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What makes us who we are?

Are we moulded by our faith, nationality, or market forces?

What makes us who we are?
Myron Pereira SJ, Mumbai

February 25, 2013

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Two questions agitate civil society today to which there seems no clear and acceptable answer: governance and identity. Of the two, identity is the more problematic.

In an earlier age, the age of empires, one was the colonial subject of say, French, British or Soviet rule. One’s political identity was to be a subject, and that took precedence over whatever else one might also be.

But independent nations aspire to be different and are usually ruled by a native dominant class. That is, they have majorities and minorities. And in most nations today, their internal problems are almost always related to the identities of minorities.

So today’s minorities cry: We’re part of the nation! Accept our differences! Respect us! Give us our legal and civil rights! Minorities also assert that their “space in society” is continually being encroached upon.

These minorities may be religious, ethnic (tribal and aboriginal) linguistic or based on sexual orientation (gay, lesbian and transgender). Demands for autonomy and the threats of secession are everywhere.

For people have not just one identity but many. Which is the most important? Let’s ask the question in the context of the Christian community in India. Are they Indian Christians or Christian Indians?

In the first, the term Christian is the substance, while Indian is only a descriptor. The key identity is religious. Both Muslims and Christians, for example, see themselves as belonging to a universal umma, or an international ecclesia, whose borders are transnational and demand allegiance in spiritual as well as civic issues.

Artificial contraception and same-sex identity, for instance, have not only spiritual connotations but dictate social behavior as well. If religious values dominate the public discourse of Christians in India, then most of them are Indian Christians.

But if one calls oneself a Christian Indian, the terms are exchanged –the substantive description is national and political; the religious description is accidental. Thus one may be a Muslim Indian, a Hindu Indian or a non-resident Indian, but the key identity is civic-political. This influences one’s thinking and behavior. Is such a description more "secular"? Possibly.

The Constitution declares that India is a “sovereign socialist secular democratic republic", an ideal far from being practiced in reality. For most Indians, identity is feudal, and allegiance is owed primarily to caste and jati (kinship).

Thus today, most majoritarian right-wing parties re-interpret patriotism as “cultural nationalism”, meaning a primary allegiance to the Hindu nation, because in this land the Hindu religion and culture predominate. Thus Hinduism – a religion – becomes Hindutva – a political ideology.

When this happens, the "democratic space” of all minorities is encroached upon and suppressed, be these religious minorities, like Muslims and Christians, socio-economic minorities, like dalits and tribals, or gender minorities, like women, lesbians and gays.

"Democratic space” means the freedom to express one’s thoughts and aspirations without the fear of being attacked or suppressed, either by the state or by rival groups. When the democratic space is crushed, there is no alternative but violent protest. This is why what the state calls terrorism is the last recourse of groups that feel they have no other option.

Aggressive political identities feed off each other. Political identity has become a substitute for good governance in the bitter competition for scarce resources, for wealth and power.

The challenge is to rise beyond caste affiliations and work for the good of the whole community, not just of one’s own sub-group.

Perhaps here the ‘market’ has more to teach us than the ‘nation’. For while rival caste and religious groups fight each other about who is to rule the nation, men have learned to cooperate in selling goods and services, and make money there from, no matter what they believe. We see this taking place today across the globe.

The market, not the nation, today shapes identity. Will this lead to a major shift in decades to come? It’s worth considering.

Myron Pereira is a Jesuit priest and media consultant based in Mumbai

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