Is There an Indian Identity?

This piece by Vishnu Modur at Notes on Liberty, a libertarian-leaning group blog, on “South Asian” identity made me start thinking. Here’s a snippet:

For decades, the United States hyphenated its India policy by balancing every action with New Delhi with a counterbalancing activity with Islamabad. So much so that the American focus on Iran and North Korean nuclear proliferation stood out in total contrast to the whitewashing of Pakistan’s private A.Q. Khan network for nuclear proliferation. Furthermore, in a survey conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs that gauges how Americans perceive other countries, India hovered between forty-six and forty-nine on a scale from zero to one hundred since 1978, reflecting its reputation neither as an ally or an adversary. With the civil-nuclear deal, the Bush administration discarded the hyphenation construct and eagerly pursued an independent program between India and the United States. Still, in 2010, only 18 percent of Americans saw India as “very important” to the United States—fewer than those who felt similarly about Pakistan (19%) and Afghanistan (21%), and well below China (54%) and Japan (40%). Even though the Indo-US bilateral relationship has transformed for the better from the Bush era, the increasing use of ‘South Asia’ on various platforms by academics and non-academics alike, while discussing India, represents a new kind of hyphenated view or a bracketed view of India. Many Indian citizens in the US like me find this bracket unnecessary, especially in the present geopolitical context.

Here’s where my musings led me. One of the fascinating things about human languages is that using a just about any human language, at least any I’ve ever heard of, you can talk about things that don’t exist. In the jargon, things that have no referent. Does “South Asian identity” have a referent? I don’t believe so.

For it to have one Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi, Nepalese, Tibetan, Sri Lankans, Burmese people and many others would need to profess some commonality. Do they? I don’t think so. Frankly, I believe that much of the last 70 years has been a search for an Indian identity, never more so than since the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance became the ruling parliamentary coalition there.

I think it’s not unlike talking about European or, sadly, American identity to an increasing extent.

There are nearly 20,000 languages and dialects spoken on the Indian subcontinent and about 40% of the people are proficient only in their mother tongue. The common language for most is Hindi but not all Indians are proficient in it. India consists of 36 states and union territories. Under the circumstances how can one speak about “Indian identity”. What would one mean by it? As far as I can tell it speaks more to what they aren’t rather than to what they are.

None of that detracts from India’s standing in Asia. But IMO India is more of a multi-ethnic, multi-confessional empire than it is a nation.

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