Indian is now a stencil you have to fit into to be declared Indian.
The other day I was thinking of a teacher of mine, who was a strange mix of a philosopher and a sociologist. He had a way of examining great concepts in terms of everydayness, judged by institutions in terms of little routines and rituals. There was always a gentle edge of laughter about him, a deprecating way of pointing to a problem. He said his generation was lucky. He claimed his was the era of Visvesvaraya and Nehru where character-building and nation-building went hand in hand. “For us, it was easy to dream, easy to build. Our society allowed for it. For you, it will not be easy to do, because as a nation loses its confidence, it becomes difficult to be. When being is difficult, doing is impossible. We were all Indians each in our own way. Like Hinduism, being Indian was like breathing. We exhale and inhale our Indianness in a ‘taken for granted’ way. Since we were free, we were free to be Indian in any way we wanted. For you, as India becomes a complex of inferiorities, being Indian will be difficult. We grow into our Indianness, but your generation will need handbooks and be reduced to policing,” he smiled sadly.
I shrugged off his comments, thinking he was making a sociological mountain out of some philosophical molehill. I didn’t realise the prescience of his statement, that when a society destroys its ease of being itself, an ease of being is the most difficult thing to reproduce. I realise today there is, about our identities, our being, our histories, a whole muddle of confusion. The more confused we get, the more purist, ideological and intolerant we become of identity or loyalty. Our attempts to reward or torture these concepts into specific signals and indicators remind me of a fable doing the rounds in sociology. Last heard, it was attributed to Paul Lazarsfeld of Columbia University. It’s about a centipede that forgot to walk. Legend has it that a sociologist questioned which leg do you first put forward while beginning to walk? The centipede, caught in confusion, froze. Our nationalism is subjected to similar questions, and we freeze in contorted despair.
Think of it today: it’s difficult being Indian. Being resident in India isn’t enough. Being part of a locality is no longer adequate. Think of a Kashmiri or a Manipuri, even if he carries an ID card he’s not quite Indian. His identity is confused with identification. He feels he has to be certified as Indian to feel safe. Indianness now has to be certified. Unfortunately, it’s no longer a state of being. No one lets you be. Letting be seems to be “un-Indian”. Earlier, being Indian didn’t require a specified set of criteria. Now, it demands uniformity as part of unity. Earlier, one could be Sikh and Indian, or insist you were more Bengali than Indian. You could be the quarrelsome Indian, the hyphenated Indian, the argumentative Indian, but of late the only Indianness available to you is being the politically correct Indian. Indian is now a stencil you have to fit into to be declared Indian. Now, you must recite the national anthem or Vande Mataram to prove you are Indian. You can’t have multiple loyalties. It’s not correct to cheer for Pakistan and be Indian. But in an oddly hypocritical way, we want and expect Indians abroad to cheer for India even if they are British citizens.
This fact raises one of the greatest anomalies of being Indian. The NRI is seen as more Indian than resident Indians. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants to create a resurgent India, he goes to Silicon Valley. The Indian abroad seems both civilisationally and modemistically more Indian. Today we have to be developed to be Indian, which is why Mr Modi thinks the best of Indian values lies with NRIs. Resident Indians aren’t truly Indian: they complain too much about the difficulty of being Indian, while the NRI is immaculately Indian as he proudly advertises his Indianness. Earlier, dissent was a part of being Indian. The eccentric, the marginal, the deviant, the dissenter, all by being different added to our sense of Indianness. Indianness was a whole.
As Indians, we grasped the point of it, realising the whole was a mystery. Today, the holistic sense of being Indian is absent. We want our Indianness to be specified like standards. As a result, every time we object to a dam, an environmental violation, we are immediately called seditious. Today even a touch of difference makes one suspect. I was thinking of Nirad C. Chaudhuri, the Bengali scholar who felt more English than Indian. Four decades ago, his Englishness would be part of the eccentricity of being Indian. There are official specifications of what an Indian can do and not do. To be anti-nuclear is being anti-Indian. The government and the autocracy can have devastated a countryside, but to question it is to be branded anti-Indian. To question India or the idea of India makes you anti-Indian. Late Kannada author U.R. Ananthamurthy once said he could not stay in an India determined by Narendra Modi’s categories. He was asked to take the train to Pakistan.
Today one can’t bemoan the state of India without being seen as un-Indian. Oddly, our creative people realised that being un-Indian is one of the most creative ways of being and remaining Indian. As the advertisements could say, “there’s nothing official about being Indian”. Like Maggi tomato sauce, we are perpetually different. Our spiciness in being Indian lies in our sense of being different. The sadness of the BJP-led government at the Centre under Mr Modi is that it sees nationalism as a closed project. It seals all future possibilities. Nationalism is no longer a set of alternative invention; it has become a catechism to be rigidly enforced. The BJP has robbed us of the many ways of being Indian — of dreaming Indian and yet quarrelling about the possibility of Indianness.