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66 years on, an incomplete quest for national identity

Inter-faith friendship is fine but marriage is not. We are all Indian until it’s about job reservations. Why do we stumble when we try for a 21st century identity? Paramita Ghosh writes.

india Updated: Aug 15, 2013 18:54 IST
Paramita Ghosh
Paramita Ghosh
Hindustan Times

For years, Indians have dribbled the same ball across the length and breadth of India and asked what it should be as a country. Can it be nationalist when it is pulled in different directions by strong regional sentiments?

Is it secular when it has had a mixed record in undermining religious majoritarianism? Is it politically democratic with a one-man-one-vote system but socially undemocratic because of the same reason? And has its flagship theme, unity in diversity, actually meant a management of differences and not their embrace? The HT-C fore survey reveals what being Indian means to Indians 66 years after Independence.

A high 45% disapprove of inter-caste/faith/community marriages. ‘Close friendship’ with people from other religious communities/caste groups is possible (58%) but 29% said the differences were considered. Pan-Indianism as an idea is popular (59%) but cracks under socio-economic pressures. More people (55%) feel natives of a state should get preference in jobs/education in their own state.

Rival, and often contradictory, pulls have, in fact, been built into India’s identity from the start. In The Idea of India, Sunil Khilnani points out how the triumph of Nehru’s modern political vision was, ironically enough, guaranteed precisely through the preservation of pre-modern hierarchies and privileges such as rural property orders.

“A principle of positive discrimination, or affirmative action, in compensation for past injuries inflicted on the lowest in the social order was introduced in the form of reservation thus establishing a language of community rights in a society where the liberal language of individual rights and equality was little used,” he writes.

Has nothing changed? For young urban Indians, caste or religion is not a factor. “That could be because we are apathetic,” said Ritesh, a Mumbai-based manager. This is perhaps why though a high percentage (43%) of 18-35 year-olds surveyed said they “approve” of mixed unions, they don’t resist or put up a fight when parents disapprove.

“When we love someone, we don’t ask about caste, but when it’s marriage, many give in and obey their parents,” said Ritesh.

Sub-national movements like Telangana are also being seen by many as a challenge to the ‘idea of India’. Columnist Shobhaa De has called the birth of new states a “Balkanization.” Radha Kumar, director general, Delhi Policy Group, however, said: “Creating new administrative units in one country can only become problematic if there is no rule of the Constitution and the freedoms of movement, employment, citizenship are not guaranteed.”

For Manju Nath, a teacher in Patna — for whom a sense of state is strong as with 16% of Indians in the survey — said an Indian identity should have no quarrel with regional aspirations. “Smaller units lead to better governance I feel,” she said.

SAME, YET DIFFERENT: People from India’s states speak up about grappling with multiple identities and nationalism

Shared vision

Social scientist Yogendra Yadav argued that the model of integration that India followed was not the European model of nation-state, that of homogenisation, a looking for unity in sameness such as followed by countries such as France or Germany.

“What India followed was the state-nation, not nation-state, in which unity was not a function of singular cultural traditions, therefore it does not search for one language, one culture, one religion. There has been an attempt to try to create unity through political identity and through a shared vision of the future, ” he said. But how has this model of unity among diversity fared?

Laxman Singh, a Dalit student in Noida, describes his cultural and nationalistic experience of being a lower caste well. “In the cities no one asks you your caste anymore, but the caste system is diluted not broken. Economic policies that ensure lower castes stay poor continue.”

So while he is “not gloomy” about the future of India, he said he is no nationalist. “Gandhi said if you want to know how progressive a country is, go to the last poor man standing. Nationalism is for the elite,” he said.

Religion, or rather its place in the politico-cultural identity of India, is also an area that has not been settled. Sunandan Roychowdhury, professor at Amity University has an optimistic take: “If you graph days of riots or conflicts with days of peace, in India, the latter outnumbers the former.”

But does that make us truly secular? Nineteen percent of people surveyed are ready to snap ties with a sibling or child if she were to marry someone from a different religious background. Just like in our electoral democracy, in which the right to vote is equal for a rich and a poor man and yet does not change existing socio-economic structures, have we made peace with secularism only so as to leave it open to all kinds of uses?

(With inputs from Swati Kundra)

First Published: Aug 14, 2013 20:03 IST