Identity of the ‘Ordinary Indian’

Who is that silent yet preponderant Indian? Does he have no social character and ideological moorings?

Chetan BhagatImage: Twitter

I have just watched one of Karan Thapar’s most fascinating interviews, the one with Chetan Bhagat, a popular author and iconic figure for a broad cross-section of our young upcoming urban youths. Thapar was at his best as a keen observer of behaviour and acute interlocutor. With impeccable courtesy and unflagging perseverance he drew Bhagat out from the usual comfort zone most of us live in, and made him face hidden contradictions in his position he would not have otherwise admitted even to himself. He quoted profusely from Bhagat’s own column for a period of more than the past six months and there was no way for him to wriggle out. It was both, searching and fair.

One of Bhagat’s cherished notions is that of the ordinary Indian whom the ‘left-wing’ and the ‘liberals’ supposedly ignore and despise. Though from time to time he tries to distance himself as an enlightened observer from that silent majority, when it comes to the crutch he realises and admits he broadly shares their attitudes and views.

A typical view nurtured in the twilight of consciousness is a lurking suspicion of and uneasiness with Indian Muslims. Though Bhagat at first was reluctant, he was in the end forced to concede that he too had issues with them. And he claims that the left-liberal caucus were simply blind to that stark reality. An honest admission. But is that as solid and immutable as he thinks?

Who is that silent yet preponderant Indian? Does he have no social character and ideological moorings? I do not propose to do here a critique of Chetan Bhagat as I am not familiar with his work. It will not be fair. By the ordinary Indian he means largely Hindus. And he may well be right in thinking that most educated Hindus hold that view. But that is not the end of the story. It is neither a natural nor a rational view, and the question is how that view appears natural to those who hold it.

Consider his opinion on Love Jihad. To be fair he thinks it fantastic and crazy and tries to laugh it off. But there is a catch. Under unrelenting questioning, he is forced to admit that the matches usually ending in conversion to Islam makes it unpalatable.

Incidentally I know a few cases (very few) where the Christian or Muslim brides in love-matches converted to Hinduism. But among the despised left and liberal sections there is usually no conversion, and such marriages take place through registration and not religion-specific rites and have weathered usual stresses. It appears thus that there is no clandestine campaign by Muslims but only a social phenomenon stemming from more fundamental social trends along with their discursive manifestations. Then, why does that appear not ‘natural enough’?

The crux of the matter is that from the decades before independence there has been a fundamental ideological conflict among educated Indians, between those who held that Indian people should acquire a more secular and liberal outlook, and those who thought destiny linked Indians to inherited religions. The latter tended more towards Hindu orthodoxy as Hinduism as such does not encourage individual decisions to choose her religion or reject it. 

The Arya Samaj wanted to fulfill that need but could not convince many. The ‘shuddhi’ rites did not bring home so many prodigal sons. So, the Hindu by convention and force of habit follows the religion he is born in. Modernity first introduced those exposed to Western education and culture to the idea of the role of private conscience in the choice, and modernity remained for most skin-deep. Hinduism is not so much a credal religion as a life-long set of conventions, as a perceptive friend of mine said long ago.

The orthodox Hindu is not per se intolerant. In fact, within the limits of his caste identity he is (or was) prepared to be as liberal as the situation required. At least in Assam, educated Assamese Hindus used to count in his circle of intimates and friends some Muslims as well as Hindus. But when it came to a radical modification of given time-honoured conventions, he would usually feel disturbed and disoriented. 

There was an interesting custom in the Nalbari region of the Kamrup district of Assam that might graphically illustrate the nature of that tolerance. In the seventies of the last century an elderly resident Pratap Chandra Chaudhuri in his reminiscences mentioned the custom that in the recent past, when the sufferings of a Brahmin girl widowed in childhood owing to the rigid practice of marriage before puberty, that too to an aged groom, became unbearable to parents, they would give her away in an informal marriage to a local Muslim youth. The couple would not be allowed to enter the house afterwards but they would visit the bride’s paternal house during annual festivities and would be cordially received in the backyard. These customs have disappeared owing to spread of modern education and meltdown of child marriage. There was thus no visceral antipathy to Muslims as such even among orthodox Hindus, though it is sobering to admit that at present that region in Assam has seen a noticeable saffron surge. And it is this kind of tolerance that leaders like Gandhi meant when they said that Hinduism was a tolerant religion. 

Maybe things were not so cosy in some other parts of the country. But I am sure that before the heating up of communal tensions from the 1930s and the consequent collapse of traditional fraternity in partition of the country bitter animosity used to be the exception rather than rule. How were things turned upside down? 

I think the explanation lies in a clever and stealthy appropriation by the usual suspects of that traditional liberalism. Orthodoxy, prior to independence, was facing serious challenges with the progress of modernity and in Hindu societies also an educated forward-looking section was impatiently demanding changes and the ‘spirit of the age’ seemed to be in its favour. 

One now has to rub one’s eyes in disbelief coming across the famous Hindi scholar-novelist Rahul Sankrityayan’s reading of the signs of the times in his ‘Tumhari Kshyay’ (Decadence is Thy Name) published in 1943. He was cocking a snook at orthodox Hindus confidently, trotting out a tally of epochal changes in many age-old customs and habits of mind. Prominent among those were inter-faith marriages and dissolution of caste and religious taboos in dining at wayside hotels and tea-shops as well as society accepting them without too much fuss. Many orthodox Hindus accepted the trend with some resignation too. Likewise caste prejudice was losing its hold among orthodox Hindus but not to that extent. But at some time, the currents of change met certain insuperable impediments, lost their momentum and another retrograde trend eventually took over, turning those events into a misty past. 

During the span of Jay Prakash Narayan’s Total Revolution from 1974 to 1978 with radical socialists in the vanguard, the Hindu Right, a political movement capitalising on religious identity, joined the march and made itself more acceptable to Jay Prakash’s secular outlook by donning the garb of orthodox Hindu liberalism. It sent alarm-bells ringing through the pages of the then popular news magazine Sunday, steered by then staunchly secular M. J. Akbar. But since liberal Hindu orthodoxy had no articulate organ or public enunciation and was more or less implicit in the outlook of most Hindu members of the Congress, there was no open challenge to this fateful appropriation. The subtle hijack went on unchallenged. 

One remembers in this connection Justice J. S. Varma’s momentous verdict ruling at that juncture that Hindutva was no ideology but ‘ a way of life’. It was hailed as an historic turning-point by a chorus of praise from different quarters. But it had actually put the judicial seal on a somewhat discreet encroachment. So it came to pass that with the gradual decline and loss of nerve of Congress the (mis) appropriation and eventual radical fanatical transformation of traditional Hindu orthodoxy by its false friends escaped notice, and an assertive and intolerant imitation occupied its space. The educated modern urban Hindu youth of today, or a sizable part of them, thus came innocently to inherit a distrust of Muslims, an antipathy to caste-based reservation and a diminishing resistance to anti-Muslim hate-campaign. 

I remember my surprise when I saw an anchor of NDTV asking a large gathering of successful Indian Americans about caste reservation and drawing out the anticipated response that it was disposable trash. Time was when educated Hindu middle-class grudgingly conceded its need to correct age-old injustice. But things then changed and what now appears to be normal turns out to have been part of a long-term cultural engineering carried out in discreet silence. 

Such a discursive transformation did not take place in a vacuum but within the magnetic field of some solid material interests. We shall attempt an exploration of such material roots in another article. 

*The author is a highly respected Assamese intellectual, a literary critic and social-scientist from Assam. Views expressed are the authors own. 

Other pieces by Dr. Hiren Gohain:

Development as Disaster

Reviving the NRC brawl

Part-1 Lessons from American Presidential Elections

Part-2 Lessons from American Presidential Elections



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