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The ordinary citizen’s idea of India

Priyadarshini Singh writes: The nation can mean much more than may be discerned from voting choices and public statements of political leaders.

Written by Priyadarshini Singh |
Updated: February 1, 2022 9:20:40 am
Fifty-three per cent of Indians believe that religious diversity benefits India and only 24 per cent believe it harms us.

Do most Indians see India as a Hindu and Hindi nation?

Statements by some political leaders and recent survey research seem to suggest so. At the inauguration of the Kashi Vishwanath corridor project, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that India is defined by Hindu tradition and history. Alongside, Rahul Gandhi stated that a distinction must be made between the “good”, truth-seeking Hindus and the power-seeking “Hindutva-vadis”. Pew Research survey findings on religion and nationhood in India in July 2021 highlighted a similar conclusion. On the one hand, valuing religious diversity (84 per cent) is among the key attributes of being an Indian along with respecting elders (88 per cent) and having an Indian ancestry (70 per cent). On the other hand, a majority also believes that being a Hindu (56 per cent) and speaking Hindi (57 per cent) are important. Among Hindus, the support is higher — for 64 per cent, being a Hindu and for 59 per cent speaking Hindi is important for Indian-ness.

Understanding the meaning of this Hindu-Hindi idea of India at the grassroots is critical, particularly because it has electoral implications. As we have seen over recent decades, voting choices and electoral victories of parties are used as insights into the everyday meanings of nation and nationhood.

My research highlights that for ordinary Indians, the idea of India has many layers. It includes cultural and civic elements; some parts of it determine political choices while others don’t. Being an Indian is not just about being a part of a homogenous national community. India is a community of communities. When people talk about India, they often speak from the standpoint of multiple community locations. For example, one respondent talked about corruption in national politics but in terms of how it impacted him as a Gujjar, living in a poor village. The importance of one’s own religion (Hinduism) and language (Hindi) for being an Indian highlighted in the Pew Research data is likely emerging from this idea. This does not necessarily mean that other groups don’t have similar views.

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In one research village in Rajasthan, upper castes accepted an important demand made by a Dalit farm labourer and tea-stall owner. He said that the village should nominate a Dalit to contest the village sarpanch election (a general seat) because Dalits are also a part of India. That is, they are citizens not just in their individual capacity but also as Dalits, just as others are as Hindus, Brahmins, Muslims, Shias, etc. Similarly, during discussions on national pride with people working on farms, small dairies, shops, etc, it emerged that their idea of Indian-ness included many different types of identities. They are proud of India not only on “national” issues like “defeating” the British or the Taj Mahal but also of their community identities. As one respondent in a village in Sawai Madhopur district said, “if we are talking about India, we are from Rajasthan, we should be proud of being Rajasthani”. While stating this, he strongly brushed aside his friend who was telling him that he should highlight Hindu-Muslim peacefulness in their village. Another respondent, in a village in Karnataka, said that she is proud of India because “it has everything — there is Kashmir, it has gold, iron, silver, good weather and food”. In fact, some of the Pew Research data also highlights this. Fifty-three per cent of Indians believe that religious diversity benefits India and only 24 per cent believe it harms us. Almost all Indians are expressly proud of their states (95 per cent) and their religion (94 per cent).

The critical thing the research highlights is that contexts impact the way people talk about the nation. And the context could include the people with whom one is discussing the idea of the nation or the political dynamics of the localities or even professional backgrounds. In my field sites, areas where there was a history of tension between religious groups, many respondents expressly said that they were proud to be Indian because of the good relationship between communities; in other sites, this was rarely mentioned.

The nation can mean much more than may be discerned from voting choices and public statements of political leaders. One respondent, a Gujjar diary owner in Sawai Madhopur, educated till Class XI, said that national culture cannot be homogenised and a person born in India is an Indian because “where will the others go”. His illiterate wife aggressively said that everyone has a different language. Differentiating between the political and non-political aspects of national pride, he said that “fights between groups are about politics, now even brothers fight”. His political support, however, tended towards a Hindu-centred idea of nationhood. Yet, he was proud of India because “it has everything, dharma nirpekshata (secularism), sanskriti (culture), vikas (development)… yeh toh sone ki chidiya hai (a golden bird)”.


Above all, I discovered that the idea of India is meaningful because it has immense moral significance. It is the ideal horizon — a hope, a promise of a future defined by dignity, equality, justice and socio-economic development. It’s this emancipatory promise of nationhood that resonates across groups. Prejudices and differences and how they project onto politics co-exist alongside valuing diversity. But the nation is not just its politics, and an Indian is not just who they vote for. Alternative ideas, inclusionary narratives exist even if the corresponding politics does not.

This column first appeared in the print edition on February 1, 2022 under the title ‘Ideas of Indian-ness’. The writer is fellow, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi

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First published on: 01-02-2022 at 03:40:04 am
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