India's Odd, Enduring Patchwork

A year ago, when India celebrated the 49th anniversary of its independence from British rule, H. D. Deve Gowda, then the Prime Minister, stood at the ramparts of New Delhi's 16th-century Red Fort and delivered the traditional Independence Day address to the nation in Hindi, India's ''national language.''

Eight other prime ministers had done exactly the same thing 48 times before, but what was unusual this time was that Mr. Gowda, a southerner from the state of Karnataka, spoke to the country in a language of which he scarcely knew a word. Tradition and politics required a speech in Hindi, so he gave one -- the words having been written out for him in his native Kannada script, in which they, of course, made no sense.

Such an episode is almost inconceivable elsewhere, but it represents the best of the oddities that help make India India. Only in India could a country be ruled by a man who does not understand its ''national language.'' Only in India, for that matter, is there a ''national language'' half the population does not understand. And only in India could this particular solution be found to enable the Prime Minister to address his people.

One of Indian cinema's finest singers, K. J. Yesudas, sang his way to the top of the Hindi music charts with lyrics in that language written in the Malayalam script for him, but to see the same practice elevated to the prime ministerial address on Independence Day was a startling affirmation of Indian pluralism.

We are all minorities in India. A typical Indian stepping off a train, a Hindi-speaking Hindu man from the Gangetic plain state of Uttar Pradesh, might cherish the illusion that he represents the ''majority community,'' to use an expression much favored by the less industrious of our journalists. But he does not. As a Hindu he belongs to the faith adhered to by some 82 percent of the population, but a majority of the country does not speak Hindi, a majority does not hail from Uttar Pradesh, and if he were visiting, say, the state of Kerala, he would discover that a majority there is not even male.

Or take language. The Constitution of India recognizes 17 languages today, but in fact there are 35 Indian languages, each spoken by more than a million people -- and these are languages with their own scripts, grammatical structures and cultural assumptions, not just dialects (and if we're to count dialects, there are more than 22,000).

No language enjoys majority status in India. Thanks in part to the popularity of Bombay's cinema, Hindi is understood, if not always well spoken, by nearly half the population of India, but it is in no sense the language of the majority. Indeed, its locutions, gender rules and script are unfamiliar to most Indians in the south or northeast.

Ethnicity further complicates the matter. Most of the time, an Indian's name immediately reveals where he is from and what his mother tongue is. When we introduce ourselves we are advertising our origins. Despite some intermarriage among the elites in the cities, Indians still largely remain endogamous, and a Bengali is easily distinguished from a Punjabi.

Such differences among Indians often are stronger than what they may have in common. A Brahmin from Karnataka shares his Hindu faith with a Kurmi from Bihar, but the two diverge completely when it comes to physical appearance, dress, social customs, food, language and political objectives.


At the same time, a Tamil Hindu would feel that he has far more in common with a Tamil Christian or Muslim than with, say, a Jat from Haryana with whom he formally shares the Hindu religion.

So pluralism emerges from the very nature of the country; it is a choice made inevitable by India's geography, reaffirmed by its history and reflected in its ethnography. Indian nationalism is a rare animal indeed. It is not based on language (since we have at least 17 or 35, depending on whether you follow the Constitution or the ethnolinguists).

It is not based on geography. (The ''natural'' frontiers of India have been hacked by the partition of 1947.) It is not based on ethnicity. (Indian Bengalis and Punjabis, for instance, have more in common with Bangladeshis and Pakistanis than with other Indians.) And it is not based on religion. (We are home to almost every faith known to mankind, and Hinduism -- a religion without a national organization, established church or ecclesiastical hierarchy -- exemplifies our diversity more than our common cultural heritage.) Indian nationalism is the nationalism of an idea, the idea of an ever-ever land that is greater than the sum of its contradictions.

This land imposes no narrow conformities on its citizens; you can be many things and one thing. You can be a good Muslim, a good Keralite and a good Indian all at once.

So the idea of India is of one land embracing many. It is the idea that a nation may accommodate differences of caste, creed, color, culture, cuisine, costume and custom, and still be a nation -- so long as democracy insures that none of these differences are decisive in determining an Indian's opportunities.

Our founding fathers wrote a constitution that gave passports to their ideals, but violent secessionism has plagued several border states, as some minority groups, like Assam and Punjab, have sought to subtract themselves from the Indian ideal on religious, regional or ethnic grounds.

Some of these troubles continue, but in a land of minorities, no struggle affects all Indians. The power of electoral numbers has been able to lessen caste discrimination. Indeed, last month, for the first time, an ''untouchable'' was elected as President of India.

For the rest of the world, wary of the endless multiplication of sovereignties, hesitant before the clamor for self-determination echoing in a hundred different dialects, anxious about murderous new fundamentalisms and unconvinced that every sub-nationality is worthy of support, there may be something to be said for the Indian idea.

If the overwhelming majority of a people share the political will for unity, if they wear the dust of a shared history on their foreheads and the mud of an uncertain future on their feet, and if they realize they are better off living in Kozhikode or Kanpur dreaming the same dreams as those in Kohlapur or Kohima, a nation exists, celebrating diversity and freedom. That is the India that has emerged in the last 50 years, and it is well worth celebrating.

Source: NY Times