- I could see the past achievements of my civilisation and begin to think of myself as superior, when I should merely take pride in the fact that I belong to a distinct civilisation that has made a contribution to humankind. I could tend to look at other civilisations with either envy and resentment, or superiority and contempt, when I should be looking at them with curiosity, respect and an eagerness to learn.
- I could tend to see myself as original and authentic, and to look at others who are like myself but have multiple civilisational identities as ersatz and even traitorous, when I should recognise that having rich, hybrid cultural influences helps a society evolve.
- I could refuse to critique any aspect of my civilisational values, believing them to be superior by definition. I could become blind to the injustices they may contain, when I should be eager to learn by contrasting the values of various cultures to take the best from all of them and leave behind those that are unsuitable.
- I think the notion of an Indic identity is narrow and dangerous. I don't want to talk about it. Why should I even accept the notion of a civilisational identity? I prefer to be a universalist and restrict myself to generally accepted liberal humanist principles.
However, neither way of thinking really satisfies me. The former attitude is insecure and defensive, preventing me from seeing the good in others and rendering me incapable of improving myself; the latter seems dishonest and cowardly, and holds me back from tapping an inner positive vitality if I can only get it right.
- When India voted with Vietnam against Cambodian interests, a Cambodian politician complained to Shashi Tharoor that India had sided with a Sinic country against a fellow Indic nation. Regardless of the merits of the issue in question, no Indian had even thought of these relationships in the terms that the Cambodian politician did! That was an example of civilisational blindness, because we cannot see our kinship with other people, while they can see it with crystal clarity.
The denial of an Indic identity by the so-called "secular" political parties has resulted in cultural cringe on an epidemic scale. This has now created a backlash that is sweeping much of Hindu India into the Hindutva fold.
We are at a crossroads in history, a critical juncture when the misguidedly "secular" policies of the Congress party have been rejected by a majority of Hindu Indians, but the only available alternative is an unthinkingly jingoistic Hindu nationalism. An Indic identity has begun to be strongly asserted, but it suffers from all the insecurity-fuelled ills I listed earlier.
Another example of needless cultural alienation is the Hindutva ideologue's typical insistence on Hindi as the link language for India rather than a pragmatic combination of Hindi, English and other languages. It reduces non-Hindi-speaking Indians, perhaps over half the country's population, to the status of second-class citizens who must now speak the language of their cultural overlords. Non-Hindi-speaking people are as Indic as Hindi speakers, and this majoritarian linguistic stance is hardly unifying.
The further characterisation of English-educated Indians as cultural enemies ("Macaulay's children") is again born out of a sense of threat because of cultural difference, since the mass of Hindutva leaders has never learned to speak English and were hence never exposed to Western ideas. A far more powerful way to include the educated elite and harness their skills would be to see them as people with a hybrid Indic-Western identity, which can help our civilisation tap the best of both cultures. (For their part, many of the English-educated elite would do well to shed their embarrassment at being associated with anything Indic.)
Yet another danger with the Hindutva ideology is the notion of "Akhand Bhaarat", or "undivided India", where the notion of a shared Indic civilisational identity is conflated with a territorial claim on independent nation-states. With the right attitude, a shared civilisational identity provides a basis for strong bonds between peoples and by extension, between governments. It can lead to greater economic cooperation and shared prosperity. With the wrong attitude, it can lead to jingoism, strained international relations and even war.
A side-effect of the Hindutva ideology is that the brand of Hinduism that results is not as freewheeling and multi-centred as what has always been practised, but more unitarian and exclusivist, much like the Abrahamic religions the Hindutva organisations are bitterly opposed to. This is ironical but not surprising, since the resentment towards the other is fuelled primarily by cultural insecurity.
Cultural insecurity explains the attitudes of those who subscribe to the Hindutva ideology. They are envious and resentful when they look at Western civilisation, because it is materially more advanced and had subjugated India for two centuries. They are resentful yet contemptuous of Islamic civilisation, because the Muslims had subjugated India for over five centuries, and their practices are different from those indigenous to India. They are envious, fearful and contemptuous at the same time of the Sinic civilisation, because China is also a great civilisation with a glorious past, they are militarily and economically stronger, but the physical appearance, values and practices of the Chinese are different from those of Indians.
There is a very thin line between civilisational assertiveness and fascism, and we must be careful not to cross that line in our quest for a unique civilisational identity. This is the lesson I have learnt by observing the intellectual contortions of the Hindutva groups. Their elaborate rationalisations fail to hide the truth that their ideology is driven by a cultural inferiority complex, which causes them to spout an air of superiority that will acknowledge nothing good in other civilisations. It also causes them to exclude millions of their own people. None of this implies that other cultures and civilisations must not be critiqued. On the contrary, it means that all human cultures have their unique strengths and contributions as well as their negative ideas and practices. By being exposed to multiple cultural influences, and by being open to learning from all of them. all of humankind can progress. For this, the fundamental prerequisite is cultural security, the inherent ability not to be threatened by difference but to be respectfully curious about it.
Without cultural security, we cannot respect other people. It would be too threatening to our own identity. Without true respect, we cannot learn and we cannot include those different from ourselves. Without learning, any civilisational identity we assert will be stagnant. Without inclusion, any civilisational identity we assert will become fascism.
And so I have to ask myself some basic questions.
- Can I learn to think of myself as Indic without envying other civilisations?
- Can I learn to think of myself as Indic without looking down on other civilisations?
- Can I learn to think of myself as Indic without bearing a grudge towards other civilisations for historical wrongs?
- Can I learn to think of myself as Indic while being prepared to discard traditionally Indic values that I begin to recognise as negative when I study other civilisations, and also to adopt values that I recognise as positive in other civilisations? Specifically, can I eschew caste as a social marker? Can I eschew sexism and patriarchal values?
- Can I learn to think of myself as Indic without believing that it is a cultural identity carved in stone? Am I secure enough to see my culture change and evolve through the influence and conflict of ideas?
- Can I learn to think of myself as Indic without believing that it belongs exclusively to Hindus? Can I accept that an Indic identity is part of the identity of Christians, Muslims and other Indian religious minorities, and that the fact that they may also have other identities does not make them second-class citizens or traitors to the country or its civilisation?
- Can I learn to think of myself as Indic without believing that Hindi-speaking people have a greater right to claim that identity than non-Hindi-speaking people? Can I accept that English-speaking Indians are not necessarily culturally alienated but have a hybrid Indic-Western identity that is a useful source of ideas to help our civilisation progress?
- More generally, can I see a hybrid civilisational identity not only as being as valid as a "pure" Indic identity, but also potentially richer in terms of providing opportunities to advance and grow by adopting the best from multiple cultures?
- Can I learn to think of myself as Indic and build close ties with people of other Indic nations with the confidence of belonging to the fountainhead but without being territorially covetous, bullying or patronising?
- English is not an Indic language. But English has been grafted into Indian society, and it is useful for our future.
- Sanskrit is an Indic language, perhaps the most strongly authentic one. But no one speaks Sanskrit any more.
- There are many authentic Indic languages that are in use. But none of them, not even Hindi, is common to all of us.
- Christianity, Islam, Zoroastrianism and Judaism are not Indic religions, but there are hundreds of millions of people in India who follow these religions and they are every bit our own people as those who follow natively Indic religions like Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism.
- There are people who have hybrid civilisational identities - Indic-Western, Indic-Islamic, Indic-Sinic. We have to find an equal place for all of them. No one is inferior to any other.
- There is no universally shared culture in India except pop culture like Bollywood and cricket, which are shallow compared to the traditional arts. The traditional arts are not universal. They are either regional in scope or elitist by taste.