Conflict fanned by linguistic, religious and national identities belies their non-primordial, oft fluid nature

  • The NRC and the CAA, which imagine India in a certain way, have inflamed passions driven by religious, ethnic as well as linguistic identities.

  • Why these identities should be so inflammatory is something a lot of us perhaps wonder about.

  • Our most important identities — language, religion, nationality and class — are identities that most of us did not choose.

Joining the Dots is a weekly column by author and journalist Samrat in which he connects events to ideas, often through analysis, but occasionally through satire

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It’s almost the year 2020. I thought we were supposed to get flying cars and talking robots by 2020 but it looks like we will be lucky if we can just get jobs, roti, kapda, makan and internet. The flying cars and talking robots are happening too, in advanced labs in advanced countries. Meanwhile we are going through a bit of an existential crisis as a country, with different competing ideas of who we are and who we ought to be in open conflict.

The proposed National Register of Citizens and the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act, which imagine India in a certain way, have inflamed passions driven by religious, ethnic as well as linguistic identities. Muslims across India are now anxious about their future in this country that has been their home for centuries. The Hindu majority is being goaded by vested interests to see all anti Citizenship Act protests as Muslim protests, thus deepening divides. In Assam, tensions over linguistic identities, between Bengalis and Assamese, have flared up again.

Why these identities should be so inflammatory is something a lot of us perhaps wonder about. How does it matter if someone speaks a different language or worships a different God, assuming of course that there is indeed a God — an assumption that the whole edifice of science and technology, and the entire modern world that we inhabit, do not require?

 Conflict fanned by linguistic, religious and national identities belies their non-primordial, oft fluid nature

File image of ant-CAA protests in Mumbai on 19 December. The NRC and the CAA, which imagine India in a certain way, have inflamed passions driven by religious, ethnic as well as linguistic identities. PTI

The answer probably lies in a kind of tribalism that is deeply rooted in human societies and cultures. Human beings naturally tend to form groups. It is automatic. It happens in schools and colleges and offices, it happens even in casual interactions such as on long journeys, where travellers become friends. The groups we form inevitably have an “us” and a “them”. Whoever is not “us”, is “them”.

While groups of travel-buddies are known to be temporary, groups such as school and college classmates do have a lasting character. However, a person’s identity as an Edmundian in Shillong or a Xavierite in Mumbai or a Stephanian in Delhi is not considered “primordial” in any way. That place is reserved for the identities decided for almost every human being by the accident of birth — the person’s language, religion and ethnicity.

I happened to be born in a Bengali Hindu family and so I am Bengali Hindu. If I had been born in a white American Christian family, I would be white American Christian. Even nationality and class are largely determined by birth. This is true for any country — the bulk of its citizens are citizens by birth. We are Indians because we happened to be born in India. More often that not, we are rich or poor because our parents were rich or poor.

So, our most important identities — language, religion, nationality and class — are identities that most of us did not choose.

It is of course possible to improve one’s place in the class hierarchy. That is what all of economics, most of politics, and a lot of religions are actually about. When Hindus go to perform the “anjali” ritual during Durga Puja they also say “dhanang dehi”, meaning “grant us wealth” to the Goddess. It must be a rare person indeed who has never expressed the wish for “dhanang dehi” to whatever God or Goddess of whatever faith he or she may worship.

Whether the Gods or the economists who think they are God’s prophets in the modern world, hear our prayers or not, nonetheless, we know that it is possible to get rich, and some people do — by fair means or foul — so we take it that class is not a primordial identity.

We also know that some of our friends or relatives manage to emigrate to rich first-world countries such as America, Canada and the UK, and manage thus to improve their bank balances as well as their passports. Indeed, in many cases it seems that even their complexions brighten up merely by migrating Westwards. Many of them then become great Indian patriots after leaving the country safely behind, but in any case, their example tells us that it is indeed possible to change nationality too. An Indian can become a US citizen and a Pakistani can become an Indian citizen — Adnan Sami is an example.

So, neither class nor nationality is really a primordial identity. That leaves religion, language and ethnicity. Is it possible to change religion? Of course, it is. That is what conversion is about. Whether it is morally better or worse to convert is a separate debate but we cannot consider religion to be primordial.

Language and ethnicity are where things get interesting. Is it possible to change one’s linguistic identity? Can a Maratha become a Tamilian? Or a Marwari become Assamese? Certainly.

We usually don’t think Marathas can become Tamilians but a man of Maratha origins named Shivaji Rao Gaekwad became famous as Rajinikanth. So, it is possible. Similarly, here in Assam, a man of Marwari origins named Jyoti Prasad Agarwala became Assamese. These are famous examples of famous people but actually the process of one identity morphing into another happens and has always happened, all the time, in ordinary lives of ordinary people, forever. It has been going on around the world probably since human culture was invented. Indeed, even the tribal and non-tribal identities are amorphous, and it was and still is possible for a tribal to become a non-tribal or vice versa. A lot of Khasi tribal clan lines, for instance, were created through a ritual called tang jied by which non-tribals marrying into the tribe were incorporated.

The history of the world is one of changes and flows. Ideas, peoples, goods, animals, plants, trees…they’ve all been flowing around the world through time. Languages have flowed into and out of one another, morphing and changing, growing and branching. The idea that change and flow can be stopped is absurd. Only that which is dead ceases to change. So long as there is life on earth, there will be change and flow. However much foolish humans who live but a few years try to halt the processes of change, their puny efforts are bound to be defeated by the inexorable march of time.

Samrat is an author, journalist and former newspaper editor. He tweets as @mrsamratx

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Updated Date: Dec 28, 2019 13:40:10 IST