National Identity and Development: India's Continuing Conflict


Religious massacres in the Punjab and in the streets of the national capital of Delhi, Military occupation of tribal regions on the Indo-Burmese frontier. Bitter mobilization and counter-mobilization to glorify or resist the revival of sati, the immolation of a woman on her husband's funeral pyre. Fisherfolk, forest dwellers and agricultural laborers protesting "development" policies that leave them destitute - only to face police brutality and general condemnation for slowing India's progress toward a "Great Nation" status.

The list of "Black Laws" restricting civil liberties grows, and the examples of officially sanctioned violations of human rights multiply. All are instituted by temporary "winners" of provincial and national confrontations who, in their attempts to stabilize their own power, find that they have ensured alienation and conflict that will further destabilize the entire system.

Recently more and more Indians have had to return to the questions that surfaced in the years before Independence: Whose nation is this? Just who or what is an Indian? What cultural characteristics and attitudes are required? For whose benefit, for whose vision, shall the power of an evolving nation-state be used - or restrained? Many of these questions seemed to fade in the years after Independence. Now, we are once again facing the depressing spectacle of the words unity, national integration and progress serving as rationales for bloodshed and oppression.

The stakes are high. At the very least, the local environment, the occupations, the culture, even the very physical existence of some "losers" may be snuffed out. At worst, increasingly numerous segments of a highly complex society may find themselves in conflict with one another under conditions that will destroy both the fabric of society and the strained ecosystem that all need for survival.

Some of the problems and patterns underlying these conflicts are familiar to many parts of the world. Social and economic changes have come rapidly, in ways that constantly alter the status quo; indeed, change has become the status quo. Not only do the relative resources and powers of the players change, but their very identities change, too. Green Revolution technology spawns large-scale commercial farmers, who mobilize to defend their own profits in competition with large-scale industrialists and the fragile new phenomenon of agricultural labor unions. From among millions of separate Brahman and Muslim and Sikh females, a few become "Women" and seek a new place in society for all women. Scattered tribal communities in the northeast develop a greater sense of common Naga identity as they face land-hungry Hindu and Muslim farmers.

Raid and pervasive change also brings a society with a heightened sense of both expectations and insecurities. People learn to want more and fear more (Will some other group's gains dash my own hopes for a better tomorrow?). Such anxieties are played out on an increasingly large scale, as developments in communication and transportation make it easier for people to mobilize over broad areas. Leaders search for rallying symbols, through strategies ranging from high-tech religious extravaganzas and commercial cinema to low-budget amateur video and pamphleteering.

The often-divisive economics of contemporary development strategies aggravate these anxieties, as India shifts from a labor-intensive to a capital-intensive economy. Although many new jobs have been created and the standard of living for some Indians has greatly improved, job displacement has far outpaced job creation - in a nation with a rapidly expanding population and a dangerously high proportion of workers in vulnerable occupations. This pattern has become all the more pronounced with the growing reliance on export-led development and the need to adopt technologies that maximize competitiveness in Western-dominated international markets. Glib official references to Korean or Formosan models, unfortunately, continue to substitute for any serious employment analyses that take into account India's massive labor market.

The consequences for those Indians who lose out in these economic changes are tragic; the proportion of Indians living in poverty has actually increased in the 42 years since Independence. The Damodar Valley Project, originally planned with World Bank funding and advice, has come to symbolize many features of the process behind these statistics. The project proposes a series of dams that will generate increased power for industry and provide more irrigation for large-scale commercial agriculture. These dams will also displace 1.5 million people, including 5 percent of India's tribal population. Those few residents already registered as landowners have been promised exchange land elsewhere, but Indian social workers have revealed that much of this promised land is already occupied or is unsuitable for farming - small wonder in India's overcrowded landscape. The vast majority of those who will be displaced are ill-educated, landless agricultural laborers or residents of tribal villages with no tradition of private land ownership. All of these people will be cast adrift in already glutted rural and urban labor markets. In this particular case, international protest has led to rethinking at the World Bank; the ultimate fate of the project and the region's citizens is still unclear, however.

The nature ownership. All of these people will be cast adrift in already glutted rural and urban labor markets. In this particular case, international protest has led to rethinking at the World Bank; the ultimate fate of the project and the region's citizens is still unclear, however.

The nature of the formal political arena has also changed dramatically with the evolution of the modern Indian state. Provincial governments, armed with their own growing bureaucracies, police forces and policy authority, are valuable prizes for competing regional power brokers - prizes fully worthy of murder, arson and carefully engineered riot in pursuit of "democratic victory." These state governments are in turn overshadowed by the growing power of the national government. Consider what is now at stake: influence over the central government in Delhi means influence over one of Asia's larger military establishments, a bungling but vast national bureaucracy, and central government monopoly of all radio and television. It means the ability to reward friends and undermine opponents through central taxation and development policies involving hundreds of millions of rupees. It means a central government's privileged position in negotiations with foreign governments and industries, or with such international agencies as the World Bank.

In theory, access to the formal political arena is open and democratic, through a wide variety of political parties and elected governments at all levels. In practice, of course, political power is still shaped by those with relative economic power and social ties. All citizens may be created equal, but some are far more equal than others. This is true within most of the political parties as well as in governments from villages to provincial and central capitals.

However, the present political scene is not just an upscale version of maneuver and intrigue in the courts of local rajahs or Mughal emperors, with competing sets of large-scale commercial farmers and industrialists replacing the courtiers of old. This analogy - a chronic temptation for Indian journalists - obscures fundamental changes in political life. Not only are there many new competitors with new interests, there is also a new political environment in which sheer numbers do count, as does the "public opinion" of a growing, politically relevant "public." These people count - and sometimes can be manipulated - in ways that do not necessarily echo liberal democratic theory, but they are no longer simply irrelevant.

The roots of these changes lie in the long struggles of the Independence movement and its need to rally a broad base of support against British rule. The movement tended to legitimize equality in a traditionally hierarchic society, and promised new rights to a variety of marginal groups. The terms peasant and worker lost their exclusively negative connotations and acquired at least optional respectability, even deference. Women, so embarrassing to the British when they stood firm against colonial police charges, began to appear in nationalist literature as heroic citizens. Tribals, who make up the vast majority of the population in India's vulnerable eastern border regions and as much as one-third in some large central Indian states, were at least occasionally described as quaint instead of merely uncivilized, and were assured a number of special protective policies as "Scheduled Tribes." Untouchable protests against Hindu caste hierarchy and economic exploitation sparked elite nationalists to describe members of the many long-despised castes as "Harijans" ("Children of God"). The new Constitution protected them as "Scheduled Castes." Nationalists from the majority Hindi language region in northern India discovered that they would have to tolerate the smaller but regionally powerful linguistic cultures elsewhere on the peninsula; post-Independence efforts to change the game rules and force Hindi down southern throats merely hastened the redrawing of provincial boundaries to accommodate cohesive linguistic regions. The Sikhs of Punjab were courted as brave defenders of India's western border with Pakistan. Indian Muslims, who were blamed for the partition of India and Pakistan, were also applauded for staying in India - no one in Delhi wanted to lose Muslim-majority Kashmir.

Today, landless villagers demanding better agricultural wages, women demanding an end to dowry, tribals demanding autonomous homelands - all are motivated by real hope as well as real desperation. How does a far narrower range of political power brokers respond to such demands? One possibility is to seek broad compromises and coalitions that move the entire society progressively toward the most inclusive promises of the Independence movement. what alarms many Indian proponents of this strategy is that other options do exist, and it is these that seem to be gaining pride of place in political practice. One option is to suppress unwanted competitors by silencing leaders and frightening supporters. The so-called "Black Laws" (restrictions on civil liberties) of recent years have quite as serious an impact as pervasive informal and unofficial use of police powers to terrorize opponents. Another option is to manipulate popular symbols by constantly shifting the definitions of the term nation as well as reviving traditional symbols and myths when they prove convenient to the contemporary elite.

Legalized restrictions on civil liberties have routinely been introduced in the name of defending "national unity" - against armed dissenters in tribal regions in the northeast, against Sikh supporters of Khalistan in the west, against widespread nonviolent strikes by labor unions. Although a number of Indians have urged efforts to focus on the clash of the specific social and economic interests behind such crises, political elites have been able to keep public attention focused on the diffuse symbolism of "nation" versus "anti-national elements." Although the late Mrs. Gandhi's wholesale suspension of civil liberties and imposition of a nationwide state of emergency in the 1970s was eventually rescinded, opposition parties as well as the dominant Congress-I Party have given overwhelming support to a variety of laws still very much in operation. Some of the most dangerous laws, such as the National Security Act, the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Act and the Terrorist Affected Areas (Special Courts) Act, only vaguely define proscribed activities and opinions, permit prolonged detention without formal charges or trial, and require the accused to prove his or her own innocence in trials that may be held en camera and without basic trial safeguards.

So casual and ill-regulated is the use of such "exceptional" laws by a variety of political parties in the states and in the central government that thousands of citizens throughout India were detained under their provisions last year. The laws have been used to squelch demands for everything from lower milk prices to a new tribal-majority province in central India. Although they seem to be a boom to reigning political powers, the conspicuously inequitable and politically motivated use of the laws actually helps to undermine the national integration they are supposed to defend. One wonders what sort of national integration is achieved by the wholesale use of these laws against Sikhs, while the ruling party protects prominent Hindu politicians clearly linked to the five-day massacre of 3,000 Sikhs in northern India in 1984.

Informal but officially sanctioned repression of dissidents is by no means limited to a few spectacular aberrations. For underprivileged citizens it is a routine hazard of defying their more powerful neighbors. Local economic elites - landlords, merchants, money lenders - have traditionally used violence and socioeconomic boycotts to enforce their dominance. With the growth of professional police and bureaucratic cadres and the development of political parties, many of these extended kin groups have simply diversified their political portfolios so that the same family has remembers or personal clients in a number of different roles and offices.

The more powerful of the newer economic interests, too, have adopted this pattern. Amnesty International recently summarized published research by Indian civil liberties organizations and journalists regarding one of many continuing examples:

Allegations of deliberate police killings have been made in Bihar [a north Indian state], where landless labourers and marginal farmers - many of them from the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes - have been involved in disputes with landowners over such issues as land ownership and payment of minimum wage. Sometimes they have received assistance of left-wing groups, in a few cases that of Naxalite groups using violent methods. For their part local landowners have frequently used private armies or senas, and there is evidence that they have sometimes worked in close collaboration with local politicians and police. In several instances the police and senas are reported to have deliberately killed numerous villagers - most of them belonging to the Scheduled Castes and Tribes - in conflicts over land or wages.

As the Bihar case illustrates, the elites try to maintain their dominance through brute strength and the manipulation of popular symbols. While landless agricultural laborers have tried to emphasize Independence-era symbols legitimizing better conditions for Untouchables (Scheduled Castes), tribals (Scheduled Tribes) and laborers, local landed elites have countered by insisting they are all "Naxalites" who are trying to overthrow "democracy," and that the landlord armies and their political allies are the true "freedom fighters" defending "the nation."

At the same time, landlords have attempted to pit laborers against one another by activating traditional caste values that deny any legitimacy to Untouchable or tribal claims to equality. The landlords use variations of this same traditional theme to garner sympathy among the urban middle class, which is drawn primarily from India's higher castes. In this variation, defense of "the nation" becomes defense of traditional Hinduism and Hindu hierarchy. Repression of Untouchable and tribal laborers draws support from popular hysteria whipped up in other conflicts in which non-Hindu religious minorities - primarily Sikhs and Muslims - are branded as "anti-national." By encouraging a narrower, more traditional answer to the question Who and what is India? the landlords have effectively defended their preferred answer - Who has a right to prosper at whose expense?

The use of traditional symbols and myths to pursue contemporary economic interests in electoral politics is even more conspicuous in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh. The state's highest elected official, Chief Minister N.T. Rama Rao ("NTR"), is a movie actor widely known for his portrayal of Hindu mythological heroes. His most well-known characterization is of Rama, the god/king hero of one of the most widely revered Hindu stories, the Ramayana. As a politician and leader of the Telegu Desham Party, NTR frequently dresses in the flowing, saffron-colored robes of a Hindu religious figure, although he has no formally recognized religious role.

This blurred distinction that NTR makes between his political and celluloid roles seems calculated to serve a purpose broader than mere personal electioneering. For centuries, believers have been comforted by the vision of RamRajya, an ideal political order marked by both hierarchy and paternalism; a world of divinely sanctioned authoritarian rule; a prosperous world in which women and the lower orders are protected - if they exhibit the proper deference to their betters. NTR comes from one of Andhra's dominant landed castes; his relatives have amassed fortunes in large-scale commercial agriculture and light industry. Like their Bihari counterparts, these dominant peasant castes have faced persistent protest against their exploitation of low-caste and tribal labor and appropriation of tribal lands. They have been quick to use both the formal and unofficial powers of the state to terrorize those who disagree with their vision of the ideal Indian order. They are perhaps more imaginative, however, in their manipulation of traditional symbols in modern populist politics.

It is worth reemphasizing that none of these problems is the product of agrarian backwardness. Recent developments in Andhra and Bihar have been shaped by conflicts emerging from the growth of modern commercial agriculture. The long and disturbing career of the Shiv Sena movement bears witness to the fact that India's largest and most cosmopolitan industrial centers have their own variations on this common theme.

The Sena began in Bombay in the 1960s as a "sons of the soil" movement. It pitted local Marathi-speaking industrial laborers against migrant laborers from southern India, and workers from local peasant castes against workers from local Untouchable castes. The movement helped stunt the growth of broad-based labor unions; leading industrialists were accused of supporting the Sena's street violence and its successful campaign for election in the Bombay government. After a brief period of quiescence, the Sena is resurging throughout Maharashtra state, mobilizing peasant caste violence against Untouchable and tribal farm workers in rural areas and against Muslim and Untouchable workers and small-scale businesspeople in urban centers. Sena-organized riots against Muslims in the Bombay area in 1984 left nearly 300 dead. Sena representatives have since been reelected to official prominence in Bombay and other cities. The movement is openly courted by both opposition parties and warring factions of the state's ruling Congress-I Party.

Since its inception, the Shiv Sena has legitimized its tactics by playing on both regional and international myths. Shivaji, the seventeenth-century peasant-caste warrior who wrested western India from Muslim Mughal control, provides the Sena's rationale for its regional exclusivity, its hostility to all religious minorities and its support of the landlords' right to rule. The Sena also profits from the recurrent glorification of European fascism by a long line of local high-caste intellectuals. These elites ignore the anti-Indian reality of Western racism, concentrating instead on fitting themselves into the Aryan myth, which glorifies the idea of a "master race' and supports the "purifying virtues" of violence and authoritarian rule. Both the local and international myths appeal to those who fear they will lose out in the scramble for a very uneven form of economic "development." For politicians who fear they will become lost in the scramble for electoral power, the Sena is a tempting ally.

The dangers inherent in these examples extend beyond the obvious harsh reminders that fascism lurks in the shadows of democracy. We must also ask ourselves the question that thoughtful Indians are asking: How much "India" remains when political elites try to advance the interests of their own supporters by inflaming the passions of ever-narrower identities in a complex society? The practical problems become all too clear in the increasingly precarious rule of the national Congress-I Party. Its deliberate linkage of "Hindu" identity with "Indian" identity paid some short-term political dividends in the party leadership's struggle for control over Punjab, but merely increased the number of bitterly alienated Sikhs in the long term. It also added fuel to Hindu-Muslim tensions, and encouraged various high-caste efforts to suppress the demands of lower castes, tribals and women - all developments that further destabilized the party's support base. Parliamentary arithmetic has enabled the Congress to cling to central power by playing to the cultural linguistic chauvinism of Hindi-speaking northerners. This strategy, however, does nothing to unite north, south, east and west, nor does it challenge the power of equally problematic opposition parties such as N.T. RamaRao's Telegu Desham. It also fails to resolve basic questions about the goals and strategies of economic development; it is easier to obscure issues and to silence dissent.

The work of building bridges among the peoples of India, and or devising and testing strategies for sustainable and equitable development, does continue, but much of this work is done by citizens outside the structure of government. Unfortunately, they work under increasingly difficult conditions.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

CSQ Issue: