The Indian Identity*

Colonialism and Identity

I feel greatly honoured by the invitation to give the Dorab Tata Memorial Lectures. I appreciate this opportunity for several different reasons. First and foremost, it is wonderful to have the chance to celebrate the memory of Dorab (or Dorabji) Tata, an outstanding industrial leader, a remarkable philanthropist and a visionary human being. A second reason is that the nature of this event, and more specifically the history of the Tatas’ achievements (given their deep involvement in India’s future, combined with a very wide interest in the world at large), provides an occasion to examine the relationship between India and the world. Closely linked to our reading of that relationship is the difficult subject of the nature of the Indian identity, especially challenging in a rapidly changing world. That is going to be the main focus of my discussion.

My third reason for welcoming this occasion is rather personal. The development of the Tata industries, particularly iron and steel and cotton textile, is an integral part of the history of modern India, and it is a history that has enticed and fascinated me for quite a long time now. One of the interesting questions that had to be addressed was the willingness and ability of Indian entrepreneurs, most notably the Tatas, to go into fields, such as iron and steel and cotton textile, that British enterprise largely shunned. I wanted to understand better the influence of values and identities on economic behaviour, over and above the general discipline that is provided by economic feasibility and commercial profitability. I was particularly keen to investigate the part that a vision of the country’s needs and a specifically Indian identity and affiliation played in firing industrial imagination and innovative action. On the other hand, I was also interested in the climate of social anxiety in Britain about economic changes that could be seen as threatening established British interests in India.

As an economist I do not, I believe, need to be told that profits and commercial viability are important (though I have been lectured on that subject from time to time by friends and well-wishers who have wondered whether I manage to take sufficient note of the hard realities of the world). But within the limits of feasibility and reasonable returns, there are substantial choices to be made, and in these choices one’s visions and identities could matter. There is an interesting issue as to why British investment, which came so plentifully to tea, coffee, railways, mining, mercantile establishments and even to the newly born jute industry, was so hesitant in the fields that were the pillars of British industrial establishment, to wit, cotton textile and iron and steel. There is, in particular, the difficult question about the possible perception that these fields were competitive with – and adverse to the interests of – old-established industries in Britain (in Manchester and elsewhere). There is a good deal of empirical evidence that such thoughts had crossed the minds of many responsible people in Britain, but we still have to ask whether such perceptions constituted a significant economic and social phenomenon, and to what extent they affected the pattern of British investment in India.

The issue is not so much whether British investors, or for that matter British governors, might have been directly swayed by the protests that came from vested interests in Britain (for example, by the strong memorandum that the Manchester Chamber of Commerce sent to the Secretary of State for India in 1871, demanding tariff adjustment for Indian cotton textile), or by alarmist reports produced by field studies specially commissioned by established British interests (for example, by the report, in the 1870s, of John Robertson, an experienced spinner, on the growth of Indian cotton textile and its likely damaging implications for the British economy).

Rather, the question is whether a general sense of social identity and priorities, which are known to play a considerable part in economic decisions in general, exerted significant influence on the pattern of British investment in India, both through public policy and through private choice. Sir John Strachey, the well-admired and efficient English administrator with much experience of the Raj, put the central point very clearly, in his Budget speech of 28 March 1877:

I have not ceased to be an Englishman because I have passed the greater part of my life in India, and have become a member of the Indian Government. The interests of Manchester at which foolish people sneer, are the interests not only of the great and intelligent population engaged directly in the trade in cotton but of millions of Englishmen.1

Identity, Nationalism and Investment

In contrast with possible British concerns, the social aspects of these investment opportunities looked enticingly different from the opposite end of the divide. As J. R. D. Tata put it in his Foreword to Frank Harris’s biography of Jamsetji Tata, not only did Jamsetji understand ‘the full significance of the industrial revolution in the West and its potentialities for his own country’, but also ‘dreamt of an industrialized and prosperous India’.2 We can even see a progressive hold of nationalist thinking in the sequence in which Jamsetji’s first cotton mills, called ‘Empress Mills’ and established in 1877 (just as Queen Victoria was proclaimed the Empress of India), were soon followed by the new ‘Svadeshi Mills’, established in 1886.* Indeed, in the year before, in 1885, Jamsetji was present at the founding of the Indian National Congress in Bombay, a cause to which he generously contributed.3 The nationalist connections were present in different ways and to varying extents in the different economic decisions in which the early Tata enterprises were involved. They were perhaps most colourfully visible, in an anecdotal form, in his determination to establish a top world-class hotel in Bombay. There is, apparently, truth in the story that Jamsetji’s decision to establish, in 1903, the ambitiously planned Tajmahal Hotel (the first building in Bombay to be lit by electricity and a place that would soon attract celebrities, from Somerset Maugham to Gregory Peck), followed his being told at Pyrke’s Apollo Hotel, to which he had taken a foreign friend for a meal, that while the friend was welcome in that (‘for Europeans only’) hotel, he – Jamsetji – was not.4 The anecdote adds colour to our understanding of Jamsetji’s sense of identity and priorities, but the basic picture is clear enough from many other decisions as well.

Jamsetji’s determination to have a flourishing iron and steel industry in India fits clearly into this pattern. There had been earlier, abortive attempts, including one by a remarkable Englishman called Josiah Marshall Heath in the 1830s (the chronicle of his misfortunes was recorded by Charles Dickens in Household Words in 1853).5 Also, a small iron works was established in Barakar in 1875, which in 1889 became part of the newly formed Bengal Iron and Steel Company, and had a rather troubled history. But we can see no great groundswell of interest among British investors to go into iron and steel in India. Jamsetji’s attempts in the 1880s at large-scale production of iron and steel were initially frustrated, particularly by the unwillingness of the Raj to cooperate, specifically in the arrangements for transport – a vital infrastructural requirement for the proposed iron and steel mill.

By the turn of the century, however, Jamsetji had received the support of the new Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, and the coordination of the transport arrangements with industrial production was henceforth much easier to organize. Curzon even offered to help build a 45-mile rail connection from the identified hill of iron to the proposed factory. The personality of Curzon was undoubtedly important in this shift in governmental policy, but it is also worth noting that Indo-British trade relations were undergoing very major changes in this period. In particular, Britain was being displaced from its semi-monopoly position of exporting steel to India and losing ground in iron exports as well. In the middle of the 1880s, the United Kingdom was the dominant source of steel imports into India (supplying more than 90 per cent of the total imports), but by the time Curzon arrived in India in 1899, Belgium had overtaken Britain as the largest exporter of steel to India, and Germany too had become a significant source.6

What had not changed was the determination of the Tatas to establish a major iron and steel industry in India. There were still barriers of bureaucracy and of financing to be overcome, and when Jamsetji died in 1904, the project was yet to materialize. By 1906 matters had progressed enough for Dorabji to seek financing from London. However, the London money market was unenthusiastic, and despite protracted efforts, nothing much came of them.

And then, interestingly enough, the link with Indian identity and nationalism, which was part of the Tata motivation, itself came to the rescue. When the prospectus for the projected iron and steel works was published in August 1907, the appeal to the ‘Svadeshi’ movement was loud and clear. The response was immediate. As a close observer (Mr Axel Sahlin) later reported in a speech given in England:

From early morning till late at night, the Tata Offices in Bombay were besieged by an eager crowd of native investors. Old and young, rich and poor, men and women they came, offering their mites; and at the end of three weeks, the entire capital required for construction requirements … was secured, every penny contributed by some 8,000 native Indians.7

The construction of the project began in 1908 and the much-prized output started to roll out from December 1911.

Nationalism and Global Connections

This brief history is worth recollecting, not only to pay tribute to one of the leaders of the events described, but also because it illustrates how our sense of identity and social motivation can indeed play a major part in the determination of our behaviour, including economic behaviour. Evidence of such connections emerges from different sides, including the visionary determination of Jamsetji, Dorabji and others to pursue an industrial future for India, the spontaneous support provided by an inspired Indian public, the selective reticence of British investors and the varying attitudes of British Indian government. This is not the occasion to pursue these connections further, but they are strongly suggestive of a significant role of identities and values in economic behaviour, which deserves greater attention than it tends to receive in mainstream economic analysis.8

There are also general issues which are raised by this historical experience, and which have significant relevance to India’s relation with the world. It is, in particular, important to distinguish between the inclusionary role of identity and the exclusionary force of separatism. To want to do something in the interests of a country is not the same thing as wanting the country to be distanced from the rest of the world, or to be isolated from it. The sense of identity leaves the issue of appropriate actions and policies entirely open to scrutiny and choice. This applies to science and technology on the one hand and to economic, social and cultural relations on the other. India’s relations with the world may demand significant use of the Indian identity, but they also call for critical scrutiny of specific ends and particular ways and means through which those relations may be appropriately advanced. Since identity politics and communitarian reasoning often have the effect of nurturing and promoting separatism, the distinction is important to seize.

The industrial story with which I began also illustrates this clearly enough. Despite the long history of the iron industry in India (Lovat Fraser, the historian of that industry, describes the more than 2,000-year-old massive iron column, entirely free of rust and deterioration, situated on the open ground outside the Kutub Minar in Delhi as ‘a mystery greater than the building of the pyramids’9), the Tatas would have got nowhere in their attempt to build a modern iron and steel industry without the help of foreign expertise. They needed technical know-how from abroad, which they proceeded to obtain, well illustrated by the critical role of Charles Page Perin and the expertise he brought from Pittsburgh.10 In general, the pursuit of what is sometimes called ‘Western science and technology’ was central to India’s industrial and economic development. The priority the Tatas gave to modern scientific education is also well illustrated by their commitment to their educational and research agenda, such as the pioneering foundation of the Indian Institute of Science, which came into existence in 1911, and which in its turn encouraged the development of a number of other scientific institutes in the country.

A similar point can be made about the need to take note of possibly beneficial uses of interdependence in the field of trade and exchange. Considerations of identity may suggest that note be taken in economic decisions of a country’s broad interests (going beyond immediate business profits), but we still have to ask how these interests will be best served. Indeed, they may, often enough, be well served by greater economic engagement with the world, rather than by shunning global association. This is a matter for actual economic assessment – not to be determined through the adoption of one or other of the simple slogans (either worshipful of markets or dismissive of their role) that bedevil critical scrutiny of such issues as trade and globalization.

This decision may call for some clarificatory remarks. The development of new enterprises tends to involve displacing existing imports, since goods for domestic consumption obviously have to come from abroad when they are not yet produced at home. There is no mystery here. As a result, import substitution is typically the initial form of industrial expansion in an economically interconnected world; this is an important but thoroughly unsurprising fact. But it does not entail anything whatsoever about the relative desirability of import substitution or export promotion.11 The economic case for one or the other has to be worked out on the basis of economic returns both to the enterprises involved (including its employees as well as employers) and to the public at large. The experiences of many countries in the world, beginning with Japan but later on also other sizeable economies, such as South Korea and Taiwan, suggest that there is typically a strong case for moving rapidly from the import substitution phase to one of active export promotion, and that this strategy of development is perfectly consistent with the championing and promotion of a powerful national identity. Whether this would indeed be the right policy in a particular case is, of course, a matter for critical scrutiny and cannot be determined by simple formulas of one kind or another that are often championed – either favouring unrestrained trade in general or shunning it altogether.

Sharing of Global Opportunities

This gives me the occasion to move to the more general question of the pros and cons of globalization. Debates on the merits and penalties of globalization have been very active in recent years, not only within each nation (not least in India), but also in global protest movements, such as those in Seattle, Prague or Washington, DC, which drew protesters from every part of the world. In this sense, protests about globalization themselves constitute a globalized phenomenon, and should be seen as such. Globalized political resistance has tended to confront the established pattern of globalized economic relations.

I have tried to argue elsewhere that these protest movements have often been, in many ways, quite constructive, in forcefully drawing attention to problems of inequality in the world.* Indeed, the real debate on globalization is, ultimately, not about the efficiency of markets, nor about the importance of modern technology. The debate, rather, is about severe asymmetries of power, for which there is much less tolerance now than in the world that emerged at the end of the Second World War. There may or may not be significantly more economic inequality today, as is sometimes strongly asserted and equally staunchly denied (the evidence on this is conflicting, depending on the indicators we use), but what is absolutely clear is that people are far less willing to accept massive inequalities than they were in 1944 when the Bretton Woods agreement led to the establishment of the IMF, the World Bank and other institutions and paved the way for the present international architecture of finance and business. The global doubts partly reflect this new mood, and it is, to a great extent, the global equivalent of the within-nation protests about inequality with which we have been familiar for quite some time.

It is not at all hard to present arguments to reject many of the criticisms that have tended to figure on the posters and placards of the global protest movements. But there is a basic need to recognize that, despite the big contribution that a global economy can undoubtedly make to the prosperity of the world, we also have to confront the far-reaching manifestations of global inequality and injustice. There is, in fact, no real conflict between being determined to resist global inequality and injustice and at the same time understanding and facilitating the positive contributions of globalized economic, social and cultural relations across the world.

Indeed, resistance to global disparities calls for both global initiatives and for national and local ones. At the global level, there is need for a variety of policies. These issues were not seen clearly enough at the time of the Bretton Woods Agreement in the 1940s – when half the world was under colonial rule, when the claims of democracy and human rights were not yet widely recognized, when the massive prospects of global economic growth were not fully understood and when the tolerance of global disparities and divides was very much greater. Global initiatives are needed for a more responsive international architecture (including the strengthening of the financial viability and economic power of the United Nations), better formulation of patent laws (taking note of their actual effects on the use of technology as well as vitally important products, including medicine for severe ailments), more pressure on the richer countries to reduce trade restrictions (rather than demanding this only from the poorer and less well-placed countries), more effective institutional arrangements for defending human security and basic human rights across the world (not being content only with promoting international trade), and so on. There is need for quite a global agenda.

Domestic Policies for Global Strength

However, healthy global economic relations also call for appropriate domestic policies. For example, the feasibility of effective global participation is closely linked with the development of human resources and capabilities (for example, through educational expansion) and the development of infrastructure. Interestingly enough, the history of the Tatas has significant light to throw on the importance of both these. Indeed, Jamsetji’s attempt to develop large-scale iron and steel production was initially held up, as I mentioned earlier, precisely because of the barrier of underdeveloped transport facilities, which was a crucial infrastructural handicap. There is a clear analogy here with the restrictions imposed today by infrastructural underdevelopment in India, for example in public communication and electric power, well illustrated by the debilitating – and perhaps even maddening – role of power cuts and non-working telephones. Infrastructural problems are, in many fields, still as central to the contemporary Indian economy as they were to Jamsetji’s India a century ago.

The importance of education was one of the factors strongly identified by Jamsetji. This was, in fact, his reason for starting the Institute of Science. He saw the field of industrial competition being matched by one of educational competition. In praising the scholars associated with the Institute, Jamsetji could not help remarking, with some pride, that Indian students ‘can not only hold their own against the best rivals in Europe on the latter’s ground, but can beat them hollow’.12 This was a matter not only of national pride, but also of India’s ability to interact fruitfully and strongly in the international arena. The connection is still very important.

The central role of education also highlights the far-reaching effects of the remarkable contrast between India’s neglect of school education and the massive expansion of higher education that has already occurred and continues today. The Tatas were among the pioneers in developing higher and technical education in India – a priority that Nehru, too, adopted, especially in the programme of expanding such institutions as the Indian Institutes of Technology, which were launched at his initiative and which have been critically important for the recent flowering of information technology and related developments in India. This, along with the good work of Institutes of Management, has brought many dividends and has certainly been instrumental in opening up possibilities in a powerful way to many well-placed Indians. They have done remarkably well in India and many of them abroad as well. When I went to give some lectures at Stanford University in California in January 2001, I was asked to address a group of about 800 so-called ‘Silicon Indians’ (in an impressive meeting arranged by The Indus Entrepreneurs: TIE), and it was quite evident that one part of the Indian community has been able to seize the opportunities offered in a very different culture and society from the one in which they were reared. Even within India, the size and speed of expansion of technology products (including computer software) have been quite extraordinary.

Yet the underdevelopment of Indian school systems, especially in socially backward regions of the country and particularly among disadvantaged groups, has been equally extraordinary. This is both deeply inefficient and amazingly unjust. The smart boy or clever girl who is deprived of the opportunity of schooling, or who goes to a school with dismal facilities (not to mention the high incidence of absentee teachers), not only loses the opportunities he or she could have had, but also adds to the massive waste of talent that is a characteristic of the life of our country. If we have not yet been able to seize the economic opportunities for the manufacture of simple products in a way that has happened in Japan, Korea, China and other countries in east Asia, not to mention the West, India’s remarkable neglect of basic education has a decisive role in this handicap.*

Global economic relations have many different aspects and call for different types of policy initiatives, but many of the problems and difficulties associated with a more competitive global economy turn, to a substantial extent, on the limitations of our own domestic public policy, such as basic education, health care, micro-credit, or infrastructural planning. India’s placing in the world is determined just as much within India as abroad.

Global Relations and History

I want to turn now to some foundational issues about the role of global interconnections and human progress. Globalization is a complex phenomenon. Some of the fears expressed about globalization make it sound like an animal – analogous to the big shark inJaws – that gobbles up unsuspecting innocents in a dark and mysterious way. We must have a good look at this alleged beast, rather than just learn to shun it.

What exactly is globalization? A diverse basket of global interactions are put under this broad heading, varying from the expansion of cultural influences across borders to the enlargement of economic and business relations throughout the world. It is often argued that globalization is a new folly. Is that a plausible diagnosis? I would argue that globalization, in its basic form, is neither particularly new, nor, in general, a folly. It is through global movements of ideas, people, goods and technology that different regions of the world have tended, in general, to benefit from progress and development occurring in other regions. The direction of interregional movements of ideas has varied over history, and these directional variations are important to recognize, since the global movement of ideas is sometimes seen just as ideological imperialism of the West – as a one-sided movement that simply reflects an asymmetry of power which needs to be resisted.

It may, in fact, be instructive to contemplate the nature of the world not at the end of the millennium that we have just ushered out, but at the end of the previous millennium. Around 1000 CE, globalization of science, technology and mathematics was changing the nature of the old world, even though, as it happens, the principal currents of dissemination then were typically in the opposite direction to what we see today.

For example, the high technology in the world of 1000 included paper and printing, the crossbow and gunpowder, the wheelbarrow and the rotary fan, the clock and the iron chain suspension bridge, the kite and the magnetic compass. Every one of these ‘high-tech’ fields of knowledge in the world a millennium ago was well established in China, and at the same time was practically unknown elsewhere. It was globalization that spread them across the world, including Europe.

We can similarly consider the impact of Eastern influence on Western mathematics. The decimal system emerged and became well developed in India between the second and the sixth centuries, and was also used extensively soon thereafter by Arab mathematicians. These procedures reached Europe mainly in the last quarter of the tenth century, and their momentous effects were felt in the early years of the last millennium. Globalization in mathematics as well as in science and engineering played a major part in the revolution of thought and social organization that helped to transform Europe into its modern shape. Europe would have been much poorer had it resisted the globalization of mathematics, science and technology at that time, and to a great extent the same – working in the converse direction – is true today. To identify the phenomenon of the global spread of ideas with an ideological imperialism would be a serious error, somewhat similar to the way any European resistance to Eastern influence would have been at the beginning of the last millennium.

India has been, like many other countries, both an exporter and importer of ideas in our world of continuing global interactions. An inadequate recognition of this two-way process sometimes leads to rather redundant controversies and conflicts. Much, for example, has been written recently about where the concept of zero, which is quite central for mathematics, developed. The claim, often made earlier, that this was an Indian contribution to the world has been strongly challenged in a number of recent publications, giving Babylon priority.* There is, in fact, considerable evidence that the concept of zero, as an idea, emerged in different cultures which may or may not have been linked. But there is evidence also for the belief that the particular symbol for zero that was adopted across the world, including in India, very likely came from Babylon via the Greeks to India, even though the Indian idea of zero in the form of śūnya (or emptiness) predates that arrival. It is, however, also clear that the combination of zero with a decimal place system was a particularly fruitful consolidation, and it is in exploring the nature and implications of this integration – critically important for the use of a decimal system – that Indian mathematicians seemed to have had quite a decisive role in the early and middle parts of the first millennium. We can consider many other such examples of combining give and take, enriching the process of global intellectual interaction.*

Globalization is neither new, nor in general a folly. Through persistent movements of goods, people, techniques and ideas, it has shaped the history of the world. India has been an integral part of the world in the most interactive sense. The forces of ideological separatism may be strong in India at present, as they are elsewhere, but they militate not just against the global history of the world, but also against India’s own heritage.

That acknowledgement does not, of course, undermine the overwhelming need to pay particular attention to the predicament of the vulnerable and the disadvantaged, and this is indeed an important consideration in the determination of good economic policies for the contemporary world. Global economic interactions bring general benefits, but they can also create problems for many, because of inadequacies of global arrangements as well as limitations of appropriate domestic policies. It is important that these issues receive attention. But at the same time we have to be careful that we do not shut ourselves out of the global interactions that have enriched the world over millennia.

Pluralism and Receptivity

The nature of Indian identity raises issues both of external and internal relations. I have so far concentrated on the need to resist external isolation. It is, however, the pull towards internal separation of communities that has presented the strongest challenge in recent years to the integrity of the Indian identity. Political developments in India over the last decade or two have had the effect of forcefully challenging, in several different ways, the broad and absorbing idea of Indian identity that emerged in the days of the independence movement and that helped to define the concept of the Indian nation. If we believe that there is something of value in this inheritance, we need to understand precisely why it is valuable, and also to examine how that recognition can be adequately articulated.

It would be hard to claim that there is some exact, homogeneous concept of Indian identity that emerged during the independence movement as a kind of national consensus, or that there were no differences between the way Indianness was seen by, say, Mahatma Gandhi or Rabindranath Tagore (to consider two leading and somewhat dissimilar voices that helped to teach us what we are). The general idea of a spacious and assimilative Indian identity, which Gandhi and Tagore shared, was interpreted with somewhat different emphases by the two, and there were other differences in the characterization of Indian identity by other theorists and intellectual leaders of the independence movement.

These distinctions were – and remain – important in many contexts, for example in interpreting the respective roles of science, ethics and analytical reasoning in India’s past and in its future.* But these varying interpretations all share an inclusionary reading of Indian identity that tolerates, protects and indeed celebrates diversity within a pluralist India. They also reflect an understanding of India’s past as a joint construction in which members of different communities were involved. Tagore and Gandhi differed substantially, both in their respective cultural predispositions and in their religious beliefs and personal practice. But in interpreting India and the Indian identity, they shared a general refusal to privilege any one narrowly circumscribed perspective (such as an exclusively religious approach, or, more specifically, a Hindu view).

It is the combination of internal pluralism and external receptivity that has been most challenged in recent decades by separatist viewpoints, varying from communitarian exclusion and aggressive parochialism on the one side to cultural alienation and isolationist nationalism on the other. These challenges and their practical manifestations give some urgency to subjecting the idea of Indian identity to critical scrutiny and assessment.

Identities and Decisions

It is useful to recollect Rabindranath Tagore’s remarkable claim, made in a letter to C. F. Andrews in 1921, that the ‘idea of India’ itself militates ‘against the intense consciousness of the separateness of one’s own people from others’ (a visionary statement that was also quoted earlier in this collection of essays).13 Note that there are two distinct implications of this claim. First, internally, it argues against an idea of India as a mixture of separated and alienated cultures and communities, sharply distinguished according to religion, or caste, or class, or gender, or language, or location. Second, externally (that is, in relation to the world), Tagore’s claim argues against an intense sense of the dissociation of Indians from other people elsewhere. It also rejects, as we know from Tagore’s other writings too, the temptation to see Indian culture as frail and fragile, something that will break if touched by other cultures and which has to be protected through isolation from outside influences.

Tagore’s claim involves, therefore, an integrative message – internally as well as externally – and it proposes an inclusionary form for the idea of Indian identity. It is this integrative notion that has recently been challenged, and both its internal and external claims have been chastised. Challenges have come, on the one side, from separatism within India (particularly with the privileging of one community over others and one cultural tradition over others), and on the other side, from separatism vis-à-vis the world (with the rejection of our constructive connections with others on the globe). In assessing these attacks we have to look carefully at the notion of identity in general.

Indeed, it is very important to be clear about the demands of what can be called the discipline of identity.* In particular, we have to resist two unfounded but often implicitly invoked assumptions: (1) the presumption that we must have a single – or at least a principal and dominant – identity; and (2) the supposition that we ‘discover’ our identity, with no room for any choice.

To take up the former question first, even though exclusivity of identity is often presumed (typically implicitly), this claim is in fact preposterous. Each of us invokes identities of various kinds in disparate contexts. The same person can be of Indian origin, a Parsee, a French citizen, a US resident, a woman, a poet, a vegetarian, an anthropologist, a university professor, a Christian, a bird watcher, and an avid believer in extraterrestrial life and of the propensity of alien creatures to ride around the cosmos in multicoloured UFOs. Each of these collectivities, to all of which this person belongs, gives him or her a particular identity. They can all have relevance, depending on the context. There is no conflict here, even though the priorities over these identities must be relative to the issue at hand (for example, the vegetarian identity may be more important when going to a dinner rather than to a Consulate, whereas the French citizenship may be more telling when going to a Consulate rather than attending a dinner).

The second false move – or what I claim is a false move – is to assume that one’s identity is a matter of discovery rather than choice. This is asserted often enough, particularly in communitarian philosophy. As Professor Michael Sandel has explained this claim (among other communitarian claims): ‘community describes not just what they have as fellow citizens but also what they are, not a relationship they choose (as in a voluntary association) but an attachment they discover, not merely an attribute but a constituent of their identity.’14 In this view, identity comes before reasoning and choice.

But that claim is difficult to sustain, since we do have the opportunity to determine the relative weights we would like to attach to our different identities. For example, an Australian citizen of Indian origin would have to decide whether to root for Australia or for India in a test match between the two countries; he cannot, in any obvious sense, simply ‘discover’ the result of his own choice.

Perhaps the confusion in promoting the ‘discovery’ view arises from the fact that the choices we can make are constrained by feasibility, and sometimes the constraints are very exacting. The feasibilities will certainly depend on circumstances. For example, the constraints may be particularly strict when considering the extent to which we can persuade others to take us to be different from what they take us to be. A person of Jewish origin in Nazi Germany may not have been able to alter that identity as he or she wished. Nor could an African-American when faced with a lynch mob, or a low-caste agricultural labourer threatened by a gunman hired by upper-caste activists in, say, North Bihar. Our freedom in choosing our identity, in terms of the way others see us, can sometimes be extraordinarily limited.

Even in general, whether we are considering our identities as we ourselves see them, or as others see us, we choose within particular constraints. But this is not a surprising fact – it is in fact entirely unremarkable. Choices of all kinds are always made within particular constraints, and this is perhaps the most elementary aspect of any choice. For example, as any student of even elementary economics would know, the theory of consumer’s choice does not deny the existence of a budget, which of course is a constraint. The presence of budget constraint does not imply that there is no choice to be made, only that the choice has to be made within the budget. The point at issue is not whether any identity whatever can be chosen (that would be an absurd claim), but whether we have choices over alternative identities or combinations of identities, and perhaps more importantly, whether we have some freedom in deciding what priority to give to the various identities that we may simultaneously have. People’s choices may be constrained by the recognition that they are, say, Jewish or Muslim, but there is still a decision to be made by them regarding what importance they give to that particular identity over others that they may also have (related, for example, to their political beliefs, sense of nationality, humanitarian commitments or professional attachments).

Identity is thus a quintessentially plural concept, with varying relevance of different identities in distinct contexts. And, most importantly, we have choice over what significance to attach to our different identities. There is no escape from reasoning just because the notion of identity has been invoked. Choices over identities do involve constraints and connections, but the choices that exist and have to be made are real, not illusory. In particular, the choice of priorities between different identities, including what relative weights to attach to their respective demands, cannot be only a matter of discovery. They are inescapably decisional, and demand reason – not just recognition.

Religions, Heterodoxy and Reason

The issues of plurality and of choice are immensely relevant to the understanding and analysis of the idea of Indian identity. In arguing for an inclusionary form of the Indian identity, Tagore and Gandhi did not deny the presence and contingent importance of other identities. Rather, in terms of political coherence, social living and cultural interactions, both emphasized the fact that the Indian identity could not favour any particular group over others within India.

Tagore was different from Gandhi in having a less conventional view of his Hindu identity, and indeed in The Religion of Man pointed to the fact that his family was a product of ‘a confluence of three cultures, Hindu, Mohammedan and British’.15 Gandhiji’s Hindu identity was more assertive, and he held regular prayer meetings, in a largely Hindu form (even though other religions were also invoked). But Gandhi was just as opposed as Tagore to letting his Hindu identity overwhelm his overarching commitment to an Indian identity in political and social matters. Indeed, Gandhiji gave his life in the cause of secularism and fairness, at the hands of someone with a simpler view of the congruence of Indian and Hindu identities.

Those who argue that the Indian identity has to be in some way derived from a Hindu identity point out not only that the Hindus constitute a large majority of people in India, but also that, historically, Hinduism has been the mainstay of the Indian civilization. These descriptions can, to a considerable extent, be taken to be true. But they do not in any way indicate that the Indian identity has to be basically derivative from the Hindu identity, or that the Indian identity must privilege the Hindu identity over others.*

Perhaps I should comment briefly on the role of three distinct issues that are involved in the approach I am trying to defend. First, identity is not a matter of discovery – of history any more than of the present – and has to be chosen with reasoning. Even if it were the case (as it certainly is not) that Indian history were largely Hindu history, we would still have to determine how a pluralist and multi-religious population can share an Indian identity without sharing the same religion. This, of course, is the basis of secularism in India, and our reasoning about priorities in dealing with competing conceptions of Indian identity need not be parasitic on history. The makers of the Indian constitution recognized that fully, as did the United States in adopting a largely secular constitution for a mostly Christian population. The need to reason and choose cannot be given over to the mere observation of history, and this point relates to the more general claim, which I have defended elsewhere, that while we cannot live without history, we need not livewithinit either.

The second point is more historical. As was discussed in Essays 1–4, India has been a multi-religious country for a very long time, with Jews, Christians, Parsees and Muslim traders arriving and settling in India over the first millennium. Sikhism was born in India, in the same way that Buddhism and Jainism originated in the country. Even pre-Muslim India was not, as is sometimes claimed, mainly a Hindu country, since Buddhism was the dominant religion in India for many hundreds of years and Jainism has had an equally long history and in fact a large continuing presence today. Since there is so much politically generated antagonism these days against Hindus converting to any other religion, it is perhaps worth remembering that Ashoka (arguably the greatest emperor of India) did convert to Buddhism from what would have been the then form of Hinduism and sent emissaries propagating Buddhism to many other countries.*

Indeed, even in terms of Vedic and Upaniṣadic contributions, Buddhism and Jainism are as much the inheritors of that tradition as are later forms of Hinduism. The one university for which India was outstandingly famous, namely Nālandā, which attracted scholars from China and elsewhere, and which came to an end after many hundred years of existence just around the time when the universities of Oxford and Cambridge were being founded (in the thirteenth century), happened to be a Buddhist university.

I come now to the third reason against making the Indian identity dependent on the Hindu identity. Hindus are defined in two quite distinct ways. When the number of Hindus is counted, and it is established that the vast majority of Indians are in fact Hindu, this is not a counting of religious beliefs, but essentially of ethnic background. But when generalizations are made about, say, the divinity of Rama, or the sacred status of the Rāmāyaṇa, beliefs are invoked. By using the two approaches together, a numerical picture is constructed in which it is supposed that a vast majority of Indians believe in the divinity of Rama and the sacred status of the Rāmāyaṇa. For a large proportion of the Hindus, however, that attribution would be a mistake, since hundreds of millions of people who are defined as Hindu in the first sense do not actually share the beliefs which would be central to the second approach.

Indeed, by making this attribution, the champions of Hindu politics undermine the rich tradition of heterodoxy that has been so central to the history of the Hindu culture. As was discussed earlier, Sanskrit (including its variants, Pāli and Prākrit) has a larger literature in the atheistic and agnostic tradition than exists in any other classical language (Greek, Roman, Hebrew or Arabic). In the fourteenth century, Mādhava Ācārya’s remarkable book called Sarvadarśanasaṃgraha (‘The Collection of All Philosophies’), which has one chapter each on the major schools of Hindu belief, devoted the entire first chapter to arguments in favour of the atheistic position. The history of that tradition goes back at least two millennia and a half, to the sixth century BCE, when the Lokāyata and Cārvāka schools had their origin, in a climate of heterodoxy in which Buddhism and Jainism were also born.*

Something similar can be said about alleged cultural attitudes of the Hindus. I do not doubt that some Hindus do indeed find, as reported recently in the newspapers, that even Valentine’s Day cards are offensive as being allegedly sexually explicit – a point made with much force by some politically activist Hindus. But Hindus vary in their attitude to issues of this kind, as the sculptors of the temples in Khajuraho could readily explain. I take the liberty of speculating that the greatest Sanskrit poet, Kālidāsa, with his eloquence on the beauty of female forms bathing in the river Śipra in his native Ujjayinī, would have found Valentine’s Day cards to be deeply disappointing. The term Hindu can be sensibly used in either of two alternative forms, reflecting respectively membership of a community, or the holding of particular religious views and cultural attitudes, but the numerical force of the Hindus that is marshalled in favour of censorial uses is obtained through a conceptual confounding of two distinct notions.

A Concluding Remark

I want to make one last point on a different issue related to the role of religion and community in general (not Hinduism in particular) as a route to the Indian identity. Should the Indian identity be seen as something of a ‘federal’ concept that draws on the different religious communities, perhaps even including non-religious beliefs within the list of the constituents of a ‘federation of cultures’? A question of a very similar type was raised in Britain in an important document produced by the Runnymede Trust, called the Report of the Commission on the Future of Multi-ethnic Britain. The report gives partial and qualified backing to a federal view of contemporary Britain, as ‘a looser federation of cultures held together by common bonds of interest and affection and a collective sense of being’.16

This is a well-articulated position, and the Commission provides plausible arguments for it (without ruling out other interpretations). I would, nevertheless, argue that such a ‘federal’ view would be a great mistake for Britain as well as for India. The issue relates directly to the plurality of identities I have already discussed, and to the scope for choice in the determination of identity. People’s relation to Britain, or to India, need not be mediated through the ‘culture’ of the family in which they may have been born, nor through its religion. People may choose to seek identity with more than one of these predefined cultures, or, just as plausibly, with none. People are also free to decide that their cultural or religious identity is less important to them than, say, their political convictions, or their literary persuasions, or their professional commitments. It is a choice for them to make, no matter how they are placed in the ‘federation of cultures’.

To conclude, the inclusionary view of Indian identity, which we have inherited and which I have tried to defend, is not only not parasitic on, or partial to, a Hindu identity, it can hardly be a federation of the different religious communities in India: Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian, Jain, Parsee and others. Indian identity need not be mediated through other group identities in a federal way. Indeed, India is not, in this view, sensibly seen even as a federal combination of different communities.

I quoted earlier a statement of Jamsetji Tata of an affirmatively nationalist kind, when – commenting on the excellence that young Indians can achieve through education – he said that Indian students ‘can not only hold their own against the best rivals in Europe on the latter’s ground, but can beat them hollow’. That expression of pride – even perhaps of arrogance – is not the pride of a Parsee who happened to be an Indian, but of an Indian who happened to be a Parsee. There is a distinction here, and it is, I would argue, both important and in need of some understanding right now.

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