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Becoming Indian

The Indian is no longer defined by those living within the borders of India but also those who are between and beyond borders; India is no longer governed by its own laws but also by international conventions and principles, writes Swarna Rajagopalan in the first of her new column on India and the world, and the tensions between

Indian identity

The Indian nation-state is a legal, historical and political reality that defines the Indian citizen. But the Indian is all this and something more, something besides. That something depends in part on the world outside India which is sometimes mirror, sometimes home and sometimes reference point. Most important, like any other identity, being Indian co-exists with other identities, and in 2011, after 64 soggy monsoons, the colours of the drenched tricolour run into each other.  


Independence Day weekend began with Raksha Bandhan in North India, a festival that celebrates and extends familial relationships, and Avani Avittam, the date on which Tamil Brahmin men change their yajnyopavitam (sacred thread), which also separates them by caste and gender from others. And finally, the weekend culminated in the anniversary of the bloody birth of the conjoined-twin nation-states, Pakistan (14th) and India (15th).

And then Shammi Kapoor died on August 14. This is the man who played cosmopolitan playboy, hanging from a helicopter over the waters of the French Riviera, and then played son-of-the-soil, demanding boisterously and musically to know, since he was the son of the Ganga and Himalayas, “Main kis subevala?” (To which province do I belong?). There’s something appropriate about him dying this weekend of contrasting festivities. A weekend of contrasts: inclusion and exclusion; frivolity and melodrama; celebration and grief; marking the trauma of Partition and the exuberance of birth—the birth of nation-states, defined by the inside and the outside.

Like India, born August 15, 1947.


India, now aged 64.

Defined by the people and peoples who live within its borders and recognise themselves as belonging to this polity. Defined also by the people who do not live in India, who are not eligible to belong and/or do not feel they belong to India. Defined by self-government, and by definitions of what that ‘self’ means.

Defined by the territories that fall between its borderlines. Defined also by the territories that fall outside those borders, by the territories where jurisdiction is contentious and by the places where the borders are indistinct, have been worn out or are ignored because they are so new.

Defined by the laws that apply across these territories and by their jurisdictional limits. Defined also by the laws made by others that do not apply here; by the principles and conventions that we endorse and then adopt selectively; and by those to whom our laws do not apply.

Defined finally, by other states and peoples recognising that we exist, as India, as one unit in an international system that is theorised simplistically and imagined as unchanging but that exists and operates dynamically, its every convention breached by people who haven’t read social science textbooks.

Being is absolute and relative, especially in a civilisation whose philosophers have conceptualised a wide variety of definitions that include “is” and “is not”. In India, now 64, the colours of the drenched tricolour run into each other.  


On August 15, 1947, the world saw the Indian state and Indians keep their “tryst with destiny”; but within, the conversation about who was an Indian had just begun. Jawaharlal Nehru offered this answer in his speech to the Constituent Assembly: “All of us, to whatever religion we may belong, are equally the children of India with equal rights, privileges and obligations. We cannot encourage communalism or narrow-mindedness, for no nation can be great whose people are narrow in thought or in action.”

A schoolgirl then in Madras, my mother remembers celebrations on the streets. People thronged as if celebrating a family wedding outdoors. She remembers the optimism and the confidence of the moment. Nothing could go wrong. It was a moment of perfection. But there were already other stories and other voices, audible to those who were paying attention.

In the north and east where lines drawn in the rock and sand and silt divided families and villages, people were forced by circumstance to leave their ancestral homes for places unknown. Tens of thousands were displaced and found that suddenly, they were Indians. Or Pakistanis. Perhaps that was less significant in a moment when they also found themselves homeless, helpless and bereaved.

In the south, the demand for Dravidanadu had already been raised in 1944 and Dravidanadu Secession Day was observed on July 1, 1944. Part of the Dravidian movement observed August 15, 1947 as a day of mourning. In June 1947, the Naga-Akbar Hydari Agreement recognised the right of Nagas to develop their area as they wished, within an Indian Union. But to Nagas, this meant deferring independence for 10 years rather than acceding to the Union, which is how the Indian government saw it.

If integration of British-ruled territories was far from assured, the princely states posed another challenge. Hyderabad and Kashmir’s rulers chose independence while Junagadh’s ruler wanted to accede to Pakistan. Hyderabad and Junagadh ultimately acceded to India, but Kashmir has been divided since 1948 and the issue of its integration remains controversial.

Since 1947, old and new divisions have been resurrected and erected by Indians, to set each small group of them apart from others. Caste, class, region, religion, sect, ethnicity, language, domicile—every one of these has sparked some category of violent conflict. At the very least, there have been arguments over policies and privileges and at their worst, we have seen arson and riots. Arguably, our internal divisions have worsened as our external identity as Indians has acquired greater recognition, through our economic and technological success stories.

Because the overlay of land and language is so strong, the idea of linguistically defined units was appealing even as it was first mooted. The reorganisation of the purely administratively defined states of free India along linguistic lines first yielded large but somewhat cohesive states. But the process that was set in motion in 1956 is far from complete. Demands to divide India’s largest states to create smaller administrative units created Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Uttarakhand at the turn of the century. However, language and ethnicity remain an important mobilising factor, as the Telengana struggle illustrates.

Language and shared ethnicity also exercise a pull across borders. The sensitivity of Tamil Nadu politics to the experiences of Sri Lankan Tamils is one illustration. In times of crisis, it renders the border in that area porous as the flood of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees into Tamil Nadu shows. In northeastern India and West Bengal, movement across the border in search of seasonal work or pastureland has made the question of citizenship particularly sensitive, given that the lines between those who are legally Indians are also fluid and being re-negotiated.

A self-consciously secular state and a mostly devout citizenry have largely had a decent working relationship. However, when religion is the pivot for collective political mobilisation, the state has increasingly been reluctant or incompetent to intervene, even in the humanitarian interest. The Gujarat riots are only one example, unfortunately. When the state fails to act against rioters, is the victimised community still Indian? Can it still feel Indian?

Six decades of reservations have had consequences that run counter to the purpose of the reservations. They have reinforced and entrenched caste divisions. Perhaps worse, they have created incentives to perpetuate those divisions, as communities redefine their caste identity in order to increase their chance of college admission or employment.  

Language, religion and caste are the three factors most commonly addressed in discussions of what makes or undermines an “Indian” identity. But writing this in 2011, let us also consider the Indian abroad.


The Indian state celebrates the Indian abroad in multiple ways, of which the annual reunion conclave (Pravasi Bharatiya Divas) is only one. New legal categories now apply, such as the “Person of Indian Origin” and “Overseas Citizen of India”. The Government of India is for the first time talking about allowing dual citizenship. Non-Resident Indians are sought after as experts, as investors, as donors, as consumers and as an expatriate lobby in the places where they live. But this interest is arguably primarily in educated professional Indians from affluent western societies—those who have been migrating west since the 1960s. It does not however, include illegal immigrants in menial jobs or working-class immigrants. There is no explicit exclusion; but their continuing invisibility speaks for itself.

The older Indian diaspora presents many problems. Often their presence in other states is a result of colonial labour movements, often forced. Forced migration left them at the margins of their host-countries, and although citizenship followed decolonisation, their integration is not complete. In Malaysia and Fiji, the politics of inclusion and exclusion leave Indian-origin Malaysians and Fijians vulnerable.  In Uganda, the expulsion of Indians in the 1970s saw many of them move to the United Kingdom rather than to India. The same is true of Portuguese colonies whose Indian-origin residents have moved to Lisbon rather than return to India. But Indians who moved to Sri Lanka to work on the tea-estates best illustrate this problem. In 1948, they summarily lost their citizenship of Sri Lanka, and it took almost 15 years for the two governments to come to some agreement on their status.

It would appear that class and likely, caste determine the degree to which Indians outside India are welcomed back by the Indian state. The most obvious explanation is a cost-benefit analysis; there is much to be gained by welcoming the engagement of educated, affluent professionals. But perhaps it is also a confidence that those Indians will not return. For if all of the Indian diaspora were to enjoy dual citizenship, and maybe the right to vote, how would that upset the already delicate balance within?

Satellite television (even more than cinema) with its global audiences has been marketing its own definition of Indianness. Producers package a hybrid of tradition and modernity, some taken from the stalled cultural memories of the diaspora and some from the growing conservatism of the change-averse Indian middle class. New standards, new patterns of consumption and new mores cross the traditional ethnic, religious and caste barriers of India and Indian communities everywhere. The ubiquitous mehendi ceremonies at all weddings and the popularity of Karva Chauth are simple but indicative examples.

There is another dimension to this: the cosmopolitan, travelling Indian. With the growth of Indian business and rising incomes in the middle class, business and leisure travel has increased. Lifestyle magazines are constantly telling us about the changing food preferences of Indians. Provocative question: what is Indian about a child who speaks only English, wants to eat pasta and pizza, doesn’t wear Indian clothes routinely and travels abroad with her parents on holiday? Just an accident of birth and passport?

There are also Indians who have lived abroad and in India. Routinely, their worlds blend into each other. Material objects, social interactions and professional transactions all transcend nation-state borders. What makes these cosmopolitan Indians, Indian?


Sometimes it seems as if within our borders we find a thousand ways to be anything else first, then Indian. We seem to be Indian because and when we are seen by others to be Indian. The dialectical discussion that takes in questions about authenticity and change, globalisation and heritage, alienation and belonging plays out comfortably in our daily lives. 

Like the colours of bandhni fabric that spill over just a little bit here and there, we live our lives a little bit on this side, a little bit on that of nation-state frontiers. We borrow a little colour from somewhere and bleed a little colour elsewhere. We cannot ignore this giving and taking, being and reflecting—these patterns created by India and Indians’ engaging with their world which are sometimes muddied, sometimes glorious and always, illuminating.

Infochange News & Features, August 2011