24 Sep To Whom Does India Belong?
Some recent comments have made me reflect on this question. I am intrigued by the notion that someone can think of India as belonging to its religious majority. I am going to argue that such thinking is arbitrary, inconsistent, anachronistic, and schizophrenic. It is also a vocabulary that is entirely unhelpful in advancing us to a better and more secure future.
It is arbitrary because there is no logical reason for using religion as the characteristic by which a majority is determined. Why couldn’t one say that India belongs to men because there are more men than women in India? Or that India belongs to Hindi speakers, or to peasants, or to the lower castes? No case can be made that accords primacy to religion over all these other dimensions that can also separate a population into a majority and a minority.
It is inconsistent because if such logic can be applied to India there is no reason that it cannot be applied to a part of India. How can one argue that India belongs to its majority community but Maharashtra does not belong to its majority community? One would be forced to concede the validity of Bal Thackeray’s argument.
It is anachronistic because it belongs to an age when tribes claimed ownership of particular pieces of land and fought over them. If India belongs to a majority, however defined, then by definition the residual group, no matter how long it has resided in India, is a guest at best and an intruder at worst. Such a characterization is not compatible with the norms of our time.
It is schizophrenic because it reflects a mind that has accepted the structure of a modern nation-state on the one hand but continues to exhibit a pre-modern mental frame defined by all sorts of divisions between people who inhabit that nation-state.
I have been consistently arguing the case that South Asia does indeed suffer from this schizophrenia. It has borrowed ‘modern’ forms like the nation-state and democratic governance but both its elites and its masses remain infused with the ethos of a monarchy. The elites continue to think of themselves as above the law and entitled to dynastic rule and the masses continue to look upon the rulers, whoever they may be, as their mata-pitas.
If the countries of South Asia are to be modern nation-states, South Asians would have to abandon such archaic notions as someone owning a country. There are no majorities and minorities in modern, democratic, and secular nation-states. Everyone who is granted citizenship by the Indian state is an Indian with equal rights; an Indian – nothing more, nothing less. This is not to say that Indians stop being Bengalis or Tamils or Brahmins or Sikhs but that these distinctions remain markers of culture and have no bearing on differential ownership of India or privileged entitlement to rights simply by virtue of numerical counts. The fact that there may be more Bengalis than Assamese has no bearing on anything in a modern nation-state.
And if there are people in India who do not wish to be Indian, Indians would have to find a way to resolve that dilemma just as Spain has to find a solution to the dilemma of those Basques who do not wish to be citizens of Spain. This is true not just for India but also for Pakistan and Sri Lanka, at the very least.
How we relate to each other is a function of the vocabulary we employ. We cannot continue to dwell in the past and refer to each other as Aryans and Dravidians, Hindus and Muslims, Mughals and Rajputs, Sinhalese and Tamils, Bengalis and Biharis, etc., etc. Nor can we undo the past. If we wish to move forward with the times we have to employ the vocabulary of the times. In South Asia, we have to deal with each other as Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans, Nepalese, Bhutanese, and Maldivians.
The welfare of South Asians will be enhanced by cooperation between the countries of South Asia and will be hurt by conflict among them. This may strike some as fanciful but an essential step towards that cooperation may be the choice of the terms we use for each other. It may be how we converse with each other that would have the most impact on our future.