Questions of identity

Print edition : January 02, 2004

As Hitler did in Germany and George Bush is doing in the United States, the Sangh Parivar is attempting to impose on Hindus an identity that is not real.

ALL of us have multiple identities. At the individual level, we have one kind of identity, and relate to others through that; we have another identity as a member of a group or a community or as a citizen of a country and share ideas, beliefs, reactions and whatever stems from these. There is also an identity given to us by our political leaders, who use their political rhetoric to create an identity that is often not entirely what we are, even though it has some traces of our common identity.

Trishul-wielding Bajrang Dal activists at a Trishul Dikhsa function organised by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad in Lucknow.-SUBIR ROY

This may sound a little more abstruse than it really is. Let us take a few specific examples. An individual may be a Hindu; very devout, or not very devout, but a Hindu nonetheless. He belongs to the community of Hindus, which again he assumes without question and would share many ideals, rituals and beliefs with them. That is why there are religious festivals where thousands of Hindus congregate; not everyone who goes to the Kumbh Mela, for instance, goes because of his or her intense devotion - some may go because they are curious or because they just want to do what others do - but they are there in their millions because of what they share and have in common.

Then there is the third identity given to Hindus by fanatic groups like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). That may not be an identity that all Hindus believe in - indeed, many devout Hindus do not - and may even find obnoxious, but that identity is loudly attributed to all Hindus, through public speeches and the skilful use of the media. As long as this identity that they call Hindu remains something that the vast majority of Hindus do not accept, even if they acquiesce in the flaunting of it by the VHP, it stays an extreme form, an identity created by an extreme group.

All this is true of all people and has been true through time; it is not a very original notion that is being presented here. Individual Americans have their own identity and as individuals can be, and are, for the most part, just ordinary decent folk; as Americans, taken together, they share a great deal with one another in the same way as we have said Hindus do - they have their Fourth of July celebrations, Thanksgiving and all the rest. And they too have a third identity, one created by their political leaders, and that is an identity that is not as pleasant. Again, many Americans may not agree with it, but a whole lot of them acquiesce in what is said to be `American' by George W. Bush merely to get on with their lives. The difference, and the danger, is that this identity has what the VHP's identity of Hindus does not have - power.

So we have `America' opposing the Kyoto agreements; we have "America' invading Iraq and killing thousands of citizens of that country only because Bush says `America' is threatened by them; we have `America' refusing to let goods from other countries into the United States while using pressure of various kinds to flood other countries with U.S. goods. It is this identity that makes some of the few who believe in it kill innocent Sikhs because they `look like terrorists' and are considered enemies of their country. This is the identity that the world sees, and the one for which individual Americans who, as individuals, are not part of any of this, pay a heavy price in encountering hatred when they travel to other parts of the world, on occasion even losing their lives.

Unfortunately, in all such cases, it is this third identity that gets the most media attention. We hear more of Bush's concept of what `American' means than we do of the ordinary American in the street; we hear more of what Praveen Togadia says of what Hindus are than what individual, ordinary Hindus in our cities and villages do. Consequently there is a generally incorrect set of assumptions about people that the media unwittingly helps to spread, and this is what is fraught with dangers that may well overtake a community or people, dangers arising from a false notion of what they as individuals or even nationals of a country are. Iraq is trying to destroy the U.S.; so bomb the country, smash its essential services, kill its people and put it down to collateral damage. Hindus are being threatened by Muslims who should have gone to Pakistan in the first place; so kill them, burn their houses and shops and loot their belongings.

There certainly are times when a leader who has great charismatic power can make the third identity appear real to the people themselves. Adolf Hitler did that in the 1930s in Germany. There must have been thousands of ordinary, decent German people who only wanted to go about their daily work; and many of them must also have considered Germany a country with its distinctive and admirable culture and history, a Germany where great artists and thinkers as well as great industrialists flourished, and saw their country as another in the comity of nations. No more, no less. But Hitler changed all that. He was able to get most Germans to see Germany as he saw it, Germans as he saw them. That was also what the media of the day presented, and Hitler made sure that they did.

The consequence of that acceptance of identities created by a fanatical leader - as individuals and as a people - identities that were false in that they were not completely true led to the horror of the Second World War, the loss of millions of lives, and the destruction of Germany as a nation.

Fortunately America does not have a leader with that kind of mesmerising hold on popular imagination; if many see Bush as their kind of leader, there are almost as many who think he is an embarrassment, almost a joke. And here at home there is, again, a tacit rejection of the fanaticism of the Togadias and Narendra Modis; it was not accidental that during the recent election in Rajasthan the colour saffron did not figure, that neither of the aforementioned gentlemen were asked by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to speak in that State. Even in the election campaign of the BJP in Madhya Pradesh Narendra Modi addressed only a few meetings, and stuck to a brief he had obviously been given, a brief which Uma Bharati faithfully followed and which brought her rich dividends; concentrate on the lack of development, the lack of roads, power and water. Leave alone the mandir and other such issues.

So, for now, one can see that in this country the imposition of an identity which is politically desirable but not really true of Indians, as a whole or as individuals, will not work. But that must never make us complacent, or, more important, make political leaders move towards the obvious temptations of the benefits they think such created identities, imposed through inflammatory speeches and the cunning use of the media - which on its own has become a most potent force - can bring them.

They have two examples before them that should make them think; that of Germany in the 1930s and of the terrifying mess that America has got itself into in Iraq. Should they succumb to the likes of Togadia and Modi and try to create an identity defined by hatred and intolerance - and should that gain acceptance among a large number of people - they will be taking India into a holocaust from which we will never emerge whole again.

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