A boy sells national flags on a street in New Delhi on Aug. 13 ahead of India's 74th Independence Day. (Photo: AFP)
For most of us, the key question in life is that of identity, of destiny. Who am I? What should I become?
Individuals, especially the young, ask themselves this question again and again, and at certain times, such as adolescence, they obsess over it.
But nations do this too. In times of transition and crisis, this question becomes especially acute. This is why constitutions are written, rewritten and amended.
This nation of ours, this India which we all know and love — so ancient and yet so young, “so brimming with hope, so alive with possibilities” — has long been poised on the cusp of change, even as Indians everywhere ask themselves: What do we want to become as a nation? A democratic socialist secular republic? Or a feudal Hindu rashtra?
As India prepares to celebrate its Independence Day on Aug. 15, the nation is in the throes of change — some of which are obvious, others less so. Here are a few instances.
The vast masses, brooding in silence, are quiet no longer. They want to be seen. They demand to be heard. Dalits, silent and oppressed in this country for millennia, want a place of respect for themselves, a place in the sun.
Adivasis refuse to have their sacred hills and valleys mined for bauxite and coal. They resist, they fight back. Governments call them "Naxalites" and send in troops, but they will not be cowed.
Women, young and old, cry out “#Me too!”— refusing to be taken for granted, to put up with assault and rape, to be starved as children, trafficked as adults, and murdered as brides.
People are on the move everywhere — from village to small town, from small town to big city, from big city to foreign shores — in search of better employment, more money, more opportunities for a prosperous and secure life.
The young look for partners, or simply for new friends and lovers. Interfaith and inter-caste marriages have become a force for integration in this land as young people increasingly desire what their elders shunned and rejected.
In brief, a static, inert society has become a dynamic, entrepreneurial one.
All this has been made possible by the advances of the technological media. Not just television, satellites and computers but most of all by smartphones whose capacity to store information, provide options, alter content and transmit it instantly boggle the mind. Truly, a world within your grasp.
Religion resistant to change
If there is one aspect of Indian life which still resists change, it is religion. We still believe credulously whatever our godmen, our priests, our ulema tell us, and we preen ourselves on our symbols and traditions. Our religious festivals are celebrated noisily and wastefully, while we foolishly believe how unique we are.
Living largely in the past, a feudal past, we are blind to how one man’s devout symbol becomes another’s stumbling block.
For while it is true that religion gives us identity, it is an identity which is monochrome, black and white — even as in reality we are a composite, polychrome, multi-layered people.
Our composite identities derive from social roles, ethnicity, ideological preferences and professional interests.
A multi-layered religious identity is only possible when we reject religion as a dogma, as an ideology.
Dogmas and ideologies are intolerant because they claim to be all-knowing, all-controlling. They have all the answers and permit no questions. Such religions don’t form character, they indoctrinate.
But the religious history of this nation is exactly the opposite. India has had a long, clear tradition of questioning orthodoxies of various kinds, including religious orthodoxies. In fact, we are “argumentative Indians” (Amartya Sen) because our culture has been one not of conformity but of diversity — of disputes, disagreements and differing points of view.
The best Indian tradition is dialogic, eclectic and inclusive. But notice how different things are today. In the strong desire for uniformity of thought and opinion, there is rising intolerance of dissent. Nay, independent thinkers are jailed or murdered.
In fact, this ideology of control and surveillance owes more to European fascism than to our own Indian traditions. Those who promote it have no place in the mainstream Indian tradition of diversity and inclusivity.
Religion as mystery, dialogue
We need to recover the sense of a religion as a mystery, as an experience which is open-ended, leading one to the mystery of "the Other."
This is the place of dialogue — to understand the beliefs of others, to respect the values of those who are different. Young people of different communities intermarrying are the best example of dialogue in practice.
For marriage today is seen less and less in terms of family obligations and the demands of offspring, and more and more in terms of mutual respect, love and support between husband and wife. A whole new perspective has begun.
So the religious identity of the Indian, rigid as it has been, must give way to the secular identity of the Indian citizen, which now comes first.
A change of mindset
Democracy involves a change of mindset — not to think of ourselves primarily in terms of religion, caste or language but of ourselves as equal citizens of one nation, both before the law and in practice.
So far India has been a largely flawed electoral democracy, where the struggle is to get elected any way, by fair means or foul.
We have still become a substantive democracy, where the human rights of each person are valued and upheld and where their observance leaves its impact upon the collective growth of all.
Implicit in such a democracy is the upholding of the ethic of human communication — that is, wanting to understand, desiring to be understood. In another word, dialogue.
Where societies live in harmony, they network for the benefit of all. A democratic society, with its emphasis on freedom and respect for the human rights of its citizens, advances that ethic.
True, this will take its time, for the old ways of thinking are tenacious, but this is the way to go, this is the road to choose.
As the poet said:
Where the mind is without fear, and the head held high/
where words come out of the depths of truth/
Into that heaven of freedom, brothers and sisters, let our country awake.
Father Myron Pereira SJ is a media consultant based in Mumbai. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.