Where have all the Indians gone?

Until we shed our communal, regional and caste identities, the quintessential Indian will remain a rare species

By Bhamy V Shenoy
Published: Monday 15 August 1994

-- IT WAS a fund raising meeting organised by Indians in Houston, Texas. The master of ceremonies was announcing that the Reddys and the Kammas have contributed. Will the Brahmins follow suit now? Thousands of kilometres from home -- and still the Indians needed caste support to motivate people to donate for a good cause. If one gets into conversation with an Indian in India, he is likely to start with what language or dialect he speaks and follow it up with the sub-caste, village and perhaps the district he is from.

Our leaders make sure that voters know their sub-caste, dialect, religion and the region they belong to. In other words, encourage everything that divides Indian society into infinitesimally small groups. In India, we have organisations that represent the interest of every conceivable subgroup at every possible level. Even the political parties, supposed to represent Indians from all strata of society, irrespective of religion, caste, language and region, are mostly influenced by narrow, sectarian forces. The recent examples of the Mandal and the Ayodhya crises and the despicable performance of all the political parties clearly demonstrated our bankruptcy as a nation.

Educated inaction
The Indian society as a whole is totally incapable of viewing anything from the national perspective. The citizens have to own responsibility for this, especially in a democracy. The educated, obviously, have the greater responsibility. But it is this segment that has betrayed India by its inaction both in the country and abroad.

We often attribute many of our problems to the lack of education. Let us see how our highly educated and affluent Indians in the US are performing. In every major American city, there are associations of Indians based on religion, region, language and even caste. The associations representing Indians across the board are invariably small and the least assertive. As a result, despite all the affluence and professional expertise, Indians in the US are unable to influence government policy to favour, or at least be neutral towards, India.

It was the same during the colonial period. The British managed to rule us longer than they would have otherwise and finally divided the country when they had to leave just because Indians failed to unite. Today, we are involved in a greater struggle for economic freedom for millions of the poor. But we should realise that it is not the West or the World Bank that keep us impoverished. Nor is it the OPEC that is preventing us from developing by not selling oil at low prices.

The enemy within
The enemy is within us. Our political system has succeeded in pitting one caste against the other and one religious community against the other. The system, instead of coming up with better strategies to improve the lot of the downtrodden, has seen reservation as the panacea for all ills. Result: deteriorating social relationships and increased social tension. There is not much hope for a society that awards its members on the basis of caste.

Our sociopolitical system, based on reservations, has turned out to be a big failure. But we have failed to learn a lesson from this. Instead of revamping the system, we are expanding the scope of reservation to divide society into ever greater numbers of small groups.

A popular maxim has it that we do not need to cover a basket of Indian crabs -- they will manage to keep each below the brim. This pretty much describes Indian society today. Every group thinks from a very narrow and sectarian point of view and stops bothering about the national interest. It is not because of rampant corruption or the failure of central planning or the ideology of socialism or exploding population that India is unable to develop.

It is because of the unfortunate baggage of thousands of years of history that has fragmented the Indian society into thousands of warring sub-castes. Even the political leaders of Independent India have succeeded in injecting the crab mentality into Indian genes. Unless we manage to overcome the forces of caste and community we may not even manage to survive as a country much longer.

Bhamy V Shenoy is associated with the Mysore Consumer Council

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