While I was growing up, I was taught a national identity, I was taught what it means to be Indian. I learnt from the documents that founded our country that I was a secular, tolerant, humanist who respected the rights of all citizens and performed the duties of a member of a democracy. Somewhere along the way, the meaning of being Indian changed to something else, and somehow today a Caucasian woman with a Bindi who fasts on Karva Chauth is more Indian than I am. The distortion of the Indian identity is more prevalent and sinister than we realise, and the feedback mechanism to those that do not conform is violent and punitive. When did this happen? When did the term “Indian” become so exclusive? Do I still qualify? Do you?
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia
My mother is from a formerly small mountain town. It’s one of those places that was on the international hippies checklist of India and as a result when I was growing up, I met a lot of foreign tourists. Some of them stayed there for long periods of time, taking yoga or meditation courses or setting up their own small-scale niche businesses like dreadlock-repair, Indian motorcycle mechanics and reiki experts. They were interesting and I enjoyed asking them about their lives, but there was something that bothered me back then. A lot of them wore bindis, Indian clothes, observed fasts, celebrated festivals and spoke lovingly of scripture, and something about that bothered me. I was a kid, I couldn’t really figure it out even though I was sure I was wrong, nor did I really understand what question to ask the adults in my life to assuage whatever it was that was bothering me.
“Why are they dressing like that?” was the best I could muster.
“Inko bahut shauk hota hai Indian banne ka (these people are really fond of pretending to be Indian),” was the most frequent response I got.
There are so many issues with that including the “othering” of people, the gatekeeping of our nationality, the reduction of the Indian identity but none of those things are what was bothering me. The thing that bothered me is more sinister, and more complex.
See, first let me say that honestly, I don’t fully understand the rules of cultural appropriation. An American woman I know asked me if it is cultural appropriation that she named her American daughter after a Hindu goddess because all her American friends told her that it was, and she said that because I am Indian, I was the right person to ask. I don’t even know how to begin to answer this question. To be perfectly honest, most Indian people I know have no issue with that, and some of them think it’s great that the power of “Indian culture” is so strong, it compels people in other countries to want to participate. I’ve certainly read more than enough news pieces in the past decade about the ways in which various (often American) celebrities have adopted Indian (but we all know that means one specific religion, right?) rituals, and everyone here loves that. I have heard very few complaints of cultural appropriation, and I suppose I understand why, there seems to be a blurred grey area between cultural appropriation and soft power. Depending on whether you’re looking at it from the outside or the inside, it could be one or the other.
I would love to have that discussion with people, but we live in an environment that is fraught, and despite myself I have begun to feel scared. Every day our country becomes more and more intolerant of any perceived dissent or questioning. One may argue that criticism is the highest civic duty of the citizen of a democracy but one would not get very far into that discussion before being lynched. Culture in India has become the exclusive purview of just one religious community and criticism has become treason, yet we pretend that we cannot see the totalitarianism of the world around us. Social discourse — and this is true of the left, the liberal, the right, the majoritarian, of everyone —has entirely lost its nuance because the sole goal of the activity is to find a single culprit and condemn them. This is not the country I grew up in, or at least, this is not what was taught to me about my country. The education, that we say is paramount to Indian culture (we had such legendary Universities after all), taught me secularism, democracy, free speech, fundamental rights and judicial commitment to growth and adaptation, but India in books is not the same as India in real life. I was taught I could be an English-speaking atheist with a proclivity for protests who had the right to fair employment and bodily autonomy. I was taught that was Indian, because India is a democratic country with linguistic and cultural diversity under the rule of law.
But I discovered that the truth was and is that a caucasian woman who comes to this country, puts on a bindi, a saree and assimilates into our “culture” in the way of specific religious symbolism (temples, spiritualism, sindoor, yoga, all the symbols) has more claim today to the Indian identity than I do. This was at the heart of the problem I had with those tourists in my town growing up, I just didn’t understand it. They didn’t understand it either. The sinister plot of instituting this narrow definition of Indian identity has been brewing for much longer than we realise, and most of us were just pawns in it.
A few days ago I got in touch with a parent from my stepson’s class, and upon getting in touch with her I discovered that she is Canadian. She moved to India many years ago and is married to an Indian man. She practises many Hindu traditions, she wears many Hindu symbols of matrimony, she changed her name to a chosen Indian name, she lives in a joint family. All of this is her choice, I have no judgement for it, because I certainly believe that everyone should practice any form of religion/spirituality and live the lifestyle they choose. In course of our conversation she asked me if I was fasting for Karva Chauth. I told her that while I am in awe of those that have the willpower to fast, I am thoroughly areligious as a person, and I don’t observe any festivals or fasts. This is also fine. She can fast, I can not fast. I believed that’s what India is. She said something in response that I have heard more and more over the past fifteen years: “It’s not a religious thing, there is deep sacred meaning underneath all of these things.”
The way of life argument.
I believe that is where the reduction of the Indian identity began. It’s a complex argument. There are many parts of being Indian that could be derived from religion but are part of the culture of the country more than anything, and there are also occasions and symbols that are clearly religious (and belonging to the majority religion) that we have been told and taught to view as “a way of life” instead of religious practise. The truth is that Karva Chauth is a religious thing, and that’s okay, and as an Indian I believed that I had the right to practise or not practise any religion, but reducing my choice not to participate into a rejection of sacred Indian values as opposed to a choice to be areligious is a more accurate portrait of being Indian today.
We can see this all around us. From advertisements being pulled left, right and centre for portraying a more inclusive Indian society, to the endless lynchings of people of specific faiths about which we remain suspiciously silent. We have decided what it means to be Indian, and it’s nowhere near the secular, humanist message I was taught in an Indian classroom that instilled in me the value of education. Lakhs of people in our country no longer qualify as Indian, and we show this to them over and over again, in ways big and small. We are so touchy and sentimental about our culture now because we have minimized it to a small and exclusive thing, and our identity now lies there. I spent years trying to figure out why those tourists in my little town bothered me, and now I understand, it’s because their pooja, their bindis and their saffron-leaning spiritualism is more acceptably Indian than my taxes, my vote, my dissent and my fulfillment of civic duties. I understand now why cultural appropriation isn’t a bigger conversation in India, and it’s because it works on our favour, and we do practise it ourselves more than anyone else.
We do it all the time.
The way I see it, the essence of cultural appropriation is to focus only on two points of the segment of a particular tradition: The beginning and the end. You have the sacred, original story of where something comes from, and then you jump straight to the personal significance that makes you accept it as a way of life, and you ignore all of the middle part. The middle part is where the story of religious symbolism really lies. The real problem with appropriation is that you get to adopt symbols without experiencing or understanding the struggle. The truth is that women are beaten in our country for refusing to wear signs of ownership of men, like bangles and bindis, and women are killed for rejecting faith. Women are condemned for not participating in the propagation of ritualism. Women are even attacked (and fired from their jobs as professors) for simply discussing the oppressive aspects of certain religious symbols like a chooda or mangalasutra. Most women do not operate from a place of free choice when they adopt these symbols, they are just donned on us, and when someone says to you that you don’t “look married” they are making a much more loaded statement than it seems on the face of it. Women are oppressed every day by this “way of life”.
And to me, that is the part of the story that I must engage with as an Indian. I was taught that Indians fight for justice, freedom, choice and most importantly, one another. I don’t know when that changed, but I do know that I no longer qualify, and I am sure in response, someone will be tempted to tell me to go live elsewhere then, but why should I be the one to leave when you are the ones who distorted the Indian identity into something so insecure and hateful? Why should I be the one to leave when I never deviated from the plan to be a secular humanist? That is the way of life I was taught, and now you tell me, that’s no longer Indian. And if that’s no longer Indian, then who am I?