Is there something called Indianness?


To define Indianness in a country as tremendously diverse as India, home to a billion and above people, communicating through a mind-boggling 1652 languages and dialects(1), belonging to many regions and religions and to many thousands of castes, subcastes and tribal groups, is not an easy task. Any attempt to paint this broad landscape must necessarily involve some selection. In the discussion that follows I have attempted to look selectively at how various people viewed Indianness in various times and circumstances. 



To define Indianness in a country as tremendously diverse as India, home to a billion and above people, communicating through a mind-boggling 1652 languages and dialects(1), belonging to many regions and religions and to many thousands of castes, subcastes and tribal groups, is not an easy task. Any attempt to paint this broad landscape must necessarily involve some selection. In the discussion that follows I have attempted to look selectively at how various people viewed Indianness in various times and circumstances. 



Before proceeding with this discussion, I wish to clarify that the idea is not to establish an exclusivity of Indian identity, but to look more closely at the different dimensions of this identity, all its different shades, to examine what really makes Indians tick and what they have to offer the world in this 21st century. 

Lord Thomas Macaulay saw such high moral values and calibre in Indians that he came to the conclusion that the British colonialists would never ever conquer the country if they did not break the backbone of the nation, her spiritual and cultural heritage. So he recognised in Indianness various qualities such as spirituality, cultural heritage and enlightenment and started on a project to make Indians think that all that is foreign and English was good and greater than their own.

Indians have come a long way from the colonial enslavement of the period of Macaulay, the dark ages when their self-esteem was hauled over burning coals, when their ancient traditions and rich heritage were trampled underfoot. Today the Indian economy is supposed to be the third largest in terms of purchasing power parity. The government has already staked a claim for permanent membership in the UN Security Council. The Indian software techie has become ubiquitous, running programs and fixing IT systems in any part of the globe. With India having more degree holders than the entire population of France, the image of an Indian in the eyes of foreigners has changed drastically from the “mendicant doing the rope trick” stereotype. In the eyes of the world, the abstract trait called Indianness seems to be going through a massive transformation. But, is there something substantial under this ephemeral veneer, something distinctive and different from other cultures? 

Over the millennia different people had different qualities attached to Indianness. Xuan Zang (Hieun Tsang), the famous Chinese traveller of the 8th century, spent many years in Nalanda University, and considered India as the fountainhead of knowledge and spirituality. Mark Twain likened Indianness to dreams and romance, fabulous wealth cohabiting with fabulous poverty. During the colonial period, British writers described Indianness with diametrically opposite adjectives – either being forever fragmented or spiritually transcendent, phenomenally talented or pathetically imitative, astonishingly superstitious or remarkably evolved, disgustingly servile or proudly rebellious. Mohandas Gandhi described Indianness above all as being tolerant and non-violent. The noted economist John Kenneth Galbraith once connected Indianness to an attitude of tolerating a “functioning anarchy”(2) . One can say that Indianness is all these combined, a typical Indian curry rich in all favours, tingling to all senses, an exotic mixture of a variety of spices. But can we leave it at that?

When commenting on Indianness why do independent observers seem to be at complete variance with each other? For example, let us look at the popular perception that Indianness is an insatiable desire for position and power. Mukesh Ambani has to live in the world’s costliest house that is only 27 stories tall! Lakshmi Mittal had to organise his daughter’s engagement in a place no less grand than the Palace of Versailles. In today’s Indian society everyone is judged by the position he or she occupies in the hierarchical scale. In the past, the caste hierarchy was prescriptive, positioning individuals in the social scale as a consequence of their birth. Today, various additional factors determine one’s position in society. What was started in 1947 by the new rulers has caught the imagination of future generations of the powerful as well. 

Just as the British colonialists awed the natives with their power and position, today’s ministers and politicians awe their constituencies. While the civil servant cringes before his minister, he expects the same behaviour from his own subordinate. The body language of a person changes drastically depending on the situation – whether he is in front of his superior or his subordinate. Corruption,  ghotala and sycophancy, chamchagiri are words in daily use in India. Every day the newspapers carry full-page advertisements commemorating a leader’s birthday or death anniversary or lauding some achievement. Sky high cut-outs and huge hoardings are typical landmarks in Indian cities. Chamchas of political leaders hang around their gates and are at hand to loudly applaud them when they make their fiery speeches. Film stars have fan clubs boasting millions of members who are willing to wait hours in the queue for tickets for the first show. MGR, who became Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu in 1977 had an estimated 27,000 fan clubs which had 1.5 million members at that time. The status of Ministers is proportional to the length of their convoys or the number of black cats guarding them. But hero worship has its black side too. A rising star will get a disproportionate following, excessive adulation, godlike reverence. But a fallen hero will overnight attract equally disproportionate vehemence and hatred. Those who fawned on him will desert him with lightning speed. One can witness this kind of behaviour in every society, but in India perhaps this is taken to the extreme.

But if one were to paint all Indians as incorrigible sycophants, venally corrupt and shameless show-offs they would be wrong. The majority of working people in India have nothing to fl aunt, and can hardly afford sycophants. The Bhaktas despised status, position and discrimination. Appar, a Saivite in the Bhakti tradition of the South, expressed his anger against discrimination in these words:

Why the meaningless chatter about the scriptures? What do you really gain by the meaningless castes and lineages?

"sathiram pala pesum salakkarghaal, kothiramum kulamum kondhu en seiveer?"

Another attribute that is often attached to Indianness is factionalism. Swami Vivekananda once said that ‘three Indians cannot act together for five minutes. Each one struggles for power and in the long run the whole organisation comes to grief’. All political parties of the ruling elite in India are faction-ridden. Members of Parliament and Legislatures defecting to other parties became so common that a special law had to be introduced in 2003 to prevent run-away defections. Splits in political parties and the jockeying of various groups for power is common news. Members who defect or threaten to defect are often herded off by their parties to remote locations and pacified with all kinds of handouts until the threat of a noconfidence motion passes away. The central leadership of the ruling and opposition parties of the ruling class has to be constantly vigilant, and use all the four principal methods or upayas, to retain power – sama (conciliation), dama (blandishment), bheda (sowing dissensions in the enemy camp) and danda (punishment). 

Can we conclude that all Indians are and have been compulsive factionalists? The story of the Great Ghadar of 1857 refutes this hypothesis. During this uncompromising struggle against British colonialism a vast majority of Indians were united in purpose, irrespective of their caste, religion and region. People simultaneously rose up in many cities from Raigad in the West to Jalpaiguri in the East, from Thanjavur in the South to Peshawar in the North-west. Hundreds of patriotic kings and princes joined the Ghadar. Major sections of the army, the Madras Cavalry, the Bombay infantry and the Punjab garrisons together revolted against their British officers along with the bulk of the Bengal Army in the Indo-Gangetic plain. The same unity and purpose of action pervaded the entire struggle for freedom from the colonial yoke. The emergency of 1975 provoked a massive and united opposition from Indians across the entire length and breadth of the country. While on a day-to-day basis Indians are divided by region, caste, religion, language and political affiliation, these divisions tend to vanish when they are faced with a national crisis.

Today, a handful of big Indian business magnates such as the Tatas, Birlas, Mittals and the Ambanis claim that they are the driving force behind the recent phenomenal growth of the Indian economy. The Finance Minister claims that it is his clever policies that saved India from the recent global crisis. The Governor of the Reserve Bank claims that it is his monetary policy that will control inflation and spur demand. Even the Prime Minister doesn’t hesitate to give his advice to global leaders about how to manage their economies. This hubris is being lauded by The New York Times as a sign of the “awakening elephant”. John Lawrence, the Viceroy of India once declared that “we have not been elected or placed in power by the people, but we are here through our moral superiority, by the force of circumstances, by the will of providence”(3) These colonial and imperialist values have rubbed off on the Indian rulers as well. While it is the rich natural resources and the vast labour and talent of our people that is contributing to the growing respect and admiration that the country is getting from all over the world, the cabinet, bureaucrats and business tycoons take all the credit.

One rarely comes across the egotistical “I” in the evolution of Indian thought over the millennia. The Indian conception of rights never fell into the crass pit of the conception that “the individual is above everything else”. Indians recognised that they had both rights and duties as members of society. The interests of individuals have to be in harmony with those of the immediate collectives and the larger society. The King had his duty and so had the traders and artisans. Those who did not perform their duty had no rights as well. 

Even today, vast tracts of resources such as hills, watersheds and grazing land are commonly owned, and jointly managed by communities. A huge movement is growing against multinationals such as Posco and Vedanta, because they refuse to acknowledge this tradition. Knowledge was also common property handed down from generation to generation. For example:

  • There is no one author for the huge compendium of Indian thought called the Vedas. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata have been freely translated and adapted in different regions in different ways. 
  • In what could be alarmingly termed as plagiarism in the West, there are an estimated 1000 versions of the Ramayana in eleven Indian languages and ten South and South-east Asian languages(4). Although these versions acknowledge Valmiki as .their inspiration, they are far from translations. They are independent works drawing on the immortal myth adorned with the philosophical and literary influences of their time. 
  • While the Arthashastra, the ancient Indian text on political theory and statecraft, is attributed to Chanakya, historians believe that there were at least three Chanakyas who lived at different times, and that the first version of the text itself was an improvisation over earlier texts. 
  • Avvaiyar was the name given to many women poets who lived at different times and contributed to Tamil literature. The name was actually a title which meant “respectable good lady”. The quality of the author mattered more than the individual’s personal traits. 

One may conclude that the idea of patents and copyrights was alien to Indian thought and tradition, where texts on philosophy, medicine, art, music and craft were feely exchanged, embellished and handed over from generation to generation. The possibility that ginger and turmeric, grown, improvised and used for millennia, can be patented and owned by some multinational, surprises the Indian peasants. Similar would be the astonishment if one were to suggest patenting the Bhagavad Gita or the concept of zero. Perhaps there is something called Indianness after all. 

Kishore Biyani, the retail trade magnate, who owns massive retail chains such as Big Bazaar, once declared in an interview that when hiring people, he looks out for Indianness(5) ,Anybody who does not understand India or Indian thinking” . we don’t hire”, he said. When the interviewer doggedly asked him how he would judge that, he was confident that just one meeting with the applicant would establish that. There are, of course, some easily identifiable traits in Indians. For example, one has to be aware of selected members in the World Cup cricket team to be called an informed Indian. Indian cricket today earns as much as the rest of the world put together. Though predominantly a masculine pursuit, 77 million Indians watched the Champions League in 2010 (6) Love for films is again one more trait that Indians can be identified with. India is the world’s the most prolific movie market and the largest producer of films.(7) In 2009, India produced a staggering total of 2961 films. 3.2 billion movie tickets were sold last year (8), almost 3 tickets per head. The myths around Rajnikant, the superstar of Tamil films, would make Superman look like a wannabe. Just as the English love football and the Swiss love cheese, Indians love cricket and movies. Besides these superficial traits, however, is there a trait which the whole world recognises as something distinctly Indian? 

Often foreigners associate Indianness with Gandhi’s credo of ahimsa, non-violence. So intense was the influence of this doctrine on the Indian freedom movement that India is perhaps the only country in the world where colonial institutions were preserved intact and even embellished by those it dominated for centuries. The new Indian rulers effortlessly moved into palaces and posts vacated by their colonial masters. The myth of  ahimsa as intrinsic to the Indian psyche was sold by Gandhi and conveniently bought by the British. Warren Hastings, the British Governor General, once described the Indian character as: “They are gentle and benevolent, more susceptible of gratitude for kindness shown them, and less prompted to vengeance for wrongs inflicted than any people on the face of the earth”. And then he proceeded to cruelly take advantage of this disposition. A gentle and forgiving disposition on the part of the ruled is definitely a god’s gift for the invader. Gandhi devised a form of protest that was a perfect fit for this colonial perception of the Indian temperament. The Ghadar of 1857 had earlier shattered this perception to pieces, but forces were unleashed by the colonial establishment to reinforce this myth to make violent overthrow of colonialism look non-Indian and alien. Indians may not have the murderous passion of the Crusaders, or the brutal disdain of the Turkish conquerors for their subjects. But when pushed to the brink, they can be as retributive as any insurgent people. Revolutionary movements like those led by Bhagat Singh and the countless number of armed uprisings such as the Tebhaga and the Telengana confirm this. In his book, “India: Emerging Power”, Stephen Cohen observed that India was “uniquely unassertive towards others”. Historians have pointed out that unlike Mongols, Turks or the European powers, Indian kings never pursued military conquests. Rajaraja Chola led an expedition all the way to Kampuchea, left many temples and viharas behind but not military outposts. Many strategists of the ruling class go so far as to argue that it is this so-called unassertiveness that is leading to the acceptance of India’s rise by other powers as a “peaceful” phenomenon. 

In 2008, Indian authorities reluctantly admitted that at least 47,000 people were killed in the recent two decades of insurgency in Kashmir (9). When hundreds of battalions of the Indian army have been deployed to contain the insurgency in Kashmir and the North-east, it is hard to believe that Indians are innately unassertive. If survival and safety of life and limb was the main consideration, then Indians would have never resisted the onslaughts of foreign invaders at great cost to life and property from the time of the Mughals and even earlier. 

The argumentative tradition of Indians has been discussed extensively in literature. The Vedas, composed in the second millennium BC, tell stories, speculate about the world and ask a lot of questions, including such questions as “did someone make the world or was it a spontaneous emergence, and is there a God who knows what really happened?”(10). Even an epic hero such as Rama was treated as a hero with both good and bad qualities, and subjected to uncomfortable questions by a pundit called Javali. Even emperor Alexander had to contend with argumentative Indians in the 4th century BC. When he expressed his annoyance at the scant respect that a group of Jain philosophers showed him, he received the following reply:

“King Alexander, every man can possess only so much of the earth’s surface as this we are standing on. You are but human like the rest of us, save that you are always busy and upto no good, travelling so many miles from your home, a nuisance to yourself and to others!… You will soon be dead, and then you will own just as much of the earth as will suffice to bury you”(11)

It seems that the Buddhist emperor Ashoka, as early as the 3rd century BC, laid down perhaps the oldest rules for conducting debates and disputations, and advised that opponents should be duly honoured in every way on all occasions. Women were not lagging behind men in such discussions. The examples of the ‘arguing combat’ between Yajnavalkya and Gargi, the argument that Draupadi has with her husband King Yudhisthira, and the magnificent speech by the wronged Kannagi in the court of the Pandya King are examples. This tradition was followed by the exponents of the Bhakti and Sufi  movements, when they questioned the caste system and inequality. Many of these exponents came from the working class: Kabir was a weaver, Ravidas a shoe maker, Nandanar an untouchable. 

It is no surprise that this argumentative tradition and the political discussions gave rise to a robust political theory and institutions. Even at the time of the Vedas, there was a seven part state (king, minister, friend/ally, treasury, country, fort and army). The King and the seven institutions were subordinate to the people. The relationship between the raja and the praja changed in the post-vedic period. Nevertheless the continuing debate on political theory gave rise to various people’s institutions such as the Buddhist “sangha” (council), and the Sabhas and Samitis, each having specific roles and responsibilities. 

Some authors such as Amartya Sen see a connection between this trait of Indianness — the tradition of argument, respect for divergent views, the acceptance of heterodoxy – and the current system of democracy and the “secularism” of the Indian state. But today’s parliamentary institutions are a far cry from the seven part state of the Vedic period or the councils, sabhas and samitis that thrived later and which were vibrant centres of debate and discussion, close to people’s concerns and fully accountable to them. India has been home to several religions – Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Parsis, Sikhs, Bahai’s and others – and several sects and subsects. Ashoka demanded “restraint in regard to speech, so that there should be no extolment of one’s own sector disparagement of other sects on inappropriate occasions, and it should be moderate even on appropriate occasions”. In contrast, the “secular fabric” that has been woven by the rulers covers up regular communal tensions and communal holocausts without punishing the guilty.

The 21st century is witnessing the emergence of a modern Indianness. It is a product of the challenges of the present and the opportunities of the future. In equal measure it draws strength from its past. Unlike in colonial times, no one can deny today that the Indian people who have evolved in the same crucible for thousands of years have developed common traits, cultural similarities, overlapping identities and above all a distinctive philosophy and world outlook. But under this awning of Indianness there is a growing assertiveness from below against the obstinate efforts of the “brown sahebs” to continue in the colonial tradition to paint Indianness as something backward, divisive, discriminatory and parochial, while a blind admiration of the European point of view or lifestyle is promoted as being global, modern and cosmopolitan. This portrayal has helped the ruling elite to advance their own interests at the cost of the vast majority of the Indian people. For the big business houses and the politicians, ministers, bureaucrats and judges who serve them, Indianness has been a convenient handle so far to keep the people divided while at the same time rallying them behind their ambitions to become an aggressive super power. But the search for a modern Indianness is making it increasingly difficult for the rulers to continue in the old way.


1 Defining Indianness: Contributor Sam Chacko Shares His Thoughts on Indian Identity,
2 “Being Indian”, Pavan K Varma, Penguin Books
3 Crisis of Values: For a modern Indian political theory
4 “The Kamba Ramayana”, Penguin Books
5 ‘We look for Indianness in every hire’ – Rediff Getahead.mht
8 lmgoers.html
10 The Argumentative Indian, Amartya Sen, Penguin Books
11 ibid

S Raghavan is the editor of the Ghadar Jari Hai Magazine. He has a deep interest in India’s cultural, economic and social past, present and future. 


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