Beyond Hindutva: Literature That Creates Space For Dialogue About Indian Identity

Posted by Simran Keshwani in Books, Politics
August 11, 2017

The curious debate on the search for a coherent Indian identity is now being influenced by extremist thoughts to become synonymous with a true blood “Hindu” identity. Literature has been long-standing proof to a multiplicity of narratives that could assess the question of identity. The Ramayana which is understood as the pillars for Hinduism in itself, has almost 300 versions spanning across the Indian subcontinent, a point stated by AK Ramanujan in his essay, which was banned from academic syllabi after an outcry by the ABVP. The only point the ban brought out was validation to his cause, presenting the road map to confronting the rather difficult question of identity.

To narrow down Indianness to the upper caste Hindus, implicitly and explicitly rules out any critical question of dynamism and thought. Dogma is the anti thesis of sociological inquiry and does not operate in a vacuum. It is furthered by reclaiming names (the recent change from Mughalsarai to Deen Dayal Upadhyay), an attempt to polarise history (fudging stories of Rana Pratap’s loss to Akbar) and propaganda. Unilateral accounts of history can only be countered through real life experiences and a critical lens to historicity by way of literature.

The moment a child is born, they are tagged as Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian, a member of the  Scheduled Castes, Adivasi, North Eastern and what not. This is where our first confrontation with the concept of identity arises. Identity, as the Merriam Webster dictionary puts it, is the condition of being the same with something described or asserted. So, identity is a man made construct.

Matters further convolute themselves when you’re born in India. A political and social hybrid, India is a nation that consistently carries forth the ideas of hailing and naming. The idea for fixity of identity is further pushed down the drain. If you belong to the Rajwadas of Rajasthan but are living in Bengal and have internalised the Bengali culture what is necessarily your identity? What does it mean to be Indian? I would say that the outcry for identity has become a necessary parole. A question that screams for attention and incorporates space for volumes of debate but is left censored and ignored.

I wished to understand, what was deemed ‘Indian’ when the nation was going through an identity crisis, due to the Partition. For this very purpose, I choose three short stories that are widely acclaimed in Indian literature.

The first text is “An Area Of Darkness” by VS Naipaul from the book “India in Mind”.

The Partition of 1947, has been depicted as a tragedy in most post colonial texts. Mute bystanders and petrifying stories of loot, rape, murder and Immolation are present in almost every story. The Partition was what led to the birth of Pakistan – the enemy.

I choose the word ‘enemy’ because of a series of indoctrination. The Hindu-Muslim conflict has been a long drawn one, which etches across the pages of history and the roots of which can be traced back to the first war of Independence in 1857 against the British Raj. Later, in 1933, when Choudhary Rehmat Ali Gujar drew an outline on the idea of a separate Muslim nation in his pamphlet titled “Now or Never; Are We to Live or Perish Forever?”, it was treated with profanity and rejected. In my view, the seeds of two separate nations had not fully germinated by then due to colonisation. At a time where every individual struggling and reaching out to the concern of ‘independence’ and the transition from a colony to a democracy was brought to the forefront, the idea for a separate nation seemed impossible.

But some years down the lane, this idea was the ideology of the Muslim League with the Lahore Resolution of 1940 supporting the two nation theory. The new emerging ‘self’ trying into insert itself into a nation that was no longer a monolithic entity spelt out huge pandemonium. Saadat Hassan Manto in “Toba Tek Singh” captured intrinsically, the chaos and disbelief people felt when they were displaced in large numbers during the Partition.

The 1984 anti-Sikh riots, the 1992 Bombay riots and  the 2002 Gujarat riots, hint that the “other” also lies within the geographical boundary of what we call India. We stand divided not only externally, placed in an inferno like situation with dreadful neighbours on each side of the border, but also internally, within the nation-state.

‘An Area Of Darkness’ surges forward with a nervous urgency: refining, examining and rejecting. The author follows euphemism in describing Mr Butt, a traveller accompanying him.

“He wore the Kashmiri fir cap, an abbreviation of the Russian. His long-tailed Indian-style shirt hung out of his loose trousers and dangled below his brown jacket. This suggested unreliability; the thick frames of his spectacles suggested abstraction, and he held a hammer in one hand.”

The use of words is very evocative as to what necessary was Mr Butt’s identity – was he a local or a foreign traveller? This question is kept silent until the very end.  His description brings forth the preconceived notions that the author, representative of a large section of the society, forms about this alleged “foreigner” (a Muslim), who’s appearance spelt out unreliability and deceit.

The next issue addressed in the narrative is that of the servant Aziz. Through the voice of an uneducated boy, the author seems to make a broader comment on the society.

“This is nothing. Get little hot, little flies dead. Big flies come chase little flies. Then mosquito come bite big flies and they go away.”

In my interpretation of the text, this is a comment on the power relations of the time. The local nexus of Kashmiris always face the brunt – toggling with moneyed landowners or regionally elected members, the AFSPA and constant checks for a militant background. What is their privacy limited to?

“We were in the middle of the unknown, but on our little island we were in good hands; we were being looked after and no harm could come our way.”

Towards the end, the author outlives his prejudices. He couldn’t find a place to reasonably live in but is rescued from the brunt of homelessness in an alien surrounding by Aziz and the Khansamah (cook), thus highlighting the fact that the divide based on identity is a tool to create bias and form judgement.

In the next narrative ‘The Lions Of The Earth Are Between The Ganga And The Yamuna’ taken from the book “Portrait of India”, Ved Mehta describes the flamboyant image of the Kumbh Mela, a once in 12 years gathering of devout Hindus at the confluence of the rivers Ganga and Yamuna. Mehta met Maharishi Mahesh Yogi know for his worldwide fame as the guru of the Beatles, who had carefully distilled his wisdom into a vagueness that could both confuse and console.

The opening line of the extract is, “Today, I am in Allahabad, which like the other Indian cities, is a jumble of British, Muslim and Hindu influence.”

The British town of Allahabad, the Muslim Ilahabas or the Hindu Prayag, was home to the grand mela as a sanctifying measure of Hinduism. The author sees “bamboo poles flying the flags or signs for every imaginable sect of sadhus.” He describes the whole setting smeared in colours of vermillion, the sound of shaking bells and clapping cymbals as celestial bazaars where one could trade off Punya and Paap by following the ideologies of the sadhus.

The names of the sects of sadhus were as endless as the ways they conceived God: for the Vedantists, it was as the One; for the Vaishnavas, as all things; for the Tantriks, as the doctrines in their sacred books; for the Shaktas, as Kali; for the Shaivas and Avadhutas, as Mother Ganga.”

It puzzles the author as to how each sect has a specific nostrum of rules laid down, which often intersect and overlap. What bewilders him more is the fact that having moved ounces into modernity, India still struggles with the baggage of orthodoxy and tradition-like stigmas which refuse to ration out. With so much diversity, what necessarily was to be accepted and what discarded? Which identity superseded all the others?

Next, we’re introduced to the Spiritual Regeneration Movement Foundation of India, the headquarters of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who was a merry-looking little man with smooth skin, blunt features and well-oiled hair. The author encounters a lot of international followers who put their blind faith into this sadhu because his confusing way to renunciation appealed to their conscience. In the end, Guruji’s path to renunciation was nothing but a marketing gimmick as he states – “Through my method of meditation, the poor can become as rich as the rich and the rich richer. I taught my simple method of meditation to a German cement manufacturer who taught it to his employees and thereby quadrupled his production.”

Maharishi was closed to counter questioning as he believed faith didn’t question. He spoke of waking the inner consciousness through meditation which is greater than the mundane around us and through which the world can become wealthy. To the author, this is an incessant version of dogma; of tomfoolery through which sadhus like these convolute the idea of identity and far perplex it to ridiculous extremes.

Who are these people following? A man who can instantly make you rich but there continue to be illiterate beggars on every street of Allahabad- a town where food for one is being chased by five? The idea of Indians rooted in tradition is nothing but a game of fear and control. Such marketers use fear as a bait, the fear of hell to be more precise and in turn, gain control. We pedestalise such men and associate our identity to their glass house of fear and control. This is where we lose our individuality.

The last text, “Desert Places” by Robyn Davidson, entails the journey of an Australian woman who travels to India and acquired the nomadic desire of travelling with the Rabari nomads of western India on their journey across the Thar Desert. The excerpt describes the threatened marginal ways of nomads in a world that seeks its redemption in embracing modernity.

“One carries the self”, she writes, “like a heavy old suitcase wherever one goes.” Is the possibility of escape no longer there? Are we so entrenched in the baggage of the past that the future serves bleak?

The desert is an attempt to bridge the gap between two India’s. One that is struggling with stifling traditions and keeping its ‘identity’ alive –  an India where child marriage was a normal happening and  peasants were at the mercy of powerful landlords and for shepherds to part with a major chunk of their earning as bribe to police and government officials that mark forest areas restricted, to keep their age old profession of grazing intact. On the other hand is an India moving towards pseudo modernity – constantly grappling between aping the West, its preoccupation with what is “phoren”.

Davidson encounters a skinny young man who was one of the educated elite carrying lacerating messages like “phoren women have loose morals and wicked character“. Interestingly, this physical manifestation of a modern Indian who talked of money and disco and was scornful of grazing- his forefather’s profession, wanted to land a government job so that he would never have to work again.

The question this text puts forth is – was the future of the Rabari tribe incarnate in this young man who exerted influence on his illiterate tribe by portraying to be well read?

Davidson points out the fact that this tribe was at peace with their Muslim counterparts since they worked in cooperation for a living, but some members of the tribe working in close connection with the BJP had qualms against them.

The text brings to light a thousand questions between the whimsical borderline of to be or not to be? Through the eyes of a foreign woman, the Rabari seems to be a convoluted question of an identity crisis with a hundred intersecting, yet different opinion standing on firm grounds of tradition and indoctrination.

The concept of the Indian identity has been anything but unilateral, and attempts to defile its pluralism and convert it into a mono prophetic, monotheistic and monolinguistic one are at best propaganda that lacks any viable knowledge of the ethnocultural vastness of the land. Attempts to simplify the complexity that our land is into one term will only lead to resentment and an annihilation of identity.


This post is a part of my series #PoliticalIsPersonal on Youth Ki Awaaz that explores how an innocuous act like opening your house gates to someone has immense political echoes across the system. I plan on understanding the link between political thought and personal liberty and how the two almost always are at loggerheads.

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