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Our singularly plural ways

How we choose to identify ourselves works at various levels and depends on the context. Sitaram Yechury elaborates.

columns Updated: Oct 09, 2009 16:33 IST

Noted writer and Sahitya Akademi winner, U.R. Anantha Murthy, recently delivered the fourth Sumitra Chishti Memorial Lecture. In his lecture, he extended the frontiers of discussion on multiple identities by drawing upon the conterminous use of various languages by Indians. Though this was not the basic thrust of his lecture (‘Globalisation, English and ‘other’ languages’), this adds to the rich discussion on this issue raised by the likes of Amartya Sen.

Sen has systematised what intuitively many of us have lived with. When I travel abroad, I am an Indian. In India, I am a Telugu-speaking Andhra. In Andhra, I am from the Godavari district. There I am from its delta region, and so on — apart from being identified by my religious and caste identities. I am elected to Parliament from West Bengal and have been living in Delhi for four decades.

Each one of us is comfortable with all these identities and identify with any of them depending on the context.

The question of identity has always haunted human consciousness. Reflecting a fundamental human urge, Socrates raised identity to the level of a basic question of philosophy by seeking to ‘know thyself’. More recently, in the context of terrorist attacks, the contemporary discourse on identity politics — particularly of religious minorities like ‘Muslim radicalisation’ — has acquired an important bearing determining policy. So a discussion on identity assumes importance in the practical sense for pursuing correct policies.

Philosophically, the concept of identity has often been based on two assumptions: that there is a principal or dominant identity; and that we seek to discover this identity. Sen negates both. An identity cannot be chosen at random. It is, naturally, prescribed by where we are born, our community, traditions etc. The point, according to Sen, is “... whether we do have choices over alternative identities or combination of identities, and perhaps more importantly, substantial freedom on what priority to give to the various identities that we may simultaneously have.”

Anantha Murthy’s extension of this understanding to include languages is important in the context of it often becoming a bone of chauvinistic contention. He shows that in much of recorded history and in today’s realities, we, in India, live using, at least, three languages simultaneously — the mother tongue, the language at work, and the language of creative expressions.

Many facts that we already knew now suddenly appear as inseparable parts of our harmonious diversity and not points of chauvinistic conflict. The trimurthi of Carnatic music — Thyagaraja, Shyama Sastry and Muthuswami Dikshitar — all composed their music in Telugu, though having different mother tongues. Yet, the music is called ‘Karnatak’. Instead of recognising this simple truth, there were ugly expressions of chauvinism when M.S. Subbalakshmi was once not allowed to perform at the annual Thyagaraja Gana Sabha, Thanjavur, simply because she used to sing in Tamil, not knowing Telugu. The harmony of our diversity is such that Telugu compositions can be effortlessly rendered in Tamil — or in Kannada.

Yet another point of chauvinistic conflict between Kannadigas and Telugus relates to the choice made by the doyen of the Vijayanagara empire, Krishna Devaraya, to compose his masterpiece Amukta Malyada in Telugu, by saying that of all languages of this land Telugu is “the best”. Once the multiplicity of the language identity is recognised, such potential conflict situations simply cease. A more modern example would be that of Firaq Gorakhpuri. A high caste Hindu by birth, a professor of English Literature in Allahabad University, he earned his fame for the heights he scaled in Urdu poetry.

Once a learned intellectual from across the seas visited the Vijayanagara court at Hampi and challenged Krishna Devaraya’s famed ‘Ashta Diggajas’ (eight court poets) to identify his mother tongue as he effortlessly spoke in many languages. When all failed, Tenali Rama (the Vijayanagara court’s version of Birbal of Akbar’s court) is summoned to save the pride of Hampi. At night when the foreigner was fast asleep, Tenali Rama throws cold water on him. The language in which he, in shock, exclaims was declared as his mother-tongue. While the mother tongue is, of course, important, ‘the choice’ of language in ‘the context’ that Amartya Sen speaks of becomes important in understanding multiple identities.

While the debate on identity as ‘given’ or ‘chosen’ will continue, the recognition of multiple identities is important to determine social policies. For instance, the policies of ‘multiculturalism’ in Britain, according to Sen, have been reduced to “plural mono culturalism”: “Bangladesh’s separation from Pakistan was not based on religion but on their language, literature and secular policies.” Yet, says Sen, they are merged with “Muslims from Morocco to Indonesia”. Multicultural policies, by “downplaying political and social identities, as opposed to religious identities”, have “weakened civil society precisely when there is a great need to strengthen it”.

There is much, for us in India, to learn from this. But that will only be possible when we have a political ambience conducive to such, much required, discourse. This requires a shift in our policy trajectory that only an alternative political formation can ensure. India must rise to accomplish this in the coming elections.

(Sitaram Yechury is CPI(M) Politburo member and MP)

First Published: Mar 12, 2009 22:12 IST