Is everyone Indian (or Pakistani, for that matter)? Garga Chatterjee on the idea of equal citizenship in South Asia and the real codes that lie behind our patriotic parades, in Fridaytimes
Women construct a fence on the India-Pakistan border in Suchetgarh
August is the month of state-funded high patriotism in the subcontinent. In my childhood, “patriotic” films would be shown on the state television channel. This “patriotic” genre has continued and still produces many films. Recently, Bedobroto Pain has made a film on the valiant rebellion in Chittagong that was led in 1930 by ‘Masterda’ Shurjo Sen. The film is simply called ‘Chittagong’. A few years ago, there was another film on the same topic called ‘Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey‘. The language in both films is Hindustani, excepting the utterances of some Firangi characters. And this set me thinking, even though August is not be the best month to think about such things…
Chittagong now falls under the jurisdiction of the Republic of Bangladesh and before that was under the jurisdiction of the government of pre-71 Pakistan. The Indian Union has never had jurisdiction over an inch of the soil on which large parts of the 1930 story is set. But, for a certain kind of audience that Bollywood caters to, this location and its people can be mangled partially to make it palatable and understandable to a Hindustani audience. The audience can also conceive, with some stretch of its imagination, of some place called ‘Chittagong’ where people speak Hindustani as they fight the British. Of course, Shurjo Sen and his compatriots largely spoke Bengali and Chittagonian, but that is immaterial. What is important is that Shurjo Sen and Chittagong can now be packaged, with some cinematographic flourishes, for a Hindustani audience.
Not all things, however, are easily packaged. For example, to make a similar film in Hindustani about the life of Chawngbawia, a legendary hero of the Mizo people, or a romantic drama set in a Naga village with Naga characters, will be dismissed as absurd. From a linguistic point of view, Shurjo Sen talking to his comrades in Bollywood Hindustani is also absurd – but it can pass off, give or take a little awkwardness. The Naga or the Mizo does not. So there is a geography that the Hindustani audience and Bollywood has in mind, of what is theirs, what is partly like theirs and what is very unlike theirs. Of course it does not say that aloud – but the Hindustani audience’s conceptions need to be taken seriously. Bollywood apparently has its finger on the pulse of the Indian nation. In a significant sense, its target audience constitutes the nation. And Bollywood certainly doesn’t target everyone living under the jurisdiction of the Indian Union.
An enduring myth the nation-state serves the people within its borders is that of equal citizenship. The Union of India does it with some pomp and pride. The Islamic Republic of Pakistan does it after ceding some space to a particular creed. It is this idea of equal citizenship, of the poor and rich, of the tall and the short, of the one-legged and the one-eyed, of the prince and the pimp, that the nation-states is peddling when it claims that ‘We are all Indians’ or ‘We are all Pakistanis’. Equal citizenship is the foundational myth on which the castle of uniform nationality rests. And every copy of the constitution will tell you about equal citizenship. This formally flat legal terrain, like a blanket that covers all beings uniformly, with the edges forming the frontiers, is crucial. Those under the blanket need to be calm and believe in this uniformity.
Since we cannot snatch away the blanket, we have to resort to thought experiments to ascertain what phrases like ‘citizen of Indian Union’ or ‘citizen of Pakistan’ hide. I invite my readers to play a game. Let us start with the ‘citizen of India’. Rather than asking ‘Who is Indian’, we shall ask, ‘How likely is a citizen of the Indian Union to be anti-India or secessionist?’. Let me now throw out some candidates – a Mizo from Aizawl, a Hindu Rajput from Jaipur, someone from Himachal Pradesh, a Meitei from Imphal, a Bihari Brahmin from Patna, a Vanniyar Tamil from Chennai, a Hindu baniya from Baroda, a Brahmin from Kanauj, Uttar Pradesh. These should suffice. They are compounds of caste, creed and ethnicity. They refer to huge groups of people, not to any particular individual. Now rearrange this list from most likely to least likely to be anti-India or secessionist. I do not need your answer. But think about it. Ask the question ‘How likely is a citizen of the Indian Union to be anti-India or secessionist?’ to each of these descriptors. The scale generated by your answers, from the absurd to the probable, measures how much we still contest the idea of equal citizenship, even after 65 years of constant preaching. This really is an exercise in inversing the idea of citizenship to lay bare what lies beneath the velvet blanket of the nation-state. But more importantly, that this exercise can be done at all, tells us that some kinds of citizens of the Indian Union are deemed more or less ‘Indian’ than others, even as faceless groups. Even as faceless groups, some “types” of citizens have nothing to prove about their ‘Indian-ness’ and are beyond suspicion just by the accident of their birth. Others have to ‘prove’ it and are not above suspicion irrespective of life trajectories. This is what such a group ranking tells us. There are tacit grades of citizenship, tacit grades of loyalty, tacit grades of ‘Indian-ness’; the constitution reflects none of this.
The Islamic Republic of Pakistan can also be involved in a game of being ‘Pakistani’ by asking ‘How likely is a citizen of Pakistan to be anti-Pakistan or secessionist?’ Here are my candidates: a Baloch from Dera Bugti, a Sindhi from Ratodero, a Seraiki from Dera Ghazi Khan, a Muslim Jat from Lahore, a 3rd generation Dakkani mohajir from Karachi, a Hindu from Tharparkar. Again, the specific order does not matter, but the broad agreement in the order gives away who constitutes the deep state, the core state, the first people, the troublesome people and the unwanted people.
Standing under the mehr-e-nimroz are the chosen people. The others jostle for space – in the umbra, penumbra and the antumbra – in the Indian Union, in Pakistan, in every unitary nation-state that cannot come to terms with the fact that peoples pre-date nation-states and will outdate them too. To keep up the pretense of uniform citizenship, nations use diverse mascots – as prime ministers, chief justices and what not. The question really is not who they are but are they legitimate representatives of diverse peoples? The mascots are hardly so and that gives away the game – and though they are held aloft during the game, they are not really players. If one listens to the real players on the field, the code in which they talk to each other, codes that are not to be found in the formal rulebook, then the unitary nature of the ‘team’ cracks. In spite of their irrelevance, the mascots are well-chosen. In an interview aired by the British Broadcasting Corporation in 1996, journalist Andrew Marr asked Noam Chomsky during an exchange on Chomsky’s views on media distortion of truth, how could Chomsky know for sure that he, a journalist, was self-censoring. Chomsky replied, “I don’t say you’re self-censoring – I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying; but what I’m saying is, if you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.” And that is true for our “national” mascots in South Asia – they may come in different colours, shapes, sizes, tongues and faiths, but unless they shared and deferred to the implicit pecking order of the deep-state, they would not be sitting where they are sitting. Caged birds are no less colourful. For they can be Bengali, or Tamil, but when in the Highest office, they have to wear that unmistakable achkan.
Surrounded by the ardali whose get-up is alien to Tamil Nadu and Bengal, it gives a hint of that code of propriety in the sanctum sanctorum, a code that is unmistakably Ganga-Jamni. But the Jamuna covers only a small part of the Union of India. And for Pakistan, the presidential high-couture has to be imported. The Republic of Hindi and the Republic of Urdu together rule the subcontinent. The late George Gilbert Swell in a sterling speech in the parliament of the Indian Union talked about his people, who were not part of any Hindu-Muslim bind but for whom beef was a food as good as any other. He talked about the cow-belt and the non-cow belt. He was saying this in a House that is run by a constitution that encourages the state to take necessary steps to single out cows for protection. Whose principles are these? Clearly not Swell’s or his people’s. All the eloquence about ‘unity in diversity’ notwithstanding, some of the diverse are necessarily silenced, and the list of the silenced is predictable. It is predictable due to the public knowledge of the ‘archetypal’ Indian, the same knowledge that helps one play the rank order game I introduced. This is why somebody’s local ideology has to be repackaged under the garb of some supposedly universal principle, so that the tacit definition of the archetype remains tacit. This tacit ‘Indian’ is at the heart of the nation-building project, the archetype to which all types must dissolve. One must never spell out the archetype – that is too discourteous and direct. The ‘traitor’ or the ‘potentially treacherous’ is also the ‘exotic’ and easily ‘the feminine sexual’ in the imagination of the core nation. For the core nation, except itself, everyone else has a box – Tamils wear dhotis, Malayalis wear lungis, Bengalis eat fish. The core nation does not have caricatures – it is the default. It is what male athletes wear on their head in the Olympic march-past.
The scale of absurdity that I floated earlier also leads us to foundational myths around which nation-states are formed. They go Bin Qasim-Khilji-Mughal-darkness-Muslim League-14th August or Vedas-Ashoka-Akbar-darkness-Congress-15th August. The gulf between arbitrariness and ‘historical inevitability’ is filled with sarkari textbooks and besarkari subtexts. Why is such concoction necessary? For whom? Who does it serve? The archives have keys for open doors, not for trapdoors. The peoples of the subcontinent have to find their own destinies, by freeing themselves of ‘national’ myths. They need to think about the unsettling possibilities of truth if it had a megaphone as loud and powerful as power.
Somewhere in this scale of Indian-ness or Pakistani-ness, is the sarkari potential of making tighter nations, and the bleak hope that some foster of unmaking them as they are. Intimately connected to this conception of the ‘Indian’ (or not) is the ‘idea of India’. Depending on who you are in the scale of imaginary troublesomeness, it can be a bloody idea or a bloody good idea.
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