Undoing the Indian Identity


By B.G. Verghese

The death of a 19-year old Arunachalese student, NidoTaniam, after an allegedly violent altercation with a Delhi shopkeeper who had reportedly taunted him on his appearance and hair style,means more than the terribly sad and wonton extinction of a young life. The case will be investigated and the guilty must be punished. Beyond due process, the shocking incident reflects a form of racial arrogance that challenges the very idea of India. The pride and genius of India has been a welcoming acceptance, indeed, celebration of diversity. This has perhaps made India by far the most plural society in theworld in terms of faith, language, race, culture and customs.

This state of bliss has increasingly been rudely challenged by a reassertion of caste, communal and local identities, the manifestation of prejudice against those darker-skinned, in displays of racism against Northeasterners, Ugandans and other Africans and antagonism towards “outsiders” who are not sons-of-the-soil .This is a deeply disturbing trend and threatens the unity and integrity of India and calls for deeper remedies than just punishing individual wrongdoers. The teaching of history, social education, comparative religion, cultural appreciation and the affirmation of Fraternity have been neglected. Children’s stories and folk tales from various parts of the country and illustrated volumes depicting the people, flora and fauna and natural and built heritage of the country may be available. But are these sufficiently wide ranging, attractively produced, low priced, available in all languages and readily accessible through schools, bookshops and libraries? Has anyone attempted a brief history of the Northeast, which probably knows as little of itself as others know of it?  And why is “mainline” Indian history so full of Aryavarta to the neglect of “regional” histories and little traditions?This straightway differentiates between “mainstream” and the periphery.

Though well-intentioned, the long-time featuring of tribal folk dancers as exotica has tended to create wrong stereotypes in many minds, though these are beautiful and meaningful in theirnatural setting. Some films and TV shorts have been made to portray the rich diversity and traditions of India but not nearly enough.

The National Integration Council has never lived up to its designation and has been reduced at best to a low level crisis management group without the least idea as to what its role should or might be. Its very composition has been so highly politicised as to defeat its purpose. Nothing is being done to resurrect it and give it a truly nation-building role.

Instead of striving to move steadfastly towards equality, various elements in our society continue to encourage divisiveness by exploiting identity politics. Rather than being sensitively used as an instrument for social and political engineering, as has occasionally been the case, identity politics has been exploited for petty political gains and to further self-serving interests. In the Northeast, smaller identity formations have been promoted and even encouraged as a means of building confidence among long-isolated peoples and soothing latent antagonisms arising from unfamiliarity even with the larger local landscape. That phase is now more or less over and the need is now to use these building blocks to create more viable political edificeswithout disturbing structures of grassroots governance or steamrolling local cultures.

The Government, indeed, the nation’s Northeast policy needs to be thought through and revamped. We are currently trapped between “peace agreements”, parallel governments thriving on extortion and latent violence, blackmail by armed groups, AFSPA and an unviable top-tier governance structure. Hopefully, these will be reviewed after the general elections so that, as in Kashmir, a policy of drift does not continue to prevail.

Elsewhere, alas, caste and community difference continue to be exploited. The treatment of dalits and tribals leaves much to be desired and prejudice and hatred, though penal offences, do not attract the punishment prescribed under law. Manual scavenging is still widespread as are various forms of social and communal discrimination. Privately produced school texts continue to circulate and spread divisiveness.The recent grant of minority status to the Jains, a small but well advanced and prosperous community,may actually work to their long term disadvantage.Was this really necessary? The same may be said of efforts to demand quotas and reservations for an assortment of claimants, Gujjars, Jats, OBCs et al, many of which are all too often conceded. Again, the promotion of superstition and dead habit through medieval bodies like khapsand myriad cult groups of sants and fundamentalist clergy should be firmly discouraged, not encouraged. Why a universal civil code has not been legislated, for all the wrong reasons,remains an abiding mystery of India’s misplaced secularism that has been hollowed out by relentless vote-bank politics.

A committee has been set up to look into why Northeasterners face discrimination and rude sexual attention in other parts of the country. This may produce some useful recommendations. But the terms of reference are too limited to serve the larger purpose of promoting national integration and cultural understanding.

If the AAP continues to practise rock and roll down the road to anarchy, the other parties seem to be doing no better. The Government’s posthumous award of a Padma Bhushan to the late Justice K.S. Verma was a crude case of damning him with faint praise. These national awards have alas been steadily devalued by poor selection, raucous lobbying and political patronage. With another Third Front in the making, the Samajwadi Party and,for other reasons, the BJP have said they will block the UPA’s closing legislative programme to enact a set of anti-corruption Bills to complement the passage of the Lok Pal Act. The reason: to prevent the Congress claiming credit for these enactments, which the Opposition had frustrated by disruptive parliamentary tactics over the past two years.  Instead of seeking to share credit for helping enact much-needed and long-awaited legislation, these parties would prefer to snub the Congress rather than see the nation march forward! This is the politics of negation.

Further, the BJP Leader of the Opposition in the LokSabha, SushmaSwarajhas blocked the nomination of an eminent lawyer, P.P. Rao from being brought on the Lok Pal selection panel on grounds of being a Congress loyalist. This is an unfair charge. In insisting on a consensus when outvoted 3:1 in the nomination collegium, she was insisting on a veto. Here is negative politicsat play again. At the other end of the scale, Rahul’s Gandhi’s first formal press conference, with ArnabGoswami of Times Now, can only be described as a total public relations disaster. The less-than-artful dodger had absolutely nothing to say. No secret that, but an extremely poor advertisement of the Congress’s projected leadership as it seeks to lead the country into a brave new world.



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