What kind of ‘national identity’ does a culturally-pluralistic India have?

India’s cultural pluralism is self-evident; if we look around and keep our eyes, ears and minds open, we can’t escape the vivid manifestations of this phenomenon. India’s much talked about bewildering diversity encompasses our culture too. Every week there is some festival of some state, region or community. The events columns of newspapers announce dozens of cultural events in the nation’s capital to choose from. This is just the tip of the iceberg; thousands of cultural events take place in states, cities, towns and villages every day, reflecting the vibrancy and diversity of our rich cultural heritage. Within the broad spectrum of culture, we witness hundreds of sub-cultures; thoughts, traditions, customs, etc, which though prominent at one place may not be so just 100 km away. Though inseparably associated with the Hindu religion, the coming Kumbh Mela presents India’s cultural pluralism on a huge canvas.

Every living culture evolves; it embraces some new influences and discards old ones. Many customs, traditions, rituals and beliefs in India can be traced back to centuries, but they aren’t necessarily practised in their original form. From the cultural perspective, India isn’t just a melting pot; instead, it’s an example of a composite culture. It’s like a bouquet of flowers of many colours and hues. In Shashi Tharoor’s words, it’s a mouth-watering thali with dishes of different regions, varieties, flavours and aromas. It allows distinct cultural identities to co-exist and flourish; this makes Indian culture so much more enriched and fascinating.

A vibrant culture influences other cultures and gets influenced. Samrat Ashok sent his son and daughter as cultural ambassadors in 300 BC to spread the message of Buddhism; its unmistakable influence can be seen in Sri Lanka, China, South Korea, Japan, Myanmar and Thailand. Angkor Wat in Cambodia (with a clear Hindu and Buddhist influence) and Borobudur, the world’s largest Buddhist temple, in Indonesia’s central Java, reflect the historical footprint of India’s cultural influence in Southeast Asia. The performances of various episodes of the Ramayan in the capital of Indonesia, the world’s most-populous Muslim country, largely by Muslim actors, represent an inspiring example of cultural pluralism and cultural tolerance. The 20-million-plus Indian diaspora spread across the planet keep their cultural links with India alive and practise them in their own ways.

The Jews came to India in the 6th century BC, after being persecuted in Mesopotamia. Christianity arrived on the Western Ghats in 2nd century AD. The Zoroastrians came from Persia from 6th century AD onwards and now number around 100,000. Whether we admit it or not, the invasions we have endured over the centuries by Macedonians, Arabs, Afghans, Turks, Persians and Mughals (they settled down here), and then the Portuguese, French and British, who arrived as traders but became rulers, have left an indelible influence on India’s culture. There is nothing wrong in acknowledging this phenomenon. Just pay attention to how we dress, speak, eat and behave, especially in cities – we can’t miss external influences. And today’s technological innovations and the communication revolution impacts our culture faster than ever; even tiny tots use Google, Facebook, FaceTime and Instagram and create communities of friends without walls and borders.

There is so much in Indian cultural pluralism to be legitimately proud of. But the huge gulf between the professed noble thoughts and ideals and the harsh ground realities is disappointing. In spite of having worshipped the Mother Goddess since the Indus Valley Civilisation and the fact that the goddess of learning, Saraswati, the goddess of wealth, Lakshmi, and the goddess of energy, Durga, are all female, and millions of Indians celebrate Navaratra every year, we live with phenomena like honour killings, khap panchayats, dowry deaths and female infanticide on a large scale.

We shout from the rooftops of “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” and for good reason. But in our own kutumba, we have been treating the Shudras and “lower castes” as subhuman beings, depriving them of the most basic human rights for centuries. Where is our cultural pluralism in several states which disallow dalits from entering temples on account of caste prejudices? As a Chief Justice of India once said, dalit girls are raped routinely, but no one light candles for them. Bonded labour, child labour and the “devadasi” system still exist. Appalling instances the beating of dalits in Una and lynching by cow vigilantes tarnish India’s image globally. The Manu Smriti, written over a thousand years ago, had prescribed that molten lead be poured into the ears of shudras who tried to learn something, and in the reign of one of the most enlightened rulers, Chadragupta Vikramaditya, the shudras’ shadows were to be avoided lest one got polluted. Is this the way one treats the members of one’s kutumba? Charity begins at home, and let us first put our own kutumba in order.

Sarva Dharma Sambhav is a fine ideal for India, birthplace of four major religions and having millions of followers of Islam and Christianity. While we might have fared better than Shias and Sunnis or Catholics and Protestants in terms of communal violence, there is no gainsaying that we do witness serious communal riots from time to time, which are mostly avoidable.

India doesn’t need godmen like Bapu Asharam and Ram Rahim but people like Kabir, Moinuddin Chisti, Jyotiba Phule, Narsi Mehta, Ramakrishna Paramhans and Swami Vivekananda to promote communal harmony. India can’t survive without inclusiveness and cultural pluralism. We must preserve them.

National identity is a complex and multi-layered issue. Isn’t it deeper than respecting our national flag and national anthem, which of course we must? Is it standing united to face our enemy? Is it chanting loudly Bharat Mata Ki Jai or Vande Mataram? In some ways, it may include all this. But isn’t it much, much more? Doesn’t it encompass all what we stand for and what India is all about? Isn’t it is much more than the tagline: Incredible India?

Is searching for the roots of our national identity today in the Rig Veda and Sanatan Dharma relevant? Doesn’t our Constitution define our national identity as a citizen? But what about the emotional connect? What propels individuals to sacrifice their lives for their nation? What’s the idea of India?

India is a Union of States, enviably democratic and secular yet afflicted by religious, regional and caste divisions and inequalities, a deeply tradition-bound society struggling to come to terms with modernity, hugely undisciplined and chaotic, still achieving impressive economic progress, bursting with well over one billion aspirations to occupy its rightful place in the comity of nations, with its citizens enjoying a reasonably decent living standard and a hopeful future.

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