I Am An Indian, But Here’s Why My Regional Identity Is As Important To Me

Posted on March 29, 2016 in Society

By Ammar Bakhsh:

regional_identityIn the days surrounding the JNU fiasco, the word ‘Nation’ got thrown around a lot. Nobody, however, took the word and tried to unravel its true meaning. It is, however, interesting that it was not only the JNU case that triggered this thought in my puny little mind, but the works of Ustaaz Javed Ahmad Ghamidi. It was his works that led me to explore political science and recognise the idea of the nation-state. I needed to educate my opinion so I set out to ask some questions with the hope of finding an answer.

The idea of a nation and nation-state has ravaged the better part of our modern history. Europe has fought two world wars over this very idea. So, the first question I needed an answer to was: what is a nation or, more importantly, what is ‘my’ nation? An interesting feature of the word nation and as an idea is that it originated in, of all places, Germany. As we go on we will understand that Germany was originally the name of the German nation rather that a state.

The term nationalism was coined by the German philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder. It is a beautiful definition that he gives. It encapsulates all that one feels when he/she says that they are part of some nation. He said, “A nation arises out of a specific geography and climate. The climate shapes the people. The first nation was simply the family or groups of families in the same geographical location and climate who over time developed language to express the physical environment in which they lived. A Nation is thus primarily based on a language spoken by a group of people.” This definition is at the heart of what we mean when we say ‘I am a Punjabi’, ‘a Sindhi’, ‘a Baloch’, ‘a Bengali’, ‘a Kashmiri’, ‘a Marathi’, ‘a Malayalee’ and so on.

Johann Gottfried von Herder also believed that a nation was a spiritual unity. This did not mean that they necessarily shared same faith but the same spiritual bond. This idea of a spiritual bond is what created the fabled German nationalism. It is a history worth digging into. Thus, there has always been a Germany without the actual existence of German state. Then the question to the reader is that is it possible to be a nation without being a nation-state or to have a state without being a nation?

Now that I had my answer to what a nation was, it seemed to me that almost every nation had a state because every state considered itself to be a nation. Kurdistan is today the largest nation without a proper state. Divided between Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran they are the largest single ethnic group on Earth without a proper homeland, the Kurds were promised a homeland in 1916/17. In post-World War treaties, the Kurds were promised a homeland again but to no avail. This idea of nationhood was seen among the Irish. The Banai Israel (Jews) also call themselves a nation. Persecuted and scattered around the world they still call themselves a nation. How different is then the idea of the Indian nation and the Indian state? Is it really fair to call the Republic of India a nation and expect very being within it to become ‘Indian’? How does a tree, a bird, a flower, a language become the identity of every ethnicity in the Indian state?

The struggle for our independence from the British has some undiscovered answers in the development of the idea of India as a nation. The idea of India developed with the coming of the British Raj. By the time of their arrival, the Indian subcontinent had a mix of ethnicities. Some had developed into nations in their own right. The Indian subcontinent had Turks, Arabs, Persians, Afghans, Rajputs, Marathas, Sindhis, Balochis, Bengalis, Orias, Telugus, Kannadas, Tamils and many more ethnicities that had either blended into existing cultures or had developed their own climate, language, culture and, more importantly, their own identity. Thus, to call them Indian in a British colonial sense would be a grave misdoing.

A Punjabi is a Punjabi irrespective of whether he is a Hindu or a Muslim or a Sikh. Punjabi is his language irrespective of it being written in Nistaliq or Devnagiri. Also, the notion of a large public movement against the British Raj also blurs our vision of the major portion of the population not being under direct British rule. These people had no connection whatsoever with British Raj except for the fact that their rulers were the subjects of the British crown. Their participation in the freedom movement was hardly the nationalistic ferver that is presented to us.

To build the notion of pan-India with such diversity, there was a need to find a common ground. Religion was the only sense of identity that had the potential to cut across these boundaries. It is, in my opinion, the need to from a nation-state that held a common identity which made religion became a key player in the struggle for independence. How we transitioned into that mindset is history. What is sad is that the likes of Allama Iqbal who inspired a generation of anti-British colonialism went on to advocate the idea of a nation based on religion. He famously penned down the following verses in response to Maulana Hussain Madani who differed with his notion:

“Ajam Hanooz Nadand Rumooz-E-Deen, Warna
Za Deoband Husain Ahmad! Aen Che Bu-ul-Ajabi Ast

Saroad Bar Sar-E-Minbar Ke Millat Az Watan Ast
Che Bekhabar Za-Maqam-E-Muhammad (pbuh) Arabi Ast

BaMustafa (S.A.W.) Barsaan Khowesh Ra Ke Deen Hama Ost
Agar Bah O Ner Sayyadi, Tamam Bu-Lahabi Ast”

(The Ajamites do not yet know, The fine points of our faith;
Otherwise Husain Ahmad of Deoband! What is this foolhardiness?

A sermon-song from the pulpit that a nation by a homeland be!
From the real position of the Arabian Prophet (pbuh), How sadly unaware is he!

Your self merge with Mustafa (PBUH) for all faith embodies in Him!
If you do not reach up to Him It is all Bu Lahab’s idolatry!)

Our effort to understand and define Indians is futile because we are not a nation per say. To quote the most demonised person from the subcontinent, “India is not a nation, nor a country. It is a subcontinent of nationalities.” My feeling and passion for Lucknow can never be the same for Chennai. Nor should I expect a Tamil to absorb the delights of Delhi and claim it as his own. The Indian state did not define its own borders. What makes me Indian is not the Radcliffe line but the Constitution of India. It is the holy covenant that we swear to uphold and agree to live by. India is not a nation and any attempts to make it so will not be without conflict. We are a state desperately trying to become a nation and that process will not and should not stop.

Whether the state as an institution best serves the identity of your national feeling is and should be open to question. The question is not the problem of a nation-state but the fallacy in its universality. Pastor Herder, regarding unions said, “There is no life in them, and nothing but the curse of fate can condemn to immortality the forced union, for the very politics that frame them are those that play with men and nations as with an inanimate substance, but history sufficiently shows that these instruments of human pride are formed of clay, and like all other clay, will dissolve or crumble to pieces.”

Till then I am an Indian of Turkish decent, who is a Muslim born and brought up in the culture of the Avadh. Avadh is my ‘watan’ and its people my ‘qaum’. With every ‘citizen’ of India I share a bond of brotherhood and with them my ‘Indian-ness’. With the words of Josh on leaving Malihabad, I hope I have made you think and question your opinion.

Aye watan mere watan rooh-e-rawaan-e-ehrar
Aye ke zarron mein tere boo-e-chanman rang-e-bahaar

Reze almaas ke tere khaso-khaashaaq mein hain
Haddiyaan apne buzurgon ki teri khaak mein hain

Tujhse mooh modke mooh apna dikhaayenge kahan
Ghar jo chodenge toh fir chaawni chaayenge kahan

Bazm-e-agiyaar mein aaraam ye paayenge kahan
Tujhse hum ruthke jaayenge to jaayenge kahan

(O great and pious land, you are the guiding spirit of freedom
Every speck you carry is the color of spring and smells of a garden.

Look! How like diamonds shines every bit in you
And look! In you is where our fathers before have found rest.

How can we think to turn away from you?
Who will accept us as their own but you?

What peace is gained the midst of strangers?
What peace is found in leaving you in dismay?)

Featured image source: Flickr/sandeepachetan, Sukanto Debnath, Owen Young.