Friday, May 21, 2010

Identity Issues

This post is seriously overdue. 
My friends have commented on the previous post and raised pertinent issues. One of the foremost of these  being a displeasure with my interpretation of the Gita. As I had stated earlier, I am not claiming that mine is the definitive interpretation. However, I will not accept it to be wrong. An interpretation cannot be declared right or wrong; the critic can at best ask for a justification or an argument to support one's hypothesis. 
It is generally agreed that Arjuna was advised to do his duty. While I go with that part of the common interpretation, I would like to ask the following questions: 
1. Duty towards whom?
2. Duty for what?
3. Why should I not worry about the result (and in some cases the outcome) of my action?
4. If I do something how can I shrug off the responsibility of the results of my action?
5. Where does my rationality figure in all this?
The last question is the most important one. I am not demeaning faith here. I have immense respect for the faithful. It takes a lot of courage to believe in an abstract concept and to let your faith guide you through life. Also, it takes a lot of courage to hand over your rationality to an abstract concept. Even Arjuna, the Nar of the Nar-Naryana duo and therefore our preceptor, didn't do that. He believed in his hero, a human form whom he could perceive with all his senses. But his descendants outdo him. 
Most of the faithful, follow some interpretation of one or more of our religious texts. Very often they believe or are led to believe that the interpretation they follow is the most authentic one. This leads to fundamentalist thoughts and practices. While the people who identify with the group that is usually recognised as the intelligentsia feel there is not an iota of fundamentalism in them, I believe all of us are confused, for we are straddling between contradictory group identities.  
Take the case of Nirupama Pathak, a member of a professional class that is considered part of the intelligentsia in most societies. Her story is rife with contradictions. Not just the kinds of contradictions that make investigation difficult but also the kinds that make life difficult. The media tells us Nirupama was told by her father that the Sanatan Dharma precedes the Indian Constitution. He was not stating a historical fact. He was revealing the group he identifies with. Dharmendra Pathak was telling his daughter that his identity as a follower of Sanatan Dharma is more important to him than his identity as an Indian. Making such a declaration is not an act of treason in our country; nor is it an instance of disrespect to the constitution. The very same man was spending hard-earned money to help his daughter crack a rigorous set of tests to join the elite group that formulates public policy in our country. This sort of ideological confusion in more a norm than an exception in our country. His daughter was prey to similar confusions. This girl trained to become a journalist at one of India's most competitive journalism schools. She moved from a small town in a backward state of our county to the capital of the country to join a demanding profession. Probably, she set an example for dozens of girls in her town to think of careers. The very same girl addressed her lover in the form that is reserved for husbands in traditional Indian marriages. Her lover, who reminded her that she was a journalist and therefore cannot be coerced into anything, was fully aware of her rights and power as a journalist. Parallely, he seemed to have accepted her formal way of address and thereby endorsed the power imbalance between them. And as we all know, this power imbalance arises from age-old perceptions of gender roles in our society. This young journalist couple, with one of the best training in their field, were mimicking the power-structure that their parents followed; at least in form. Here is an instance of education leading to good careers but not to radical change in personal choices of social practices.
Poor Nirupama lost her life due to her confusions. There are those also who thrive in them and glorify them. The less said of the leaders of the khap panchayat the better. These men are committing atrocities in the name of duty towards their culture. Most of them might not be able to state the religious source for their diktats on the kinds of alliances they will endorse and the kinds they will condemn. They get self-righteous about practising obsolete customs and do not feel the need to give their declarations even a semblance of rationality. The leaders of these khap panchayats wield an immense amount of power under the guise of culture. And once again, the most vulnerable are the women. With their rules, these men efficiently ensure that a woman marries into a village where she has no support; a place where there are no chances of finding a connection with her natal family. With such customs, a bride enters a domain where she cannot find the comfort of familiarity, will have to set out to be amiable and create a support structure. No wonder they cry as they do towards the end of the wedding ceremony. And the few who dare to defy these culture czars are killed. 
And these culture czars of Haryana are very clever. They have declared that tradition is on their side. They now want the law of the land to support them too. And they have roped in a few representatives of the people to speeden their goal. While one would not blink an eye over their getting an Om Prakash Chautala in their team,  Navin Jindal was a total suprise. He stumped his party by identifying with his electorate rather than with his public persona of a progressive, educated, cosmopolitan young man. No wonder they have asked him to explain his group identity. 
So, Mr. Jindal which group do you identify with more? The urbane man or the jat?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Group Identity

I have just stepped out of an academic presentation of some serious research on the link between memory and self-identity. When I saw the notice for this presentation, I felt that it would not interest me at all, couched as it was in social science jargon. I gave in to a gentle nudge to 'waste my time' over it only to realise that it gave me well-researched answers to questions that have been plaguing me for over a week now.

Before all of you who have no interest in academia or academic debates stop reading, let me clarify, this is not a blog championing the cause of academia or an appeal to intelligent young people to consider academic careers. This is one more post adding to my corpus of such posts, on the need for young people to spend some time thinking: thinking about issues around them, issues that affect their lives and their choices. It is easy to take the "beaten path" and reach one's goal within the time-frame set by oneself but can one live with that kind of success if it involves trampling upon family and friends? Old question, I know. Most Indians would immediately think of Arjuna, Krishna and the Bhagvad Gita and various interpretations of Krishna's legendary advice to Arjuna. So, here is my version of that famous dialogue, it went somewhat like this:

Arjuna: How can I wage a war with my elders for a kingdom?
Krishna: Kingdom, you are not fighting for something as paltry as a bit of land, I created a kingdom for you, remember, that can always be taken care of; you are fighting for your right.
Arjuna: But is my right greater than peace?
Krishna: Well, your right might not be greater than peace but your duty of fighting the evil in the world is. These people you see in front of you are perpetrators and / or supporters of evil. Fighting them equals fighting evil. Now that, as you very well know, is a good thing. So, while you seem to be doing an evil thing you are actually doing a good thing. Go ahead, fight your family, teachers, cousins, nephews, childhood mates for this will lead to ushering a better world.

I know many of you will tell me that is an extremely simplistic interpretation of an important part of the great song. Yes, I know that. It was deliberate. Simplistic never means incorrect. Let us start with simple stuff first. Anyway, this is not an exposition on the Gita; I am using my interpretation of this famous conversation to illustrate my point.

In this famous instance, the warrior was convinced by his political advisor that he should identify the group he belongs to and act accordingly. The legendary warrior is not the only one who learnt his lesson well enough to lead his group to a Pyrrhic victory, most Indians learn this lesson rather well. We pick the groups we belong to and live by the rules of the group. Sooner than later, we learn to identify with some social groups and accept its rules. We then internalise those rules and develop our persona. People we interact with regularly can usually predict our behaviour and our reactions to social situations. That is possible because they learn to recognise the groups we belong to. The problems and discomfort begin when we shift allegiances from one group to another. Say, Arjuna decided that his allegiance lay with peace and not with helping in destroying some people identified as evil. What could Krishna have done then? What advice would he have given to Arjuna? That would have changed the Mahabharata significantly. It would probably have changed the Indian mindset also quite a bit, for we are a nation that takes our legends very seriously. Unfortunately, asking such questions borders on blasphemy. My intention, though, is to ask such questions and ask them of people whose behaviour affects the lives of millions in this nation.
Watch this space for on how group identities killed Nirupama Pathak and many more young girls in the recent past.