One fall out of the present crisis linked to the JNU issue is that it has brought to the surface a significant question as to what does it mean to be an Indian? Large part of this discourse is around meaning of Nationalism. However constructs like Nationalism have to be contextualised. Meaning of Nationalism for a country which has a long history of uninterrupted Nationhood and which consists of people who belong to the same race, language, religion etc. can not be the same as in case of a plural society with huge diversity and at best a sporadic history of Nationhood.


I am not a student of history and can not comment about the competing accounts regarding constructs like Aaryavrata, Akhaand Bharat etc. All I can say with a reasonable degree of confidence is that in 1947 when we came together as a nation, our primary anchors of belonging were more sectoral (based on province, language, religion etc.) than national. Thus at that time it was not uncommon in Punjabi households to use the term hindustani for people in U.P. The official clarion call was to transcend our sectoral belonging, embrace a national identity and participate in the task of building a fair, progressive, equitable and secular society. However the notion of what this Indian identity was remained abstract and could at best be linked with what we wished to become rather than who we were. The end result was that the Indian identity got split into two parts-one part was what my friend Raghu Ananthnaraynan calls the “ urban, english speaking, featureless, odourless, colorless Indian” who has no link with either his heritage or his context. In many ways this part of ourselves is very much like what Macaulay wanted us to become. The other part remained deeply entrenched in the sectoral identity ( and its associated fears, anxieties and prejudice) and mechanically adhered to all its prescribed ways. This split was inevitable since we had a narrative for our sectoral identity, we had none for our national identity. The only way we can deal with it is by building a meaningful narrative of being an Indian which resonates with us both emotionally and intellectually. A narrative which we feel/think understands who we are and who we wish to become.

 At present no such narrative is available. The narrative provided by Sangh Parivaar has its obvious limitations not just for non-hindus but also for the so-called hindus. It is reasonably well accepted that Hinduism is not a monolithic organized religion. It is at best a collation of different sects/belief systems which have some shared philosophical underpinnings and also many conflicting positions as evidenced in the recent controversy about Durga/ Mahisasur. The Hinduism of the Sangh variety is what may be broadly called “Vedic Brahamanism”. In this context, it is important to note that for many sections of our society “Vedic Brahanism” has come to symbolize several oppressive facets and regressive features of our society like caste oppression, superstition,unholy godmen, gender discrimination etc. etc. Not surprisingly Manuvaad is almost an abusive term for many people. Thus the narrative of the Sangh Parivar runs into problems at different fronts. It generates fears of

  • Exclusion/marginalization/persecution of minorities
  • Converting Hinduism into a monolith and thereby eroding its very essense
  • Perpetuating the oppressions/regressive features associated with Vedic Brahamanism

The Sangh Parivaar has also tried to shift the focus from religion to culture and talked of Cultural Nationalism. However not much head way has been made in that direction. This could be because of inadequate internal conviction or because it is much easier to appeal to religious sensibilities. More importantly, there is an inherent problem with the construct itself. It is nearly impossible to build a narrative of Cultural Nationalism without relying very heavily on the philosophical underpinnings, texts, customs, traditions, mythology, artifacts of Vedic Brahamanism. It is not that there is no cultural heritage outside of it, but Vedic Brahamanism with its extremely sophisticated philosophy rich heritage and strong “elite patronage” has a huge advantage over all others. Thus de facto Cultural Nationalism runs into the same difficulties which have been mentioned above

On the other hand, those who oppose the Sangh Parivaar’s narrative, have never provided an alternative narrative. At best, their narratives have been based upon the themes of diversity and plurality. The question which needs to be asked is- Is this diversity/plurality a historical accident OR does it have something to do with the kind of people that we are? If it is only a historical accident then it has no emotive value and one can also take the position (and some people do) that we will be better off with more uniformity and that we should stop over-accommodating the diverse groups which do not easily fit into the main stream. On the other hand if we look at this diversity/plurality as an outcome of our civilization quintessence i.e. the kind of people that we are, our basic orientations towards life, our values and beliefs, then indirectly we are accepting that this diversity/plurality is being held in a container of a shared civilizational character which enables this diversity to flourish. . In other words- that while we may have many differences in terms of region, language, religion, customs, caste, class etc., there is an invisible thread called INDIANNESS, which holds us together. This thread has less to do with geo-political construct of nationhood but more with our civilization heritage and psychic orientation. If we do not acknowledge and grace this invisible thread( and only focus on our differences )then our diversity and plurality will only become a way of accentuating our differences, create strife and become a convenient handle for vote-bank politics.

One person who engaged with this thread and built a narrative around it was Gandhi. The narrative had as much to do with his ideas as with his persona. In many ways he came to personify the most noble side of Indianness and stayed clear of its ugly side. In a manner of speaking he came to symbolize the picture of an ideal person as held in the minds of most Indians at that time. Hence whether or not one agreed with his ideas became less relevant, and his appeal and inspiration cut across the barriers of region, religion, caste, class etc. Since the narrative was heavily dependent upon Gandhi the person, it began to fade after his demise. Also his ideas never became the fulcrum for nation building and the path chosen by us was anything but Gandhian.

Whether Gandhi’s narrative of Indianness is still relevant or not is debatable. Whether such a narrative can work without a Gandhi like person is another difficulty. How close will Gandhi come to the picture of the “ideal person” for today’s Indian is also questionable. Most importantly, any single narrative will tend to become monolithic and oppressive. All we can hope for at this stage is that multiple narratives emerge which have an Indian flavour and we shift our focus to building and offering these narratives rather than only condemning the ones which are offered by others. The greatest learning from Gandhi is that he did not focus his energies on fighting narratives of others- instead he focused on building, offering and most importantly living his own narrative.

7 thoughts on “Indianness – In Search Of A Narrative

  1. Nice blog!

    There are two questions that are left with me while walking along with you in this blog, and looking at the thread of Indian-ness, and your invite to grace this strand of our identity.

    My first question is whether this thread of Indian-ness includes the colorless, casteless, Macaulay’s children as you state it – for you term it as a split as opposed to my looking at it as a ‘natural evolution’ of the Indian-ness thread that has to engage with techno-capitalistic discontinuities, embedded in Anglo-saxon thought – a discontinuity that also links this strand of Indian-ness to the global community.

    My other question is a lot more pessimistic – there is a certain celebration of a narrative that you invite the reader to look at, to explore, and to join in. In my darkest hour, I think the strand died many decades ago and we are re-surrecting a corpse. My second question is to do with a certain assumption of perpetuity or immortality of Indian-ness that is assumed in your writing without looking at radical shifts that have happened recently. One would like to understand your optimism and hope that this strand is still alive.

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    1. Thank you Gagan for joining in this dialogue with both your perspective and incisive questions. My difficulty in seeing it as “natural evolution” stems from my belief that evolution is based on the principle of “include and transcend” It would have meant a strong anchorage in our civilisational identity accompanied with a willingness to reinterpret it in the context of today’s imperatives. Instead what I see is a hagemony of what you have called “Anglo-Saxon” thought in the name of Globalisation. As far as your second point is concerned for me it is not a matter of optimism/ pessimism. For me it more a question of accepting that civilisational identity is an intrinsic part of us- it is not a piece of clothing which can be worn/discarded at will. Admittedly it is dynamic,it is open to reflection and reinterpretation but all that is possible only if it is first understood and accepted. Looking at it as a corpse will only mean that it will continue to haunt us as a ghost in what you call our darkest hour. Finally, I think it will help if you also see the first two pieces which are sort of building blocks for this one

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    1. Thank you for drawing my attention to this very well written piece. I agree with most of it particularly with the view that Hindu is essentially a civilisational construct and that Hinduism is a”colonial term for the rich banquet of the dharmic traditions that can not be combined under the framework of religion”. I also agree that while our geo-political history may have shifted at different points, we are all children of a shared civilisational history. However, I do not think that looking backwards is going to help us create a narrative for ourselves, particularly because our history has also left many scars particularly for people who have been at the receiving end of the oppressive social order. It is futile to argue that this oppression became much worse post colonisation. We must squarely take responsibility for the ugly side of our heritage also, if we wish to grace its richness. Thus whether or not we were a nation in the past is of little significance. The important question is do we have a narrative for today- something which people across different class, caste, language, religion. region etc. can identify with and aspire towards.

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  2. In my experience, the emptiness of an Indian Narrative, is due to the fact that spaces of collective dialogue that were inherent to our governance models have been usurped (panchayats becoming elected bodies), broken (the processes of dialogue about social dysfunctionalities) or neglected (the respect of several cultural narratives that form the stands of a Mahabharata or the songs that speak of local cultural continuities). These are neither “Grand Narratives” of the type that cultures that thrive on a hegemony of thought create, nor are they discreet and divisive, like the narratives of warring neighbours. There are Buddhist and Jain versions of the Ramayana as much as there are language versions with their own peculiarities. My critique of the “colourless odourless” Indian is that he/she does not see himself/ herself as part of this whole. They would rather see themselves as a virtual global citizen (netizen). Yes they too are part of the narrative and if only they would see themselves as part of it and not either “The Interpreters” of it or the outsiders struggling with the accident of birth!

    Can we find ways to dialogue? to listen to the different voices? and in that listening the narrative will evolve, not in post modern reinterpretation of our cultural continuities.


  3. Diversity in india is not like that of USSR, it is not like 30 odd different countries became one. It is not an assorted sweat box, it is like a rope. Take Tamil Nadu, diversity within TN in language, people, colour culture are extreme. Historically, people from different parts of india migrated to TN. Our powerful Tamil Leaders are not original Tamils. For us though we have strong regional identity, we relate to the Indianness because, we have moved across, and we had people coming from different places.

    Where such migration has not happened, people there have problems in identifying with India and Indianness. North east is a classic example.

    And just for an argument sake, as far as there is caste, and one understands the heirarchy, then one understands India and Indianess. This unites India, perhaps from the darker side.


    1. I think the main impetus to caste system in India stems from the primacy of belonging system in our identity. The question of who am I is invariably interpreted as where do I come from and/or belong. Thus the need to adhere to the established ways of one’s Jati/biradari and fear of being expelled are very high. The darker side of caste based oppression and discrimination stems from the repression/suppression of aggressive instincts. Caste provides a convenient medium for their discharge. I believe that even if by some magic, caste gets abolished, the phenomenon of oppression and violence across different social groups would continue, till we learn to deal with more basic issues of identity. The ambivalence towards Indianness is prevalent in almost all parts of the country and stems at least partly from our mistaken belief that sectoral identities are a threat to forging a national identity.Since you are familiar with the work of Dharampal, you may recall his reference to Gandhi’s notion of oceanic circles in this context.


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