I missed this, but thanks to the wonders of the Bharatiya Blogger’s Digest er, Blog Mela, I was able to find Madhu’s screed on Indian-ness. He asks how he can strongly identify with India when on many points (go read them all) he is clearly out of the Indian mainstream.
Not surprisingly, his comments have attracted (besides the usual accusations of brown-sahibbery) a lot of people who feel the same as he does. I must add here that as little as two years back, I would probably have been firmly in the “me too, Madhu” camp. These days, I’m happy to be at ease about it.
The problem begins with the way Madhu states the problem: just how “Indian” am I?. As we will see, ‘how’ is the wrong question: ‘what kind of’ is a much better one.
Attempts to measure Indianness by counting the number of national stereotypes conformed to is not only misguided but dangerous. Nationalism, except in hate-mongering hands, is an instrument of inclusion, not exclusion. Measured by Madhu’s criteria, Pandit Nehru with his perennial Anglophilia or the pre-South-Africa Gandhi would not have been very Indian either.
Madhu goes on to call himself a cultural misfit. To my mind, this is a good thing: cultural misfits create progress. It is because of cultural misfits that most people don’t think of Sati, or child-marriage, or widow-remarriage-prohibitions, or treating wives like chattel as terribly important Indian values. Conflating the idea of cultural “fits” with Indian-ness is therefore misguided.
The key phrase that underlies Madhu’s thinking seems to be Ravi Kiran’s quote: Every generation finds things we have in common, things that we share, things that we value and things that we can be proud of, and builds a nationalism out of it. This is a classic clarion call to what I call ‘cultural nationalism’: in the early 1900s it was Vande Mataram, khadi and the tricolor; today it’s cricket, B(|T|K)ollywood and Indipop. Easy.
Or maybe not. Cultural nationalism is a great tool to get a nation together where none existed before. It appeals to the masses who then see unity where previously there was diversity. In a nation that already exists, cultural nationalism is a sure road to disaster simply because every special-interest group has slightly different and often conflicting ideas about what the shared ‘culture’ represents. Look no further than the VHP/RSS’ brand of values to see how even majority values can be divisive. Even seemingly harmless values like Bollywood become objects of dispute, as in the recent Karnataka cinema fraças. Most tellingly, the last German experiment with shared cultural values and nationalism left 55 million dead around the world.
Perhaps in response to this, some commenters have suggested that in this interconnected world nationalism is passé, that all it means is a passport, nothing more. This “citizen of the world” thinking has struck me as wooly-headed before, and this is what this post is really about.
Of course, the world is highly interconnected today. 16 year olds in Brazil can contribute to the development of an OS kernel that’ll be used around the world. Teens in Bangalore can buy Evanescence albums almost as soon as they’re out in New York. There is an entire spectrum of global and local experiences that one can be — given the inclination and ability — exposed to.
Let us assume a ‘national average’ of exposure that lies somewhere between completely local and completely global. A typical autorickshaw driver would be skewed towards the local end of the scale. Madhu, on the other hand, is highly skewed towards global end of the scale, much more than the national average. Madhu and others like him are the leading edge of India’s ‘globalization’, and they pay for it with anomie towards the society they inhabit.
Europe is a more balanced example. Today, shared cultural experience in Europe (which was never low to begin with) is at all time high, thanks especially to the common market and free interborder movement for citizens. By the ‘cultural nationalism’ touchstone, then, nationalism must also be at an all time high. Surprisingly, this is not the case. Fervour for nationalism in Europe is low, hindering the progress of the European superstate. The reason is a lack of common strategic interest. Lower-cost Ireland has prospered under the Euro regime where Germany has suffered. France indignantly chastises a resurgent Poland for not ‘knowing its place’ even as it suffers low growth and rise in pensioners.
Nationalism — first and foremost — is shared economic and strategic interest. Everything else, cultural symbolism included, is window dressing.
What kind of Indian is Madhu? An excellent one. Far better, I would argue, than the IAS officer who’s blasé about his district’s poor roads. Far better than the politician who knows that keeping his poor constituency hooked to handouts is the ticket to his own success. Madhu is an excellent Indian because he has a very personal stake in India’s success. He wants his restaurant to do well. For that, Bangalore has to do well. If Bangalore does well, so will Indian IT, and (given IT’s role in the economy) so will India. And while all the macroeconomics flies thick and fast, Madhu goes back to delivering great food and service and creating jobs.
Anyone who’s labour is directed towards making India thrive is an Indian, even if he doesn’t have a passport that says so. Even indirect labour from those offshore counts: those who invest in India, often simply by sending money home; those who by their very lives offshore create goodwill for India; those who, despite feeling like misfits, like India enough to blog about it. Of course, these days we recognize some of these Indians by giving them PIO cards.
Of course, apart from that there is also the little matter of accepting the framework of Indian law and all the obligations that brings about, which is what legally makes you a citizen in the first place (some of us are born into it). However, it is only shared economic and strategic interest that can truly make one a citizen, as opposed to a mere accident of birth.