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The concept of identity: Who is an Indian?

By Angellica Aribam
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The crisis of identity: Who is an Indian?
Image Source: Firefly Daily

Since the moment we are born, we’re labelled as ‘Hindu’, ‘Muslim’, ‘Sikh’, ‘Christian’, ‘SC’, ‘Adivasi’,  and what not. This is where our first confrontation with the concept of identity arises.
Identity, as Merriam-Webster dictionary puts it, is the condition of being the same with something described or asserted. So, identity, as a matter of fact, is a man-made construct.

Matters further convolute themselves when you’re born in India- the political and social hybrid, a nation that constantly carries forth the ideas of hailing and naming. The idea for fixation of identity is further pushed down the drain. If you belong to the Rajwadas of Rajasthan but are living in Bengal and have internalised the Bengali culture what is necessarily your identity?
What does it mean to be Indian? The outcry for identity has become a necessary parole, I would say. A question that screams for attention, that incorporates space for volumes of debate but is left censored and ignored.

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The contention of my argument is to understand the concept of an “Indian Identity” in times of flux and when the nation was going through an identity crisis, thanks to the partition, what was ‘Indian’.
For this very purpose, I choose three short stories from the postcolonial genre from the book, India in Mind:

An Area Of Darkness by VS Naipaul
• Desert Places by Robyn Davidson
• Portrait Of India by Ved Mehta

Talking of post-colonial texts, the Partition of 1947 which in most post-colonial texts has been depicted as a tragedy with mute bystanders and petrifying, horrendous stories of loot, rape, murder and immolation being passed down from one generation to another as a consequence of the Grand Guignol that led to the birth of Pakistan – the enemy.
I choose the word ‘enemy’ because of a series of indoctrination. The Hindu-Muslim conflict has been a long drawn one, which etches across the pages of history and the roots of which can be traced back to the first war of Independence in 1857 against the British Raj.
Later, in 1923, when Choudhary Rahmat Ali drew an outline on the idea of a separate Muslim state in the Cambridge Pamphlet, it was treated with profanity and was rejected. In my view, the seeds of a separate nation had not fully germinated by then as the entire region was colonised. At a time where every individual at a microcosm level was struggling and reaching out to the concern of ‘independence’ and the transition from a colony to a democracy was brought to the forefront, the idea of a separate nation seemed vanguard.

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But, some years down the lane, this idea was the ideology of the Muslim League which can be avidly seen when the Lahore Resolution of 1940 supported the two-nation theory. The new emerging ‘self’ trying to insert itself into a nation that was no longer a monolithic entity spelt out huge pandemonium. During the time of Partition, when people were displaced in large numbers, led to further chaos and disbelief, captured avidly by Saadat Hassan Manto in Toba Tek Singh.

The emergent idea of ‘Nation and The Other’ was in itself a danger following the lines of which the idea of a liberal democracy was a thin smoke screen; primarily a construct based on a strategy of amnesia to recover the shock and macabre.
Coming to the idea of the Other, the 1984 Sikh Riots, the 1992 Bombay Riots or the infamous 2002 Gujarat Riots hint that the other also lies within the geographical boundary of what we call India. We stand divided not only externally, placed in an inferno like situation aghast with dreadful neighbours on each side of the border, but also internally, within the nation-state.

The first text that I choose, An Area Of Darkness encompasses the ambivalence of the consequences of squeezing people into little zones to create a restricted and tagged version of reality. This text captures Naipaul’s stay in Kashmir, a heavily militarised area that is home to “successionist outsiders” i.e. Kashmiri Muslims. The big question that the text raises in the broad light of an identity crisis is that don’t the Kashmiris stand a chance to pull out from the years of confused identity? Do we offer them the SPACE to decide whether to lie within or freeze out from the construct of the Nation?

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An Area Of Darkness surges forward with a kind of nervous urgency: refining, examining and rejecting.
The author follows euphemism in describing Mr. Butt, a traveller accompanying him.

“He wore the Kashmiri fir cap, an abbreviation of the Russian. His long-tailed Indian-style shirt hung out of his loose trousers and dangled below his brown jacket. This suggested unreliability; the thick frames of his spectacles suggested abstraction, and he held a hammer in one hand.”

The use of words is very evocative as to what necessary was Mr. Butt’s identity – was he a local or a foreign traveller? This question is kept silent until the very end. This description brings forth the preconceived notions that the author, representative of a large section of the society, forms about this alleged “foreigner” (Muslim).
His appearance spelt out unreliability and deceit.

The next issue addressed in the narrative is that of the servant, Aziz. Through the voice of an uneducated boy, the author seems to make a broader comment on the society.

“This is nothing. Get little hot, little flies dead. Big flies come chase little flies. Then mosquito comes bite big flies and they go away.”

In my interpretation of the text, this is a comment on the power relations of the time, the local nexus of Kashmiris always face the brunt – toggling with moneyed landowners or regional elected members, the AFSPA and constant checks for militant background, what is their privacy limited to?

“We were in the middle of the unknown, but on our little island we were in good hands; we were being looked after and no harm could come our way.”

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Towards the end, the author outlives his prejudices. He couldn’t find a place to reasonably live in but is rescued from the brunt of homelessness in an alien surrounding by Aziz and the khansamah, thus highlighting the fact that above the divide based on identity is a tool to create bias and form judgement.

In the next narrative, ‘The Lions Of The Earth Are Betwixt The Ganga And The Yamuna’ taken from the book, Portrait of India, Ved Mehta describes the flamboyant image of the Kumbh Mela, a once in twelve years gathering of devout Hindus at the confluence of the rivers Ganga and Yamuna. Mehta met, among other Hindu religious ‘entrepreneurs’, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi who, though then still some years away from worldwide fame as the guru of the Beatles, had, as the excerpt demonstrates, carefully distilled his wisdom into a vagueness that could both confuse and console.

The opening lines of the extract,
” Today, I am in Allahabad, which like the other Indian cities, is a jumble of British, Muslim and Hindu influence.”

The British town of Allahabad, the Muslim Ilahabas or the Hindu Prayag, was home to the grand mela as a sanctifying measure of Hinduism. The author sees ” bamboo poles flying the flags or signs is every imaginable sect of Sadhus. ” He describes the whole setting smeared in colours of Vermillion, the sound of shaking bells and clapping cymbals as celestial bazaars where one could trade off Punya and Paap by following the ideologies of the Sadhus.

“The names of the sects of Sadhus were as endless as the ways they conceived God: for the Vedantists, it was as the One; for the Vaishnavas, as all things; for the Tantriks, as the doctrines in their sacred books; for the Shaktas, as Kali; for the Shaivas and Avadhutas, as Mother Ganga.”

It puzzles the author as to how each sect has a specific nostrum of rules laid down, which often intersect and overlap. What bewilders him more is the fact that having moved ounces into modernity, India still struggles with the baggage of orthodoxy and tradition- like stigmas which refuse to ration out. With so much diversity, what necessarily was to be accepted and what discarded? Which identity superseded all the others?
Next, we’re introduced to the Spiritual Regeneration Movement Foundation of India, the headquarters of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi who was a merry-looking little man with smooth skin, blunt features and well-oiled hair. The author encounters a lot of Foreign followers who put their blind faith into this Sadhu because his confusing way to renunciation appealed to their conscience. In the end, Guruji’s path to renunciation was nothing but a marketing gimmick as he states – “Through my method of meditation, the poor can become as rich as the rich and the rich richer. I taught my simple method of meditation to a German cement manufacturer who taught it to his employees and thereby quadrupled his production.”

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Maharishi was closed to any sort of counter questioning as he believes faith doesn’t question. He spoke of waking the inner consciousness through meditation which is greater than the mundane around us and through which the world can become wealthy. To the author, this is an incessant version of dogma; of tomfoolery through which Sadhus like these convolute the idea of identity and far perplex it to ridiculous extremes.
Who are these people following? A man who can instantly make you rich but there still continue to be illiterate beggars on every street of Allahabad- a town where the food of one is being chased by five? The idea of Indianness rooted in tradition is nothing but a game of fear and control. Such marketers use fear as bait, fear of hell to be more precise and in turn, gain control. We pedestalise such men and associate our identity to their glass house of fear and control. This is where we lose our individuality.

The last text, Desert Places by Robyn Davidson entails the journey of an Australian woman who travels to India and acquired the nomadic desire if traveling with the Rabari nomads of the western India on their journey across the Thar Desert. The excerpt describes the threatened marginal ways of nomads in a world that seeks its redemption in embracing modernity.

“One carries the self”, she writes, “like a heavy old suitcase wherever one goes.” Is the possibility of escape no longer there? Are we so entrenched in the baggage of the past that the future serves bleak?

Desert places is an attempt to bridge the gap between two Indias. One that is struggling with stifling traditions and keeping its ‘identity’ alive – it is an India where child marriage was legit, it was necessary for peasants to be at the mercy of the powerful landlords and for shepherds to part with a major chunk of their earning as bribe to police and government officials that mark forest areas restricted to keep their age-old profession of grazing intact and that looked at nomadic culture that deprived a nexus of people from settlement or stability as a hereditary custom, whilst on the other hand is an India moving towards pseudo modernity – constantly grappling between aping the West, its preoccupation with what is “phoren”.

Davidson encounters a skinny young man who was one of the educated elite carrying lacerating messages like “phoren women have loose morals and wicked character”. Interestingly, this physical manifestation of a modern Indian who talked of money and disco and was scornful of grazing, his forefathers’ profession wanted to land a government job so that he would never have to work again.

The question this text puts forth is – was the future of the Rabari tribe incarnate in this young man who exerted influence on his illiterate tribe by portraying to be well read?

Davidson points out the fact that this tribe was at peace with their Muslim counterparts since they worked in cooperation for a living, but some members of the tribe working in close connection with the BJP thought that Muslims ate beef and therefore their “brain temperature was very high” which made them violent.

The text brings to light a thousand question between the whimsical borderline of to be or not to be? Through the eyes of a foreign woman, the Rabari seems to be a convoluted question of an identity crisis with a hundred intersecting, yet different opinion standing on firm grounds of tradition and indoctrination.

I quote Tony Hillerman, “Being Indian is not blood as much as it is culture.”

Through the dissection of these three post-colonial texts, each varying and running parallel to each other in terms of places and timing but colliding at a common point where the question of – what is it to be Indian? is countered.

I would like to conclude by putting forth my views on identity which can be simply defined in two plain words – “A Construct”.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NEWSD and NEWSD does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.