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Becoming Us: Understanding Indian nationalism

As the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi completes three years of his term in office, what has changed in India? Perhaps most importantly how the country views itself.

The Sound of the Saankh. This is an image of a 19th century Hindu trumpet or the saankh made from a conch shell. Picture courtesy: British Museum.

A few years after my father moved to Delhi from Calcutta to work on the Delhi Metro Rail after a long stint at the Calcutta Metro, a new urban railway line opened in the Indian capital. The line passed through a gritty Delhi neighbourhood called Shahdara on the banks of the River Yamuna, which is a river in name alone, and a sewer in every other sense.

The night before it opened, local miscreants tore away many of the shiny railings, doors, bolts, fittings and fixures, and hinges. This appalled my father. This country, he agonised, it is almost as if it doesn’t want anything good for itself. It is almost as if no one can see anything good, anything working, anything clean in India without immediately wanting to deface it.

What saddened my father even more was that everyone seemed to think this was business as usual — but of course something nice and clean and pretty had been destroyed. What’s new about that?

The newspapers at that time were full of reports about the coming of the metro to Delhi but there was hardly a line about this sabotage. That civic and aesthetic sense would be absent among citizens was accepted with barely a shrug.

It was, then, with great surprise that my father heard that a story was going viral of social media a day before the Narendra Modi government turned three. It was a story of how the high speed Tejas train between Mumbai and Goa had returned with infotainment systems broken (some stolen), headphones missing and waste dumped all over.

What are people saying about the story, my father asked.

Everyone is really angry, I told him. People are complaining about the attitude of some of our countrymen.

‘Really?’ my father exclaimed. ‘Are we finally waking up?’

The secret of what has changed in the last years lies in this shaking off of slumber. In fact, the process started more than two decades ago, and in the last three a sort of tipping point has been reached.

What is this tipping point? It is a re-imagining of India’s idea of itself. ‘Like a person,’ wrote Max Lerner in his momentous America as Civilisation, ‘a civilisation is more than the sum of its parts. ‘When you have described its people, armies, technology, economics, politics, arts, regions and cities, class and caste, more and morals, there is something elusive left — an inner civilisation style.’

What India had had for nearly twenty-five years after it opened its economy and began to materially prosper is its progress as a sum of parts. But there was always something missing. No one could define what it was but millions of people felt it. It was a missing sense of identity that could not be fulfilled by the mere rise of gross domestic product.

I learnt this discomfort at great personal insult at a moment when my private ego of prosperity was perhaps at its height. In 2009, after several years as a news television anchor, used to, from time to time, even being recognised in an airplane or two, I was thrown out of a Delhi watering hole called Urban Pind. The reason? The ‘resto-bar’ which had the word ‘pind’ or loosely village in its name objected to me wearing the most formal of Indian clothes — a starched kurta-pyjama and a sleeveless bandhgala jacket. It was a small turning point in my idea of India and I wrote about it in a column in The Hindu newspaper angrily asking — though it had never occurred to me to ask this before — why in 21st century India could an Indian be prevented from entering a restaurant for wearing Indian clothes?

In response I received thousands of emails — few Indians were prolific on Facebook at that time. One memorable response came from an engineer called Madhava Chandra. He wrote: ‘I could relate more to the writing as I was in a dilemma last week on what to wear for my annual party of my organization It being a MNC (multi-national corporation), I was afraid if I would be frowned upon by the senior management and had to settle in for my usual t-shirt and jeans. This had made me feel ashamed of myself and my Western attire. I shall at least use this as an inspiration to make my Fridays more Indian and lesser western. That was truly an epiphany of sorts.’

What in 2009 was already brewing as cultural doubts had by 2014 become a full-fledged identity crisis. If there is anything that the last three years have done, it is to show us how deep-seated our questions of identity really are, how volatile and how acute the hunger for cultural anchors.

‘Modern people long for membership,’ wrote Roger Scruton, ‘but membership exists only among people who do not long for it, who have no real conception of it, who are so utterly immersed in it that they find it inscribed on the face of nature itself. Such people have immediate access, through common culture, to the ethical vision of man.’

By 2017, it is now clear that the membership a vast majority of Indians were, and are, seeking can never be fulfilled by post-modern theories of neo-socialism couched as progressiveness where the most animated argument is nothing is anything and all sense of aesthetics is fascist. Nor by air-conditioned malls with carnivorous parking lots built over the death of poetry in conversation.

The last three years have served to remind us, as Peter Blake said, ‘All a country has is its culture; the rest is infrastructure’.

But the process of regaining culture is always corrosive. There is even a befitting parable for this in our lore. When the devtas and the asuras (the opposing forces in Hindu mythology) are churning the ocean to bring out the elixir of immortality, the king of the serpents is the churning rope. As the ocean is stirred, the most deadly poison flows out of the mouth of the serpent before the amrit, the ambrosia is attained.

The amrit of regaining cultural confidence, now that it has begun, is unstoppable and irretrievable. It shows itself in the effort to almost GI (geographical indication) yoga, rightfully, to its home in India at a time when it seemed that like so many other things it might be incorporated and branded in the West, and then resold back to us at a premium. It shows itself in movies in Telegu that rake in more money than Tom Hanks-starrers at the US box office. And it allows me to cock-a-snook and wear a dhoti all through summer at every meeting with every MNC.

It means that McDonalds, that once-upon-a-time emblem of modernity in India, will have increasingly worse financial results in India unless it sells more and more Indian flavours (and more and more vegetarian items) while the demand for desi ghee, promoted even by Bollywood stars now, will soar relentlessly. It means that the age of being shy of presenting the Bhagvad Gita as an official Indian government gift overseas is over.

It will manifest itself in forcing an unqualified apology from the Canadian envoy in India within hours after an Indian soldier is humiliated at its border by a Canadian minister. And in ignoring precedence and protocol to forge new, intricate ties with Israel.

What happens next? I believe this is when a much deeper, more nuanced understanding of what has been derided and ridiculed as ‘Indian nationalism’ needs to begin both among its detractors and supporters.

In a thoughtful new book Out of China: How the Chinese ended the era of Western domination, the historian Robert Bickers writes, ‘Nationalism matters in China, and what matters in China matters to us all. It has unfolded in tandem with the country’s epoch-shaking economic development, and it is in large part a logical consequence of that new and hard-won strength. But we cannot make proper sense of this phenomenon, or learn how to engage with it, unless we understand how deeply it is rooted not in China’s present power, but in its past weakness.’

Today, as a former colony, India too, perhaps for the first time, feels confident enough to assert its muscle in the world. Its nationalism is born not just of its current growth rates but a deep-seated persecution complex of having had to punch perpetually below the weight its size ought to have given it for most of its modern history.

Increasingly prosperous Indians today demand global attention — much more, respect. But they will have to learn that respect does not always come to those who speak the loudest. It comes to those who are able to speak softly but carry a big stick — this is not an easy lesson for a loquacious country to learn.

If there is a lesson for the world from the last three years, it is aptly captured in the image of saankh naad — the ritual of blowing the conch shell. It is wise to remember that the conch shell is blown both at the start of prayers and worship, and also before the battle (of ideas) begins.


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