Identity politics in India

I wrote this for the college magazine. Its my views of identity politics which though highly dangerous are universal

Fear is one of the most powerful weapons to control humans. Of all the countless fears and phobias that humans are susceptible to, the most powerful are the ones that can be classified under the category ‘fear of the other’. It has its genesis from the survival instinct of humans to form groups or clans among people with similar interests. The earliest of the groups were formed for improving efficiency in hunting. The groups gave them safety in the highly hostile surroundings in which they lived then. Any potential disruption to these groupings was viewed with scepticism and later with outright hostility. Thus the sense of identity and hostility towards the other is as old as humans themselves. But we have come a long way from the hunter/gatherers we were. Moving out of Africa, the modern man moved far and out and in the process developed new traits, survival skills and looks. Only the hidden messages coded in our genetic makeup links all of us to the small group in Africa that diversified to become what we are now. From that initial identity, we created new identities: on the way we talked, the way social norms were set, the way we bowed in front of the all powerful, the way we dressed etc. These identities, some as old as humans themselves or some just a few decades old have become major rallying points for politicians to pursue their ends.

The Indian Identity

As a civilization we have never ceased to grow. Whether it be invaders or refugees fleeing persecution in far off lands, we have always made it a point absorb the good things they brought in and thus renew our cultural gene pool. The result was the creation of multifarious identities of being Indian. The question ‘what makes you an indian’ will get you answers numerous as pollens in an orchard and as varied as flowers in a garden.  So what exactly makes us Indians? Rather than answering that question, It will be easier to jot down points as to what does not completely define us as a nation.

We are not a single geographical entity. The geograpjical entity is the Indian sub-continent. But large parts of it are currently not part of our country and some others never were. Even when Burma was integrated as a part of British India in 1886, it held on to its individual identity. The Indian National Congress in its Poorna Swaraj declaration in 1929 had made it clear that Burma will not be part of free India. Afghanistan maintained its tribal identity throughout history and is still living up to its image as ‘the graveyard of empires’.

Contrary to popular belief, we have never completely come under a single administration either. The Guptas, Mauryas and the Mughals integrated and ruled over large swathes of territory that would become India later. But none of them could rule over the entire land. Large parts of south and north east India remained outside their rule. Even when India was politically unified under the raj, the British only ruled less than 60% of the land. The remaining was ruled by princes under the suzerainty of the British crown. When we won independence in 1947, we didn’t inherit a single india, but 14 provinces which were directly ruled by the British and 535 princely states. Also contrary to popular beliefs, the national movement didn’t give us a single identity either. The Indian national Congress was active in the provinces alone. Although the congress had some of the most illustrious leaders like U.N Dhebar and others coming from princely states, it was the congress policy until 1939 not to organize any mass movements in the princely states. But they took memberships from the princely states who were active in movements throughout the country. These people spread the modern ideas of freedom and equality in the princely states. The beacon of reform and freedom was carried by regional parties that were independent of the major national parties.

Given the way in which India was inherited from the british, a reorganization for admistrative convenience was one of the foremost priorities. After a lot of debates and commissions, it was decided in 1956 to reorganize the nation on linguistic basis. So can language compartmentalize us into rigid identities? We had 14 states based on 14 official languages then. But the number of languages that are in the eight schedule of the constitution now is 22. Besides these 22, there are innumerable languages spoken on regional basis. Even in areas in which the same language is spoken, the regional diversities can be mind boggling. The pace, the style and the vocabulary can be so varied that one may fail to comprehend a person from the same linguistic region but speaking a different regional variety. But on a broader scale these thousands of languages can be classified into 5 root categories.

Identity politics in India

Given these factors, identity is a fluid concept in India. There are no clear cut definitions or boundaries. Every person belongs to a minority in his own way. Still inspite of the fact that we have so many identities and inspite of the fact that theses identities are not always water tight, politics of identity have found its roots in the country and flourished, sometimes leading to disastrous consequences. Even the momentous event of the birth of free India was marred by violence and a refugee crisis that has few parallels in recorded human history.  Thousands of riots small and big has happened in our country ever since. There are even political parties thriving exclusively on the concept of a particular identity.

On close perusal it can be seen that all these political parties follow similar strategies to gain foothold. In the first stage, the identity is glorified citing examples from our rich history and our heritage. Together with this, mild skirmishes are made at other parallel identities to reinforce the supremacy of the particular identity. The next phase is the fear psychosis part when people are constantly reminded that all parallel identities pose a continuous challenge to our identity and hence must be resisted. Both the Hindu Maha Sabha(1915) and Muslim league(1906) gave possible hostile takeover by the other religion as the reason for their formation and existence. The final phase is the phase of outright hostility in which the party consolidates its base and calls for the complete extermination of the ‘other’.

Its not so difficult to find the hollowness in the arguments of the political parties. Its more so true in the case of India. But that doesn’t give us any room to lower our defenses. The fact that mass hysteria can be imposed even in a modern developed society was brutally demonstrated in the case of Nazi Germany. With further cultural assimilation and ‘flattening’ of the world, questions of identity can easily be converted into powerful weapons. The first step towards preventing identity blowing out into serious scales is to understand our unique history and accept our differences.

The diversity of the country is a constant reminder of the richness of our civilization. It is undoubtedly our greatest strength. Sixty years of democracy have taken us to a point from which regaining past glory and richness is a goal that is within our reach. In the process, our greatest strength will be the collective energies of our people. The lessons learnt from the pitfalls and blemishes should never be forgotten. India is more than the sum of its parts. We should accept and celebrate the multifarious identities that we simultaneously possess and the unique thread of being Indian running through those seemingly conflicting identities. If we can show the resolve to do this, the future is undoubtedly ours.

 

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Posted on August 18, 2010, in india, just my thoughts, Political, Social and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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