Millennium Post

What makes us Indian?

For about twenty years, growing up in Madras and holidaying in Kodaikanal, I swallowed the slogan etched into picture charts and CBSE textbooks – Unity in Diversity. Now that I’ve travelled enough to view the borders of China and Pakistan, and the coastline of Sri Lanka, I realise the unity is as fragile as it is fostered, and the diversity is inherent in the ideology that created this beautiful country populated by ugly people.

The inception of the idea of India began with Partition, and the power struggle that led to the country being torn in two continues to threaten its unity today. With politicians exploiting differences over man-made concepts such as language, religion and boundaries, these distinctions have become entrenched in our psyches.

Two issues that have cropped up in the past week – the Home Ministry’s decision that people using the term 'chinky' to refer to North-Easterners will face a 5-year prison term, and the row over the cartoon satirising the anti-Hindi agitation [ironically, drawn by R K Laxman] – have got me thinking about where our Indianness comes from, and what allegiance we refer to when we speak of ‘patriotism’.

There was no doubt in my mind that I was as Indian as anyone else until I found myself the outsider in a group of Indians in London. Everyone spoke Hindi. I didn’t. Everyone else thought it was because I was an anti-Hindi agitator. I wasn’t. I couldn’t speak Hindi for the same reason that most Indians don’t speak Polish – it wasn’t spoken in my part of the country. I knew the alphabet because it was compulsory as a third language in the CBSE curriculum, but the limits of my Hindi were
Billi ek paaltu jaanwar hai
and Akbar ke darbar mein navratan kaun-kaun thhe?

But for some reason, Hindi-speakers chose to believe I was boycotting the rashtriya bhaasha, a fallacy in itself. For one, India does not have a national language. For another, if it did, it’s rather bizarre that one of the newest languages in the country should be chosen as the national language. However, since bizarre diktats are intrinsic to the administration of any country, it follows that a language that is intended to unite India should be taught properly in the territories where it isn’t naturally spoken. It’s illogical to accuse people of being seditionist on the assumption that nationalists must acquire alien tongues.

I could shrug off the preconceived notions of a bunch of fellow-students. However, when I moved to Delhi five years ago, I was to wonder whether India existed South of the Vindhyas and East of the Ganga. I happened to be an actual Madrasi from Madras, and saw no reason to take offence at the epithet. But I realised the entire South was seen as a bolus when it was assumed I spoke ‘Malayali’ and belonged to a community that conducted 15-minute weddings, and would have actor-turned-politician Chiranjeevi’s mobile number because we were from the ‘same place’. I presume it is less likely for a Gujarati to be asked to translate sound bites from Marathi.

Worse, several people in the media wanted to know whether Tamil Nadu acquired its name because of a separatist movement akin to that of Kashmir, demanding nationhood for the state. Some even assumed Tamil Nadu wanted to spread itself into parts of Sri Lanka.

Does this country belong only to the Hindi-speaking belt, then? Is it a given that everyone else wants to break off into either their own dominions, or join another country they supposedly have more in common with?

I would find that the perception of people from the North-East was even more erroneous. And that hit home when I made a trip to Arunachal Pradesh, where tens of megadam projects have been commissioned on rivers considered sacred by the tribes that inhabit the state. At one of the protests, a storehouse for construction material was set on fire, and there was an explosion. A journalist who captured the event on camera called up national news channels to ask if they wanted footage. No. They were busy covering the Delhi civic polls.

“No one cares what happens here,” he said, with a rueful smile, “And then they say we want to join China. We say we’re Indian, we speak the language, what more does the mainland want?”

In Arunachal Pradesh, Hindi is fast replacing Assamese as the language of communication among natives, at least when non-Arunachalis are present. People of my generation tell me they learnt their traditional tribal languages later; Hindi is the medium of education today, and Assamese was when their parents went to school.

But they feel the government doesn’t care about the state, except to channel its resources to the mainland. Resenting that attitude is considered unpatriotic – a sign that the ‘chinkies’ would rather be with China.

Where, then, do we find India in ourselves? Our history textbooks? Our language? Our features? Our geographical closeness to Delhi? Our religion, or the plurality thereof [as we’re reminded annually, by stock stories of Muslims painting Durga idols and making gulaal gota]? It’s one thing to joke about ‘Madrasi’, ‘Bong’, ‘Surd’ and other stereotypes. But when we begin to slot people into those, and exclude them from the larger India, we’re cutting through the fabric of a nation that’s only unified by reinforcement of the idea of nationhood.

For the record, I understand Hindi now, and speak a grammatically incorrect version of it. And I found the ‘offending’ cartoon hilarious. In retrospect, I wonder if the reference to rejecting English carries a foretelling of portent – that our regionalist mindsets, combined with the elimination of commonalities, will only lead to misunderstanding.

Nandini Krishnan is a journalist based in Chennai.
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