C Balagopal on the Idea of India

Igniting active citizenship, one informed article at a time

The Ebola outbreak has already moved from being a problem in a distant W African country to one worrying health officials all over the globe. Imagine the reaction here when the first case is reported in India. The Ebola virus is one more in a long line of pathogens that have emerged periodically to torment humanity. Such scourges go through a life cycle starting with ignorance and indifference, to horror and panic, worldwide concern, before subsiding into another equilibrium.

But, we have embedded within each of us a virus that was probably introduced  by evolution as a survival strategy, that mostly serves benign social purposes, but one that periodically explodes into action, sometimes being contained quickly, sometimes going on to become a full blown epidemic. That virus is: identity.

Sixty thousand years ago, a group of humans left their home in the Great Rift Valley in Africa and crossed the land bridge to Asia. This was the first of the great migrations that followed, a process by which humans quickly colonized the planet, moving into practically every part of the land mass on almost all continents. All the diversity on which identity is mostly based sprang up after this first migration, when presumably each member of the little group looked and behaved very much like every other member. Today, all the heat and dust over identity is about differences that have emerged in the past few millennia.

Identity is very closely linked to the idea of India.This is a huge diverse country stitched together out of more than 600 independent entities almost overnight. In a crafty but hastily executed move, the subcontinent was partitioned by the British into two nations on the basis of religion. Think tanks in major world capitals at the time did not give much chance for the much bigger entity called India to survive for very long. Today, 70 years later, India is still there, confounding the pundits. What is the glue that has held this country together?

The Indian subcontinent has been the cradle of ancient civilizations, religions, philosophies, castes, communities, and tribes. D D Kosambi memorably said: India is a land of ancient survivals. Many of these can be seen to exist even today. This amazing diversity is unlike anything anywhere else. I had difficulty explaining this to my business associates from Japan, who probably felt that I was making too much of India’s size and complexity, as they invariably replied: But, Bala-san, China too is a huge country, even bigger than India. I would then pull out a 100 Rupee note, and point to the box where 15 different scripts are presented, all saying 100 Rupees! I would explain the problems a motorist from Kerala would face when driving in TN next door, where all the street signs are in Tamil, or in Karnataka where they are in Kannada. And this continues as we move through Telengana, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Orissa, West Bengal, till we enter huge states of Northern India. In China, 90% of the people are Han and most speak the same language ie Mandarin. It is then that a glimmer of understanding about this unique feature of India starts to appear.

India was reorganized on linguistic lines soon after Independence, a move that was seen as fraught with ominous consequences. But the experience of the past 6 decades is that this has worked out quite well. But, society has been changing and these changes are beginning to accelerate.

Migration has picked up pace after the economy started to grow strongly in the nineties. While reliable figures are not available on the number of people moving from one part of the country to another in search of a livelihood, it is clear that the numbers are huge. A recent newspaper report stated that almost 10 per cent of the population of Kerala today is accounted for by migrants from other parts of the country. And Kerala is supposed to be the land of the eternal migrant, moving to the big cities in India, other parts of S E Asia, and the Middle East in search of jobs. These are not seasonal movements, but semi permanent ones, with people likely to buy houses and settle in their new home.

Diversity in India is not a recent phenomenon. Then, why has it become important today? This diversity was in the past embedded in a predominantly rural society, separated by vast distances, each having their niche in which to survive and thrive. Today, with the growth of population and the shrinking of living space, and the rapid growth of urbanization, these identities are coming into contact, intersecting, and having to deal with the resulting friction. This is new.

The survival of India over the past six plus decades as a viable and indeed strongly growing entity can lead one to the legitimate assumption that we have learnt to cope with the issues generated by this great diversity, that slices and dices our society vertically and horizontally into a thousand distinct identities. Is this a correct assumption? What systems and processes have we developed to ensure that the friction caused when identities come into contact are managed and resolved harmoniously, without eroding any of the richness of identity, yet ensuring that the nation is able to move forward on the path to eradicate poverty, ensure balanced economic development, and a decent livelihood for the millions of citizens?

Identity and the idea of India are not issues that are being contested and interrogated only in certain parts of the country, but are becoming issues that need to be confronted everywhere in India. While ideology continues to animate political discourse, identity is increasingly appearing as an issue. A decrease in the water level of the K R Sagar reservoir brings out violent responses on both sides of the Karnataka-TN state border. A common language, literature, culture and tradition have not prevented identity from sharply dividing AP, leading to the creation of Telengana and Seemandhra. 

Several large states have to confront demands for division into smaller entities based on perceptions of neglect of certain regions. Religion, community,and  caste continue to exercise powerful sway over people in many parts of India, these pressures usually reaching a fever pitch during elections, but lurking just below the surface at all times.

The discourse on identity is usually hijacked by demagogues who rely on ignorance to fan the flames of fear they wish to ignite. The facts will often come in the way of such efforts, if the facts are known and if they are projected by the mediaand articulate sections of society. What proportion of the population of Mumbai are Marathi? What proportion of the population of Bengaluru and Chennai are people speaking the local language as their mother tongue? The friction in “border” areas like Belgaum in Karnataka, Kasargode in Kerala, and many other such areas on account of language indicates that the question of identity, far from being resolved, continues to fester, and can be easily fanned into flames. 

Facts are the best antidote to demagoguery and rabble rousing.
India, with her democratic system of governance, federal polity, and traditions is well placed to deal with diversity in a manner that preserves the strengths conferred by diversity, yet enables local and regional identities to be freely expressed and celebrated within the fabric of the nation. Civil society must take an active part in this exercise, with the business community playing a leading role. 

Harmony is not achieved by cloning all members of the orchestra, by all playing the same instrument, or playing exactly the same score or melody, but by ensuring through care and patience, that the individual efforts produce not a unmusical cacophony but an enchanting symphony. We have not only survived 67 years as a nation belying the predictions to the contrary of experts and think tanks, but have produced some greaon.
t music too in the form of achievements as a nation. But, we have a long way to go as a nati
Therefore, we need to get interested and involved in the problems of Manipur, so that we begin to learn how to reconcile competing demands and aspirations, how to hammer out compromises that will work, how to keep talking about these things while looking for solutions that work, and not reach for a gun, or bring all life to a standstill. We need to learn to respect data, and ask for the facts, and not heed the inflammatory calls of demagogues.

Like the Ebola virus, let us heed the first warning signs that the ‘identity’ virus seems to be gathering force for an outbreak, and act before it becomes a pandemic. Let us find ways to celebrate diversity, and not feel threatened by it. Let us not forget that the idea of India is bigger than any particular or singular identity. 

About the Author; C. Balagopal: "Bala" (as he is known to his friends) is the inspiration behind "CitizenzNews." After a few years serving in Manipur and Kerala as an IAS Officer, Bala went out on a limb and started a company in Trivandrum that soon became one of the world's largest packagers of blood.

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