The Burden of Cultural Identity


It is generally assumed that, in settings of cultural pluralism, the traditional ways of life of ethnic minorities, unless protected, face radical transformations if not total extinction. Such ways of life are threatened either by extra-national, global forces (such as modern technologies and `modern' lifestyles), or by a dominant majority, which may control the apparatus of the state - or by both. The so-called tribal communities of north eastern and central India (including the Nagas, Khasis, Santhals, Mundas and Oraons) have been subject to the overwhelming pressures resulting from the extension of administrative and economic frontiers into their lands, the appearance of their cultural horizons of Christian missionaries and the Hindu ways of life.

It has been observed by athropologiests the tribal peoples of north-east India, who have been converted to Christianity, have at least had some compensation by way of improved schooling (the Mizos of the state of Mizoram have opted for English as their official language!) and health-care facilities, but the Hinduized Bhils, Gonds and others of central India, economically deprived and culturally vulnerable, have had no such consolations. Cultural contact with outside groups for the forest-dwellers of central India has meant a general decline in standards of living, a shrinkage of their cultural canvas and a "loss of nerve" (Verrier Elwin). The symbol of cultural and economic oppression in such areas has been the Hindu middle- or uppercaste trader, money lender and forest contractor/transporter.

The rise of development-oriented national governments after apathetic colonial administrations has brought to the fore new and massive threats of tribal cultures and habitats. This is illustrated, for instance, by current controversies regarding the construction of the Narmada Dam and allied development projects and such projects' culturally and environmentally destructive impact upon the ways of life of tribal communities in the states of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. Such development works are not necessarily lacking in any potential benefits for the tribal peoples affected, but it is feared that few benefits will accrue to tribal communities because of the interests of governing classes, high caste Hindus.

What is overlooked in such discussions is that furtherance of the economic and political interests of the Hindus does not necessarily protect Hindu cultural heritage and values. Hindus also have been faced with a cultural crisis for more than 150 years - though this is not always recognized by the Hindus themselves or by the anthropologists who write about them. Some twenty odd years ago I asked the Austrian-born British anthropologist Christoph von-Füer-Haimendorf why he was distressed only by the Hinduization of Indian tribal peoples, and not equally by the westernization of Hindus like myself. His response to my query was one of puzzlement. The attitude is a familiar one in India: how possibly can a community, constituting nearly 83 percent of the country's population, be faced with a cultural crisis, much less threats to its cultural identity?

A widespread feeling exists in India today that being a Hindu is or should be a multi-faced privilege. The Hindus who hold this view refer to the antiquity and centrality of their cultural tradition and do not hesitate to mention their demographic strength. Such Hindus complain that the political, economic and cultural privileges that should be their by `birthright' (in India the term `birthright' denotes not only geographic location and demographic dominance, but also cultural hegemony) are denied to them in full measures. They accuse a succession of central and state governments since independence (1947) of having been `pseudo-secularist' and partial to minorities. It may be noted that secularism in India stands for cultural and religious pluralism in society, and non-discriminatory (that is religiously neutral) state. The section on Fundamental Rights in the Constitution of INdia guarantees citizens' religious, cultural and linguistic identities. Some Hindus also complain that, while non-Hindus remain culturally exclusive, refusing to participate in what is called the `cultural mainstream', modernized Hindus (particularly the urban intellectuals) also are alienated from their heritage.

A clarification in order at this point. The word Hindu, derived from the Sanskrit word Sindhu for River Indus, dates back to pre-Christian Greek, Persian and later Arab chronicles, and denoted at first all the inhabitants of India and only later the followers of a particular religion. The word Hinduism and its other European equivalent only date from about 1830, however, Hinduism was used by Christian missionaries and later by others, including Orientalists, to describe the religion of the Hindus. Leading Hindu intellectuals were puzzled by it, as is evidenced by the following observation of Bankim Chatterji, one of the most prominent Indians of the late ninetheeth century: "There is no Hindu conception answering to the term `Hinduism', and the question `What is Hinduism?' can only be answered by [those] foreigners who use the word."

Anthropologically, too, use the blanket term Hinduism makes only limited sense: while there is a common, India wide Great Tradition of religious belief and practice based on Sanskrit texts, including the Vedas which date back in part of three thousand years ago, there are at the same time many Little Traditions which often differ considerably by region. It is these local traditions which the people live by, and which may be identified as religions; the Great Sanskritic Tradition is an umbrella, as it were, under which they all take shelter.

Max Weber (1964), wrote of the twin processes of `extensive' and `intensive Hinduization'. While the former process referred to the absorption of tribal and other external communities into the Hindu way of life, the latter drew attention of the imposition of Sanskritic Hinduism upon local traditions already regarded as Hindu. In more recent times, M.N. Srinivas, the doyen of Indian anthropologists, has called these processes by the common name of Sanskritization. Sanskritization, however, does not produce complete cultural homogenization. The dominant ethos is pluralistic. Using Louis Dumont's notion of hierarchy (1970), we may say that the typical Hindu cultural process is one of encompassment, including encompassment of the contrary. It includes but also ranks as inferior the non Hindu.

The proponents of HIndu cultural nationalism defend their ideology as one that is tolerant (inasmuch as it is said to accommodate diversity), but they also insist that non-Hindus recognize the primacy of the wholly indigenous cultural tradition of the Hindus. as they put it, India is not only the motherland of the Hindus, but also their holy land. `Hindutva' (`Hindu being') is defined as the cultural identity of those who order their lives in terms of this ideology, and they contend that all citizens of INdia should order their lives in such a way.

Others, mostly non-Hindus but many Hindus, too, see hindus generally as usurpers of privilege and threats to other economic and political interests and cultural identities. They complain of Hindu domination exercised through what the Indian sociologist T.K. Oommen calls the twin strategies of "inclusion" (1990). Thus the Hindus assert that the Buddhists and the Jains (1.20 per cent of the population) and the Sikhs (2 percent) are not more than Hindu sects, although this position is not acceptable to these communities. In fact, political parties and other Sikh groups have agitated in the recent past for a separate Sikh state, and have cited Hindu cultural domination as on of the rationales for session.

Muslims (about 12 per cent of the population), some political commentators maintain, are excluded and distrusted by Hindu cultural chauvinists on the grounds that their self-ascribed cultural identity has a strong extra-national universal component, and that Muslims consider `nation' and `nationalism' as misconceived, at least non-applicable, western ideas. Muslims cannot truly belong to Indian society, say the Hindu chauvinists, so long as they do not define their identity in terms of `Hindutva.' They do not have to give up Islam, but they should internalize the basic value orientations of the indigenous cultural traditions. Muslim intellectuals see this as a thinly disguised attempt at ethnic cleansing and consider Hindu overtures as an invitation to cultural suicide. Already there is enormous resentment over the decline of Urdu which had come to be recognized as the pan Indian language of Muslims.

Some critics of `Hindutva' go further and express alarm if a Hindu takes interest in India's pre-Isalamic cultural heritage. For them the only culture that matters, and should therefore prevail, is either modern secular culture (universal today though originally Western), or `composite' culture by which they mean the composite Hindu-Muslim culture of north India. Such critics show little awareness of the fat that the cultural synthesis, evolved in India during the thousand years of Muslim rule, has been largely confided o art, architecture, urban middle-class lifestyle and village cults to some extent, but never involved orthodox religious beliefs or ultimate values. Sufi excesses, which brought the Muslims close to the Hindus, were frowned upon by the purists. The promoters of the thesis of composite culture also pay hardly any attention to other regional experiments in evolving composite cultural also pay hardly any attention to other regional experiments in evolving composite cultures in explicity non-religious frameworks.

Among these extremist positions - the Hindu chauvinist position on the one hand, and the modern secularist or composite culturalist position on the other - short shrift is given to the views of those Hindus (constituting, I think the proverbial silent majority) who, while not interested either in the enchancement of the privileges of Hindus qua Hindus, or in being hostile to the identity aspiration of non-Hindus, do not suffer from feelings of guilt because they are Hindus. Such people want to be allowed to be HIndus in the board cultural sense of the term if not in the narrow religious or ritual sense as well, without having to respond to calls of `greatness' arising from `past' (read preIslamic) glory, and also without having to agree with the implicit or explicit suggestions that they only `good' Hindus (that is those whom non-Hindus may trust) are those who disown their own cultural heritage. Both these attitudes are, it seems to me, expressions of bigotry.

One used to believe that what distinguished the Hindu cultural tradition was its liberality and its openness to external influences and internal criticism. Such cultural flexibility was of course marred by the rigidity of ranked social divisions (the caste system) that went with it. Many students of comparative religion have drawn pointed attention to the pluralist orientation of the Hindu cultural tradition. Thus, the distinguished Islamicist Wilfred Cantwell Smith has observed (in his celebrated work Islam in World History, 1977):

On the level of pure religious thought, the Hindus are the group who have gone furthest in...making room in their religious philosophy for the fact that other people have other faiths. Voicing this Hindu cultural (and moral) attitude in very clear terms, Gandhi said in 1913: "Personally, I think the world as a whole will never have, and need not have, a single religion."

Today's purveyors of `Hindutva', speak of righting old wrongs. Many of them did not believe that a Muslim mosque, which may have been built after demolishing a Hindu temple on the site four and half centuries ago, deserved to exist as a place of worship - so they not only participated in the destruction of the Babri mosque of Ayodhya (in December 1992) but also tarnished through this act of vandalism the very cultural tradition that they claimed to want to protect. They made Hinduism appear intolerant. Since one does not believe that such activists are ignorant of the relevant tradition, one can only conclude that the motives of the destroyers were political. Those who sought to justify the action said that the Babri mosque was a symbol of political subjugation and cultural injury, having been put up as a monument to Babar's invasion of north India in 1526. In response, one wants to ask, should the great temples of Hinduism, symbols of the oppression of low caste Hindus at the hands of the upper castes, also be brought down?

The silent majority views Hindu cultural nationalists with deep suspicion, as indicated by the fact that three of the four north Indian states, ruled at the time of the demolition of the Babri mosque in 1992 by the HIndu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), returned non-BJP governments to power earlier this year. There is also widespread resentment among Hindus against modern secularities and intellectuals belonging to so-called minority cultural traditions. This is the burden of cultural identity which the average Hindu carriers on her or his shoulders. While the threats to pluralism from inward looking, culturally reactionary, and communal Hindu elements (the words facist and fundamentalist also have been used to describe such elements), have been recognized, the menaces of intolerance emanating from extremist spokesperson of minority cultural traditions, and of an uncompromising, uncritical, historically non-specific, secularist world view is not taken note of equally.

What then are the prospects for cultural pluralism in India?

The crisis of Indian secularism today lies, first, in the failure of intellectuals and political parties to emphasize that the political and economic interest of all ethnic groups (defined by religion, language, lifestyle, etc.) must be taken care of in equal measure to their common rights as citizens. Moreover, there should be no clash between inborn cultural identities on the one hand, and civic identities on the other; the two identities operate in different contexts, namely socio-cultural and politico-economic contexts respectively. A second failure of Indian secularism is the ability so far to firmly shape concepts of the state and the associated idea of national identity as `mediators' between rival interest groups and parochial identities. The motion of the state as the `integrator',rather than principal agent of `accommodation', makes it as party to emergent disputes and erodes its credibility.

What has stood in the way of such fundamental distinctions? Several answers seem possible. I will briefly mention two answers.

According to Gandhi, we have depended excessively on the state to bring about appropriate changes of values and attitudes and to promote cultural pluralism. Gandhi was not a secularist, but he believed in keeping the sate out of he private lives of people, particularly out of the domain of religion. Such a position is in principle the same as that of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which erected the wall of separation between Church and State. Besides, the way Gandhi regarded religion as the storehouse of ultimate values at least stigmatized those who would appropriate it for political ends.

A separation of functions such as Gandhi advocated is harder to achieve in India, with its multiplicity of religions and absence of Church-like institutions among the major religious communities, but it is no less important for these reasons. The ideology of Indian secularism has, however, translated an equidistant stance for the state into one of equal proximity in a manner that has embroiled the government in inter-community conflicts. A Gandhian emphasis on the personal responsibility of the individual for social harmony and welfare, in place of the mentality of dependence on the state, may sound old-fashioned, but it could perhaps save the country.

Another answer to the question suggested by Nehru was that secularism and cultural pluralism are impossible without certain kinds of values and attitudes which Nehru found lacking in India. With his Western liberal and socialist predilections, Nehru had, from the 1920's onwards, spoken of the clash of communal identities as `a side issue', which he did not take seriously. He maintained that communal identities would disappear following the restructuring of political and economic relations. And yet the subcontinent was divided in 1947.

Nehru had to modify his position and he settled for the policy of equal respect for all cultures and all religions. Basically he retained his faith in the ability of rationalism and its practical expression (notably economic planning and constitutional, judicial, and political processes) to produce a modern society. But modernization, as we know only too well, is a process of homogenization. The folk dancers who Nehru brought to New Delhi to participate in national festivities returned home with transistor radios.

The task that deserves top priority today is to determine how universally recognized human rights may be assured to one and all in India, which losing sight of cultural pluralism, and how groups defined in terms of cultural identities (religion, language, caste, etc). may be replaced in the political arena by political majorities and minorities that exchange places from time to time through democratic means. Only then may the Hindu (or for the matter the Sikh or the Muslim) cultural indentity cease to be a burden to its barer and a threat to the others.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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