Is `Project Indian' floundering?

Just as India was often described as a Nation in the Making, the Indian persona has also been in the process of evolution. In many senses, prior to Independence there was no such definable identity as the "Indian". The British regarded inhabitants of the geographical entity called India as a motley agglomeration of diverse races, castes and linguistic groups. The colonial administration, predictably, made no effort to develop or nurture an Indian personality, preferring to tailor its responses according to broad generalisations like the "troublesome" Bengali babu, the "indolent" Assamese, the "martial" Sikhs, the "turbulent" Ahirs or the "bigoted" Julahas.

The forging of a nation out of such diversities was, indeed, a highly challenging project and one that was not consciously attempted by the country's political leadership of the time. There was something rather vague and abstract about being an Indian. Early British colonists, in fact, never referred to the term at all, choosing to describe the people of India under the umbrella category of "Hindoos" for that "way of life" was probably the only common thread that bound the majority of the people of this land in a loose association. It was only in the course of the late 19th Century that thinkers, writers and politicians started to conceptualise an Indian identity, but it was still rather romantic and nebulous, lacking definable characteristics.

It's only with the adoption of the Constitution in 1950 that certain defining parameters of the modern Indian identity were laid down. It can, therefore, be said that just as Project India - the forging of a nation-state - began on August 15, 1947, Project Indian - creation of the Indian Person - commenced only on January 26, 1950. Obviously this was going to be the more challenging of the two tasks. It's possible to craft a nation through humanly constructed instruments such as the economy, armed forces, judiciary, and the executive; it is much more difficult to transform mindsets. It was not possible to pass a decree ordering every resident of Bharat to start thinking like a Bharatiya one fine morning.

Nehru sought to address the problem by trying to ignore it. He opposed linguistic reorganisation of States with vigour, but eventually failed. He similarly tried to make Hindi the official language of India but met fierce resistance from the South compelling him to pull back and opt for the three-language formula. But he successfully combated the divisive influence of caste by getting Parliament to reject the recommendations of the Kalelkar Commission on job quotas. In fairness to Indira Gandhi it must be said she, too, stood firm. Among her first acts upon regaining power in 1980 was to abort a parliamentary discussion on the report of the Mandal Commission set up by her predecessor Charan Singh.

If we examine the balance sheet of Project Indian over the last 50 years, it is clear that the conflicting trends of unification and fragmentation have impacted it almost equally. The mission at hand was to create an Indian persona defined by the parameters of a Republican Constitution which assures equality to all citizens. It follows, therefore, that no job, high or low can be circumscribed by qualifications pertaining to individual characteristics such as caste or ethnicity. In practice, however, that has not happened. And that in turn explains the periodic eruption of "sons-of-the-soil" agitations, whether in Mumbai in the 70s or Assam today. Once you breach the core of the republican schema, everything becomes fair game.

However, the unifying process has been quite strong too although the state has contributed little to it. Popular culture has been the adhesive that has promoted pan-Indianism much more than constitutional guarantees. The separatists in Assam know this and that explains why they targeted Hindi films even before they started attacking Hindi speakers. The same trend was witnessed in the Kashmir Valley in the late 80s where terrorists first attacked and closed down cinema halls ostensibly for promoting anti-Islamic culture but actually to thwart the integrating influence of Hindi cinema.

Project India cannot be successfully constructed on the basis of "jobs for the boys". It can be accomplished only on the twin pillars of the Republican Constitution and cultural nationalism. While the Constitution provides the structural and legal framework for the evolution of the Indian persona, the emotional component can be contributed only through a cultural feeling of oneness. That feeling is generated through national symbols such as the flag and song, but also through what Jawaharlal Nehru described as "that silken bond" with reference to the annual pilgrimage of people from the deep South to the Vishwanath Temple in Kashi (or the Kamakhya Temple near Guwahati for that matter). The "silken bond" has since been strengthened by the influence of popular culture that has sought to assimilate the best local traditions from every part of the country. While addressing the issue of Assamese sub-nationalism and other forms of regional parochialism this must not be lost sight of. What is happening in Assam today is the result of the weakening of a national resolve with regard to combating alien cultural influences.

By turning a blind eye to rampant illegal immigration from Bangladesh we have ourselves contributed to the erosion of Indian cultural identity. It must be remembered that Bangladeshis not only take away our jobs, they also work at India's cultural emaciation. It is the frustration at our leaders' inability to rid the North-East of the scourge of Bangladeshi illegals that has made some Assamese turn upon Biharis.

This trend could well turn out to be infectious if we do not act resolutely to prevent the shrinkage of the Indian persona. If Project Indian is to be carried forward successfully, it is necessary to combat fissiparous tendencies not only at the level of politics but also culture.

(Dr Chandan Mitra is the Editor in Chief of The Pioneer, New Delhi and was recently nominated to the Rajya Sabha. The article, published in the Sunday supplement,Agenda of the Pioneer on November 30, 2003 was accompanied by the article below)

Convoluted convenience

Udayan Namboodiri and Pranab Bora expose the motives behind the Laloo-Gogoi bhai-bhai drama

Last Sunday, as the nation's media concentrated on the CAT question paper leak and the fallout of the Judeo sting operation, a fraud of gargantuan proportions was played out in Guwahati. Assam's chief minister Tarun Gogoi and Bihar's political supremo, Laloo Prasad Yadav, forged an alliance of convenience which resulted in the blame for the pogroms against Assam's Bihari migrants (latest death toll 65) was apportioned out to a third party - the Central government.

The bloodletting first began in Bihar in the previous week, when innocent north-east bound passengers were dragged out of passing trains and murdered. In the backlash which followed, ethnic Biharis in Assam were victimised. By the time the Laloo brigade landed in Guwahati for a unique demonstration of Bihari-Assamese bhai-bhai, 65 innocent lives had been lost. The bulk of the pogroms were reported from Tinsukia (23 deaths) but massacres had occurred in Nalbari and Bongaigaon as well.

The two leaders publicly washed their hands off the entire responsibility. "The BJP government in Delhi is to blame. Had they sent enough police in time, these killings could have been prevented", said Laloo in callous disregard to the facts. Meanwhile, the CPI's national leader, D Raja, found an economic route to discovering the culprit in New Delhi. "The NDA government's economic policies had created unemployment in Assam which bred this violence," Raja told NDTV 24x7.

The "root cause" was more important than the "effect" this time. And to find that, the digging went deeper than the Bihar train massacre. Laloo needed something more convincing than a Godhra. His communist friends handed him a Molotov cocktail - unemployment. And for that the Centre is to blame.

If Gujarat 2002 was a tragedy, Assam 2003 was a farce. That time, Narendra Modi was pilloried by the nation's secular-leftist elite for his failure to curb the spiral of hatred which flowed from the Godhra carnage. But Gogoi, whose state has seen countless pogroms against non-Assamese settlers (Bengalis and Marwaris have been targeted before) did precious little to prevent a recurrence that everyone knew was inevitable.

Through the entire episode, the silence of Congress President Sonia Gandhi screamed. For the first 36 hours of the violence which ripped Assam, the party scarcely breathed a word to reproach Gogoi. When it was clear that this was no usual insurgency, the party began to focus on "Central assistance" to check the spread of the pogroms. The inept Gogoi reacted only in resonance to this Delhi-inspired line.

Small wonder, even Laloo could not initially conceal his shock at Gogoi's inefficient and parochial reflexes. His first statement issued from New Delhi unequivocally blamed the Gogoi regime for not taking timely and appropriate action to check the spread of violence in Assam. But things began to get out of hand from that point on. When fellow Bihar MP and long-time bete noirre, Papoo Yadav, staged a demonstration at Assam Bhawan in the capital to express his frustration at Gogoi's abject failure to protect the lives of innocent Biharis, the mind of Laloo, which often flows in cold and cruel directions, began to churn out a new line.

Laloo's 360-degree turn, as witnessed in Guwahati, had its origin in Bihar's realpolitik.

The RJD, he reckoned, cannot do without the Congress in Bihar. The unification of the Janata Dal and Samata Party had substantially queered Laloo's pitch. If the negative projection of Gogoi went too far, it could lead to an embarrassment for the secular alliance in Patna. This was no season for protecting the hurt Bihari sentiment which would naturally have flowed against the Congress. To prevent a repeat of the 1999 electoral washout, Laloo woke up to the efficacy of "unemployment" - ergo BJP - as the culprit.

Even as Gogoi fretted about the ULFA and Bangladeshis (the Assam chief minister had to address the feelings raked up by All Assam Students Union (AASU) and the deep-seated Assamese phobia towards outsiders), Laloo, was willing to put concerns over Bangladesh's role in the backburner. "The Centre has its detectives to find out if Bangladesh was involved. The BJP blames Pakistan and Bangladesh for all its lapses. Are their detectives sleeping now?" he told newsmen in a joint press conference with Gogoi on Monday.

To rub insult to injury, Laloo treated himself to AASU hospitality. A day after his arrival, the omniscient Bihar strongman assumed national pretensions. He assured an AASU delegation that he would take up "Assam's grievances" in Parliament. And, sure enough, he promised 100 per cent job reservations for locals. A leading Guwahati daily, Assam Tribune, appropriately headlined the report: "Laloo spells magic on AASU, to be in charge of Assam".

In short, the failed leader of Bihar's socially oppressed, was ready to take up the cause of Assamese sub-nationalism. On home turf, Laloo raj had failed to maintain any semblance of law and order. A Naga girl was raped days earlier in full public view at the Jamalpur station while the police played ducks and drakes. What the Rabri government did later was immaterial so far as the reaction in Assam was concerned.

As for the Assam government, it is caught in a web of its own making. How would one perhaps view the claim of the director general of police of Assam, PV Sumant, on November 28, that the violence in the state had abated after the government arrested the extremists? That in a state that has for years now been under the Unified Command, headed by the army and backed by the state police and central security forces, where laws such as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act 1958 (AFSPA) and the Assam Disturbed Areas Act 1955 (AADA) have been in place since the launch of Operation Bajrang in the 1990s, laws that empower even a humble police constable to shoot to kill if on mere suspicion that a person is holding a possible weapon. He can search without warrants, and destroy with abandon any property that he may perceive as useful to the undergound.

Sumant's statement, at the very minimum, proves that somewhere a tacit understanding prevails between the Congress government in the state and the ULFA. An unholy compact under both sides avoid stepping on each other's turf. Another name for this is a nexus. The Prafulla Mahantas and Bhrigu Phukans may have discovered this now. How else would Tarun Gogoi's government explain the arrest of 500 people in the two weeks of riots? How could 500 "extremists(?)" have been walking the streets of Assam when the government had so much at its disposal?

It is perhaps not without reason that the Gogoi government arrested a BJP office bearer and the son of the Tinsukia BJP president, blaming them for the unpalatable scene where the chief minister was heckled while visiting a relief camp in the district. That would have been the Congress' only option in Assam.

Anything else would include an explanation in terms of the 1.5 million illegal Bangladeshi migrants who are in the state today and how the Congress allowed in and nurtured the Bangladeshi in India, and the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act, 1983, of which it is the architect, and how all of this led to the Assam Agitation, the economic and cultural crisis of the region, and creation of the ULFA that it now conveniently blames for its failures. Asking the Congress and groups such as the RJD that break bread with it to keep politics at any level above that would perhaps be asking for too much.