Saturday, November 2, 2013

Roots, Identities and States

I'd posted on my wall yesterday (1 Nov) my comments about Karnataka Rajyotsava Day. I wrote the following:

Happy Birthday of a state? How many of you have heard of such a thing? People outside Karnataka may not be aware that today, 1st of November, is celebrated as the the Kannada Rajyotsava Day, which commemorates the formation of the present Karnataka state in 1956 by merging the erstwhile Mysore province with Kannada speaking parts of Bombay, Madras and Hyderabad. So what the crap does this mean? What happens to the people who speak other languages in the new entity? Extending the logic, why shouldn't the speakers of Coorgi or Tulu or Konkani demand their own Rajyotsava? Latitudes and longitudes and rivers and mountains are enough to divide a country. Using languages for such lowly things is a shame. Even the Britishers didn't divide and rule so much. 

The Vijaynagar empire, which is synonymous to the Carnatic culture and identity extended much beyond the present Karnataka. The Maratha Empire comprised almost the whle of India at some point of time. The Tamil speaking Cholas extended till Bengal. So why restrict Kannadigas or the Marathis or the Tamils (or for that matter anyone else) to such claustrophobic boundaries now?

Immediately one of my FB 'friends' from Bangalore unfriended me with the following post:

A so called 'writer / author' of a book who hails from a different state and earns his bread and butter living in Karnataka writes this post about Kannada Rajyothsava... If they feel celebrating our state's formation is a shame then why the hell are they staying here??

Considering your point of view Mr. Sudipto Das, you must be feeling ashamed of celebrating Independence day also in that case.. Kannada Rajyothsava is nothing less than India's Independence day for all the people of Karnataka.. FYI it's not only celebrated bythe Kannada speaking people but by all the residents of Karnataka. The term 'Kannadiga' is not only coined for the Kannada speaking crowd but we consider every person who is a resident of the state as a Kannadiga irrespective of their language

I argued with another post:

I was expecting some abuse, because I knew my point won't be understood... My point is, why the state for the Kannadigas should be just restricted to the boundaries of the present Karnataka? During the rule of the Vijaynagar kings, the so called state for the Kannadigas was much bigger, comprising almost the entire south India. That's the point... Why create small small states for linguistic or ethnic entities? Have the whole country, and feel the same for every part of India. India doesn't stand for any language or ethnicity. Etymologically too India is just a geographical entity, and dats what it shud be... The entire division of states based on languages has absolutely no meaning. Why can't West Bengal be a State for Kannadigas? Why can't Bombay be for the Biharis? Why can't madras be for the bombites?

Subsequently two of my friends posted the following:

Soumya Desai: i thought india managed that well - unlike europe which is divided into countries and now trying to retrofit common currency and ease immigration and cross-employment; india inspite of large populations with different languages/culture, kept itself as a single country (rather than become a sub-continent)

Atanu Neogi: Sudipto, as you seem to be encouraging discussions on this volatile and controversial issue, how do you think the states should have been divided when India -- the modern geo-political entity -- was created? Should there not have been any states? But that would have been a logistics-governance nightmare, right? Now if we start with the conclusion that the states as a governance construct was mandatory how should those state boundaries have been drawn? The 'geometric' boundaries -- a la post-colonial sub-Saharan African countries -- idea seems appealing, but as that experience has evidently shown tribalism and local allegiances would have come to forefront and create strife anyway.

To continue, Identity is a much subtler and nuanced and yes, sometimes tribal , concept than what we well-meaning modern trans-nationals may want to believe. Language , along with sex, family and creed , is a fundamental component in an individual's identity matrix. Even for a true multi-lingual -- say a Swiss from Geneva -- the fact of that multi-linguality itself is an inherent part of the identity. And the thing about identity components is that they always aspire, in almost a biological sense, to be recognized and respected. A governance construct in a country of the complex diversity of India has to have some basis with an individual's sense of Identity. Sure the politicians have done their bit of shameless chicanery as they are wont to do, but as a concept itself a language based sense of belonging is not that bad a concept. Look at the French for example.

That's when I thought of writing this blog. The same thought that would come to my mind while I was writing my book The Ekkos Clan, came to mind again. There's this constant urge of human beings to organize themselves based on their identities, which I can't but connect to an aspiration to get connected at the roots. When we say that we'll are Bengalis, we implicitly try to bind all of us to a common origin, which in this case is perhaps a proto Bengali language which all our ancestors might have spoken at some time in the history. I say proto Bengali because the Bengali I speak and that the people of Chittagong in Bangladesh speak are as different as Bengali is from Gujarati, but still we don't have any problem in calling both Bengalis. Sometimes the common binding of language may be extended to culture, which again is closely connected to the language. So when we say of a Bengali state, we actually mean a state for the people who have been speaking various forms of dialects all of which have evolved from a proto Bengali language, and whose cultures have some commonality, especially in terms of habits, habitats, traditions, rituals etc. 

Now let's see some fallacies with such an idea of state. As I'd started with Karnataka Rajyotsava, let me take the example of Karnataka. Similar examples are available for all other states. Let us go back a bit, to the origin of the Kannada language and culture, as that's perhaps the common root we're trying to connect to.

More we go back in time, more complicated the history becomes. Let's start with the Chalukyas, which rose to power in the 6th century in South India and were quite powerful till the 8th century. This period is a golden age in the history of Kannada language literature and culture. Following was the extent of the Chalukya Kingdom, whose creations were the World Heritage sites in Pattadakal in present day Karnataka, - it covers major parts of south and central India.

The Chalukyas were succeeded by the Rashtrakutas in the 8th century. Their creations are the World Heritage sites at Elephanta and Ellora caves, both in Maharashtra. The Rashtrakutas also played a major role in the history and culture of Karnataka. The extent of their kingdom was also much beyond the present day Karnataka:

Next let us come to the legendary Vijaynagar kingdom under which the Kannada (Carnatic) culture, literature, art and music reached great heights. The Vijaynagar Kingdom comprised the entire South India. 

So, if three of the most glorious Kannada kingdoms comprised much more than the present day Karnataka, then what's the basis of restricting the present Kannada state to such a small boundary? Well, you can argue that presently the Kannada speakers are restricted mainly to this region. But then you're totally ignoring the cultural heritage and legacy of the Kannada people. So the very urge to bind people with a common root and create a state for them seems meaningless, because when you're anyway ignoring the grand past and the glorious cultural heritage, then what's left of the roots?

So, my point is that, this very pretext of creating a Karnataka state for the Kannadigas was a futile effort, as you've anyway kept major parts of a historical Kannada state out of the boundaries of the present day Karnataka. The same is true for Bengal, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and perhaps most of the states. When the Karnataka state was never bounded by the present boundaries for more than 1500 years, what's the point in creating one now? Not all people in the Chalukya or Rashtrakuta or Vijaynagar kingdom spoke Kannada, and I'm not sure if those efficient rulers had provinces demarcated on the basis of languages. They surely had administrative units for governance, but they were not based on languages. If they didn't have any problem in efficiently running their state, why will there be a problem now? The Mauryas, the Guptas, the Mughals, and the Marathas had most parts of modern Indian subcontinent under their rule. No where in our own history, recent or past, have I come across the need or urge to have administrative units carved out based on languages, yet so many rulers ruled such big empires for thousands of years. 

Do I've to believe that the Kannada identity never existed before 1950s, and it's only a recent phenomenon? Do I've to believe that the zenith of the Kannada culture was attained in a period when there was nothing called a Kannada identity? Of course not. So then where did this form of linguistic identities crop up suddenly, unless it's just a political creation?

I believe the linguistic or cultural identity has been always there and has been always the strongest component in the identity of a person. But there was never a geographical restriction to the identity. The Bengali language and culture developed over a wide area, only a part of which is West Bengal and Bangladesh. If the Bengali identity survived for so long despite various kingdoms comprising the Bengali locus over various times, it will survive longer, irrespective of how you define the Bengali 'state' now. 

If the Pala Kings of Bengal believed in a restricted geographical boundary for Bengal, they wouldn't have expanded their kingdoms. Likewise, bounding people with a common linguistic or cultural roots to small regions is a very restrictive thought.

Whatever strategy you take to create administrative units, there will always be issues with majority people sharing some common roots controlling more power. Creating linguistic states too can't solve these problems. Rather it creates more problems, creates more divisions in the country, makes room for more ethnic clashes. 

If dividing India on the basis of religion was not a correct thing, then how come dividing the country on the basis of language be fine? In today's age of multiple identities, the identity of language or religion or ethnicity or nationality are no less or more important than one another. My being a Bengali and also an Indian and also a Hindu and also an Engineer and also a Bangalorean and also an erstwhile Calcuttan and also an East Indian and also a Bengali domiciled in Karnataka, and also a father of a son of Bengali origin born and brought up in Bangalore, and also.... Each of these identities are indisputable, authentic and relevant. Take out of these identities and I no longer remain the same. So why take only of my identities and create a geographical boundary and try to ignore all my other identities?

There's counter points here, suggested by Atanu. 
If I may I think your [argument] suffers from a rather acute historical bias: it is quite a stretch to claim that the Cholas or the Palas or the Marathi kingdoms were really the kind of efficient pro-people dynasty that you are trying to depict. We simply don't have any 'subaltern' historical perspectives from those times -- the little that exist in forms of folklores and proverbs etc. do not at all for instance paint the Marathi kingdom with any humanitarian qualities -- to make those assumptions. For majority of people life was brutal, short and in a perennial struggle with the elements and the human powers that governed them. A Pala king -- Buddhist he might have been and well-intentioned about the well being of his people -- would and could have no control over how the local mighty 'overlord' in the remotest westernmost corner of his stretched kingdom would have behaved towards the landless peasants. Language-identity-governance doesn't even come into the picture where the majority of ordinary lives are essentially a daily struggle. 

 In any case, I have no claim on infallibility -- don't you think fallacy is too a strong word to use in matters as nuanced as identity ?-- of my perspective, and sometimes a revisionist looking back of history is nothing more than an anachronistic fantasy (if only there were no partition or if only the Turks hadn't invaded India etc. etc.), but I think the language-based sense of local belonging has served India well (yes there have been the odd violence stemming from such identity) in the post-independent time when things could have really gone pear-shaped. In our sharp criticism of all ills that plague this very young nation (standing on the layers and layers of ruins of a labyrinth of civilizations) we often forget that most people outside India didn't give the country much a chance of survival, let alone the somewhat wobbly flourishing that we tend to be proud of, and managing this true tower of Babel at the time of Independence was quite an achievement.

Yes, Atanu is indeed correct. There's no reason to say that in the past, when there were no Karnataka or West Bengal, whether things were better than now. My argument is more on an idealistic front. With more and more migration and immigration and emigration, clinging to just one identity, that of language, and creating administrative units, seems to be really illogical to me. And anyway, we need smaller and smaller states. AP is broken, so was UP and Bihar. The people of Telengana and that of the rest of AP spoke the same language but still there were other aspects of their identities which prompted the former to carve out their own state. So the linguistic states are also not proved to have worked out well either.