What it means to be an Indian

Winston Churchill famously said India is no more of a country than the Equator. And, I guess many people all over the world will agree with him, including most Indians. The diversity of India is staggering. The sheer largeness of the country, the number of people, the differences - social, economic, linguistic - makes one wonder how this could remain one country for so long. As Churchill eloquently expressed - the modern European concept of a nation can not possibly explain the 'Indian-ness'.

Despite this, there have been several attempts to define Indian-ness in modern terms. The nation that Nehru built, more precisely. It always appears a bit of an hotch-potch, a political rather than a natural identity, more of an ideological construction in the lines of Vincent Smith's Unity in Diversity. Or, may be more like the abstract idea contained in Nehru's Discovery of India. In this construction, average Indians spoke English, lived a liberal social life in the cities, wanted a secular state to strive towards social and economic equality, and was attuned to democracy over the communal and casteist preferences.

But the reality on the ground remains starkly different - the diversity in Language, Religious Belief, Caste and Class remains unbreakable. Therefore, this idea of Indianness remains unfathomable to the majority of Indians - who speak no English, live in villages within the confines of their caste and accept the unbearable burden of poverty and social disgrace as God's will.

From this confusion, arose another view of the Indian identity - that of the Hindu Nationalists. The Indianness they preach is based on Hindu-lite, one that mixes Veda with Bollywood, the mythology of Kalki with the fables of superman, the common law of Manu Samhita with the code of WTO. This vision of India over-rules diversity in favour of Hindu and Hindi. This identity is no less mythical than the first one. And, no more acceptable - as the majority of Indians are not Upper-caste, or Hindi-speaking, or Male. Paradoxically, while the Nehruvians set out to construct a nation in European sense and misses the target, the Hindu Nationalists assume the existence of a nation in the European sense and are wide off the mark.

So, is it possible to identify ourselves as Indians? Yes, indeed. If Churchill, instead being the old snob as he was, studied history, he would have known that India was a geographic identity since the ancient times, land on the south of the Indus. It was a historically consistent identity too - the king who integrated the landmass of India country was Ashoka, the buddhist emperor, about 250 years before Christ. The land was united by language and culture and tradition for many years before the British rulers set out to unite it by tax codes.

Any study of Indian history tells us then how it is our frame of reference that makes us ask the wrong question. Why do we have to define our Indianness in the context of the modern european thinking of a nation?

We seem to confuse identity with attributes - and this sets us out in a wild goose chase for 'Indian-ness'. The India that was always there, one that we accepted when we are born and never had to 'discover', is almost overlooked. It indeed is that geographical, cultural identity, where one is told a set of stories, regardless of their caste and religion, a land where nature is revered and manifested in Gods, a land where material possessions of life were less important than spiritual achievements, and where people, for generations, accepted a supreme design, working side by side with their own efforts, determine their destiny. This is the land that the kings we know of ruled. It is a mix of traditions, stories, ways of looking at things that made us Indian.

The modern European 'Indian-ness' or its reverse Hindu image talks about certain attributes. For example, it attempts to determine which Gods, Kings and Stories are Indian. The truth is - all of that was Indian, because India, as tradition will say, has everything, contains everything. These views attempts to tell us what should be regarded Unindian, which is an oxymoron, as India is the land of the whole.

Rabindranath Tagore, the great Indian poet whose 157th birth annivarsary we just celebrated, viewed India as a meeting place of all cultures, religions, traditions and beliefs. For him, the inclusiveness was Indian, the tolerance was Indian. The English imperial vision was that wherever there was an English soldier buried, that little land was England. Tagore's vision of Indianness said - anyone in the world, who believes in inclusion, tolerance and continuity, is an Indian.


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