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On Indian Identities

This identity question never really leaves a thoughtful Indian.

Written by Yoginder K. Alagh | New Delhi |
September 7, 2009 3:26:42 pm

At a recent meeting on tribals in Delhi the cake went to a young scholar from the Northeast,Borborra. When they are that young and good,they always surprise you with their vigour and energy and ability to cut through cant.

When you have the police and Army after you on one side and the terrorists on the other,what is your concept of existence and identity,he asked and then went on to point towards the answer,without actually giving it,all the time apologising for not being very logical,in terms not very flattering to our constitutional niceties and implicitly shared values in a large part of the rest of the country.

This identity question never really leaves a thoughtful Indian. Historian Nurul Hasan chaired a seminar on Indian identities when I was a very young man and he was still not a minister. I asked him after a long rambling description how I was always an outsider,even in my native Chakwal in what is now Pakistan because I went to school in Calcutta and many people would playfully call me a Bengali. I had also been called a Rajasthani,a Gujarati,a Dilliwala and,of course,a Punjabi,always outside Rajasthan,Gujarat,Dilli and the Punjab. I was called an Indian only when I reached the US. Nurul Saheb told me I was all of them.

Years later,I was the accompanying minister with Narayanan Saheb on an official visit,amongst other places,to Mongolia. Our Ambassador was the famous Buddhist Lama from Ladakh who in the Avloketeshwara tradition was a Living God to many Buddhist Mongolians. An Ambassador from a very powerful country told me how we can compete diplomatically with the Indians. I also met a lot of Alaghs in Mongolia for it is a very popular name there and means honour. Khan Alagh,in the times of the great Chenghiz,stood up for Mongolian chivalry and paid for it with his life,a fate many Alaghs faced in different historical epochs.

The Vice-President inaugurated the Delhi meeting in style on the Deprivations of the Adivasis. In my remarks,somewhat hesitatingly I mentioned that from far away it seemed that the security doctrine of India of the mailed fist and the velvet glove for those who would challenge the foundations of our state was undergoing change and perhaps needed discussion.

An IRMA colleague,JNU sociologist Dandekar,had coached me that the words Adivasi and tribe were two different categories. In the West,the ‘original people’ had a genetic subtext,but such was not the case in India,where tribe was a socio-political organisation. DNA studies done when I was a science minister showed that unlike,say,in China where there was a significant difference between the Han and non-Han sections of the population,no such differences were seen in India. Borborra made the point that the term Northeast,or Northwest I would add,already defines a category different from the Centre,in a sense a Gujarati,Punjabi or Telugu is not.

I wanted desperately to build a bridge,for my freedom generation,he was the centre and didn’t know how. It was much worse than a young Kannadiga who cornered me once when I was trying to mediate between them and the Tamils on the Cauvery who said that he would separate from us. I told him he can’t. When he asked why,Alagh,the Kannada Prabha reported,said you can’t separate from me because I won’t separate from you. To Borborra all that I could say was that the Northeast and the Northwest are India’s long arm with larger regions.

It was wrong to talk of the Ganga and the Mekong. In fact,we should talk of the Brahmaputra and the Mekong. The engineer Mohile had established that before the colonial period the Brahmaputra was a communication river also and needed to be revived as such,undoing the ‘Inner Line’ of closing off the region. Similarly,Kashmir could be our long arm to Kazakhistan. Pestered,Borborra very hesitatingly promised to think about it. Somebody has to think out of the box,if for no other reason,we do know that the first lesson of Security Studies is that force without reason never goes very far.

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