Plurality and Paradoxes of an Indian Identity

“Are you sure you are an Indian?”- This is a frequently encountered question that is an inevitable element of my existence in India today. Living in Delhi, the Indian capital, I accept this flummoxing question as an ingredient of plural India. Being a native of Kerala, a southwest state of India it is not strange if a fellow Indian could not fit me into that citizen’s illustration of an Indian identity- an upshot of incredible blend of diverse cultures, varied climatic conditions and topographies, sundry of languages with a variety of dialects that are often reciprocally inconceivable, different religious practices and most importantly varying levels of socio-economic developments in different regions that is unique to India. Nevertheless, I do not speculate a crisis in identifying myself as an Indian though I could possibly not claim singularly representing all Indians.

Upholding an Indian identity means to integrate multiple identities of caste, class, religion, region and language. Nobel Laureate Dr. Amartya Sen in his book The Argumentative Indian describes how an Indian identity is the celebration of diversity of pluralist India. The plurality of India has been such that many Indians do not view themselves as Indians. The Indian identity has been one of the most contested topics ever since the colonial British rulers consolidated a territory named India. They made a conscious attempt to restrain from creating Indians who would have in unity fought for a free India. Subsequently the process to convince the inhabitants of India to align with the Indian identity demonstrated complications especially during the struggle for independence. That is were the Mahatma succeeded. Thereafter, a close association of Indian identity with the political developments in India was established. However, the changing nature of India’s political structure brings this issue of a national identity once again to the forefront.

I am the fourth generation of a matrilineal family in Kerala. It is a privilege to have three generations of women who lived through the history of India. My great grandmother is older than Indian nation. Since the birth of a free India at the midnight stroke on August 15, 1947, my great grandma has been a committed citizen of India, who has not yet missed the opportunity to exercise her right as well as duty to participate in elections- the base of democracy. She along with her husband, a freedom fighter, gave up the caste identity attached to their names which they felt would impede in creating a united India with Indian identity. The perceptions of Indian identity are divergent for all of us. I was born in an independent India and grew up amidst some violent up risings in the country. When I remain sceptical of the success of constitutional liberty in India, the three generations older to me are convinced that democracy would prevail in India, an optimism that was confirmed by the post- Emergency era.

The eminent American scholar Samuel P. Huntington in his work on post-colonial model has analysed the success of post-colonial democracies in terms of their success in resolving the five crises of identity, integration, participation, penetration and legitimacy. Accordingly, India has a relatively successful democracy. Indian identity was based on the principle of “unity in diversity,” which posed one of the greatest challenges to the democracy with multiple identities. India is a land of paradoxes, which is a foreign concept to many who are judgemental of Indian democracy. India has a remarkable ability to accommodate and live with what the West would tag as ‘contradictory’. The very notion of Indian secularism decided to embrace all religions than prioritising one, an extremely cautious choice consequential to the violence of Partition. The intra-party democracy that formed consensus within the Congress party endorsed the commitment of the first government led by the Congress party in, what one of the world’s intellectuals Dr. Fareed Zakaria terms as, “building genuine tradition of constitutional governance”. Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, upheld the principles of democracy and liberty even in circumstances that could have supported the rise of autocracy without much effort. One of my great-grandma’s much-loved stories is her meeting with then Prime Minister Nehru who was gracious enough to come out of his office to invite his guests. Democracy in India had to find expressions in its institutions. Pt. Nehru chose the structure of mixed economy, which intended to pursue both economic development and social progress simultaneously, to meet the aspirations of his countrymen. Unfortunately, these plans did not reach fruition. The 1967 election was a turning point to India’s democracy as it reinforced the credibility of democracy with the plummeting of the single party hegemony of Congress party and the ascendance of multi-party system in India. The regional parties in India have been able to ascertain themselves due to the greater appeal of regional nationalism in the “peripheral” regions of India. Regional parties arose in opposition to the Congress party, building their base around the so-called “backward castes” in India that the Congress has failed to incorporate. The regional parties saw the ascendancy of the middle level peasantry (basically agrarian bourgeoisie) who could not find expression in the Congress system, which was dominated by industrial capitalists and professional elites. They were looking out for feasible alternative avenues and therefore are in most cases ideologically indecisive are capable of bringing considerable governmental instabilities to India’s democracy. When Ms. Gandhi sensed the discontent of people piercing into the popularity of regional parties and further loss of legitimacy to her government owing to the commencement of a new chapter of judicial activism in India’s judicial system, she centralized her power through Emergency. Ms. Gandhi did not realize that the journey that a free India had embarked on the principle of democracy has penetrated into the minds of Indians who lived under the darkness of widespread illiteracy and abject poverty, in spite of the degeneration of democratic institutions during her tenure. She was left with no choice but to seek the vindication of people who ousted her from power.

India is still surviving under the “crisis of governability” kept alive by the era of coalition politics. I am reminded of Professor Sudipta Kaviraj’s argument that the democratic governments in the country have been able to function smoothly until India was a democratic society. As Indians became increasingly aware of the power of democracy and constitutional liberties, the governments have been unable to sustain their legitimacy. This is certainly contradictory if one attempts to read the above lines in pure Western ideals. India learned the lessons of democracy from the West during the period of national movement. Therefore, the language of democracy, which was closely related to the ideals of nationalism, bypassed the language of liberalism. Rights of individuals came to be understood as rights of a national community. Post India’s independence, the constitutional liberties were concerned more with a community rather than an individual. This complexity of India’s democracy has been a vehicle of social progress gifting India with a woman President, a Sikh Prime Minister, a woman from the “Dalit community” as the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, the most populous Indian state, and a Chief Justice from the “backward class” to guard the Constitution of India. I realize this is “our” Indian identity- a celebration of democracy in diversity.

Annapoorna Karthika

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