Culture and Identity in India
Often I think about the kind of cultural identity that my children will have. They belong to two distinct cultural heritages (Kerala and Gujarat) and there is almost no middle path. The only natural identity they can have is either the global identity or the secular Indian identity. Global identity dominates society today and this probably gave my wife and I courage to experiment starting a family without worrying too much about it.
The other possible option is the fading Indian secular identity, which was crafted by the early nationalists, Gandhi and Nehru and established via state propaganda. This identity has been under threat in recent years due to the collapse of socialism, rise of globalisation and the resurgence of religious and regional identities. In this post, I try to explore the interplay between all these identities and see where we are going as a society.
Global Cultural Identity
The most dominant and aspirational cultural identity of young and urban Indians is global (driven by western neoliberalism and capitalism). With easy access to global media this generation is primarily growing up on western ideas of how they should look and enjoy their life. Their entire lifestyle right from being consumerist, to going to pubs or having Instagram standard holidays is influenced by global capitalism that promotes celebrity induced “cool” that everyone wants to follow.
Most of the youth cultural icons in India rarely sport their religious or cultural identities. They are fully secular in that sense, but not really culturally rooted in Indianness other than the colour of their skin. The biggest problem with this identity is that capitalism, while shiny outside, is essentially hollow at the core. This lack of rootedness or spiritualism is its biggest problem that drives even the most culturally advanced to seek a more rooted identity.
The rise of the BJP since the Ram temple movement has brought the Hindu cultural identity into the mainstream. Politicians right from Prime Minister Modi to Ajay Singh Bisht a.k.a Yogi Adityanath proudly flaunt their Hindu identity. Temple building has now become a national mission. This identity that was suppressed under the secular Congress (white) identity of power has touched the hearts of millions of Hindus across the nation who have come out and voted for the BJP.
The people who are attracted to this are those who have been left out of the slick and urban global identity. In their hearts they still probably aspire to become global citizens but they are the ones left behind by global capitalism. Global capitalism has left these people irrelevant. These people also see the Hindu identity as a tool of regaining power and relevance in society. This threatens to engulf the growth of the global identity but also will make the society more violent and conservative.
Muslims in India have been very visible in expressing their religious identities too. Reform in Muslim societies has been slow to come because the global political crisis between Islam and the West. Probably the most visible sign of Muslim religious identity is the widespread prevalance of the Burqa (veil) for women. Despite the fact that Muslims account for only about 15% of India’s population, they are way more visible because of this practice. This has even led to a crisis where Hindu nationalists (disguised as secularists) are pushing to end this practice in education institutes.
Specially since the 1990s and the rise of the BJP and Hindu nationalism, there has been growing marginalisation of the Muslim community in India. Before Muslims, Sikhs have also been victims due to their distinct and visible religious identities. Rather than risking an all out war against the Indian state, the Sikhs have made peace and have also embraced more global identities. So there is still hope for the Muslims to embrace a more secular identity.
Indian National Cultural Identity
Throughout the decades of the Indian independence struggle and the first few decades post independence the dominant cultural identity was of the secular Indian. Thinking back, while Gandhi was a devout Hindu, he created a distinct secular identity. Nehru was a western educated liberal who fused his liberal identity with Gandhi’s khadi (hand spun cotton). Along with a national symbolism that was non religious (the national emblem and wheel) they created an identity for a new nation that was rooted in humility and modesty.
Nothing signified this more than khadi. I distinctly remember my grandparents only wore this kind of cloth.
Sadly this cultural identity (which is the only true national identity) is dying. The reason for this is also the onslaught of globalisation and the association of this identity with socialism. People have found global identities more attractive and aspirational while doing away with the dogmas of religion.
With the collapse of socialism and the Indian National Identity (Fabindia notwithstanding) the space for other identities has risen. While the global identity is the most aspirational, those left behind by global capitalism are regressing to religious identities, and being exploited by political opportunists.
Unfortunately I don’t see any option other than embracing the global identity, which is sad. Religious identities are doomed because they are divisive. As long as the religious elements remain in the fringe, they should be fine. Unfortunately religion is getting more and more mainstream and both Hindus and Muslims should learn to keep their identities in the background to create a truly secular society.
The only way Indianness can remain relevant is by embracing and influencing the global identity with our values and culture that is rooted in modesty and simplicity.