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Essay: On Patriotism: Part II

John Mathew

A couple of years ago, I was listening to Professor Amartya Sen, Nobel Laureate in Economics, and indeed, one of only a handful of Laureates from India, speak at Harvard on the issue of multiple identities. Part of his categorisation was, in a sense, anticipated nearly a century earlier by the African-American intellectual W.E.B. Dubois, who, in his seminal book, ‘The Souls of Black Folk,’ presents the term, double consciousness. The term is almost self-evident, indeed, it is suggested immediately in my employment of the appellation ‘African-American.’ There is, by contrast, no call to ethnicity in Anglo-Saxon America, except when used to set the norm or standard against which the rest must be gauged. In India, I was becoming increasingly aware of the fact that I was from the South. It was relatively easy to feel comfortable in this knowledge, since all of my schooling and college occurred in the South. But there was enough dismissal in the mass media, apart from less than subtle attempts on the part of the Centre to get us reluctants to learn Hindi (cramming the then single Doordarshan television channel with Hindi programmes was only one of many methods - it was hardly surprising that our old black and white stayed for the most part black and off), to foster a sense of lingering resentment. In this, I was not alone. Representing my Madras-based college at India's largest (arguably) cultural competition, ‘Oasis,’ at the Birla Institute of Technology in Pilani, Rajasthan, it was not uncommon to hear of us being described condescendingly as Madrasis, a term, which in our case, was accurate, but hardly spot on when applied whole-sale to colleges from Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Simply put, the South was considered largely irrelevant to the running of things. The capital was in the North, the largest electorates were in the North, the national language was from the North, the blockbuster films were from the North - all we had was a constant refrain of material drummed down and dumbed down for us from the North. When a South Indian character was portrayed in a Hindi film, invariably he or she would be invested with an accent that beggars Appu's in ‘The Simpsons.’ South Indians despaired of ever seeing a South Indian Prime Minister - when it happened, during the early '90's, with P.V. Narasimha Rao leading the Congress, many of us were frankly disbelieving. The occasion was to be repeated, if for a particularly short spell, with H.D. Deve Gowda; enough, however, to render to us the slightest modicum of hope in terms of being equal citizens in our own right. Not that the South Indian should labour under any particular illusion. There will always be a double consciousness, not just because of linguistic considerations, but because of an unshakeable sense that we are the after-thoughts, more to be humoured in good time than to be taken particularly seriously. I cannot even begin to speak of the double consciousness that our fellow citizens from the North East must feel - they, above all, have been shafted by the Union of India, and then we have the gall to suggest that they must sing out their sense of patriotism with gusto. So I shall, respectfully, not try, except to suggest, that with at least some of us, they have our utmost regard.


There have been facetious suggestions among some of my confreres that the South should secede and follow its own national path. Apart from such a point of view being largely impractical, it does have a certain whimsical appeal. For one thing, the South may actually be the best peace broker between the resultant North and its neighbor Pakistan, without needing to send troops to engage in a conflict that is really of very little direct concern to us. South Indians do not particularly dislike the Pakistanis, except through adoption of the national rhetoric, of course, and much more reasonably, on the cricket field. But having thrown in our lot with the Indian Union, we are required to show requisite animosity towards our neighbor, and in return, we can showcase as also our own, Sachin Tendulkar and the Taj.


It is to be imagined that a smoldering fellow citizen from the North will hotly retort that Rajiv Gandhi fell to the hand of an assassin who ethnically derives from the state of Tamil Nadu, and thereby the South. There is no denying this. But it was not the South that chose to intervene in the affairs of the nation of Sri Lanka. It was the Center, and I do not need to repeat where the Center is located.


Having emphasized my point, however, I believe we are resigned to our double consciousness. And this is inevitable. I do not mean to imply resentment towards my northern siblings - with long association comes acceptance. We are not set up to be easily integrated - our linguistic status prevents such a facile arrangement - but we are muddling through with less discord than might understandably have occurred, given the manner in which we came to be as states in the post- colonial age. And as James Baldwin so elegantly suggests to his nephew in the first of his essays in ‘The Fire Next Time,’ where a power differential naturally exists between a powerful them and a subordinated us, it is not so much for them to accept us, as for us to accept them, if only because we understand the myths they have about themselves, without believing them in our own right, yet recognizing how important and defining it is for them to lay hold and hold on to.


There are other levels of identity, of course. By geopolitics, I am Indian, by ethnicity Malayali, by religion Christian, by gender, male, and by orientation, heterosexual. I do not expect to be discriminated against on the basis of the last two named. In South India, and indeed, through the Union, I shall hold my own and my head high on the basis of the second. The first, I accept without reservation, now that I have described how for some of us, the land lies. But it is as a member of a minority faith representing less than 3% of the national whole and that has been targeted especially by allies of a remarkably right-wing Government whose early indulgence towards them is nothing short of alarming, that I am most ill at ease. Again, it is elements of the media that have been relaying to us, almost with perverse glee, stories of raped nuns, murdered priests, and traumatized converts. Even as I say this, I must confess to being particularly leery of fundamentalist preachers from my own faith - the great commission in the last chapter of the Gospel of Matthew to "go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost" is all very well in the framing thereof, but there is a certain avarice to some zealots that are particularly caught up in the numbers game (“Hallelujah, I brought 3000 people to the Lord in a blessed revival last night” for instance). Regrettably, the actions of a few have sparked widespread over-reactions and the vast majority of workers, who are doing a great deal of good, have come under intense fire, very often literally. (The Muslim and Sikh communities, of course, have received their own share of attacks, particularly at times when they have been most vulnerable - the reasons are different, the outcomes, sadly enough, the same.). Hence, having squared with my own sense of identity in the various hierarchical levels of analyses composing the tapestry that connotes India, I remain quietly disquieted by the insistent poser to which I have as yet no alacritous response - must I be taken at the pass with the certitude that as a Christian, I shall never be completely at home, at home?

(To be continued)

(John Mathew reads Ecology at Old Dominion University, Norfolk, VA and has been a visiting graduate student in the Dept. of Organismal and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University since 1998. A native of Kerala, India, John has a passion for theatre {most recently co-founding the Boston based South Asian American Theatre (SAATh) company}, the written word, and {with varying degrees of success} writing it )

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1. December 2, 2010eram 

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