Gurdeep Singh returns to his grocery store from lunch. He is a strong, tall, turbaned, bearded Sikh. A Canadian Punjabi. He has been in Vancouver for the past 32 years. He set up his store in Vancouver’s Punjabi market, catering to the South Asian community. He has brought up his son and daughter lovingly, giving them the education he could.
To Gurdeep, India is Punjab. The wheat fields, the strong youth, the gurudwaras, the five rivers, the multitude of Sikh gurus. The Golden Temple in Amritsar is the enduring symbol of his culture. One of his proudest moments was showing the great Sikh monument to both his Canadian-born children when they went back to Amritsar a few years ago. This is his India.
A thousand kilometres south in Sunnyvale, Krishnan is finishing his dosa at Saravana Bhavan, before driving off to catch the latest Tamil movie which has been released at the Indian Movie Center in a nearby suburb. Krishnan is the typical Bay Area Tamilian. He graduated from Anna University in Madras and joined a leading Silicon Valley firm. He started off as an R&D engineer and worked his way to a team lead position, where he drives a team of 8 R&D engineers.
To Krishnan, India is Tamil Nadu. His idea of going back to India is to fly to Madras, visit his parents in T Nagar, Ranganathan uncle in Mylapore, and his in-laws in Kanchipuram. He’s a Kamal Hassan fan, so he’ll have the usual banter with his cousin who’s a Rajnikanth fan. He also loves talking about the other great duality of Tamil Nadu: DMK and ADMK. He will argue about the relative merits of Vivek and Vadivelu, and the reasons surrounding Subramanian Badrinath’s omission from the Indian cricket team. This is his India.
Halfway across the globe in Hong Kong, Manish Wadhwani is in heated discussions with his associate regarding his firm’s latest line of clothing. It is late at night, so he will soon drive off home for his daily dose of chapati. He is the archetypal Sindhi businessman. He came to Hong Kong 18 years ago, set up a business in the textile industry, and made his fortune.
To Manish, India is Bombay and Baroda. His idea of a trip to India is to fly to Bombay, take a train to Baroda and meet his clan there. His family had migrated to Baroda from Hyderabad in Sindh, Pakistan, during the partition, but to all intents and purposes, their native place was Baroda. His choice of topics include a comparison of Hong Kong with Bombay, the religious riots in Gujarat a few years earlier, Narendra Modi’s politics, and the relative merits of Sindhis vis-a-vis Gujjus and Parsis, their fellow inhabitants of Gujarat. This is his India.
There are a million more Indias living in the minds of the Bengali in Kolkata, the Malayalee in Muscat, the Tamilian in Singapore, the Gujarati in Kenya, the Kannadiga in Mysore and the UP-ite in Kanpur. It could be Rabindra Sangeet and Rabindranath Tagore for the Bengali, it could be Mohanlal’s next show in Muscat for the Malayalee, it could be Mayawati’s latest insult to her political rival for the UP-ite. One way or another, regional identities are dominant in India. Indians from different parts of India invariably view the country through different glasses. They might as well ask one another, “This is my India, now tell me yours”.
Why are regional identities so important to Indians? The answer is that India is a country of many nations. Each linguistic community in India is an ethnic group with its own history and culture. Gujaratis, Punjabis, Hindi-speakers, Tamilians, Kannadigas and Marathis are ethnic groups as real as the French, Germans, Italians, Spaniards, Poles and Danes in Europe. Ignoring this and expecting all these communities to weld into one homogeneous identity is simply unrealistic. Indeed, attempts to homogenize Pakistan (a multi-ethnic country just like India) led to the loss of East Bengal, the 1972 riots between Urdu-speakers and Sindhis, and the continued separatism in Baluchistan. Even in India, an attempt to homogenize the country with one language invited a fierce backlash from the state of Tamil Nadu, which nearly seceded on the issue.
The best way to manage India’s diversity is to accept that the Indian national identity will always be the sum total of all its individual national identities. Unity is not about brushing differences under the carpet and pretending they don’t exist. Unity is about celebrating diversity, not ironing it out. It is about many colours in one rainbow. Regional identity does not conflict with Indian identity. In fact, it embellishes and adds vibrancy to it. Rabindranath Tagore, great son of Bengal and India, wrote Amar Shonar Bangla for Bengal and Jana Gana Mana for India. He was completely Bengali, completely Indian.
I’m writing this as a member of the Indian diaspora. As someone who has traveled to the northern, southern, eastern and western parts of India. As someone who knows Hindi, Malayalam and Tamil (in alphabetical order). As someone who watches movies in Bengali, Hindi, Malayalam, Tamil and Telugu (again in alphabetical order). My India is an India of 22 languages, 6 religions and a kaleidoscope of diversity. Now tell me yours.