Millennium Post

How Delhi bias shapes identities

If  you have not watched the YouTube video Enna Da Rascalas: South of India, you should. It is a crisp, catchy-tune video made by a talented group of artists calling themselves the Culture Machine and Stray Factory. It has gone ‘viral’, logging more than 1.2 million hits in 7 days. It humorously aims to inform people about the different peoples of  ‘South of India’ and their distinct cultures, lifestyles and other attributes. ‘There’s no Madrasi, we are all padosi (neighbours)’– was the main message. Using the tune of ‘We didn’t start the fire’, it does a better job in showcasing the foods and old monuments of ‘South of India’ among other things than sarkari ‘Incredible India!’ tourism promotion campaigns.

I must confess, ‘Madrasi’ is a word which I use with fellow Bengalis. ‘Madrasi’ is a word that I grew up with in Bengal. Actually, in Bangla, we say ‘Madraji’ rather than ‘Madrasi’. The word has long been used in popular literature, much before the first Hindi language film was made. It has not been used as a derogatory term. I did not grow up in the upper Gangetic plains of the subcontinent. I am told that ‘up there’, it is often mixed with a derogatory mindset. ‘Madraji’ is a Bangla word that I have used to internally communicate with fellow Bengalis to signal a concept that we commonly understand. While it is a catch-all term for peoples of the Dravidian linguistic nationalities of the subcontinent, the word was not used obfuscate differences. In fact, the actually existing differences between the peoples of the Dravidian linguistic nationalities were of marginal importance. What was important was the ‘Madrajis’ we interacted with in Bengal, and the concept of the ‘Madraji’ that we made based on those interactions. The ‘Madraji’ held a certain location in Bengal’s cosmos- the coordinates being a distantly related and highly refracted form of the actual, refracted by a Bengali metropolitan lens.

How did the ‘Madrasi’ come about in Bengal? The stereotypical ‘Madraji’ in the eyes of Bengal is a being whose shape is determined by the specific encounter of the Dravidian linguistic nationalities with Bengal, largely during the colonial period. Large parts of peninsular South Asia, spanning over multiple Dravidian homelands, were part of the Madras presidency. Concepts like ‘Madras’ (to mean a large geography and its peoples) developed during this time, primarily due to the arbitrary administrative nomenclature of the colonial masters. Another concept, which gained similar currency during this time, was ‘India’. The made-up ‘Madras’ is now nowhere to be found, with the reorganisation of states on linguistic basis and finally, the renaming of the name-giving city. ‘India’ has variously fragmented into a sacrosanct concept (in the Indian Union), a conspiring powerful enemy (in Pakistan), a domineering ‘friend’ (in Bangladesh), an important neighbour (in Myanmar) and so on.

This kind of identity creation has a predictable past in many erstwhile colonial areas. Circulation of professionals and labourers to newer colonial urban centres of the subcontinent created the ‘Madrasi’ and the ‘Indian’. Given the unequal emphasis that the Indian union gives to its different constituent nationalities (its ‘soul’ is clearly not located south of the Vindhyas even if its revenue producers are), it always falls of certain people to do the job of explaining themselves to others. Stereotypes are a fact of life but event after event in the Indian union’s ‘dil’ called Delhi shows that not all stereotypes are harmless. What is worse than stereotypes is trying to undo the stereotypes by gently appealing to those who came up with the negative stereotypes. Nothing shows the existing power differences within the Indian union more clearly. Those doing the self-explaining are predictable people- Nagas, Manipuris, Mizos, Kannadigas, Tamils, etc. The audience is common- the urban people from the ‘soul’ country. The ‘soul’ people can carry on without having to explain themselves. That is a privilege the non-soul people of the subcontinent don’t have. They have to carry name-tags like diverse exotic plants in a herbarium with an imperial curator.

The ‘soul’ people are the ‘mainstream’, the template, the obvious ‘Indians’- the knowledge of their nuance being expected from non-soul people, with Bollywood helping along. We must also remember that for the many poor and rural people in the subcontinent, there is no ‘Madrasi’ or ‘Bengali’. They may be from ‘soul’ country but are not ‘soul’ people because their sense of self-hood often does not depend on encounters with distant aliens. They have not been fully incorporated into the language of public political correctness and pan-India consumer literacy.

From the viewpoint of the 1947 ‘other’ of the Indian union- namely West Pakistan and East Bengal, the Indian Union represented Hindustan. The twinned words Hindustan-Pakistan gained currency in the run-up to partition and have not disappeared from public discourse. But what is Hindustan given that the term predates 1947?  That is the not the same as the British empire in South Asia is clear. The noted editor of the Karachi-based Urdu quarterly Aaj, the brilliant Ajmal Kamal has explained with ample references the limited nature of the concept of Hindustan.

In a talk at Delhi, he says, ‘When someone used to travel from here to the Punjab, it was said that this person is Hindustani. So clearly, Punjab was not part of Hindustan.’ He goes on to quote Shibli Nomani, the famous 19th century Islamic scholar from Azamgarh, who writes as a matter-of-fact, ‘I am going back to Hindustan from Bombay’. So, even these areas were not Hindustan. The definition of ‘Hindustan’ has not been constant and the term has been expanded and used to suit the divisive political or ideological needs of subcontinental Hindu-Muslim rivalry, especially from 1940 onwards. In Bengal, we have another term called ‘Hindustani’ and it is clearly ‘not us’. So Bengal was and is not Hindustan either, though in the warped ideological lens of some in East Bengal and many in Pakistan, West Bengal is very much in Hindustan.

In today’s atmosphere in the Indian Union, it is increasingly hard to equate Hindustani with ‘not us’, given how the mythic Hindustan has come to become synonymous with ‘India’ in extremely powerful circles that shape public discourse and imagination. When someone says, we are all ‘Hindustanis’, there is a smothering of identities for unholier motives, quite different from the ‘Madrasi’. Many made-up identities are those that are handed down from the point of view of outsiders. Many of from outside the subcontinent also operate with a conception of a creature called ‘Indian’.

If I say to them, ‘ there’s no Indian, we are all padosi’, am I completely wrong? What then is the fundamental difference between the constructs ‘Madras’ and ‘India’? If they are both mythical, as in do not correspond to some specific actual, can we say that it is a myth supported by an army that ensures its survival?

There are uncomfortable questions on the other side of ‘Madras’. They are intimately tied to the identity questions that plague the peoples of the subcontinent, down to this day. ‘Bengali’ and ‘Bangladeshi’ are also terms that need unpacking, whether we some like it or not. The same logic holds. IPA
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