Ethnicity, Religion, Politics and Nation

By N.V.K. Murthy

Sept. 24th 2010

As a teenager, growing up in India during the freedom struggle, I remember my heart swelling up with pride when I sang poet Iqbal’s celebrated song “Saare Jahan Se Acha Hindustan Hamara”. Now, looking back at my life over the last seven decades, I begin to wonder at how any sane person could believe in such narrow nationalism.

India has been variously described as a continent, as a group of disparate ethnic groups put together artificially by a colonial empire, and as a separate distinctive civilization. What really is India? Over the millennia, it has been a melting pot for peoples of diverse ethnic groups, linguistic groups, and religious groups. The one unifying factor has been a geographical phenomenon which in itself was a consequence of a clash of two continental shelves. It is hardly two centuries ago that geologists came up with the explanation of the formations of the land masses which form the different continents of the world today.

India was part of a small portion of the landmass which had broken off from the larger landmass of Gondwana which consisted of modern day Europe, Asia and Africa. This small piece of land, containing present day India, was swirling off counterclockwise somewhere south of the equator, as far below the equator as India is to the north of the equator today. The larger piece of Gondwana, meanwhile, was swirling clockwise, and the two inevitably met millions of years ago. When they met, the smaller landmass went partially under the larger landmass and pushed up the Himalayas from under the ocean.

When the Himalayas came up, they stood up like guardian angels preventing the cold arctic winds from sweeping over the lands to the south. Scientists tell us that this is what made conditions favorable for agriculture in what came to be known as India. No wonder Iqbal speaks about the Himalayas as the sentries guarding our land. It is this geographic feature which dictated the destiny of India over millennia.

Now a word about ethnicity in India. According to anthropologists there are various ethnic groups such as the Australoid, Mongoloid, Dravidian, Aryan, African and many more amongst the people of India. While some of these may have been native to India, others came from outside. Consequently, India has seen the confluence of several languages. All this has woven a fascinating fabric of linguistic and ethnic groups in the country. They have been interacting with each other for millennia. While history has seen endless conflicts for power between the various groups, there has also been a tremendous assimilation of cultural values and languages. New archaeological discoveries have made us completely change our views about our own history.

At one time, it was believed that the Vedas marked the dawn of civilization in India. But the discovery of the archeological remains of the Indus valley civilization, Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa, during the British colonial times completely changed our knowledge of the history of the subcontinent. Now it is believed that a flourishing urban civilization with meticulous town planning existed in India before the arrival of the Aryans from central Asia through the Khyber Pass. When the Aryans came, and the Vedic hymns were composed, there was no written language. These hymns reflect a completely nomadic, pastoral life. One of the mysteries of Indian history is how a pastoral life came into existence after an urban civilization, the relics of which are found in the Indus valley. Paleontologists and climatologists explained this by suggesting climactic changes leading to drought resulting in dramatic disappearance of whole populations and cultures. Another interesting thing about the archeological finds in Harappa is the amazing advance that metallurgy had made in that ancient civilization, as well as the sculpture in metal. For a very long time the hieroglyphics found on some of the artifacts buried in these sites could not be deciphered. It was only in recent years that they were able to decipher these hieroglyphics when the experts realized that the artists could have used a script written from right to left. These are some of the mind boggling facts about India’s cultural background. The question arises “Who are the rightful claimants of this heritage?” India, Pakistan and Bangladesh can all lay claims to the Indus valley civilization. This leads us to next big baffling question “What defines the identity of a group and a nation?”

Different factors seem to be the deciding issues defining a particular nation or nationality in differing circumstances. But it seems that usually the most important factor underlying these definitions is the economic one. The cultural and linguistic differences seem to be super-structures built on the underlying economic factor. For example, in the sixties there was a violent agitation against the imposition of Hindi on the people in Tamilnadu. Shops with name-boards written in Hindi were burned on the main streets in Chennai and other important towns in Tamilnadu. The irony of it was that in Chennai there was a large complex of buildings built by a voluntary organization, the Nagari Pracharini Sabha, which did wonderful work in spreading Hindi as a national language during the freedom struggle. Thousands of women and children voluntarily learned Hindi, which was accepted as a badge of freedom from the British. The agitation opposing Hindi came up in the face of attempts to replace the primacy of English by Hindi in the competitive examinations for the civil services in India. The people of Tamilnadu looked upon this as an attempt to discriminate against South Indians because of their better knowledge of English. So, it is seen that the linguistic difference is only an apparent difference, while the real conflict was an economic one.

A similar instance occurred during the conflict between the eastern and western provinces of Pakistan, in which East Pakistan emerged as Bangladesh in 1971. The conflict seemed to be over the decision of the government of Pakistan to make Urdu the national language of Pakistan. The overwhelming number of people in eastern Pakistan, which is present day Bangladesh, spoke Bengali, a language that they shared with the people living across the border in India. Now, if language were to be the sole consideration for the definition of a nationality there was no reason for the people of East Pakistan to choose to go out of India and be separated from their Bengali-speaking kin of India. Obviously, language was not the only criterion. But now, it seemed to be the one distinction between the people of East and West Pakistan. The real reason, of course, was the oppression of the people of East Pakistan by the people of West Pakistan. In the poll for the national assembly, the Awami League of East Pakistan under the leadership of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, won the largest number of seats and yet the party was denied its legitimate right to name the Prime Minister. The linguistic difference only turned out to be the proverbial “last straw on the camel’s back”.

The differentiation that marked the partition of India in 1947 was a religious one, namely Hindu versus Muslim. Here again, if one goes deep into the matter, the religious divide was only one of convenience. Many thinkers have pointed out that, following the reforms of 1935, when limited self-government was granted by the British in the British provinces, if the Muslim populations in provinces like Uttar-Pradesh had been given their due share of representation, perhaps partition might not have occured. When Muslim people felt that they might not be able to get their due share in free India, they began to turn away from the nationalist movement and form a separatist organization. But these are only the if’s and but’s of history. Nevertheless they give us a better understanding of the reality of the present.

To sum it all up, though there are distinctions of ethnicity and religion, in these days of globalization, we find these distinctions fading away. Perhaps the day of the whole world being one village may be still a dream for many more years to come. But at least more people are dreaming about it today than ever before. However, for the present we have to live within limitations of ethnic groups, religious groups and nations, while the ideal state may be a multi-racial, multi-linguistic secular state, like the United States of America or India. We have to reconcile ourselves to living in a world of governments based on different principles. But the lesson of history is clear.

The ultimate lesson that one can glean from history is that there is a wide spectrum of distinctions of language, ethnicity, and religion, which define distinctions between different human groups. At the same time there are other distinctive factors like geographic conditions and political conditions bringing peoples together. However, the social centrifugal and centripetal forces have to be kept in balance if the groups have to be held together. The moment one group feels that somehow justice is being denied to them, the breakdown starts and unless it is attended to fairly and promptly, it may end in a breakaway movement. So any federal government has to be extremely sensitive to signs of dissonance and disharmony and address grievances promptly. It would be perilous to try and sweep the problem under the carpet.

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