Decoding the ‘Indian Identity’

Anirudh Belle

Note: This story was originally published on You Speak India’s web-publication. It has been republished on this blog with permission from the publisher and the author.

The power of a story, a shared story, in the common history of a people is often unrecognised and, even if it is, sadly underestimated.

The story of India – yours and mine – holds a sublime utterance.

One might call it a matter of chance or fate, a comic anomaly, but it is beyond dispute that India’s story is one not told before – a story of unity, rooted in chaos. Oxymorons, one would see, have crafted our collective sense of self.

I seek to present my understanding of what ‘being Indian’ is. The question was in my thoughts for a long time. I had failed in grasping an answer in most attempts at thought. I have now chanced on something sure, but nebulous, I must admit.

In a population with many religions, languages, classes and castes, finding common ground is hard.

Sir John Strachey, an instrumental figure in the works of the British Raj in the 1880s is known to have made an inference. To him, the distinctness between the countries of Europe was far less than those of the ‘countries’ of India. “Scotland is more like Spain than Bengal is like the Punjab”, he remarked at a lecture in Cambridge.

The Bishop of Calcutta, J. E. Welldon, said in 1915: “The disappearance of the British Raj in India is at present, and must for a long time be, simply inconceivable.” To leave a patchwork-ed population, so distinct, to a local government, or governments, would lead to unimaginable, and even cruel, chaos – this was the established strain among the Raj and, quite frankly, one can’t blame them for this notion.

Yet, almost seven decades after the formation of our republic, the democratic union of India has remained unified and untouched by the prophecies of doomsayers. This jumps on the curious observer with a bewildering ‘How?’.

When the British came to India, there wasn’t an ‘India’ to really infer. In a geography housing over 500 Princely States, the British’s unified rule over a scatter of distinct chiefdoms brought about the first notion of a country under a single sovereign.

The First War of Independence – or the ‘Sepoy Mutiny’ – in 1857 was probably the first expression of nationalism among a people towards a common oppressor. The nationalist movement that followed strengthened this idea and the run-up to 1947 made inevitable the notion of an Indian state for an Indian people.

This, still, hasn’t made our effort to describe the Indian identity any easier.

Linguistic and other distinctions taken as a subset in our nation’s diversity, religion, in India, is the most prominent expression of individual and societal character. Its influence is without doubt central.

In what can be understood as the largest and most longstanding culture in the subcontinent, Hinduism and the Hindu civilisation stand apart, astonishingly, as the only ones to not submit – either as a civilisation or spiritually – to an alien invasion. At the same time, they imposed no political or religious resistance to an outside culture. I find this so pertinent in our analysis.

Professor Rasheeduddin Khan observes that in Coptic Egypt, Zoroastrian Iran, Syria and Turkey – among others – the Islamic invasion, for instance, was total. But in India, and here alone, did Islam come up against a Hindu people who strongly refused subordination but at the same time did not attempt to eliminate Islam, as was the case in Iberia after the fall of the Muslim Andalusian empire.

Much before, after the coming of Buddhism, a similar pattern was observed – from Emperor Ashoka’s accepted Buddhist rule in the third century B.C.E to the last Buddhist king Harshavardhana’s, in the seventh century A.C.E. And even three centuries after the revivalist rule of the Hindu Guptas, and the revolutionary revival of Hindu culture by Adi Shankaracharya in the seventh century A.C.E, the consequent kingdoms of the Jains in southern India, the Moghul invasion in the north, the birth of Sikhism through Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind Singh in the 16th and 17th centuries and the entry of Christianity from Syria, through St. Thomas (much before this time) and with the Baptists and Jesuits and, namely, with the British, have all contributed towards centuries of coexistence between vastly different cultures in the subcontinent.

Hinduism itself has gone through so many transformations over the last centuries – starting with Adi Shankara and ending with reformists like Lokmanya Tilak, Raja Rammohan Roy, Swami Vivekananda and Swami Chinmayananda – to yield its present-day character.

That cultures and religions have settled in India to form their own ‘Indian’ flavours is remarkable. The formation of the Urdu language (a mixture of Hindi and Persian) in the Islamic tradition is a result of its Indo-Muslim expression. As Prof Khan puts it, Islam in India evolved “a mosaic of synthesis manifested in arts, craft, handlooms, music, architecture, miniature painting, poetry, the humanist literatures of the Bhakti school and the Sufis, culinary arts, sartorial fashions, jewelry, etc.” As a result, “India today, in all glory of its medieval past, is as much a contribution of the Muslims as the Hindus.”

Similarly every other member of our multicultural society – Christianity (in all its diverse expressions in India), Zoroastrianism (practiced by the Parsis) and Judaism – have manifested in India, giving birth to their own dialects, cuisines and customs.

Each culture, as we think through this, has assimilated itself, through history, in the Indian fabric. They have contributed, in their own way, towards the story that makes India; this is as much the story of India’s Hindus as it is of our Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, etc.

The agenda of the communalist and divider, as we see it, stands in opposition to the central character of India. More significantly, it fights a futile battle.

Whether one acknowledges it or not, the character of this subcontinent is such that uniformity has never been the name of the game. We are, as we’ve always been, experiencing a constant state of cultural flux. Mutual coexistence, plurality and openness are central to the identity of the Indian people. History just demonstrated that. The present reflects this as well through the embrace of western culture and popular media in eclectic balance with the prevailing “culture(s)” of India. This, to me, is what being Indian is all about.

It is in realising this that one observes how the average Indian inadvertently transcends the layers of religious, regional and other identities to appreciate the common humanity he shares with his fellow men. We all love good food, whether cooked at Mylapore’s Mada Streets or in Bombay’s Mohallas; Cricket is a common passion to many; a single act of kindness, from anybody, no matter whom, equally reaffirms our faith in the human condition and, undeniably, we all seek to be happy, to love and be loved. What do language or community affiliations got to do with anything at all?

While religion, language and regional culture are aspects I see as relevant to a personal domain (to an individual or a community), in our largest national identity these aspects do not, and should not, find utterance. Not in our case, at least. Not at all.

Emerson, in a verse from Brahma, echoes in agreement: 

If the red slayer think he slays, 
Or if the slain think he is slain, 
They know not well the subtle ways 
I keep, and pass, and turn again.”

So who is an Indian? To me, an Indian is anyone who recognises the humanity in one’s own self.

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