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02 September, 2014

Pride in Identity and its Place

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Every individual has multiple identities. Some identities, like those of caste, religion, state, nation etc, are determined by circumstances of birth, over which the individual has no control.

Caste is an unchangeable identity. You can’t choose another in place of the one you were born in unless you wage war and carve out a kingdom of your own, in which case you may find priests who are willing to proclaim you a Kshatriya through a ceremony.

Even subdivisions within a caste are insulated from one another by insurmountable barriers. Descendants of Pandits who migrated from the Kashmir Valley centuries ago remain Kashmiri Pandits wherever they are because under caste rules their identity is permanent and unchangeable.

While identities of religion, state and nation can be changed, few people exercise the option. Those who exercise the option often do so on practical considerations dictated by social, economic or political factors. The identity so acquired is then inherited by their progeny.

I am, therefore, amused --- and sometimes perturbed -- when I see the lengths to which people, in their innocence (not to say ignorance), are ready to go to defend an identity which they acquired by sheer chance or force of circumstances. Pride in an identity is not something one is born with. It is a cultivated one. The family as also social, religious and political bodies play a part in the process.

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Those born under beneficial conditions quite naturally want to hold on to the blessings which circumstances of birth have conferred on them. Those born under adverse conditions quite naturally want to shake off the curse which circumstances of birth have cast on them. The authors of the caste system used the Karma theory to justify the good luck the iniquitous order bestowed on some and the bad luck it imposed on some others.

When Gandhi visited Vaikom in Kerala in 1925 while the Congress was conducting a satyagraha campaign against the bar on use of the road around a temple by members of the so-called lower castes, he met the head of the Namboodiri family of Indamthuruthi, hoping to persuade him to relent on the issue of discrimination.  Do the Vedas sanction restrictions on the basis of caste, he asked. The Namboodiri said the disabilities of the so-called lower castes were the result of their deeds in previous births.

Since Gandhi was not a Brahmin, the Namboodiri did not let him into his house. He received him in a shamiana in the forecourt of his house. With the collapse of the feudal order, the Indamthuruthi family’s fortunes declined and it had to give up the house from which Gandhi was kept out because he was a Vaisya, and not a Brahmin. That house became the office of a trade union of toddy tappers belonging to a so-called lower caste. So much for Karma.

This is not to decry pride in an identity one is born with. Such pride can serve a useful purpose. It can help one to maintain one’s self-esteem. However, there is a corollary to this. Only those lucky to be born under favourable circumstances can develop such pride. The unlucky ones cannot take pride in their identity. They experience lack of self-esteem, and may even be reduced to a state of self-deprecation. The most pernicious aspect of the caste system is the way the dominant forces consciously undermine the self-esteem of the suppressed. The victors obliterated the history of the vanquished and forged their own in its place. In the process, they boosted their own pride and destroyed that of the vanquished.

Failure to understand the limited nature of the usefulness of pride in identity can have deleterious consequences. It can lead to hallucinations of divine favour (of which notable examples are the Jewish belief that they are God’s Chosen People and the Vedic concept that the way to propitiate the gods is to take care of the Brahmins) or racial superiority (of which the best example is Nazi propagation of Aryan superiority).

The different identities of an individual are not packed in the body or mind one on top of another.  It is therefore absurd to say “I am a …. first and all the rest later.” When a person does that it simply means he places a particular identity above all other because he finds it convenient or beneficial for some reason.

A few years ago, a CPI(M) minister of West Bengal, Subhas Chakraborty, proclaimed that he was “a Hindu and a Brahmin first”. Thereby he tacitly acknowledged that being a Hindu and a Brahmin gives him greater self-esteem than being a Marxist and a minister. A week later he called a press conference and announced that he looked at everything on the basis of dialectical materialism and did not believe in religious practices or casteism. When the party waved the stick, he found it prudent (or should I say convenient and beneficial) to revise his position publicly.

Circumstances can force not only individuals but even groups of people to modify their position in this way. We don’t have to look farther than the recent history of the subcontinent to understand how the relative position of various identities is adjusted for personal, social, political or economic reasons.

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Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who was not a practising Muslim, kept aloof from the founding of the Muslim League and pooh-poohed Chaudhuri Rahmat Ali’s idea of a Muslim homeland in the subcontinent, later became the foremost champion of Pakistan. When the state of Pakistan became a reality he declared that all its citizens will be equal regardless of religion or caste. But it was too late. The forces unleashed by him turned it into a religious state.

Twenty-five years after Muslims of East Bengal became part of Pakistan, upholding the primacy of their religious identity, they revolted under Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s leadership. As they put language above religion, East Pakistan became Bangladesh.

There are people in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh who believe Partition was a mistake. This does not mean it should be undone. The final test of nationhood is whether people have the will to live together. Pakistan became a reality because at the given moment a large section of the Muslim minority of the subcontinent lost the will to live together with the majority and inclined towards the idea of a separate homeland, apprehensive of their future in Hindu-dominated India. Bangladesh became a reality because Bengalis of Pakistan lost of the will to live together with the rest of the Pakistanis, apprehensive of their future in Urdu/Punjabi dominated Pakistan.

There may be people who still have dreams of a Reunited Pakistan or a Reunited India. They should ask themselves if they have conducted themselves in such a way as to remove the apprehensions which led to the breakup.

We have around us a host of vested interests who, for their own reasons, want to hold us down at various levels by playing upon particular identities. "Patriotism," George Bernard Shaw said, “is your conviction that this country is superior to all others because you were born in it.” This observation is also true of pride in various other identities.

Facebook note dated September 2, 2014

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