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India since time immemorial: Homogenizing Civilization?

Bhaskar Majumder

The recent jokes in India’s public sphere that aims at homogenization may turn into seriousness in 2019 for the people in Bharat lived in innocence over centuries to the extent that their social identity was not questioned for its legitimacy. Actually public sphere is not confined to India even when it affects India’s domiciles. For the time being, I keep it limited to India. Once they perceive that their sub-national identity or caste identity or linguistic identity is questioned for its legitimacy they may react. Since era of the Varna-system to the era of fractured caste-system, people did not question their social identity. This was notwithstanding the gap – the gap was not perceived as dehumanizing. Or, it could be that the voice of the downtrodden was so meek that the dehumanization was not perceived. The example could be the death of the dalits in the Lakshagriha that remained outside the public discourse (in the Great Epic Mahabharata) or the killing of Shambuk (in the Great Epic Ramayana). For example, Guhak or Shambuk, notwithstanding their identity-differential, had their specified pedestals (in India’s Great Epic Ramayana) or Vidur (in India’s Great Epic Mahabharata). The recent mini-scale reaction to apex-percolated idea of homogenization may take a maxi-scale in social Newtonian frame. As a member in Bharat that I see as a civilization I think we should stop at some point, ponder over and then go ahead. The question is on the imagined homogeneity of the civilization.

In mathematics, there is no analytical problem: take a function and test its homogeneity. If the function is homogenous, then check its degree and derivative results. In society, this testing is put on the pedestal of social categories that are birth-caste-religion-gender, cultural categories like taste-belief-faith and so on. Somehow the economy in small size European tradition tries to explain phenomena by money as the homogenous unit and converts people into participants in exchange through money.

I am not going to question the possibility in Economics; the economists may tell if through market or otherwise they can bring about homogenization. My question lies in society that is mostly based on my wandering around what social scientists term ‘participant observations’ where I observed very closely the man on the street, the ‘’elite’’, the children, the women, the households from SCs, OBCs, Adivasis, the far and the near. The human society with India as the geographic base I found as one where people had their living not in isolation but some kind of interdependence. Contextualizing it I found local limited disharmony in the society; this was not at the national level like the SCs against the OBCS or STs. The concept of ‘others’ was not there – the response was actually a concern to get the state benefits when needed, be in administered product market like the Public Distribution System (PDS) or be it in administered labour market like the MGNREGA. Surprising was, nobody complained against the state authority or local representative of the state why no worker got unemployment allowance in MNREGA. The fact was most of the workers had also no idea about the provision of unemployment allowance.

The precise point that I would like to point out is people in general live in manual labour, live in innocence, live in collective mode that often contradict the mainstream idea of greed or self-optimization. In fact, traditional Bharat had no history of slavery or famine. Both were created by the colonial master, the British. The problem that persists is not with what the Indians inherited but what has been imposed on the Bharatvasis.

There is no denial of the truth that Bharat was also not equal – it was segmented along castes and gender. But it was hardly institutionalized so that no phenomenon of mass hunger was reported in village India pre-British. Development of course had its own consequences – for example, land acquisition and displacement of land-dependent people or militarization and food going to feed the military etc. Inequality was there but common innocent people abstained to perceive that. They did not feel excluded or situations were created by rituals and cultural programmes so that they felt included. Of course, it was hierarchic. But Bharat lived like that only – in Ramayana.

Let me now briefly talk about innocence of people in the heartland. If the top five per cent is excluded from discussion, then most of these people in the heartland live or try to live a natural life not at all thinking about what they could have achieved. Often this is observed as leisure; even if it is, it does not lie in pleasure for they are engaged often as forced labour, unpaid labour, migrant labour and all that. Often they live a precarious life but then remain involved in Bhajan in the evening, reading Hanuman Chalisha and remain outwardly happy. So they are not on the ladder of inequality. Let me cite one example here. I found one such person cutting a bamboo from the CPRs and asked him the purpose and if the others would stop him doing this. I understood from his response the CPRs were commonly shared need-based and community-maintained; it was adjacent to NTPC power plant, Unchahar in UP.

If the state of India thinks to homogenize people, perhaps it is not thinking along the living or livelihood of the Bharatvasis. Had it thought so, the course of policy-action could have been to establish a common income for all as the line of equality and then allow some to be more equal. It might be the state as the authority needs a combination of one language (Hindi), one nation, and one religion. Personally I don’t have any problem with any of these for in spite of Hindi being my third language in order, I may get capacitated to equilibrate with those whose first language it is. I am already living for past two decades in the heartland! One religion is fine with me for it will be of course religion of humanity or one religion will show the confluence of all religions. Nation, if one, is a marvellous idea. But then it is not my personal problem. It includes my soul-relatives in Bharat. Why not homogenization if homogenization leads to the elevation of the commoners to equality with the state-elite that the latter did not ask for? This may open up Pandora’s Box.

The problem may be, there are people outside the Heartland who may feel uncomfortable with the imposition of linguistic homogeneity or some self-constructed ideas on nationalism. The harmony is not to be explained as absence of plurality. This is where the major question comes – the question on India as a civilization. If there is consensus that India that is Bharat is a civilization that included and excluded people by natural mobility of people across frontiers of what we call today India then we will find what we did not find so far. Actually what we find depends on what we are willing to find. One has to focus his torch at the relevant location – torch has to be there for it is not light always.

So what is this civilization? India as a civilization has Indian Ocean at its south – probably no other civilization has ocean in its name. The number of languages that India has perhaps is the largest for any country in the world. The people resemble different centuries. The food habit is unimaginably spread over verities from pure vegetarian to pure non-vegetarian. Some regions breathe in caste while some suffocate in casteism. Some live at sea-level while some live 5000 ft. above sea-level. The food-culture also differs accordingly. Some wear half-dhoti and some wear suit. Some walk barefoot while some have chappals or shoes. Some live in Jhopri while some in concrete house. Some live local and some live global. Some go to temples, some in Mosques, and some everywhere. Some are illiterate, some primary school standard, some have highest degree from home and abroad. All they are people of the same civilization.

Most of these people are delinked from state laws; however, laws affect them at the relevant moment. Innocence does not leave anybody untouched – if the parents did illegal immigration at some point in history – the line drawn by the state – the offspring may have to pay price for that. Law has no untouchability. The NRC of Assam 2019 is the proof of that. There is consolation for the people-to-be in Retention Cetres that the other states are also going to be NRC-tested.

Let me re-iterate. A civilization is more than a summation of states. The states, as they took shape by geographic boundary post-1947 based mostly on language, are also different by culture. The culture of Adivasis in Arunachal Pradesh, for example, sharply contrasts the culture of people in Kerala. Some of the states are on the Indian Himalayan Region (IHR) while some are on the coastal belt. Civilization has no fixed code unless anti-knowledge arrogance fixes it. The movement of Buddha-Chiatanya-Gandhi and the magic movement of Krishna (in the Great Epic Mahabharata) prove this. When the state institutionalizes people by head count and people get converted into population, the number requires equality between cards and size of population. The legal population is different from social people. Once the people-converted population feel self-glorified for possession of multiple cards, the human face starts vanishing. The only thing that multiple cards lead to is to lead innocent people to extinction. Also the elite – they do not go to stand on the queue – they fix proxies to stand like what happened during demonetization. If the purpose of the state is only to keep the innocent people busy, I have no more comment.

Some related issues are worth mentioning. One is the ethnic question that has a double-edge. By Inner Line Permit or otherwise the ethnic communities may be protected from migration onslaught. At the same time, homogenization of people (indicators are yet not much clear) may demolish the ethnic-plurality. Ethnicity is more of a civilization question and less of a state question; state is often glorified (even in the Great Epic Mahabharata the throne of Hastinapur was glorified) disproportionately for the human values often get suppressed in that glorification. The other is the mobility-cum-identity question. Advancement prepares a trajectory that is both linear and non-linear where people may be on the move and hence some may prolong their stay at some locations relative to the other and often leading to multiple locations of stay of members of a single family. This may contrast the requirements of homogeneity.

People in India lived cardless prior to 1947. That does not mean that the state 2019 will not be interested to instil in the mind of the innocent people the idea of heavyweight cards. The problem is, in case one major card is lost, and there is more than one reason why cards may be lost independent of the choice of the owner of the card, several other documents may be required to prepare the duplicate for such cards are excludable and non-transferable. These cards are not available from grocery shops! This may be one major reason why PDS cards or MGNREGA cards of the potential beneficiaries (sic) remain with the Gram Pradhan or the Panchayat Bhavan. Innocent people!

On the horizon of infinite questions in quest of knowledge I pose the last question on the issue for this discourse: Is it for the state to declare that India is a civilization? I shall feel personally happy if the state declares India as a civilization. Informally many of the stalwarts declare this more often than not when they feel at a loss how best to describe India. My own understanding based on my moving around for past six decades in the nook and corner of the country is it is like understanding an elephant by a blind person or understanding the depth of an ocean from the sea-shore. In social science it seems prudent not to measure everything cardinally – if this seems anti-knowledge, I may be excused for my ignorance.                            

Bhaskar Majumder, Professor of Economics, G. B. Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad - 211019

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Oct 23, 2019


Bhaskar Majumder [email protected]

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