Everyone has an idea of their country of birth, what it means and what it stands for. It’s a resonance of a child’s yearning for the suckle of their mother’s breast, the moment when the lips touch them and satiation follows. I have always had that sense of comfort with my motherland.
India (the modern geographical area) has not been defined by the same boundaries till more recently nor has it been free of invasions. Since the Aryans raided and crossed the Hindukush from Central Asia sometime in 1000 BC, driving the original Dravidians to the South, India has always been subject to conquest. This was followed by the Macedonians, the Persians, the Mongols in the 12th century, the Mughals in the 14th and then the British in the 1700s. From the original Dravidian (my history of the Sub-continent prior to the Aryan invasion remains rusty, so I use that as a starting point), to the assimilation of the Aryans, then the coming of the Mongols, the Central Asians, the Macedonians (who didn’t stay behind, but pillaged and left), the idea of India seems to be in constant evolution. It has seen good times and bad, yet what emerged was a modern contemporary democracy that is rooted in tradition, yet looks to space for exploration.
It’s divided down the middle between gender norms, yet has seen women in positions of power, long before any other country did. Its literacy rates have increased by leaps and bounds and while malnutrition still remains a challenge, more people continue to be lifted out of poverty through the engine of economic growth. And the most glowing feature of this nation is the plurality of its languages, subcultures, even sub-religions and yet all of this variety seems to work (for the most part) with some sense of cohesion.
This piece is not meant to tell lofty stories about India’s evolution, its identity or what it is today. My purpose is to argue that there may be certain values to India as an ethos, inherently of the people that inhabit that piece of land, but there isn’t and cannot be one idea of India. Indira Gandhi tried to do it in the 1970s, Nehru and Jinnah tried to create nations on the idea of what India was and Pakistan would be, and now in the 21st century the BJP (the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party) and the Modi government’s narrative is pitching this notion that India is one idea, one set of values, one something. This is what I stand against and vociferously question.
Whenever there is a national identity that is sought, there needs to be something to bring people together, a glue that runs through the veins of millions and hundreds of millions, to make up a larger unified whole. In the case of India, there has always been the game of cricket, which brings people together. There is cinema, which though more varied and diverse than one can imagine, tends to bring people together in a unison of poetic storytelling. And this assertion of a people, through cultural and ‘soft’ power exports: food, yoga, clothing, movies, Indian English, Punjabi, Gujarati, Bengali and many other expatriates; the list remains long.
More recently though, there has been a shift. Somehow homogeneity is being sought through a unitary (doctored) cultural identity, that is rooted in Hinduism. What is so interesting about Hinduism (and a religious scholar would probably speak more astutely about it), is that it tends to absorb ideas and practices, even traditions and yet remain true to its origins. Growing up in a small town in Northern India, I learnt that Hinduism meant what I could do as a Hindu and not what I couldn’t. It was never the confines of my holy book, but the flights of fantasy of my eighty-four million gods and goddesses that determined by boundaries. Even as a young gay boy, I never once questioned or attempted to reconcile a religious aberration, because there wasn’t one. Difference became the norm and people who ‘appeared’ to be different from me began to surround me. Just the idea of multiple deities being worshipped in one household floored by imagination.
I left my homeland a decade ago and moved to make another country my second home. So, a lot of changes that I see happening in India are from three oceans away. The distance has not dampened the natural organic response that beckons at the smallest reference to my motherland. What I see is a turbulent time. The North is grappling from continued alienation, the East is persevering through the continued aggressive tendencies of a large neighbor and most of the heartland is coming to terms with the new constant of a saffron party, whose writ now runs from the North, the West to some parts of the East, with their eyes squarely on the only area they have little influence: the South. The picture at the grassroots isn’t peachy either. Misogyny is rampant, discrimination can be a way of life in all walks, economic discrimination is the new manner of caste based divisions, corruption is a natural consequence of trying to manage a 1.3 billion people and independent voices continue to be stifled.
I anticipate the march of forced homogeneity will continue. There will be continued consolidation of the political forces under the umbrella of what we today call the BJP, but no period in a country’s history is meant to last forever. The Congress ruled with an iron fist for well over six decades. They plundered, looted the coffers, established dynastic politics and left behind a trail of destruction, that still has over 23% of India under the poverty line. Obviously, the low bar of rampant corruption, nepotism, pillage and continued dynastic rule meant an easy replacement by another demagoguery based right wing dispensation.
But these phases come and go. The dynamism of a vibrant democratic electorate means that a government can be put on notice instantly. Leaders and ideologies are delusional, if the spoils of power make them feel invincible. The true essence of India is its plurality, its immense appetite for dynamic adaptation to change and inclusion. So, a country with the largest and youngest middle class in the world, an economy that will probably outpace China and the United States in the next 30 years, where hundreds of dialects are spoken, which is home to the second/third largest religious minority in the world, is not this singular monolith of a cultural, Hindu state/idea.
If I were given the opportunity to sit over chai pe charcha (i.e. chat over a cup of tea – Prime Minister Modi’s signature monthly radio broadcast to the people of India), we would debate his tolerance (albeit publically remotely expressed) to religious violence, be it incidents of lynching as punishment for eating beef, or stifling opposition by targeting the media. I would ask him one question: would he be interested to discover this Brown Gay Indian’s (by birth) idea of India?
August 15th, 2017 India marks 70 years of independence, when British colonial rule ended after two hundred and fifty years.