This essay is part of Firstpost’s ‘India and the Indian’ series, which examines the renewed idea of nationalism in vogue today, and what it means.
Read more from this series.
I DO NOT KNOW whether the sentiment was patriotism or nationalism, but I first felt it as a child when playing cricket or watching the sport. India as an emotion entered my psyche through cricket, much before I understood it through maps in school textbooks. But later, I was confronted with the question of why India had so many diverse cultures, so many different languages.
I started traveling when I was in college. This was when I realised that my lack of knowledge of Hindi was a problem to people I came across. It was not an issue to me, though. My initial thoughts were, why should a language be opposed? Why should I be denied the opportunity to learn it?
I soon learnt that it was not opposition, it was resistance to imposition. It transformed into my politics, and informed it too.
As children, all of us feel patriotic on Independence Day when the tricolour is hoisted. But when I moved towards Ambedkar, there were many questions that kept coming to me. Is Indian nationalism real? How is it possible for people who were divided into different ethnicities and castes to be united in a country called India? How could they have possibly formed it?
When I saw hatred being inflicted on others — whom I regarded as my own, because they were Indians — in the name of caste, I had to step away from the notion of nationalism. Ambedkar asked how he could call this country his motherland, when we are treated worse than dogs. He asked, when the ‘untouchables’ cannot even access drinking water, how can anybody feel proud about this country? The country continues to discriminate against us, he said, and if we are forced to not be loyal to this nation, the nation alone will be responsible for it.
If caste actively works towards keeping me out of a system, how can I have any belief in this system?
Much before I read Ambedkar, I had felt the same emotion. I come from a village called Karalapakkam where cheris (Dalit localities) are separate from oors (village). The streets are segregated on the basis of castes. The village has a temple centrally located and the streets of dominant castes are built around the temple. Other communities' streets follow in a hierarchical manner. If you have an aerial view of the village, you will see that localities for dominant castes and Dalits are clearly demarcated.
In Karalapakkam there are Vanniyars, Reddiyars, Naickers, Naidus and other communities. I live in a cheri which does not enjoy the status of an oor. A question I find myself wrestling with is whether I am from an oor or cheri. To any outsider, I can say that I am from Karalapakkam. But the truth is I can't survive in an oor where everything is based on caste. The oor becomes a symbol of dignity that is denied to me.
This experience in an oor is but a microcosm of India at large.
Today, the most important question about Indian nationalism is what it actually constitutes. Should Indian nationalism be Hindu nationalism alone?
I must begin with the question of whether I am a Hindu or not. Is Adivasi culture and the worship of local deities reflective of Hinduism? I cannot carry non-vegetarian food into a big Perumal temple. Furthermore, I should also have abstained from eating non-vegetarian food for a whole day to prepare myself for this temple visit. But deities like Gengamma, Mariamma or Muni in my locality do not have the same rules. In fact, I could offer the same food that I eat to these deities. My gods come from my way of life. Shouldn’t they be like me? Why would my gods impose rules that are against my way of life?
Nationalism cannot be sustained by identities like that of the Hindu or the Tamilian. It is about how you can still be united, despite the elements that keep you divided. It is a measure of basic democratic structures. I completely reject the idea that only those who are Hindus or support Hinduism are nationalists. In fact, is being a Hindu the same as believing in Hindutva? I am afraid that increasingly, the definition of Indian nationalism has merged with the Hindu identity; Muslims or Christians, or for that matter sections among Hindus themselves, cannot fit into the nationalist mould. It is deliberately designed to keep them out.
There was once a time when everyone would feel ‘Indian’, irrespective of what their religion or caste was, or what language they spoke. Today, speaking Hindi has become an inseparable part of being Indian. Ambedkar called South India progressive, and warned of civil war in case of a language imposition. What we are witnessing now in terms of the proposed Hindi imposition is an infringement on the federal rights of the South.
My daughter recently celebrated her birthday. This birthday, I wanted to write something for her. I wanted to tell her: "You see everyone as they are. Ten years later, I am not sure if you will still see everyone and everything as they are. By the time you grow up, things would have changed drastically.
But now, a Dalit is being fed human feces. A couple has been drowned because their families do not accept their relationship. Both of these incidents have taken place in the span of three days, when I have sat down to write something for you.
I am afraid about what to teach you. I don’t know what the society has in store for you. But you should be prepared for everything, to learn from this society. There are battles of caste, religion, gender, class and more that are waiting for you to take up. But I hope and wish that by the time you grow up, things would have changed for the better.
When I was growing up, land was a significant issue. I have always wondered why we cannot own land. I was constantly worried and confused that this land is not mine, this temple is not mine, and neither is this festival. Today, you may not have such dilemmas, but when I think about what you may have to face when growing up, I find myself worrying again."
The night when I was trying to write this for my daughter was daunting. Terrible incidents took place everyday — it was depressing. Right now my daughter is too young to understand what this means. But when she grows up, I hope this country will be a different one — one that will not cause her the same pain as it did to me. A country that is not bound by languages, castes or religions will be the country that will give her the kind of happiness that I would want for her. I'm aware that the notion of such a country is utopian. People tell me that there is not much I can do as an individual. I'm aware of this, but if do nothing, I will be guilty of leaving this world a worse place for my daughter. For her sake, I need to make it better.
—As told to Kavitha Muralidharan
Updated Date: Jun 22, 2019 09:46:26 IST