Ever since we got our Independence, we have always considered ourselves proud Indians. There have been revolts and separatist movements, needless to say. Nagaland, Dravidistan, Khalistan, and the ongoing insurgency in Kashmir come to mind. Indeed, many in the North-East and Kashmir still feel alienated from the Indian mainstream. And if we are honest to ourselves, we have really not done enough to make them feel “Indians”. Nevertheless, by and large, India has remained one nation and our unity has never been seriously threatened — until a few months ago.
I trace the change to the overwhelming victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party in last year’s General Election. Radical Hindutva elements have been emboldened as never before by that victory. There is now open talk of what the likes of Madhav Golwalkar and Veer Savarkar envisaged: a “Hindu Rashtra”, an entity where only caste Hindus would be considered true “Indians”, the others virtually second class citizens. Muslim friends of mine are feeling distinctly uneasy these days, as are a great many others. Why did the BJP give a Lok Sabha ticket to somebody who continues to praise the killer of Mahatma Gandhi? And why did she win? Why is dissent, a vital ingredient of democracy and of freedom of expression, now being viewed as “anti-national”, even as “sedition”? Above all, why was the Citizenship (Amendment) Act necessary, and why have Muslims been excluded? The excuse that the CAA is mainly directed against “illegal Bangladeshis” has clearly been shown to be entirely fake.
Half a century ago, my father, Khushwant Singh, wrote a column, “Why I am an Indian”, which addresses these very questions, in his typical humorous, blunt way, but with a deadly serious intent. I believe it is prescient for our times:
“I did not have any choice,” he wrote. “I was born one. If the good Lord had consulted me on the subject, I might have chosen a country more affluent, less crowded, less censorious in matters of food and drink, unconcerned with personal equations and free of religious bigotry. “Am I proud of being an India? I can’t really answer this one. I can scarcely take credit for the achievements of my forefathers. And I have little reason to be proud of what we are doing today. On balance, I would say, ‘No, I am not proud of being an Indian.’
“Why don’t you get out and settle in some other country? Once again, I have very little choice. All the countries I might like to live in have restricted quotas for emigrants; most of them are white and have prejudice against coloured people. In any case, I feel more relaxed and at home in India. I dislike many things in my country — mostly the government. I know the government is never the same as the country, but it never stops trying to appear in that garb. This is where I belong, and this is where I intend to live and die. Of course I like going abroad. Living is easier, wine and food are better, women are more forthcoming — it’s more fun. However, I soon get tired of all those things and want to get back to my dung-heap and be among my loud-mouthed, sweaty, smelly countrymen. I am like my kinsmen in Africa and England and elsewhere. My head tells me it’s better to live abroad, my belly tells me it is more fulfilling to be in ‘phoren’, but my heart tells me ‘get back to India’. Each time I return home and drive through the stench of bare-bottomed defecators that line the road from Santa Cruz airport to the city, I ask myself:
Breathes there a man with soul so dead
who never to himself hath said
this is my own land, my native land?
“I can scarcely breathe, but I yell, ‘Yeah, this is my native land.’ I don’t like it, but I love it!
“Are you an Indian first and a Punjabi or Sikh second? Or is it the other way round? I don’t like the way those questions are framed. I am all three at the same time. If I was denied my Punjabiness or my community tradition, I would refuse to call myself Indian. I am Indian, Punjabi and Sikh. And even so I have a patriotic kinship to one who says I am ‘Indian, Hindu and Haryanvi’ or ‘I am Indian, Moplah Muslim and Malayali’ or ‘I am Indian, Christian and Assamese’. I want to retain my religious and linguistic identity without in any way making them exclusive.
“I am convinced that in our guaranteed diversity is our strength as a nation. As soon as you try to obliterate regional languages in favour of one ‘national’ language or religion, in the name of some one Indian credo, you will destroy the unity of the country. Twice was our Indianness challenged: in 1962 by the Chinese; in 1965 by the Pakistanis. Then, despite our many differences of language, religion and faith, we rose as one to defend our country. In the ultimate analysis, it is the consciousness of the frontiers that makes a nation. We have proved that we are one nation.
“What then this talk about Indianising people who are already Indian? And has anyone any right to arrogate to himself the right to decide who is and who is not a good Indian?”
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