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India: a nation in search of a new identity

India: a nation in search of a new identity
Mary Thomas, Associate Editor, ATB, Jan 2019, Edmonton

The real “clash of civilizations” is not a clash between Islam and “the West,” but is instead a clash within every modern nation “between people who are prepared to live with others who are different, on terms of equal respect, and those who seek the domination of a single religious and ethnic tradition” says, Martha C Nussbaum, Professor of University of Chicago bravely tackling the complex relationships between cultural identity and nationhood.

India, she says, is uniquely situated to shed light on this problem because of the multiplicity of religious and ethnic communities within a nation of one billion people who live in relative peace and harmony; it is a default case of cosmopolitanism. Indian democracy has provided the possibility of encounters between citizens that are more inclusive and complex, and Hindu-Muslim riotingare a telling example of violence unleashed when the religious right handcuffed this model of inclusivity in the quest for an ideologically homogenous Hindu state. How did this monolithic fascist reading of Hinduism emerge in such a religiously and ethnically plural nation?

During India’s founding as a fledgling nation struggled to balance pluralism and equality for all religions, its social revolutions were an attempt to mitigate the evils of the caste system, and retain a secular state despite the polarized religious landscape. Itis a cautionary tale about the slippery slope from democracy to fascism.

The view of a nation-state based on a singular identity did not prevail in India after Independence from the British Raj, and nationalism rested on the bedrock of a plural India.

The genuinely free press and public intellectuals kept up unceasing pressure to document and investigate the riots and every embarrassing scar ever without repression. Avigorous and communally integrated life served as an agent of peace by creating a “moral economy” of the good life, frowning on those, including politicians, who would polarize Hindus and Muslims along communal lines.Cosmopolitanism was positively valued in social thought. Later the emergent politics associated with the progressive new middle class is a more chauvinistic, religion-based nationalism in line with conservative movements sweeping the globe.

India is today in the throes of a public debate about self-definition. The broad contradictoryprocessesinfluencing Indian identity are a political movement, represented by the Hindu Right, devoted to completing the unfinished project of creating an Indian state in the image of a Western exclusive one and the pressures of the free market that produce a “commodification of Indianness.” The market is creating a pan-Indian consuming class that wishes to have diversity packaged in neat parcels, a strategy of internal domestication and fragmentation subordinated to the bazaar.

The tensions between these processes may erupt regularly and in bloody ways, as the choices in identity expand exponentially, the sphere of religion is likely, to shrink and become potent all at once. India is resilient, however. Within its multi-layered culture exist many paradigms yet to emerge that will influence political and economic processes in unexpected ways. The best is yet to come for all to see and learn.

Mark Twain famously said that “India is the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend, and the great grandmother of tradition.” Twain stressed the unique philosophical and spiritual characteristics of India’s civilization. Share your thoughts on the topic to mary@asiantribune.ca 

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