indiatopia

The Indian Identity Question Part I

In my last post, I wrote about a 48-year-old documentary that’s been going viral recently: ‘I Am 20‘ by S N Sastry. This is mainly because of all the fuss and furore over the Indian Prime Minister’s recent comments in South Korea regarding Indians being ashamed of their country and migrating to other places.

The other thing happening in the blogosphere and various online media channels is the re-surfacing of that tired old debate of what it means to be Indian and to take pride in that identity. I won’t rehash all of that here because I haven’t found a single point of view that does not engage in clichés about Indian values, culture, traditions, ideals, food, festivals, hospitality, cricket, Bollywood, etc. But, let me make a few quick personal points and then share what I consider to be one of the better-articulated responses out there.

1) Every country also has their own sets of values, ideals, traditions, etc., and will, naturally, prefer them over those of another country. Taking pride in what is most familiar to you is fine unless it closes you off or makes you negative towards other countries.

2) There are good and not-so-good aspects of what India represents through each of those prisms to her citizens and to the rest of the world. Defining one’s identity on one’s own terms is great, but understanding how it is perceived by others is also necessary for one’s growth and progress.

3) There are many Indians, including those who have migrated to foreign shores, who retain their sense of pride in their version of their Indian identity. And, incidentally, this can be very different from that of their closest Indian friend or family member. So, trying to pin down a single or universal definition of what “being Indian” means is quite a futile exercise.

4) Many systems in the world are run on race and identity politics and we cannot ignore them. I can call myself a “global nomad” but I still need a passport and citizenship of a country to get from one part of the world to another. And, there is something to be said for knowing and appreciating one’s roots because that keeps us grounded even as we may aim to be citizens of the world. Still, getting too hung up on those “roots” might stop us from really experiencing anything much beyond our own metaphorical doorstep.

5) In the end, as with most things in life, nothing is good or bad in itself. It’s what we make of it all that counts. You may have your definition of “Indian Identity” and I may have mine (or, at least, I’m trying to explore it through ‘Indiatopia‘), but, unless, we’re taking that understanding of our sense of self to do something constructive, what does it all matter?

About 7 years ago (Sep 18, 2007), Shashi Tharoor, a prominent Congress Leader, was asked this question: What does it mean to be Indian?

The last bit of his response has stayed with me. He talked about how there are many Indias due to language, region, religion, caste, etc., and added (with some poetic alliteration there):

So that’s been, to me, the most astonishing and remarkable thing about India: that you’ve got all these extraordinary diversities, and a country that has, nonetheless, been able to thrive on the basis of the essential understanding that you can be divided by caste, creed, color, culture, cuisine, consonant, costume and custom and still rally around a consensus. So that consensus is on the very simple principle that, in a large and diverse democracy, you don’t really need to agree all the time so long as you agree on the ground rules of how you will disagree. That, to me, has been the great strength of India – that it managed to maintain consensus on how to manage without consensus. So you’ve got people of every conceivable skin color, accent, regional identity, linguistic identity, caste identity, religious identity working together in the same space and fulfilling, ultimately, the same aspirations.

Three years ago in India, we had the extraordinary sight of a Roman Catholic political leader of Italian origin – Sonya Gandhi – making way for a Sikh, Manmohan Singh, to be sworn in as Prime Minister of India by a Muslim, President Abdul Kalam, in a country that’s 81 percent Hindu. And that’s not only astonishing in its own right, but when you realize that the world’s oldest democracy, the United States, for 220 years hasn’t yet managed to elect somebody as President or Vice President who isn’t white male and Christian, it’s startling how much this young democracy but ancient civilization has been able to make of its diversity.

[Keep in mind, these statements were made a year before President Obama got elected in 2008.]

Of course there are radicals and fundamentalists in India who’d rather homogenize everything into a single Indian identity. And, they’re not just Hindu. They are, as Tharoor would say, “people of every conceivable skin color, accent, regional identity, linguistic identity, caste identity, religious identity”. That India has been able to resist this homogenization is, and will always be, one of her greatest strengths.

Like many, both in India and abroad, I am shocked and saddened by daily reports of ongoing violence/discrimination against women, corrupt government officials and politicians, censorship, traffic accidents, increasing pollution, and so on. Things are changing at a glacial pace — recall that 48-year-old documentary above. Still, if there’s one thing that we can all be proud about, it is this amazingly rich diversity of India that allows Indians to identify themselves as uniquely as they want, wherever they may go.

My version of “Indiatopia” is also not about any fixed Indian identity but just that: a unique, individual identity that is rooted in India, yes, but also encompassing parts of every other culture I’ve been fortunate to assimilate into: England, Germany, Scotland, Midwestern US, the Bay Area….

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