago professor, blames “Hindu fascism” as the leading cause of terrorism and justifies the Mumbai massacre by hyphenating it with Hindu “pogroms,” Hindu “ethnic cleansing against Muslims,” and the Hindu project to “Kill Christians and destroy their institutions.” Her insensitivity to the victims, just two days after 26/11, was given a free pass by the LA Times. Double standards are evident when cartoons lampooning Islam are condemned, whereas serious attacks against Hindu deities, symbols and texts are defended in the name of intellectual freedom.
Be positive and “live happily ever after”
The Bollywood grand finale, where the couple lives happily ever after, is de rigueur. Friends insist that my analysis must end with something positive by way of solving the problems I uncover. Hard evidence of dangerous cleavages in India, spinning out of control, is too “negative.” The need to work backwards from a happy ending and only admit evidence that fits such endings is an Indian psychological disorder. But we don’t expect doctors to reject negative diagnoses, analysts to ignore market crashes, or teachers to praise our unruly children. What if there is no “good” alternative?
It is disturbing that strategic options against Pakistan must subserve the sensitivities of Indian Muslims. This gratuitously assumes that Indian Muslims are less Indian than Muslim. Some fear that strong Indian action will precipitate increased jihad, or even nuclear war. Such fears recapitulate the early campaigns to appease Hitler. Once a violent cancer spreads outside the tumour’s skin, it demands a direct attack. Vitamins, singing, and lamp-lighting are pointless. In sports or warfare, medicine or marketing, you cannot win by only using defence. The offensive option that cannot be exercised is merely a showpiece. If national interests are dominated by minority sentiments, our enemies will exploit our weakness. A paralysed India emboldens predators.
Games nations play
After Indians return to psychological normalcy, apathy will be confused as resilience. When each episode is seen in isolation there is short-term thinking, a tolerance of terrorism, and an acceptance that mere survival is adequate. Strategic planning requires connecting the trends clearly.
Indians must understand the reality of multiple geopolitical board games. Moves on one gameboard trigger consequences on others, making the tradeoffs complex. The South Asia gameboard involves USA-India-Pakistan as well as China-Pakistan stakes. Besides external games with its neighbours, India plays internal games to appease fragments, which are influenced by foreign stakeholders. Religion is used as soft power in the game of Islam versus the West, and India’s fragmentation hastens the harvesting of souls in the world’s largest open market. The multinational business gameboard spotlights India as a market, a supplier, a competitor, and an investment destination.
In another gameboard, scholars of South Asia construct a discourse with Indian intellectuals as their sepoys and affiliated NGOs as paid agents. Following the academic and human rights experts who profited from the Iraq invasion, the players in this game hope that US president designate Barack Obama will budget billions to “engage South Asia.”
The identity challenges are offset by forces that hold India together. Private enterprises that span the entire country bring cohesion that depends on high economic growth and its trickle down to the lowest strata to outpace population growth and social unrest. Economic prosperity is also required for military spending. More than any other institution, the armed forces unify the nation because they realise that soldiers must identify themselves with the nation they are prepared to die for.
Recent US policy supports India’s sovereignty, but this should be seen in the context of using India as a counterweight against Pan-Islam and China. In the long run, the US would like India not to become another unified superpower like China or to disintegrate into a Pakistan-like menace. It will “manage” India between these two extremes. An elephant cannot put itself up for adoption as someone’s pet. It must learn to fend for itself.
Lessons for India Although the US is a land of immigrants, pride of place goes to the majority religion. Political candidates for high office are seriously disadvantaged if they are not seen as good Christians. The church-state separation is not a mandate to denounce Christianity or privilege minority religions. America was built on white identity that involved the ethnic cleansing of others. To its credit, India has avoided this.Obama sought a better, unified nation and transcended the minorityism of previous Black leaders. Unlike the Dravidianists, Mayawati, and those Muslim and Christian leaders who undermine India’s identity, Obama is unabashedly patriotic and a devout follower of its majority religion. America celebrates its tapestry of hyphenated identities (Indian-American, Irish-American, etc.) but “American” supersedes every sub-identity. Being un-American is a death knell for American leaders.
In sharp contrast, Mayawati, Indian Muslim leaders, Indian Christian leaders, Dravidianists and other “minority” vote bankers have consolidated power at the expense of India’s unified identity. Unlike the promoters of fragmented Indian identities, Obama is closer to Mahatma Gandhi and Ambedkar, champions of the downtrodden within a unified Indian civilisation.
India can learn from American mechanisms. Indian billionaires must become major stakeholders in constructing positive discourse on the nation. They must make strategic commitments like those made by the Carnegies, Rockefellers and Fords in building American identity, its sense of history, and in projecting American ideals. American meritocracy in politics, implemented through internal primaries, is vastly superior to the cronyism in Indian politics.
The area studies programmes in American universities have close links to the government, think tanks and churches, and they examine nations and civilisations from the American perspective. India should establish a network of area studies to study neighboring countries and other regions from India’s viewpoint. India should study China’s establishment of 100 Confucian Studies Chairs worldwide and the civilisational grand narrative of other nations.
Ideological “camps” with pre-packaged solutions are obsolete. The Indian genius must improvise, innovate, and create a national identity worthy of its name.
Published: January 17, 2009