Narrowing identities

Published : Jun 01, 2012 00:00 IST

GORKHA JANMUKTI MORCHA supporters block the road in Darjeeling town during a bandh in January 2011 demanding a separate Gorkhaland state.-AJAY SHA

GORKHA JANMUKTI MORCHA supporters block the road in Darjeeling town during a bandh in January 2011 demanding a separate Gorkhaland state.-AJAY SHA

The notion of India and its diverse nature seems to be coming under strain.

WE fear what we do not understand, and, as Graham Greene said, hate is an automatic response to fear. Over the years we have been degenerating into a people who may, only in a very superficial and mechanical manner, be called more educated but are really more petty and bigoted. Our minds are more closed. We think in terms of our immediate neighbourhood and are losing interest in a larger awareness and comprehension.

True, the larger comprehension is more difficult in India than in most countries. To accept India is not easy; the large number of languages, religions and shades of religions, social habits, and ethnicities would defeat most people. To accept and to comprehend the United States is far easier, even though it is huge compared with India; its people speak one language with different accents, certainly and have similar social habits, as anyone who has been to a burger joint will tell you. Yes, Hispanics have their own ways, Italian immigrants have made pasta an integral part of middle American cuisine, and Chinese takeaways exist in virtually every city and town, but all of these have become part of a composite American culture. Compare all that with the thought of a Himachali contemplating rasam sadam (cooked rice mixed with a curry-flavoured soup).

The notion of India and its diverse nature was more easily accepted just after Independence, largely because until then there was a common bogeyman. After the departure of the bogeyman things began to change. Our essential pettiness asserted itself in the shape of demands for separate States. What separate States? What we now call India never had the kind of States it now has; there were larger or smaller kingdoms or fiefdoms of different kinds. And all of them gave in to the threat of boot and lathi. Once the threat receded, the suppressed pettiness asserted itself as cheap rhetoric in the form of slogans and rabble-rousing speeches.

We settled for smaller identities Keralite, Maharashtrian, Gujarati, Haryanvi, and so on which have begun to get even smaller. Telangana is now the rage in more sense than one, since the emergence of Jharkhandi and Chhattisgarhi and Uttarakhandi. Yes, we are Indians but give us Telangana or we will immolate ourselves, burn buses and buildings and block roads and trains. Of course, we must not forget Gorkhaland for which the mountain regions of Darjeeling district are routinely shut down for periods ranging from 24 hours to a month or more, as decided by the organisers.

Indeed people have ceased to comprehend anything but their immediate environment. To repeat what Graham Greene said, one fears what one does not comprehend, and what one fears one begins to hate. Possibly out of a distorted notion of self-defence.

Recently, the issue of the treatment of people from the north-eastern region working in other States was debated in the Rajya Sabha. Bharatiya Janata Party leader Arun Jaitley spoke of the need to sensitise people, apart from providing specific protective measures to people from the northeastern region.

The basic issue goes beyond that. What about the snorting that Maharashtra Navnirman Sena leader Raj Thackeray and his lot indulge in about North Indians, specifically those from Bihar? And what about the demands for separate identities, be it Telangana, Gorkhaland, Harit Pradesh (wherever that is) or Vidarbha? How many more such smaller parochial identities will crop up in the future?

Indians have an enormous task before them of coming to terms with the myriad small identities that people take shelter under, and then going beyond them to a comprehension and physical acceptance of being Indian, speaking different languages, and having unique social customs and traditions. In other words, an Indian is simply not what government-sponsored advertisements often depict him to be a man with a turban and sporting a moustache. He may be that and also someone with Mongolian features or someone with straight hair, and so on.

We have to accept our uniqueness and the fact that all of us are Indian. And where does this acceptance and awareness start? It has to start in our schools and families. With our teachers, especially. Are they equipped for the task? It would be safe to say that the vast majority are not. So the teaching of teachers needs to be taken in hand, and one can only hope that some non-governmental organisations (NGOs) consider the instilling of the consciousness of what is Indian a task worthy of their attention.

I fear this is something that state schools and institutions will, in general, not do very well. For one thing, many of them, too many, are infected with politics, with narrow notions of identity, from which all manner of smaller notions of identity often begin. Given the fact that state educational institutions are what State governments want them to be, this is not surprising. It is one of the dark spin-offs of the democratic process.

Not that all NGOs are, to paraphrase a well-known Bengali saying, washed tulsi leaves; but there are enough of them who do what they do because of well-thought-out convictions. One can look to such NGOs to take up the task of spreading the notion of being Indian as not just saluting the national flag with what the Home Ministry calls an alert expression, but as someone very complicated and made up of all kinds of traits and characteristics. (On a philosophical level one can say all human beings are complicated but let us keep this simple.)

It is a long shot. Most likely it will not work and we will head, inevitably, to demands coming up for more and more identities, and with it an increase in intolerance of those who do not conform to those identities.

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