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Defining Indianness

Contributor Sam Chacko Shares His Thoughts on Indian Identity

By Sam Chacko

Indianness

The diversity of India is expressed in this photo of Mumbai, India.

Getty Images
Updated May 15, 2014
It has always been a challenge to define what constitutes Indianness. How can one define Indianness, given the tremendous diversity of India, with its 1652 languages and dialects, its many religions, and still, the many thousands of castes and ethnic groups? It's seemingly impossible to construct a coherent Indian identity, as it requires including elements that are vastly contradictory (for example, the Aryan and Dravidian elements) and diverse.

Since India is comprised of many different, ethnic, religious, and linguistic groups, defining Indianness, along one particular ethnic, religious, or linguistic line can exclude millions of people who do not fit into that particular religious, ethnic, or linguistic group. But, some are attempting to define Indianness along one particular ethnic, religious, or linguistic line. For example, the declaring of Hindi as the national language in 1951 sparked violent riots in the state of Tamil Nadu, where the local language was Tamil and not Hindi. The government's attempt to unite India under a common language failed then, and it is continuing to fail, even as new proposals are put forth to force all Indians to learn Hindi.

Yet, defining Indianness has become more important than ever, as India experiences separatist movements all throughout territories. There are groups within India who increasingly feel like they do not belong in the Indian state (In the past, for example, Punjabis wanted a separate nation for themselves called Khalistan) and hence want to separate, and this tendency has been on the rise of late. Not only is it about defining Indianness, but about defining Indianness in a way that brings these vastly different together, and that's the challenging part. This paper explores the attempts of two groups to construct a pan-Indian identity. One group tries to define Indianness along religious lines, and the other group along linguistic lines. One group believes India needs to be united under a common language, the other believes it needs to be united under a common religion.

It was in the wake of the violent attacks against Christians in the Indian state of Orissa in 2008, the leader of a Hindu militant group called the RSS, said, "India belongs to the Hindus, it is Hindustan". He also mentioned, those who are not Hindus are foreign and will be dealt with appropriately. He and his national group, which has six million members according to official estimates, and still probably many more sympathizers, were trying to define Indianness along religious lines. By their standards, to be an Indian one must uniquely be Hindu. In other words, being an Indian and a Christian, or an Indian, and a Muslim is a contradiction to them. Their definition excludes 169 million Muslims, 24 million Christians, and still millions of Sikhs, Jains, and Buddhists who live in India.

The definition of the RSS however, does unite 80 percent of India's population, the Hindus. Constructing India's identity under Hinduism can appeal even to the Dravidian groups. This definition can bring together the Dravidians, and those who claim Aryan descendance under one group, Hinduism. Not only can it bring together the Aryan and Dravidian groups, but it can bring together all the other ethnic, caste, and language groups, all under Hinduism. But as mentioned it still excludes the more than 200 million, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains, and other religious groups. In effect, this definition still does not unite all of India, but does unite most of India.

There is yet another group who has undertaken the task of trying to unite India - they are referred to as the Hindi-Wallahs. This group espouses the view that in order to make India function as a coherent whole it needs a common language, namely Hindi. They believe every Indian must speak this language. Those in this group espouse the view that Hindi is a link language that unites Indians across all levels of diversity. The Hindi-Wallahs have been trying to enforce their objective from the time of India's independence, but were met with great resistance then, particularly by the Dravidian groups, and are still being met with resistance as the Hindi-Wallahs continue with their mission of imposing Hindi on all Indians.

The problem with declaring one language is that giving one language the special privilege of being declared the official language would no doubt be offensive to the speakers of those 21 other languages whose mother tongue is not Hindi. In India one can go from one state to another, and find every state has a different language. Thus giving Hindi the privilege of being declared the official language of India, caused much uproar then, and still does today as efforts have been revived to impose Hindi on all Indians.

The task of trying to construct a pan-Indian identity will always be undertaken by some group to bring these very diverse nation together, but it will always be a failed attempt, because deriving a coherent identity from such a diverse group is impossible. No matter how one tries to construct a pan-Indian identity, it will always result in the exclusion of one group or another. If you try to construct it along religious lines for example, as the Hindu militant groups did, you exclude millions of Muslims, Christians, and other religious groups. If you try to construct it along one particular language, then you exclude the millions of people who do not speak that language. If you try to construct it along the lines of race for example, as some politicians have tried in the state of Tamil Nadu, appealing to the Dravidian groups, you exclude the many other ethnic groups, but namely those who claim Aryan descendance. Hence it is impossible to create a pan-Indian identity, or to precisely define Indianness, all India could do is celebrate its diversity.

Sam Chacko is a graduate of Rutgers University in New Jersey; he earned his bachelor's degree in geography in 2009. He considers himself a critical human geographer, who is interested in exploring complex social phenomenon, using a post-structural approach.

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