Indian democracy imposes no narrow conformities on its citizens
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
IN A PASSAGE OF HIS MUCH-MISUNDERSTOOD novel The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie writes of “the eclectic, hybridized nature of the Indian artistic tradition.” Under the Mughals, he says, artists of different faiths and traditions were brought from many parts of India to work on a painting. One hand would paint the mosaic floors, another the human figures, a third the cloudy skies: “individual identity was submerged to create a many-headed, many-brushed Overartist who, literally, was Indian painting.”
This evocative image could as well be applied to the very idea of India, itself the product of the same hybrid culture. How, after all, can one approach this land of snow peaks and tropical jungles, with 23 major languages and 22,000 distinct “dialects” (including some spoken by more people than Danish or Norwegian), inhabited in the first years of the 21st century by 140 crore individuals of every ethnic extraction known to humanity? How does one come to terms with a country whose population is 30 per cent illiterate but which has educated the world’s second-largest pool of trained scientists and engineers, whose teeming cities overflow while two out of three Indians still scratch a living from the soil? What is the clue to understanding a country rife with despair and disrepair, which nonetheless moved a Mughal emperor to declaim, “[I]f on earth there be paradise of bliss, it is this, it is this, it is this…”? How does one gauge a culture which elevated non-violence to an effective moral principle, but whose freedom was born in blood and whose independence still soaks in it? How can one portray an ageless civilisation that was the birthplace of four major religions, a dozen different traditions of classical dance, 85 political parties and 300 ways of cooking the potato?
The short answer is that it can’t be done—at least not to everyone’s satisfaction. Any truism about India can be immediately contradicted by another truism about India. The country’s national motto, emblazoned on its governmental crest, is Satyameva Jayaté: Truth Alone Triumphs. The question remains, however: Whose truth? It is a question to which there are at least 140 crore answers—if the overdue Census confirms that isn’t an undercount.
For the singular thing about India, as I have written before, is that you can only speak of it in the plural. There are, in the hackneyed phrase, many Indias. Everything exists in countless variants. There is no single standard, no fixed stereotype, no “one way”. This pluralism is acknowledged in the way India arranges its own affairs: all groups, faiths, tastes and ideologies survive and contend for their place in the sun. The idea of India is that of a land emerging from an ancient civilisation, united by a shared history, sustained by pluralist democracy, but containing a world of differences. It is not surprising, then, that the political life of modern India has been rather like traditional Indian music: the broad basic rules are firmly set, but within them one is free to improvise, unshackled by a written score.
The idea of India is that of a land emerging from an ancient civilisation, united by a shared history but containing a world of differences. The political life of modern India has been rather like traditional Indian music: the broad basic rules are firmly set, but within them one is free to improvise
When India celebrated the 49th anniversary of its Independence from British rule in 1996, our then prime minister, HD Deve Gowda, stood at the ramparts of Delhi’s 16th-century Red Fort and delivered the traditional Independence Day address to the nation in Hindi, India’s ‘national language’. Eight other prime ministers had done exactly the same thing 48 times before him, but what was unusual was that Deve Gowda, a good Kannadiga, spoke to the country in a language of which he did not know a word. Tradition and politics required a speech in Hindi, so he gave one—the words having been written out for him in his native Kannada script in which they, of course, made no sense.
Such an episode is almost inconceivable elsewhere, but it represents the best of the oddities that help make India, India. Only in India could the country be ruled by a man who does not understand its ‘national language’; only in India, for that matter, is there a ‘national language’ which half the population does not understand; and only in India could this particular solution have been found to enable the prime minister to address his people. One of Indian cinema’s finest ‘playback singers’, the Keralite KJ Yesudas, sang his way to the top of the Hindi music charts with lyrics in that language written in the Malayalam script for him, but to see the same practice elevated to the prime ministerial address on Independence Day was a startling affirmation of Indian pluralism.
For the simple fact is that we are all minorities in India. There has never been an archetypal Indian to stand alongside the archetypal Englishman or Frenchman. A Hindi-speaking Hindu male from Uttar Pradesh (UP) may cherish the illusion he represents the ‘majority community’, an expression much favoured by the less industrious of our journalists. But he does not. As a Hindu, he belongs to the faith adhered to by 8o per cent of the population. But a majority of the country does not speak Hindi. A majority does not hail from UP, though you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise when you go there. And, if he were visiting, say, my home state of Kerala, he would be surprised to realise a majority there is not even male.
Even his Hinduism is no guarantee of his majority-hood, because his caste automatically puts him in a minority. If he is a Brahmin, 90 per cent of his fellow Indians are not. If he is an OBC of the Yadav variety, 85 per cent of his fellow Indians are not. And so on.
If caste and language complicate the notion of Indian identity, ethnicity makes it worse. Most of the time, an Indian’s name immediately reveals where he is from or what her mother tongue is: when we introduce ourselves, we are advertising our origins. Despite some intermarriage at the elite levels in our cities, Indians are still largely endogamous, and a Bengali is easily distinguished from a Punjabi. The difference this reflects is often more apparent than the elements of commonality. A Karnataka Brahmin shares his Hindu faith with a Bihari Kurmi, but they share little identity with each other in respect of their dress, customs, appearance, taste, language or even, these days, their political objectives. At the same time, a Tamil Hindu would feel he has much more in common with a Tamil Christian or a Tamil Muslim than with, say, a Haryanvi Jat, with whom he formally shares the Hindu religion.
What makes India, then, a nation? What is an Indian’s identity?
When an Italian nation was created in the second half of the 19th century out of a mosaic of principalities and statelets, one Italian nationalist (Massimo Taparelli d’Azeglio) wrote: “We have created Italy. Now all we need to do is to create Italians.” It is striking that, a few decades later, no Indian nationalist succumbed to the temptation to express a similar thought. The prime exponent of modern Indian nationalism, Jawaharlal Nehru, believed that India and Indians had existed for millennia before he articulated their political aspirations in the 20th century.
Nonetheless, the India that was born in 1947 was in a very real sense a new creation: a state that made fellow citizens of the Ladakhi and the Laccadivian for the first time; a state that divided Punjabi from Punjabi for the first time; a state that asked a Keralite peasant to feel allegiance to a Kashmiri Pandit ruling in Delhi, also for the first time.
So, under the Constitution framed by Ambedkar with Nehru and his peers, Indian nationalism became a rare animal indeed. It was not based on any of the conventional indices of national identity. Not language, since India’s Constitution recognises 23 official languages, and there are 35 that are spoken by more than a million people each. Not ethnicity, since ‘Indian’ accommodates a diversity of racial types in which many Indians have more in common with foreigners than with other Indians—Indian Punjabis and Bengalis, for instance, have more in common ethnically with Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, respectively, than with Poonawallas or Bangaloreans. Not religion, since India is a secular pluralist state that is home to every religion known to mankind, with the possible exception of Shintoism. Not geography, since the natural geography of the subcontinent—the mountains and the sea—was hacked by the Partition of 1947. And not even territory, since, by law, anyone with one grandparent born in pre-Partition India is eligible for citizenship. Indian nationalism has therefore always been the nationalism of an idea.
The sight in May 2004 of a Roman Catholic political leader making way for a Sikh to be sworn in as prime minister by a Muslim caught the world’s imagination. That one simple moment of political change put to rest many of the arguments over Indian identity
IT IS THE IDEA OF A TIMELESS LAND—EMERGING from an ancient civilisation, united by a shared history, sustained by pluralist democracy and the institutions of civic nationalism. India’s democracy imposes no narrow conformities on its citizens. The whole point of Indian pluralism is that you can be many things and one thing: you can be a good Muslim, a good Keralite, and a good Indian all at once. The Indian idea is the opposite of what Freudians call “the narcissism of minor differences”; in India we celebrate the commonality of major differences. If America is a melting-pot, then to me India is a thali, a selection of sumptuous dishes in different bowls. Each tastes different, and does not necessarily mix with the next, but they belong together on the same plate, and they complement each other in making the meal a satisfying repast.
So the idea of India is of one land embracing many. It is the idea that a nation may endure differences of caste, creed, colour, conviction, culture, cuisine, costume and custom, and still rally around a consensus. And that consensus is about the simple idea that in a democracy you don’t really need to agree—except on the ground rules of how you will disagree.
Is such an idea sustainable in a land where 80 per cent of the population adhere to one faith—Hinduism? There is no question but that the Indian ethos is infused with a pervasive and eclectic Hindu culture that draws richly from other traditions, notably Islamic ones. The recent rise of an alternative strain of the Indian idea that rejects this consensus, anchored in an intolerant and destructive “Hindutva” that assaults India’s minorities, especially its Muslims, has posited a majoritarian nationalism for the established pluralist one. The sectarian misuse of Hinduism for minority-bashing is especially sad since Hinduism provides the basis for a shared sense of common culture within India that has little to do with religion. The inauguration of a public project, the laying of a foundation stone, or the launching of a ship usually starts with the ritual smashing of a coconut, an auspicious practice in Hinduism but one which most Indians of other faiths cheerfully accept in much the same spirit as a teetotaler acknowledges the role of champagne in a Western celebration. Hindu festivals, from Holi to Deepavali, have already gone beyond their religious origins to unite Indians of all faiths as a shared experience.
Festivals, melas, lilas, all “Hindu” in origin, have become occasions for the mingling of ordinary Indians of all backgrounds; indeed, for generations now, Muslim artisans in the Hindu holy city of Varanasi have made the traditional masks for the annual Ram Lila. Hindu myths like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata provide a common idiom to all Indians, and it was not surprising that when national television broadcast a 52-episode serialisation of the Mahabharata, the script was written by a Muslim. Both Hindus and Muslims throng the tombs and dargahs of Sufi Muslim saints. Hinduism and Islam are intertwined in Indian life. In the Indian context today, it is possible to say that there is no Hinduism without Islam: the saffron and the green both belong on the Indian flag.
This is India’s “secularism”, far removed from its French equivalent. Western dictionaries define “secularism” as the absence of religion, but Indian secularism means a profusion of religions, none of which is privileged by the state and all of which are open to participation by everybody. Secularism in India does not mean irreligiousness, which even avowedly atheist parties like the communists or the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) have found unpopular amongst their voters; indeed, in Calcutta’s annual Durga Puja, the youth wings of the communist parties would compete with each other to put up the most lavish Puja pandals or pavilions to Goddess Durga. Rather, it means, in the Indian tradition, multi-religiousness. In the Calcutta neighbourhood where I lived during my high-school years, the wail of the muezzin calling the Islamic faithful to prayer blended with the tinkling bells and chanted mantras at the Ganesh temple nearby and the crackling loudspeakers outside the Sikh gurudwara reciting verses from the Granth Sahib. (And St Paul’s Cathedral was only minutes away.) In the Thiruvananthapuram I have represented in Parliament since 2009, there stands in Palayam the towering St Joseph’s Cathedral, diagonally across from the Juma Masjid, while a few metres down the street is one of the oldest and most revered temples to Ganapathi. That is India.
Indeed, Hindus pride themselves on belonging to a religion of astonishing breadth and range of belief; a religion that acknowledges all ways of worshipping God as equally valid—indeed, the only major religion in the world that does not claim to be the only true religion. This eclectic and non-doctrinaire Hinduism—a faith without apostasy, where there are no heretics to cast out because there has never been any such thing as a Hindu heresy—is not the Hindutva spewed in hate-filled speeches by communal politicians and self-created seers. Hindu fundamentalism is a contradiction in terms, since Hinduism is a religion without fundamentals. To be a Hindu is to be part of an elusive dream all Indians share, a dream that fills our minds with sounds, words, flavours from many sources that we cannot easily identify.
In the Thiruvananthapuram I have represented in Parliament since 2009, there stands in Palayam the towering St Joseph’s Cathedral, diagonally across from the Juma Masjid, while a few metres down the street is one of the oldest and most revered temples to Ganapathi. That is India
Of course, it is true that, while Hinduism as a faith might privilege tolerance, this does not necessarily mean that all Hindus behave tolerantly. Yet India’s democracy helps to acknowledge and accommodate the various identities of its multifaceted population. No one identity can ever triumph in India: both the country’s chronic pluralism and the logic of the electoral marketplace make this impossible. In leading a coalition government from 1998 to 2004, the Hindu-inclined Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) learned that any party ruling India has to reach out to other groups, other interests, other minorities. Today, the same BJP, under different management, has no Muslim legislator under its banner in either House of Parliament or in any of the state Assembles.
But there are too many diversities in our land for any one version of reality to be imposed on all of us. Indians are used to multiple identities and multiple loyalties, all coming together in allegiance to a larger idea of India, an India which safeguards the common space available to each identity.
India’s national identity has long been built on the slogan “unity in diversity”. The ‘Indian’ comes in such varieties that a woman who is fair-skinned, sari-wearing and Italian-speaking was not more foreign to my late grandmother in Kerala than one who is ‘wheatish-complexioned’, wears a salwar-kameez and speaks Urdu. Our nation absorbs both these types of people; both are equally ‘foreign’ to some of us, equally Indian to us all.
Our founding fathers wrote a Constitution for a dream; we continue to give passports to their ideals. Rushdie’s “Overartist” finds his aural counterpart in the Muslim ustads playing Hindu devotional ragas and the Bollywood playback singers chanting Urdu lyrics. The music of India is the collective anthem of a hybrid civilisation.
The sight in May 2004 of a Roman Catholic political leader (Sonia Gandhi) making way for a Sikh (Manmohan Singh) to be sworn in as prime minister by a Muslim (President Abdul Kalam)—in a country 82 per cent Hindu—caught the world’s imagination. That one simple moment of political change put to rest many of the arguments over Indian identity. India was never truer to itself than when celebrating its own diversity.
As India turns 75, it speaks officially of a different idea of itself, one that speaks of one faith and reduces others to second-class status. But for India to thrive over the next quarter-century, it must derive its support and strength from all sections of our diverse society. It must follow policies that both promote higher economic growth and also ensure that the benefits of our growth are enjoyed by the poor and disadvantaged sections of our society.
This Independence Day, we can seek a new India that embodies hope, or one that promotes fear; one India united in striving, or an India divided by hatred. We must work together, across the political divide, to find solutions to our major development challenges. But India must remain an open society, a rich and diverse and plural civilisation, one that is open to the contention of ideas and interests within it, unafraid of the prowess or the products of the outside world, wedded to the democratic pluralism that is our greatest strength, and determined to liberate and fulfil the creative energies of its people. Only such an India will fulfil the vision of India’s founding fathers.