Illustrations: Uzma Mohsin
There is a buzz about
superpowers confused about national identity or inviting others to
solve their civilisation's "backwardness"? Does a superpower allow
foreign nexuses to co-opt its citizens as agents?
hosts foreign nexuses that treat it as a collection of disparate
parts. Is super-powerdom delusionary?
The Mumbai massacre painfully exposes flaws in our national
character, the central one being the absence of a definitive,
purpose-filled identity. Who is that "we" whose interests are
represented, internally and internationally? How should Indianness be
defined? Where is the Indianness that transcends narrow identities
and vested interests, one that is worth sacrificing for? Is it in the
popular culture of Bollywood and cricket? Or is it deeper? The
national identity project is at once urgent and compelling.
The need for national identity
In their pursuit of personal goals, Indians are intensely
competitive. But we lack consensus on a shared national essence and
hence there is no deep psychological bond between citizen and nation.
National identity is to a nation's well-being what the immune system
is to the body's health. The over-stressed body succumbs to external
and internal threats, and eventually death, as its immunity weakens.
Similarly, a nation stressed by a vacuum of identity, or multiple
conflicting identities, or outright confusion, can break up. Just as
the body's immune system needs constant rejuvenation, so too a nation
needs a positive collective psyche for its political cohesion.
Major nations deliberately pursue nation building through such
devices as shared myths, history, heroes, religion, ideology,
language and symbolism. Despite internal dissent, Americans have deep
pride of heritage, and have constructed awe-inspiring monuments to
their founding fathers and heroic wars. Where are
honouring the wars of 1857 or 1971, Shivaji, the Vijayanagar Empire,
Ashoka, or the peaceful spread of Indian civilisation across
a millennium? Where are the museums that showcase
place in the world?
Forces that fragment
Voices of fragmentation drive
Thackeray to M Karunanidhi to Mamata Banerjee to the Quota Raj to the
agents of foreign proselytising.
While social injustice, in
cures, proper treatments do not follow faulty diagnoses. Since
colonial times, influential scholars have propagated that there is no
such thing as Indian civilisation.
successive waves of invaders. The quest for Indianness is futile
center is void; only the peripheries have identity.
Such thinking infects Indian elite. Supreme Court Justice Markandey
Katju, citing western historians, asserts that the Munda tribes are
the only true natives and that 95 percent of Indians are immigrants;
that all so-called Aryan and Dravidian classical languages are
foreign, ruling out anything as pan-Indian in our antiquity; and that
worthwhile Indian civilisation begins with Akbar, "the greatest ruler
the world has ever seen."
This accelerating crescendo, portraying
artificial, oppressive nation, is directed by western academics
advocating western intervention to bring human rights. It is
supported by private foundations, churches and the
promotes fragmentation by bolstering regional identities, "backward"
castes, and religious minorities. Sadly, our own people, such as many
activists and the westernised upper class, have internalised
"oppression of minorities." The human catastrophe that would envelope
diverse groups -- especially the weakest -- in the aftermath of
Beyond tolerance and assimilation
Critics worry that national identity promotes fascism. But while many
civilisations have used identity for conquest, my vision of
Indianness is driven by mutual respect. We respect the other who is
different provided the other reciprocates with respect towards us, in
rhetoric and in action. The religious "tolerance" of Judaism, Islam
and Christianity is a patronising accommodation; it puts up with
others' differences without respecting their right to be different.
In contradistinction, Indian civilisation embraces differences
Movements that eradicate differences span the ideological spectrum.
Some religions claim mandates from God to convert the religiously
different. Although the European Enlightenment project dispensed with
God, it enabled erasing ethnic diversity through genocide of Native
Americans and slavery of African-Americans. Asians were luckier,
because they could become "less different" via colonisation.
Today, many Indians erase their distinctiveness by glamorising white
identity as the gold standard. Skin lighteners are literal whiteners.
Media and pop culture incorporate white aesthetics, body language and
attire for social status, careers and marriage. The venerable
"namaste" is becoming a marker of the older generations and the
servants. Pop Hindu gurus peddle the "everything is the same"
mumbojumbo, ignoring even the distinctions between the dharmic and
the un-dharmic. Intellectuals adopt white categories of discourse as
Difference eradicating ideologies are hegemonic. Either you (i)
assimilate, (ii) oppose and suffer, or (iii) get contained and
But Indian philosophy is built on celebrating diversity -- in trees,
flowers, matter, human bodies, minds, languages and cultures,
spiritualities and traditions -- and does not see it as a problem to
be dealt with.
All social groups manifest an affinity for in-group relations but in
the ideal Indian ethos, in-group affinity is without external
aggression. Before colonial social engineering, traditional Indian
castes were fluid, informal containers of identities, interwoven with
one another, and not frozen hierarchically. This applied to Muslims,
Christians and Hindus. Each caste had its distinct norms and was
respected by others. My
encapsulating diverse genes and memes. This ideal is the exact
opposite of fascist ethnocentrism.
Diversity yes, fragmentation no
The socially mobile castes that had preserved
frozen into castes to serve the British divide-andrule. Independent
India adopted caste identities to allocate quotas instead of
safeguarding individual rights. When the Congress party failed to
integrate a vast mishmash of subidentities, regional vote-banking
interests are casually disregarded for fear of offending these
Globalisation has opened the floodgates for minority leaders to tie-
up with western churches and NGOs, Saudis, Chinese and just about
anyone wanting to carve out a slice of the Indian elephant. Such
minorities include the Nagas, now serving as a foreign subsidiary of
the Texas Southern Baptist Church; Tamils who first got Dravidianised
and are now being Christianised through identity engineering; Maoists
in over 30 percent of India's districts; and Saudifunded Pan-
Islamists expanding across India. These fragmented identities weaken
Indianness due to their loyalty to foreign alliances. The leaders
depend on foreign headquarters for ideological and financial support.
Such groups are no longer minorities, but are agents of dominant
world majorities. They are franchisees of the global nexuses they
serve. They are adversaries of the Indian identity formation. Do they
disappointing track record of solving problems in countries where
they have operated for generations, including Latin America,
imported religion has failed to bring human rights and has often
exacerbated problems. Yet, Indian middlemen have mastered the art of
begging foreign patronage in exchange for selling the souls of fellow
Towards an Indian identity
Hindutva is a modern political response lacking the elasticity to be
the pan-Indian identity. Other popular ideas are equally shallow,
such as the Indianness defined by Bollywood and cricket. Ideals like
"secular democracy" and "development" do not a distinct national
identity make. It is fashionable to blend pop culture with European
ideologies and pass it off as Indianness. Such blends cannot bind a
coming in the orbits of Islamist jihad and evangelical Christianity.
Indianness must override fragmented identities, no matter how large
the vote bank or how powerful the foreign sponsor. Gandhi articulated
a grand narrative for
Indian civilisation. Nehru had a national vision, which Indira Gandhi
modified and defended fiercely. The Ashokan, Chola, and Maratha
empires had welldefined narratives, each with an idea of
Debating Indianness fearlessly and fairly
A robust Indianness must become the context in which serious issues
get debated. Everyone should be able to participate -- be it Advani
or Sonia, the Imam of Jama Masjid or Hindu gurus, Thackeray or the
underworld -- in a free and fair debate on Indianness, and no one
should be exempt from criticism.
But the Indian intellectual mafia, which built careers by importing
and franchising foreign doctrines, suppresses debate outside its
framework, and brands honest attempts at opposing them as fascism. I
offer a few examples.
A few years before 9/11, the Princeton-based Infinity Foundation
proposed to a prestigious Delhi-based centre to research the Taliban
and their impact on
hypothesis an unrealistic conspiracy theory and unworthy of study.
Even after 9/11, the
the Taliban as a religious phenomenon while persisting with Hindu
caste, cows, dowry, mothers-in-law, social oppression, violence and
sundry intellectual staples.
Some analysts hyphenate Islamist terror with
terrorism is a legitimate dispute resolution technique. "The plight
of Muslims" is a rationalisation; and Martha Nussbaum, a University
of Chicago professor, blames "Hindu fascism" as the leading cause of
terrorism and justifies the Mumbai massacre by hyphenating it with
Hindu "pogroms," Hindu "ethnic cleansing against Muslims," and the
Hindu project to "Kill Christians and destroy their institutions."
Her insensitivity to the victims, just two days after 26/11, was
given a free pass by the LA Times. Double standards are evident when
cartoons lampooning Islam are condemned, whereas serious attacks
against Hindu deities, symbols and texts are defended in the name of
Be positive and "live happily ever after"
The Bollywood grand finale, where the couple lives happily ever
after, is de rigueur. Friends insist that my analysis must end with
something positive by way of solving the problems I uncover. Hard
evidence of dangerous cleavages in
too "negative." The need to work backwards from a happy ending and
only admit evidence that fits such endings is an Indian psychological
disorder. But we don't expect doctors to reject negative diagnoses,
analysts to ignore market crashes, or teachers to praise our unruly
children. What if there is no "good" alternative?
It is disturbing that strategic options against
subserve the sensitivities of Indian Muslims. This gratuitously
assumes that Indian Muslims are less Indian than Muslim. Some fear
that strong Indian action will precipitate increased jihad, or even
nuclear war. Such fears recapitulate the early campaigns to appease
Hitler. Once a violent cancer spreads outside the tumour's skin, it
demands a direct attack. Vitamins, singing, and lamp-lighting are
pointless. In sports or warfare, medicine or marketing, you cannot
win by only using defence. The offensive option that cannot be
exercised is merely a showpiece. If national interests are dominated
by minority sentiments, our enemies will exploit our weakness. A
Games nations play
After Indians return to psychological normalcy, apathy will be
confused as resilience. When each episode is seen in isolation there
is short-term thinking, a tolerance of terrorism, and an acceptance
that mere survival is adequate. Strategic planning requires
connecting the trends clearly.
Indians must understand the reality of multiple geopolitical board
games. Moves on one gameboard trigger consequences on others, making
the tradeoffs complex. The South Asia gameboard involves
with its neighbours,
which are influenced by foreign stakeholders. Religion is used as
soft power in the game of Islam versus the West, and
fragmentation hastens the harvesting of souls in the world's largest
open market. The multinational business gameboard spotlights
a market, a supplier, a competitor, and an investment destination.
In another gameboard, scholars of
with Indian intellectuals as their sepoys and affiliated NGOs as paid
agents. Following the academic and human rights experts who profited
president designate Barack Obama will budget billions to "engage
The identity challenges are offset by forces that hold
together. Private enterprises that span the entire country bring
cohesion that depends on high economic growth and its trickle down to
the lowest strata to outpace population growth and social unrest.
Economic prosperity is also required for military spending. More than
any other institution, the armed forces unify the nation because they
realise that soldiers must identify themselves with the nation they
are prepared to die for.
seen in the context of using
become another unified superpower like
a Pakistan-like menace. It will "manage"
extremes. An elephant cannot put itself up for adoption as someone's
pet. It must learn to fend for itself.
place goes to the majority religion. Political candidates for high
office are seriously disadvantaged if they are not seen as good
Christians. The church-state separation is not a mandate to denounce
Christianity or privilege minority religions.
white identity that involved the ethnic cleansing of others. To its
and transcended the minorityism of previous Black leaders. Unlike the
Dravidianists, Mayawati, and those Muslim and Christian leaders who
devout follower of its majority religion.
tapestry of hyphenated identities (Indian-American, Irish-American,
etc.) but "American" supersedes every sub-identity. Being un-American
is a death knell for American leaders.
In sharp contrast, Mayawati, Indian Muslim leaders, Indian Christian
leaders, Dravidianists and other "minority" vote bankers have
consolidated power at the expense of
the promoters of fragmented Indian identities, Obama is closer to
Mahatma Gandhi and Ambedkar, champions of the downtrodden within a
unified Indian civilisation.
become major stakeholders in constructing positive discourse on the
nation. They must make strategic commitments like those made by the
Carnegies, Rockefellers and Fords in building American identity, its
sense of history, and in projecting American ideals. American
meritocracy in politics, implemented through internal primaries, is
vastly superior to the cronyism in Indian politics.
The area studies programmes in American universities have close links
to the government, think tanks and churches, and they examine nations
and civilisations from the American perspective.
establish a network of area studies to study neighboring countries
and other regions from
establishment of 100 Confucian Studies Chairs worldwide and the
civilisational grand narrative of other nations.
Ideological "camps" with pre-packaged solutions are obsolete. The
Indian genius must improvise, innovate, and create a national
identity worthy of its name.
Rajiv Malhotra is the President, Infinity Foundation, who also writes
on issues concerning the place of Indian civilisation in the world
Source: Mail of Balayogi