What exactly is `being Indian'?

Published : Sep 10, 2004 00:00 IST

Visionary rulers have always identified and built on the bonds that hold India together. This foresight is in danger of decay now.

EVENTS in recent weeks have brought into focus a question that has troubled us through the generations. What exactly is `being Indian'? It comes up whenever a new demand is made for a separate State; it comes up in a more intense form when people in one part of the country demand that they separate and form a country of their own. We have no dearth of examples; this happened in Kashmir and in several areas in the northeastern region. Such demands have been made a number of times by groups in Assam and Nagaland, and if things go the way one fears they are going in Manipur, then we may well be seeing the emergence of yet another demand that another part of India become an independent entity. It is already on the brink; all it needs is a little push.

This kind of issue inevitably brings us to the question of what being Indian is all about. I came face to face with this first in 1986 when the agitation for Gorkhaland erupted into a major mass movement buoyed up by violence, innumerable bandhs, arson and everything that was destructive. Being Commissioner of North Bengal, I saw the faces of the movement - the faces of a number of young men and women, their eyes alight with anger, minds steeled against arguments and explanatory offerings from various anxious people - and it made me think of the reasons why these youngsters who just a few years ago were a carefree lot full of laughter and humour we used to associate with the people of Darjeeling had changed so rapidly, edged away from others. What had changed them?

In his book The Idea of India, Sunil Khilnani points out that while many factors would logically lead one to conclude that India ought to disintegrate, our differences in language, for example, and in religion, customs, social behaviour and so on, underlying these differences are a number of other factors that bind and hold the country together. These are not only the economic and commercial factors, though they are important enough. The prime factors are a mix of shared ideas and beliefs, shared ways of living and other socio-cultural aspects.

Historically, this is true enough. One marvels at the intense motivation and devotion of people like Adi Sankara as he journeyed through India, or what we call India today, and many others like him, spreading ideas, beliefs, attitudes and indeed philosophies that translated over time into ways of living and behaving that had a common source or origin.

This concept of India, this dynamic and restless intermingling and confrontation, which cannot really be summed up in that smug phrase "unity in diversity", has kept India what it is. There has never been a time when India has not been threatened and there has never been a time when India did not break into several kingdoms or separate States and come together again. But the process has always had, running through it, some strong and abiding bonds.

These are the bonds that are being tested in the northeastern region, and more particularly, now in Manipur. In time, the bonds may prove stronger and prevail, but the process must be understood and accepted as what it is by Indians generally and the government in particular. The process is of the re-identification of a group, a community, or people. Sometimes this perception tends to be smothered in the indifference and worse still, by the dreadful and all enveloping bureaucracy of the government. The danger lies here.

In years gone by, farsighted rulers or even colonial powers, saw these essential underlying factors and built on them. Today, we run the risk of this foresight slowly decaying and degenerating into a different setting in the form of note in a file maintained by a Deputy Secretary in the Ministry of Home Affairs.

Many years ago, I saw with a sense of wonder artefacts unearthed from the Indus Valley civilisation sites, more particularly the recent ones uncovered at Dhola Vira. One could see the manner in which craftsmanship began, hesitantly, in the early period, moved to a period of exquisite perfection and beauty which came from a greater confidence and awareness and then degenerated into florid and uninspired constructions which marked the decline of the civilisation.

One is sometimes not very sure that we are not at the brink of a similar slow move towards the breakdown of our culture and civilisation. Some signs are ominous. Narrow, short-sighted considerations weigh with those in authority when confronted with issues like the re-identification I have mentioned, which is something a people need to do and has to be recognised as necessary. If it is dismissed as another instance of lawlessness and if the jackboot is used instead of brains, then we are almost certainly heading towards degeneration and chaos.

CONSIDER, for instance, the worrying way in which the government acts in relation to disturbed areas - not in the sense in which the phrase is used under the laws now in force but in the true meaning of the words in English - and we can still see this for ourselves. Officers at senior levels are sent to positions of authority in the northeastern States like procurators in the days of the Roman Empire. They go alone, leaving their families comfortably settled in Delhi, for a brief stint of two years or so. These are considered `hardship' postings. In other words, they are seen by themselves and by the government as being sent to alien, hostile places which have to be ruled, the rulers alien to the people they have to rule and the people they rule regarding them as such. Any one from other parts of the country, who has been to the northeastern region, including Manipur, knows that he or she is seen as coming from `India'. You are asked if you have just arrived from `India' and if a resident from there has to go to, say, Delhi he is said to be going to `India'. This is in no small measure owing to the labours of generations of short-sighted officers and politicians both in the northeastern region and in Delhi. They have succeeded together, perhaps unknowingly, in convincing the people of that region that India is an entity of which they are not a part.

It is also common knowledge now that there is, to make matters worse, rampant corruption in all the northeastern States. A large number of Ministers are corrupt as are a large number of officers. It is known best of all to the people of the area. They see it as yet another instance of neglect and indifference, and that the Centre does nothing to check this corruption. All it does, really, universal as a remedy is to apply more force by sending in some more battalions of the Army and paramilitary forces.

Consider also how, in the face of weeks and weeks of anger that has unified the people of Manipur, the Centre has done precisely nothing. Whatever has been done by the Chief Minister of Manipur has been hopelessly too little and too late. I am not arguing for or against the demands made in Manipur; I am merely pointing to the attitudes displayed and the fact that it speaks of indifference and short-sightedness.

All this cannot but cause alarm and concern. If the Centre is to do something meaningful then it is essential that it look first at its own attitudes and assumption: these are, to put mildly, decadent and outdated. A quick reinvention of itself is what the government needs to do if it does not wish to see that the tormented State become another region where unhappiness sums into a desire to break away, where freedom is not the freedom of India, but freedom from India.

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