I am honoured to publish this guest blog post from my friend, philosopher and guide, Amir Ullah Khan, who is an eminent Indian economist and author of many books. He wrote this article as a companion piece to one of my earlier pieces, If I were an Indian Hindu:
I think it is the idea of India that has killed the spirit of India. Nationalism came to roost in the deadly nineties and submerged all those wonderfully diverse identities that constituted a loose country filled with several diversities. If I were an Indian Hindu, I wouldn’t think differently. Because the community I belong to is the middle aged urban India, with rural roots, someone who has played cricket when young and watches movies whenever possible. I am also a Muslim.
I have not met any Hindu Indian till date. My friends from Hyderabad were quite local in their language, tastes and mindsets. They spoke a delightfully cute mix of Telugu, English and Urdu that they still speak. They did not understand the ways of the North Indian outsider and they positively disliked Hindi as a language. The only Hindi element enjoyed by all were the angry young films that came from Bombay then and appealed to the sentiments of the left leaning youth studying Technology at Osmania University and having firm opinions on the pernicious US influence on Nicaragua and Libya. We all saw a number of communal riots starting 1979 and ending in 1989. The reason, we argued was a weak police force and a one upmanship within the dominant Congress party. The moment a one man dominated party called the Telugu Desam came, communal riots were history and the same police force was now impartial and equally insensitive to all.
Then I moved to Gujarat, now famous for its state sponsored murder of a couple of thousand Muslims during the one week of murder and mayhem in the year 2002. The Gujarat of the late eighties was quite the opposite. All my friends then were just emerging from adolescence and had recently found freedom through consuming alcohol. Gujarat denied them this liberty as it was, and continues to be, a prohibition state. Their liquor came usually from police stations where the constable made some money selling confiscated bottles at exactly double the Maximum Retail price printed (In India there is this strange regulation that makes manufacturers declare the maximum price on labels). If the police did not have stocks, the underworld did and was recommended by the local police station. The Gujarat underworld was kin to the more powerful ones in neighbouring Bombay and was usually Muslim, who did not drink themselves, but were always to be relied upon by the thirsty students of management in Gujarat then. There existed a healthy respect and brotherhood that defied any potential divide that would come up later.
My third set of friends was the civil servants that would soon run India’s bureaucracy. We were all training to be government servants in the early nineties. Most students there couldn’t care less, despite the fact that the Babri masjid had just been demolished. Almost everyone was worried about the state she would be allotted to and would do anything, including convenient marriages, to go to a good state. The Indian civil service remains delightfully provincial in this regard and bureaucracy that gets allotted to difficult provinces in India suffers all life. Almost everyone wanted to avoid Gujarat, Orissa, Kerala and the North East. In the search of a good posting and at the beginning of a career, no one really cared about being communal or nationalist.
Then I moved to Delhi and knew there was a change that was taking place quietly. We were all growing up. And I realized that I had changed. The transition from a simple small town life to a relatively well off big city existence now started alienating me from all my earlier fraternities. School friends had been forgotten, college mates were all in the US, the business school fraternity was really busy and the bureaucratic batch mates had spread far and wide. Suddenly there were no roots any more. Around me, in the nineties, the concept of India was gaining ground. What was a vague romantic notion was now becoming concretized. People were doing what they had never felt the need to before – defining their Indianness. In this quest, there was a serious problem – India was never a nation, so there were no parameters or benchmarks. Therefore some took the easy route of defining what was not Indian and then proving that that was not what they were. Hindi became important and by now the Bombay talkies had taken Hindi to all corners of the country and made almost all parts understand the language. Television and its opera helped do this at lesser cost.
Now a pan India Hindu identity was emerging and noticing the fault lines that were sometimes defined as Sikh, sometimes as Muslim and now Christian. History and historical mistakes were now being studied by ideology driven neo converts to the concept of India. Violence spread as the state watched in confusion. How could it strike at people who were proclaiming their love for the country? Is someone who claims to be protecting local interests, local culture and language a patriot or an irrational maniac? But all this is an aberration, and I continue to think so despite the sad news on communalisation that keeps coming in every now and then. I met most of my friends this year again in various twenty year, fifteen year and ten year re unions. They were all the same. Nothing had changed. We laughed and ate, shared anecdotes and pulled each other’s legs. The India as I remember it from the last century lives on.
The author is an economist and the director of India Development Foundation, Gurgaon, India.