Three Identities and The Story of India

Simplifications are good for focusing our minds. Without claims of being exhaustive, they are wonderful tools for us to see what really matters. Hence, here is my attempt to portray the story of Independent India in the story of three competing identities.

It must be said that the politics of identity is indeed all about simplifications, with the pretencion of being exhaustive. You can be one thing, and nothing else. Though in real life we carry multiple identities - a British Citizen, Indian by heritage, Entrepreneur, Blogger, Teacher, Liberal, Friend, Son, Brother, Husband and Father can all be the description of the same person at the same time - Identity Politics is all about highlighting one primary identity at the expense of all other. In that formulation, a Socialist may become a Socialist Father, even if there is no such thing. But, despite its apparent absurdity when seen in the context of individual life, such simplified identities are the life-blood of group life in the context where individuals, rather than communities, are building blocks of our world. Once we have moved from the idea that individuals are parts of a community, which by design are idiosyncratic, to the idea that self-interested individuals collaborate to build communities, we must try to distill our engagements into groups on the basis of one or a few ideas. These ideas are the basis of the construction, and evolution, of identity that we use in politics.

India, and almost all other modern nations emerging from colonialism, had this particular problem of identity. It needed to find an independent existence in a system of nations already preexisting, with the idea of nation already spoken for, one that proved resilient despite the calamities of World Wars. From the vantage point of modern nationhood, India looked chaotic, a mess of class, caste, religion, regions and culture. Winston Churchill summarised well the imperialist disdain - India is no more a country than the Equator, he said. Generations of British Historians claimed that India is a nation primarily forged by the British, predicting, by implication, that India may fall apart without the enlightened overlordship of the empire. 

Indian politics, therefore, at the very beginning of its modern nationhood, was about constructing a sense of identity. Partly to defy the imperial vision and the prognosis, and partly to find an workable and unifying political idea, a secular, liberal, egalitarian state was conceived. Following the commonplace ideas of nationhood, the justification was sought in history, highlighting examples of common cultural heritage of the epics and the enlightened multi-faith empires of Ashoka and Akbar, which predated the British unification of India by tax codes by centuries. But, at the same time, the Indian identity was an eclectic one, combining American Federalism, English Common Law, French Secularism, Socialist Thought, all in one modern, ambitious, cosmopolitan constitutional tradition.

This was the identity lived by the makers of India, who, despite later attempts, defy the typical right-wing, left-wing labels. Instead, they all lived this idea. Nehru may have embodied this idea par excellence, but his colleagues, across the spectrum from Sardar Patel and Rajendra Prasad to Acharya Kripalani and Maulana Azad, all represented the confident cosmopolitanism of this early identity, and sought to supersede all the other competing conceptions, including the left-wing class war and right-wing Hindu majoritarianism.

However, in a generation, one started to take the cosmopolitan identity as a given, and stopped working for it. Instead of an active idea that needed building, the generation that followed the founders took it to be a part of the furniture. One can draw parallels to the history of Classical Greece or Roman Republic - there are always points in history when active moral ideas become rhetorical instruments of wily politicians - and so in India, the quest for cosmopolitanism, which always had an element of patron state in its construction, weakened in the face of vote-bank pragmatism. As the independence started being taken as a given, and no one seemed to require to do anything for the country anymore, the consensus that built the new Indian identity fell apart. From that point, starting in the Seventies and accelerating in the Eighties, the sub-identities of caste and language triumphed, each providing a secure block of votes to the cynical politicians to win in a first-past-the-post system. 

This emergent identity had none of the intellectualism of Indianness, and all the appeals of easy gains, votes for politicians and sops of voters, including reservation in jobs. The idea of sacrifice to build a nation, which would have influenced those who lived through colonial times, and which justified the relatively austere planned economy, was superfluous at this point. At the wake of liberalisation, the State was retreating backwards, a new Indian consumer identity was being fashioned, no less  by the spread television and the rise of common entertainment (bollywood and cricket being pre-eminent) allowing a common minimum idea of Indianness.

Another final twist, the third wave of identity, got us where we are today. Admittedly, it is work in progress - but clearly emergent and visible, and worthy of being remarked upon. Indian politics today is a departure from both the founding idea of cosmopolitanism and the intermittent flirtation of vote-banks, and represent an irreversible quest to refashion India as a Hindu nation. Indeed, India without its diversity is an appealing market prospect, and worth backing by international finance. The political strategy of this new identity is not unlike its vote-bank predecessor, expressed in a naive middle class thesis that one would unite the Hindu vote by acts of hatred (such as the politics of beef, complete with mob action and lynching) and then, after electoral wins, change the constitution of India, which still carries on the cosmopolitan legacy.

Indeed, this is as imaginary as the idea of India, and a Polytheistic religion such as Hinduism is hardly a secure basis of building an uniform identity (there are simply too many gods and their ways). Besides, every one is a minority in India, and the affiliations to local communities, particularly those based on language, are likely to grow stronger when facing an onslaught of Hindutva ideology. The obvious risk of the cosmopolitan idea of India was that it was too distant, too idealistic, too intellectual, and it degenerated into a morass of corrupt state intervention. The risk of vote-bank politics was a fragmentation of politics into interest groups and stagnation of the economy, which India duly suffered. And, the risk of the Majoritarianism is that the genie may never go back to the bottle, and the centrifugal tendencies of a diverse state, which the imperial administrators loved playing with, would tear apart the state itself, or launch it into military adventurism. 

Foretelling is a dangerous enterprise, and I must not indulge in it. Besides, the Hindutva identity is still work-in-progress, and it would play out in the context of complex global-local interactions. But my enterprise is not to second-guess where Hinduvta identity is going, but to highlight that the Indian identity, taken for granted in all those talk shows, may be dead. For those who care about a different India, there is work to be done. 





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