At the start of any conversation between strangers, after the greetings, the first thing people usually do is introduce themselves. They give their names, talk about their work, or where they live, and ask similar details of the other.
The reason is probably because identity is basic. We want to know who other people are. We also often want them to know who WE are.
And how do we introduce others or ourselves? Well, that depends on context. For example, if you were introducing yourself on a football pitch, you might say, “I play midfield”. If the context was a seminar, in a foreign country, on Tagore, you might mention that you are Bengali. If the seminar was on insurgency in India’s Northeast, you might say that you are from there. At a Durga Puja pandal, during the anjali, you might participate as a Hindu.
Who we are is an aggregation of all such parts. Sometimes a part of us may embarrass us. A nose may be crooked, a tooth may be out of line. In such a situation, do we cut it off and throw it away? No. We either go to a doctor to get it fixed, or we live with it, because to cut it off and throw it away would harm us.
Yet when it comes to identity, we are not as sensible. We often try to cut off bits of our selves.
While all the bits that make up our selves are important, it is also a mistake to think the part is the whole. I am not my nose only. Nor am I only a Hindu. There’s also the rest of me.
Which part is most important varies from time to time. A person can be Hindu or Muslim or atheist, but on the cricket or football pitch, he is a batsman or a bowler or wicketkeeper. Other parts of his identity are of little relevance in that context.
This view of layered and multiple identities is one that has been championed by Prof Amartya Sen among others. Despite the persuasive arguments presented by the good professors, debates and indeed fights over identity have shown few signs of receding.
That’s because in many situations, groups clash with one another for benefits or resources. For instance, in July there was a huge hungama over a test called CSAT in the Civil Services exams in which those who wanted to take the test in Hindi came out in protest. Those who are happier taking the test in English were on the other side of this argument. Their interests clashed; it was a matter of securing limited jobs. There would be winners and losers.
Similar clashes happen over reservations in education and government jobs between caste groups.
Dalit activists often say that the discrimination, at least in the case of socially and economically backward castes, was on the basis of such identities. Therefore the corrective should also be on similar lines.
In my view, this is not necessary unless you believe in retributive justice for correcting historical wrongs. That is a dangerous path to go down. The Babri Masjid was brought down by people supposedly trying to right a historical wrong. This caused the country to burn. In Mumbai, riots followed, as stabbings of Hindus in Muslim areas led Bal Thackeray to unleash the Shiv Sena. The Mumbai serial bomb blasts came next, as Dawood Ibrahim, who had until then been a local bhai not involved in religious violence, was provoked into revenge.
The pain of that cycle of violence has arguably moderated the politics of Mumbai. People have seen the costs of trouble, and the benefits of peace, and largely chosen the latter.
If people start fixing historical wrongs, the logic of “an eye for an eye” will, to quote Gandhi, make the whole world blind. The cycle of revenge could be potentially endless and stretch across centuries.
It is hard to think of any group of people who have never oppressed any other through their history. Western Europe and America have slavery and colonialism and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to answer for. Their crimes against humanity are enormous.
The Germans are still carrying the burden of Hitler and what he did to the Jews. The Jews themselves turned into Zionists and Israel now has its own excesses in Gaza to answer for. Closer home, the excesses of Hindu high castes continued for hundreds of years. The way lower castes were treated was terrible and inhuman.
However, even at their worst, the Hindu upper castes did not manage to do as much harm as the White men who colonized the world. One of the worst things they did during their days of colonial glory was practically erase from existence the native Indian populations in North America and the aboriginals in Australia. These populations were physically annihilated through war and disease. Their lands were taken over, and even their children were taken from them, to be raised in the ways of their conquerors. Their cultures survived only in little native reserves, which were maintained like zoos or national parks for animals. In Australia, some aboriginal peoples were officially classified under “fauna”, not as human beings.
In India, indigenous tribal populations are still very much around, largely ruling their own lands, and quite free to keep their cultures alive. The threat to their cultures does not come from the government or people of India. It comes from elsewhere.
Most people instinctively see the death of a culture as a bad thing, even if we do not exactly know why. However, living cultures that are different from our own, and from the one that claims to be “global”, evoke discomfort or derision. A lot of people are uncomfortable when they see folks wearing skullcaps or tikas, for example. Tribal headgears provoke hilarity. No one laughs at neckties, however, even though the tie is quite a useless and ridiculous item of clothing. Even the flowerpots worn by fashionable ladies at the races are not seen as hilarious; they are greatly admired.
The liberal elites of our country are conspicuously Western. We came to modernity through the experience of colonialism, and our ruling classes were sahibs, followed by brown sahibs. We have not yet learnt to separate the notion of being modern from being Western.
We have also come to associate class with degree of Westernisation. So, for example, those who wear dhotis are generally perceived as low class. Those who wear suits and ties are seen as high class. Those who wear flowerpots on their heads are VERY high class. Those who speak Bengali or Khasi or Hindi are low class. Those who speak English are high class. Those who speak it with a British or American accent are really posh. And so on.
This is really a reflection of the global order of power more than anything else. It has its relation with the fact that old ways of living have broken down.
The world indigenous civilizations adapted for changed with the Industrial Revolution. Success in the new world of global capitalism depends upon new knowledge and skills. Knowledge of the Sanskrit scriptures was what made a pandit in the old days. Today’s world honours and pays the IIT and IIM pundits more handsomely.
Harvard and Oxford count for more than Indian colleges. Those are the gurukuls where today’s royal families send their princes and princesses. What they learn there is less important than the stamp. It is like a caste mark of the global elite. It tells them who they can associate with as equals, and give jobs and favourable reviews to. This helps perpetuate the caste dominance of today’s global Brahmins.
It is not true that these new caste groups are open to all with merit. For the most part, it is open to those with money, and those with connections.
A common affectation of the new Brahmins from India is an evident desire to distance themselves from their roots. They are by turns patronizing and demeaning of their own traditions, histories and religions.
I don’t think this is either necessary or desirable. There is no need for us to succumb mentally to the dominance of a certain elite Western worldview. What I would argue for is equality. We should meet the world as equals, without being forced to cut off parts of our identities to fit in.
We damage ourselves when we do that.
The desire to deny, hide or cut off parts of the self arises out of need to be in step with contemporary social fashions. We all want to be the cool folks who wear the right clothes, watch the right movies, listen to the right music…and generally fit in with the ‘right’ cultures.
The ‘right’ culture in a hyperconnected world is the globally dominant one. This dominance came about through an exercise of military power. It is a result of centuries of colonialism, whose winners gained and retained their advantages by waging wars. The challenge to their hegemony by Germany and Japan, which wanted to join the club of colonial powers, resulted in the Second World War, and ended with the passing of the baton from London to Washington. The US signalled this by dropping the two atom bombs on Japan after Germany and Italy had already surrendered, and the war was practically over. The indiscriminate extermination of men, women, children, animals…indeed all life forms…in Hiroshima and Nagasaki are the two greatest acts of terrorism in human history. However, these were not considered war crimes. Since then, Iraq has been destroyed and Saddam Hussein was hanged for allegedly thinking of building a bomb. The standards of right and wrong vary widely indeed.
There is no reason to believe that the dominant Western worldview is best, unless you believe that might is right, because that is what it actually boils down to.
Nor should civilizations and cultures that have not ‘done well’ in the modern world be viewed as failures. As the anthropologist and explorer Wade Davis put it, “Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you; they are unique manifestations of the human spirit”.
Different cultures viewed and understood the world in different ways. They evolved different languages, literatures and worldviews. In these, they encoded the knowledge of thousands of years. They are rainforests of the mind.
That is why cultures big and small ought to be kept alive as the collective heritage of humanity.
To erase one and replace it with another is unnecessary and wasteful, though that is not in the DNA of certain cultures that historically obliterated whatever came before them. We can easily speak two or three languages, and enjoy literatures and cinemas in all of them, and most of us do. Just because I watch Hollywood doesn’t mean I have to give up on Bollywood. Just because I wear trousers doesn’t mean I can’t wear kurtas. I can eat machher jhol and sushi with equal relish.
The only clash occurs in religion, because there most of us are forced to choose one or another.
I see this as unnecessary, since there is wisdom in all. However, for the purposes of identity, even if we do get buttonholed into one, it need not be a problem.
Hinduism is essentially different from other religions because it has incorporated elements of its pagan past into itself. It did not say “convert or perish”; it allowed Kali worshippers with their blood sacrifices and pure vegetarians who eat nothing that grows beneath the soil to be equally Hindus.
In the same spirit, we can choose to love our own cultural practices, so long as they are not in conflict with the law, without hating anyone else’s cultural practices. The ‘global’ Western elites and their representatives here in India should not insist that we convert into imitations of them, or perish.
(The article expresses the author’s personal views.)