The pursuit of ‘one’

A struggle for the people of any ‘nation’ is in imaging themselves as ‘one’, bringing together what is in actuality a collection of multiple complex identities into a single national narrative.

India is not just a geographically drawn land or a political construction; it is an idea within which we seek to define ourselves, feel secure, and acquire strength. This seeking is emotional; a deeply-felt extension of the self beyond oneself and of that ‘beyond’ within the self. The Indian Constitution attempts to assimilate our various threads but it is not quite ‘the document’ of this emotional singularity. This urge to live within a perceived similarity has existed from time immemorial, even before the nation-state was born.

Any emotional bond is a personal and social phenomenon. The home and the street are not separated by the front door; they are thoroughfares through which emotional experiences walk in and out leaving traces and shadows that we assimilate and translate into our lives. We cannot, therefore, see the internal and the external as two separate shells that connect only when we will them to do so.

This idea extends to collectivities and logically to nations as well. Beginning from the home to the country, we are groups and those in the group are regarded as insiders and those outside are guests, invited or uninvited. It is but natural that the larger or more influential the collectivity, the more its idea of ‘oneness’ permeates society.

I can hear the question in my mind: Is this not the way we remain together?

Followed by the counter-question: but have we been, and are we really ‘together’?

Within each of our groups, we are sub-groups and further little groups. We hop from the smaller to the larger depending on our threat perception from the ‘other’. In this game of hopscotch, we hope to live unscathed, but we are not. We oppress and differentiate by race, caste, religion and gender everyday yet delude ourselves into believing we possess a national identity. What keeps us ‘together’, unfortunately, is not a bond but the bounds of ‘insider-outsider rules’. Which is why we think ‘stronger the laws, the better for us as a society’.

Yet history constantly reminds us how wrong this is.

In my last column, I suggested that India has been governed by a Hindu narrative — ‘Hindu’ being that majoritarian socio-cultural-religious basket. This has been the insider’s identity, widening in concentric circles from the home to the borders of the country.

I want to face another — more vital — question: How do we become the important and elusive ‘one’ without emerging from our own window-less cloisters? Whether I like it or not, I am part of a group, but I do not want to see the ‘other’ as a competing group.

This is the question that both the ‘majority’ and the ‘minority’ need to address. Many would use the word ‘tolerance’ but I am uncomfortable with its unmistakably stuffy condescension, the sub-text of which is “I am superior but am decent enough to accept you”. We should not be looking at acceptance of another but at osmosis.

So, is a ‘we-are-one’ kind of nationalism the solution? From our own experience, we know that it has worked only at times of war, including the one for independence. Nationalism is only another, a much larger, closeted group with limited purpose.

We don’t need to search anywhere for answers; they lie in our past and present. The Bhakti and Sufi movements within the sub-continent were exquisite examples of bringing together perceived conflicting cultural identities. Free-flowing new dimensions were created that were alive, breathing, sharing and moving within the people’s minds, charging society within new, open-ended and unlimiting identities. We still witness such profound movements today in the narrow gullies of Delhi, the little towns in Kerala or fisherfolk hamlets in Tamil Nadu. Recently a friend from a fishing village said: “My mother, who is Hindu, finds peace only if she spends at least three hours in the Dargah and every Muslim fisherman prays to the goddess before venturing into the sea and the whole village worships Mary.” To him this was just how it has been and is. Wisdom is always simple. Every religious-cultural group has to live in the ‘simple’ present.

We cannot waste our time speaking of the exclusive practices of our culture. The truth is that every religious culture is flawed and is bound to be — after all we created them! This is not a call for dismantling cultures or an insidious argument for atheism. Both are counter-productive. We need a fresh philosophy beyond religious and cultural dogmas. This is a yearning for a beautiful new weave on our great looms, using the warp of respect and the weft of introspection.

Originally written for The Hindu

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