Mysterious India

On the Republic Day, every Indian vows to builds his or her motherland firmly and fastly. While looking for ways and means for the mission, the most important agenda is to find out the current maladies. Unfortunately the maladies are many and the route for implementation is impossible. One step up and ten steps down is the day to day Indian move. It is not a country where everything is horrible and great. Half problematic and half promising nation. When can India minimises its minus and maximises its plus?


Shiv Viswanathan writes in The Deccan Chronicle on 26 January 2011


India is a strange country. We seem to be quarrelling all the time. We identify ourselves by the dislike we feel for other or smugness with which we say “we are not them”. Our identity is composed of divisions, of the memories of Partition, of linguistic re-ordering, of the populism of small states. Our national game is neither hockey nor cricket but factionalism. It adds to the perpetual instability of our system. Yet, long-range watchers studying this chaos wonder if our dividedness hides the logic of a different order. Is there a gene that prevents us from falling apart even as we quarrel with each other? What is the secret of unity which works beyond the magic of even Fevicol advertisements?

To say India is tied by identity and consensus would be naïve. Our differences are blatant. Yet in a way we are tied by our differences. Oddly, it is the logic of our difference that keeps us together. India is a country with the courage of its confusions.

Difference allows for varieties of behaviour. It allows for an interaction in the public domain but restricts communal ties or familial interaction. It is a different kind of wisdom, a different grammar.

We are a country of segmentary minds. Each segment is opposed to the other segment and the two segments confront together a third entity at a higher level. Checks and balances operate according to levels. Nukkad can fight nukkad but combine at a different level. Violence gets contained at the next level of unity. Beyond segmentariness, there is syncretism. Here difference is acknowledged and differences combine to reflect opposites. Sufism could combine Hindu/Muslim tenors, Sikhism, Hindu/Islam. Syrian Christianity uses the Hindu to sustain the Christian core. There is a transference taking place over time, where sharing is always possible over difference. It is almost as if taboos created around difference allow for playful reciprocities. Thirdly, difference in India does not always operate across hard territorialities. Boundaries are porous and choices do not have to be polarised. The People of India survey states that there are 300 communities in India that cannot be classified as primarily Muslim or Hindu. Our identities thrive on cross-connections.

There is a standard narrative of divisiveness that is invoked in every squabble. Indians love factionalism and factionalism seems to provide the dynamic of everyday power. There is the old adage that the English conquered us through a policy of divide and rule. But remember, Indian society like many other segmentary systems is easy to defeat but hard to conquer. In fact we expect the coloniser to be like us, settle down like one more caste and slowly merge into the system. Our news is all about squabbles. Party politics operates as factional politics. Everyone needs some one to differ with in order to be himself.

The Indian idea of unity is based on “I differ from you, therefore I am”, “I contradict myself, therefore I continue to be”. We are a society that believes that logic of some against others is better than the logic of all against one. We allow differences to create multiplicities rather than resort to extermism. Our self as a collection of contestations allows for tolerance and unity.

There are exceptions to the rule. The riots in 2002 in Gujarat are one example. Usually after a riot, there is a plethora of stories of how families of one ethnic group protected another. Stories of friendship, ethics, hospitability, solidarity create a compensatory universe which facilitates a return to normality. With Gujarat, one heard the language of exterminism, of wanting to eliminate a minority. Thankfully such a framework has not extended to other states. However, Kashmir was an example of a similar ruthlessness in another form as the Kashmiri pandits were driven from their homes to become refugees in their own land.

But the glue is not just structural idea of crosscutting differences. Accompanying this architectonic is the gum of folklore, the epidemic of dialects, the grammar of diversity. This unity exists in two forms. Firstly, it is civilisational, articulated as a sacred complex of spaces. The second is national. There is a sense that the flag and the constitution keep us together, providing a frame to negotiate differences. At a level of folklore, there is the cosmopolitanism of the common man, proud of our cultural hospitality, carrying with him a sense that India is a compost heap of differences. We constantly invent versions of unity from Vande Mataram, Jana gana mana to the unity songs of Bollywood from Raj Kapoor’s Mera Joota hai Japani and Made in India. There is a sanitised unity that creates sentiments of togetherness. Our myths always have places for the alien, the stranger, the marginal, the dwarf, and no matter how history sanitises myth, our minds carry the legends of hospitality and syncretism, making us cosmopolitan despite ourselves. We might quarrel with the local Bengali, but happily invite a million Bangladeshis to feel at home. The Tibetan senses our hospitality and Tibetans in turn add to our celebration of difference.

Bollywood captures the mindset of the difference. Bollywood, especially Bombay Talkies, was a miniature answer to the Partition, to the difference between Hindu and Muslim and their creative collaboration across differences. Bollywood has maintained that mindset, even sentimentally forging alliances between Hindu and Muslim at the moment of maximum collective rage. Only one other institution can match that sense of difference and unity — the Army. The Indian Army recognises the ethnicity of battalions — Jat, Sikh, Rajput, Gorkha and Maratha. Each has its own tradition and yet each adds to the collective unity of the Army. Bollywood and the Army are the stuff of legends and folklore. As institutions they provide the imaginative glue of a quarrelsome society proud of its diversity yet convinced there are logics beyond uniformity and homogeneity.

As long as our myths, our memories and our folklore rule the grammar of our lives, history can be as quarrelsome as it wants. If myths are elaborations of contradictions, our democracy is a resolution of the myth of difference.



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