Society and local identities

Print edition : December 15, 2006

A CONTINGENT OF tribal dancers at the Republic Day parade in New Delhi. Behind the separatist violence in some cases is an attempt to get ethnic and cultural identities recognised. - KAMAL KISHORE

Everyone must engage in the political process in some way to help our society regain its health, which is beginning to decline.

WITHOUT getting into a metaphysical argument on what constitutes identity, it would be reasonable to say that India spent the first part of the last century - the 20th century - seeking and asserting the Indian identity. Colonial oppression was so universally detested that people across the country turned on it and looked to leaders who articulated their collective resentment and anger.

It would be equally true to say that in those days of the freedom struggle it seemed irrelevant that Mahatma Gandhi was a Gujarati or that Jawaharlal Nehru was a Kashmiri - they were perceived universally as India's leaders who, among others, were leading India towards freedom.

To put it in very basic terms, nobody joined the freedom movement to obtain a free Bengal or free Bihar; people fought for a free India. India, then, was a clearly perceived concept, an emotive concept perhaps, but one that was intense in its clarity, and the people of the country were seen as Indians, wherever they came from, whatever language they spoke.

It is necessary to put this down because soon after India became independent all this began to change with a rapidity that was frightening. India and being Indian were certainly not given up, as the 1962 Chinese attack showed, when hundreds of thousands lined up with clothes and food for Indian soldiers, and donated their jewellery, gold and cash to the National Defence Fund. However, in parts of the country more specific loyalties were not only encouraged but also actually fanned into violent flames.

That is a trend that has continued to spread. National leaders have virtually disappeared; the only ones who have any kind of following are those with strong bases in certain castes or communities. Armed groups have taken to violence in an attempt to wrest `freedom' from India - in the northeastern region, in Kashmir, and even in some pockets of West Bengal.

Before they are written off as terrorists or separatists, it may be prudent to look at what exactly they are trying to say through their violence. Behind it is, in a number of cases, an attempt to get their identity recognised and accepted. The problem really may be in the enormous size and the diversity of the country. In the numerous languages, customs, religions, ethnic differences, cultural traditions and other elements that distinguish the different groups of people within the country, it can be a problem for one group to be heard or recognised as a group.

One is not justifying the murder of innocent people or the damage caused to trains, buses and other public property. That is evil and has to be seen as such. But evil, too, has a reason, as has hatred. The point one is trying to make is simply this: in a very complex, cosmopolitan and enormous society like ours it is vitally important that aspirations are not stifled, that hope of some kind is not stamped out, merely because it resides in the hearts of a small number of people. The extinguishing of hope and aspirations leads to despair that turns easily into anger and hatred, and hatred then takes the evil forms with which we are, sadly, all too familiar.

This vast, seething cauldron that is our society also contains elements which use the expressions of evil to further some other ends, such as trying to establish that it is impossible for such a variegated society to exist with any degree of stability and peace, because if it did, then the ideological base of other societies based on religion or ethnic singularity would cease to have any meaning.

This is something that needs to be tracked down, and eliminated, because it is an attack on the society we have built through the freedom struggle and cannot let it become a bargaining counter for fortune hunters and mafia dons. It sounds as if it is a fairly simple issue, but it is not. The fortune hunters and dons have worked out arrangements with political groups - as one has pointed out, the age of national leaders is clearly over and the petty community leaders we now have are only too willing to work out arrangements that bring them large amounts of money.

And the people in the other group, those looking for an acceptance of their identity, too, are not immune to the lure of money, which gets them weapons and, perhaps more importantly, the good life they secretly crave. They, too, as a consequence, are easy prey to the dons and fortune hunters. And, beyond them, their shadowy controllers carefully and methodically plan the co-option of what began perhaps as a struggle for recognition and then became an armed, murderous force operating against innocent people more for money and immediate power.

The paradox is that while our large, rather disorganised and cosmopolitan society is, by its very nature, responsible for the armed violence, it is this very heterogeneous nature of our large society that has made it possible for it to absorb the shocks and pain of violence and to carry on. A smaller and more organised society might be more vulnerable to such continuous attacks. The stories one hears, for example, of what has happened in Northern Ireland seem to bear this out. But, we have weathered the repeated attacks in Delhi, Ayodhya, Varanasi, Mumbai and Malegaon and have blundered on in our disorganised way.

And, oddly enough, these have brought back, however shakily, the notion of being Indian; the larger identity is possibly perceived by a large number of people, however vaguely, as being under threat, and there is a distinct attempt to assert it. One rather touching example of this is the increasing number of cars, taxis and buses that carry two small national flags on their dashboards.

It will, however, not do to take any comfort from this. The great emptiness, at the national level of genuine leadership, is a worrying, if not frightening, element; the turning towards communities and castes merely to gain political power and the moving away from ideology and political beliefs point to a growing dichotomy between those aspiring for political power and those who are aware of the political scenario, having studied it for considerable lengths of time, but who do not want to be part of it.

There is an urgency that must be felt by both groups to realise that even this large, sprawling society will eventually fall apart if the focus of so-called leaders is fixed only on narrow issues such as caste and community, and if scholars and political analysts consider it as being beneath their dignity to `descend' into the political arena or compromise with their ideals. None of us, in fact, can afford to hold back; the health of our society, the nurturing of the notion of Indianness, is not the concern of other people, but of every person in the country. Not that it means that everyone must instantly become a politician; but it means everyone must engage in the political process in some way, however small it may be. That is the only way our society will regain its health, which is beginning to decline noticeably, even if it is not yet a terminal decline; and time is not on our side.

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