The parochial Indian

When communities do not find it fit to mingle with each other socially, what kind of nation are we talking about?

Published - April 25, 2015 03:41 pm IST

Our mind has faculties which are universal, but its habits are insular.

Rabindranath Tagore

A crowd of nearly 10,000 people forces a man out of a jail, strips him and drags him tied to a motorcycle for seven kilometres while beating and pelting his naked body with stones. Finally, the man dies and his body is displayed from a clock tower. It is virtually unimaginable that the Dimapur lynching, evoking the ghastly lynchings of African Americans until the 1950s, has happened in 2015. The barbarity of it multiplied a thousand times by the modernity of a hundred mobile phones recording the gory act.

While we might dismiss this as a rare extraordinary act, the truth is that the Indian hinterland is everyday witness to lynchings of Dalits and other oppressed castes, away from the glare of the urban-centric television camera. Under the halo of a self-assured nation on the cusp of starting its journey to superpower status, there simmer various parochial bigotries, of caste, linguistic identity, religion, region, etc. Therefore, it is no surprise that the Shiv Sainiks erupt in an orgy of violence whenever they think that ‘Marathi pride’ has been dented (which happens very frequently) or churches are vandalised and idols of Hindu gods mysteriously appear in them, or Telugu-speaking people are attacked in Tamil Nadu for the excesses of the Andhra Pradesh government. The examples can be multiplied across India.

After seven decades of independence, the nation is still trying to stand on its feet, even if militarily the state is up and running. But the might of the state cannot substitute for the spirit of the nation. The miasma of parochialism that surrounds the idea of India only reinforces the oft-ignored fact (which irks the die-hard nationalist) that the Indian nation is a product of colonialism, not one that has existed since time immemorial. Hence its precariousness.

Admittedly, therefore, the task of building a nation of India’s diversity is not an easy one. The western scholars who predicted the collapse of the Indian nation-state by the 1960s might have been resolutely proved wrong. But the survival as the longest-existing democracy in the developing world has come at humongous costs of violence and deprivation. The real precariousness of India is not due to its diversity, but due to unequal relations between the different constituents of this diversity. Where there is inequality and oppression, there is resentment and violence. And no nation can be built on these bases.

Every nation has its own exclusions but the root of our misery is undoubtedly caste, the unfortunate thread that runs through all the differences and diversity. Even other parochialisms are shaped by caste, which derives its authority from religion. The economic upper classes are overwhelmingly upper caste. Linguistic identity/chauvinism is governed by upper-caste or dominant-caste values and interests (thus: Marathi identity and Maratha castes or Malayali identity and the Nair caste). Hindu religious majoritarianism is defined by Brahmanism. Thus the ban on beef in Maharashtra is in deference to Hindu sentiments, which are supposedly opposed to that of the others like Muslims and Christians who consume beef. But this astoundingly ignores that the Dalits, who constitute a population of 20 crores, eat beef, which is also an affordable source of protein. In the parochial idea of a Hindu India, the culinary habits of not only religious minorities but also lower-caste Hindus do not count.

Tagore recognised the centrality of the caste system in preventing India from becoming a nation more than 100 years ago. While diversity ossifies into immovable mountains, social life loses its vitality and India, as he puts it poignantly, starts “worshipping with all ceremony the magnificent cage of countless compartments that she has manufactured.” The more pertinent question with regard to building an Indian nation and identity is the one that he asks: “Have we an instance in the whole world where a people who are not allowed to mingle their blood shed their blood for one another except by coercion or for mercenary purposes?”

This is the great paradox of India that persists into the 21st century: when communities do not find it fit to mingle with each other socially, leave alone enter into marriage relationships, what kind of a nation are we talking about? In the biggest ever non-government survey conducted recently, one in four admitted to practicing untouchability! Here Ambedkar’s question comes to mind: “How can people divided into thousands of castes be a nation?”

Along with caste, our apathy to the problem of massive material and economic and deprivation is staggering. While what animate the so-called nationalists are “ ghar wapsi s” and “love jihads,” the country — after 25 years of spectacular economic growth — is behind Bangladesh and Nepal in the latest Social Progress Index Ranking measuring 54 indicators of basic needs and well being. Nepal and Bangladesh have less than half, and half of, India’s per capita national income respectively. It is deprivation that has driven an unprecedented 25 lakh workers from Assam, Bengal, Orissa and the North to work in Kerala. The failure of India as a nation to provide for its citizens is a story in itself.

Material precariousness fuels the strengthening of all kinds of parochial identities in which people seek refuge as a solution to their problems. But these smaller communities below the nation are not egalitarian either. They are riven by class and caste divisions. When Tamil sandalwood “smugglers” are killed by Andhra Police, what is ignored is that it is landless labourers who are killed. Identity politics and the casting of the problem in terms of Tamil vs. Telugu make the poor and the dispossessed the main bearers of the burden of these identities. Similarly, migrant labourers from U.P. and Bihar are the ones who get attacked by Shiv Sainiks.

The more pertinent question here than the perceived linguistic antipathy would be the real reasons behind such massive economic dislocation or land dispossession, which make people leave their homes in search of a livelihood. But it will not be asked as the powers-that-be are the ones who benefit the most from stoking the parochial fires and divert attention from fundamental questions of oppression. The recent upping of the chauvinist ante by the Shiv Sena including a call for the disenfranchisement of Muslims is an attempt to build its political strength. Those living on the margins can be taken off a bus and shot for stealing precious resources of the nation, while the entire smuggler-politician-bureaucrat nexus, which loots the same, goes completely unscathed. After all, we are a nation in which the perpetrators of the biggest mining scam in the country have gone on to become ministers in state governments.

What Tagore calls the “narrowness of sympathy” generated by caste and “the galling yoke of inferiority” that it imposes upon others becomes the template for interactions in other areas of social life. Parochialism stems from a lack of respect for, and understanding of cultures that differ from one’s own. Thus, the northeast of India does not exist in the Indian imagination and when it comes into contact with the rest of India, it is subject to vicious racism and derision. Is it then surprising that a Priyanka Chopra plays the role of Mary Kom on screen, reminding one of the hoary past of Hollywood where white actors played black characters?

This is also a result of the failure of the post-independence pedagogical system, which allows you to pass in flying colours without ever having heard of a Rani Gaidinliu or a Jahnu Barua. When education fails, mass cultural forms like Bollywood fill in with their persistent racist portrayals, including of “the South” like in popular films like the recent Chennai Express . It is not that this is one-sided; the same derisive stereotypes exist in the South as well. Thus all the migrant workers in Kerala from the different parts of the North and the East are referred to as “Bengalis!” Despite the essential labour they perform, they are subject to ridicule. Ironically, it was not long ago that communist-inspired cosmopolitanism had led Malayalis to name their children as Ghosh, Bose, Bankim and Banerjee.

A pan-Indian Indian cannot emerge without demolishing what Tagore calls “prison houses with immovable walls,” without bringing about equality among Indians, without democracy in any meaningful sense encompassing the economic and social spheres. India’s rightwing shift in political governance is only exacerbating existing social parochialism and conservatism. Even when parochialism is shed momentarily, it only results in paroxysms of a chauvinist nationalism animated by imaginary foreign enemies. In this nationalism, there is no disgust at the most egregious forms of caste, class and gender oppression within the nation; it is only roused into action when a Maria Sharapova admits to not knowing who Sachin Tendulkar is or when The New York Times publishes a racist cartoon about India.

India set out to establish a sovereign, socialist, secular and democratic republic. Socialism and secularism have fallen off on the wayside; now it hobbles with sovereignty and a wounded democracy. Ambedkar had warned a long time ago: “There is no nation of Indians in the real sense of the world, it is yet to be created.” If it has to become a reality, there has to be a tectonic shake up of the essence of what means to be an Indian.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.