Friday, 23 January 2015

Towards A Humanist Indic Identity

Let me cut to the chase.

I think Indians have lost their collective self-confidence. We've had it beaten out of us over centuries. We need to find our civilisational identity to learn to hold our heads up again. But the search for this civilisational identity is fraught with risk, because we could end up being jingoistic, xenophobic, intolerant of minorities and reactionary in our caste prejudices if we are not careful. Indeed, this is already happening in a section of our society. All the more reason for the rest of us to go about it the right way.

OK, let me start again, more slowly.

I have always been fascinated by the Indian character. And why not? I am Indian, and my character is the Indian character in microcosm. Yes, yes, I can't speak for the other gender, for the transgendered, for people of other faiths, other castes, other linguistic groups, other age groups. But even given those qualifications, my character has an authentic claim to being the Indian character in microcosm. As do those others.

Call me cynical, but I believe that the Indian character can be summed up in a simple phrase - the cowardly survivor. We have learnt to keep our heads down and not to stand up for any principle, to please the powerful and stay in their good books, to exploit our weaker comrades and abandon the fallen, to view every peer as a rival and to scan them anxiously for flaws, to bide our time and be ungracious to those we beat.

It has taken a lot to learn to rise above myself, and I am not even sure I can stay that way in all circumstances. My civilisational character dies hard.

Dimly, I am aware that a collective lesson learnt by my people over centuries of foreign subjugation has resulted in this passive-aggressive persona that I have inherited. Dimly, I am aware that if I can go back to an earlier time when I knew no trauma and could think for myself without flinching, I will be a more secure and gracious person, confident and strong, productive and protective, far-thinking and nurturing. I need to find my original civilisational identity, the one I had before I was conquered and forced to permanently bow my head and worry about survival.

I have found something that I can crudely call the Indic identity, which is distinct from the Western, Sinic and Islamic civilisational identities. However, adopting this Indic identity without being aware of my own inherent insecurities could lead to some undesirable results.

  • 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.

When I adopt an Indic identity without addressing my insecurities, I tend to become what is referred to as "right wing". But then, because I don't like the nasty person it makes me become, I begin to have some opposing thoughts.

  • 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.

When I think like this, I become what is referred to as "left wing".

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.

Three stories tell me that turning away from my civilisational identity is not the solution to avoiding a cultural superiority/inferiority complex.

- At the time of partition, the leader of the North-West Frontier Province, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, complained that the Indian National Congress had "thrown the Pathans to the wolves". The Pathans asserted their Indic identity by opposing partition, but the Indian leadership was too diffident to endorse the claim, preferring to defer to the Muslim League's claim that a shared Islamic identity placed the Pathans in Pakistan. That was an example of civilisational cowardice, because we let down our own out of fear of standing up for what unites us.

- 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.

- When the crown princess of Thailand approached India for help in hosting a World Sanskrit Conference, the diplomats of the External Affairs ministry balked "because we are a secular nation". Ultimately the conference was held with the assistance of some private individuals (NRIs), with Indian officialdom only clambering on board when it was obvious the train was leaving the platform. That was a breathtaking example of confusion over what secularism means, and how a false sense of universalism can keep us from tapping the richness of our civilisational heritage.

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.

The most immediate problem with the Indic identity as articulated by Hindutva organisations like the RSS is that it is not inclusive of Indian religious minorities on equal terms and hence tears at the social fabric through active alienation. To be precise, the terms under which minorities are sought to be "included" sound like second-class citizenship. The position towards minorities is that "they must accept that they are cultural Hindus." As I said before, a more powerful and inclusive philosophy would be that religious minorities have a rich and hybrid identity that can potentially take the best of the Indic and Islamic worlds (in the case of Muslims), or the Indic and Western worlds (in the case of Christians), so they are equal citizens of this dynamic civilisation.

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?

I would like to do all of this, but I have a challenge. The modern Indian nation-state as defined by its constitution is strongly humanist, but it is not distinctively Indic. On the other hand, the Indic civilisational identity, though strongly distinctive, is also a broken one because of current-day realities.


  • 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.


In other words, it seems a challenge to forge an identity that is culturally unique but also socially inclusive. I want to be Indic as well as humanist, but there are no simple answers. I will continue to explore this idea in my own life, and post updates from time to time when I think of something significant.

The first update is here.
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