Identity Crisis : Learning From Our Traditions



India and Indians seem to be going through a chaotic phase. There are several forms of crises taking place daily and most of which are due to our own making. Inflation seems to be persistent. Irrespective of official statistics and media analyses, prices of day-to-day commodities are going up. Several quick fix solutions for agricultural products seem to be damaging the livelihood of farmers and also damaging a good base of export markets assiduously built up over the past many years.

Industrial sector is not only slowing down but in many sectors production shops are closing down and people are losing jobs.

On the other hand, a slew of measures are announced and Bills passed by the Central Government. Some are meant to reach food grains to around 70% of Indians. Without getting into a debate on the  economic issues, one shudders to think of the implementation aspects. Going by the record of the past few years, one would not be surprised if a new IDENTITY CARD Scheme will be announced. Aadhar was a dream scheme of SINGLE IDENTITY CARD solving all problems of the poor in India.

The good old ration card was discarded for IDENTITY. The Public Distribution System (PDS) was discarded. The post offices which really reached most of India through money orders were discarded. Post office as a savings bank was discarded. The new identity for getting the subsidy transferred directly is through Aadhaar links. Several thousands of crores are spent on schemes like Aadhar and implementation of the Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT). There are also conflicting government announcements that Aadhaar cards are not necessary for getting Government subsidies. Supreme Court has recently ruled that it can only be optional.

A country which does not have a social security scheme for its citizens (a huge bulk of them except those who are employed in organised sectors, political masters and the rich persons) is obsessed with IDENTITY CARDS and biometric identification as USA is doing to counter terror networks. USA has given a social security number for each of its citizens many decades. They have a tradition of accepting driver’s licence as a valid identity.


Country is not only facing this obsession with IDENTITY CARDS, but also suffering the consequences of various IDENTITY politics which have been developed since independence for electoral gains. There is no identity as an Indian; the linguistic states for a while gave an identity associated with the language: Tamil, Telugu, etc... even then Hindi speaking states were not one.

Even within the linguistic states, there were(are) several separate identities. Some of which were traditional ones dating back to several centuries of evolution of Indian civilisation and also many historical partitions by kings, dynasties and invasions by foreign rulers. There were(are) many divisions of castes, sects of religions (of Hindu, Christian, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains etc...);  the tribes who have maintained their separate identities through all such onslaughts of civilisational changes, have also many divisions between them; such divisions or separate identities were(are) carefully preserved by them.

The Constitution of India considered all of them, including a number of immigrants who have become citizens of India, as one, having a single identity as INDIAN CITIZEN.

But that was only in theory – in legal text books and discourses. Or in the calculations of the technocrats who design IDENTITY CARDS. 

Reality of Indians is that their immediate identities, had been traditionally linked up with their villages, local communities, castes, religions etc... Not all of these traditions had respected the modern constitutional principles of equality, freedoms for individuals etc... Modernising forces, post independence, have challenged many of these traditions; still many of them have their vestigial remnants.


But, the electoral politics as it developed in India, have played upon many of these past differences to create sharp hate-identities of “We” versus “They”. These help in the constituencies for legislative assemblies and parliamentary constituencies. A slight excess of such identity groups in otherwise multicultural groups, can help an electoral victory (even with 20% votes polled) for a candidate “nurturing” such an identity. The earlier (historically) evolved harmonies (even with some tolerable tensions) are broken down for electoral conveniences; that explains the emergence of many splinter parties to attract IDENTITY POLITICS VOTES based on religious sects, caste, language, tribal affiliations etc... Of course superimposed on these identities, many other forces including corruption, play their roles. But these forms of identity politics have taken deep roots in India. There are several such identity crises even amongst big “national” parties which are supposed to represent a pan India identity and have modern economic social and global outlook. They try to dance to different tunes as required in some regions, or for all India level “identity politics”. They also add “modern” jargons like secular, socialist, nationalist, reformist, equity, human rights, Hindutva etc... In actual practice in terms of their actions and specific contents, there is a near total confusion as to what they mean.

Therefore many young Indians suffer from deep identity crisis as to what they stand for. The process of urbanisation and the rootless educational school system (about which Dr. N. Mahalingam has addressed in a recent issue of Kisan World) have confused the youth; they have not imbibed the traditional values derived from the centuries long Indian civilistion and culture. At the same time, they are given a superficial exposure to the Western modern culture. Ideas of “rights” are given without the attendant need for responsible behaviour. Freedom is not understood as being closely tied to social responsibility and civic sense.  “Work ethics” has not become a part of self-discipline. Instant gratification appeals to most of them as the sign of success in life. “Greed” replaces “enlightened self-interest” which is the basis of modern governance. 

Such attitudes are derived from the political processes in rural and urban India, at the grass root levels, middle and leadership levels. For electoral success various forms of fear, greed, hatred and irresponsible hopes are generated in people, in order to keep them within an IDENTITY group to get block votes.

In addition, other cultural identities even from abroad are shown through electronic media, most of them being distortions or exaggerations of real life. In the name of fusion many hybrid cultural identity forms are explored. It may be difficult for  many people especially for the youth, to discern the basic values. There is thus an all round identity crisis in rural and urban areas. It may be called “churning” as well.


It is natural that the governance systems are the creatures of or subservient to the political power, be they kings, emperors, dictators, or various forms of constitutional rulers (single party republics to multi party parliamentary democracies). Dharma, varyingly interpreted, formed the basis of rule by most Indian kings in addition to the principles and practices given in Artha Sastra by Chanakya. There were several other guides such as Thirukural; lot of it is devoted to rulers, governance, wealth generation and distribution; it also weaves through all the verses the principles of Dharma (Aram in Tamil). There are many similar books, poems and traditions in all parts of India. Tribal societies are governed and regulated well through the tribal traditions, culture as well as fairy tales.

In later centuries diverse traditions of Islam and Judeo-Christian traditions had their impact as well.

Coming now to the present Indian government system, it is based on a written Constitution which derives a lot from British governance systems as they practiced in India, in Britain and also American governance systems. They have derived from the Indian traditions. The principles enunciated in the Indian constitution contain some of best modern ideas about humanity and can be shining examples for other countries as well. The constitution has been amended many times since its adoption in 1950. The changes reflect many of the political processes we have described earlier; therefore not all of them are in the long term interest of Indian Republic and Indian people.

For example over centralisation had not been the crucial feature of India governance systems, even under the reign of many powerful Emperors. Villages enjoyed considerable autonomy. To be sure various separate identities existed even within the small villages, some of them despicable as was the case of untouchability. As can be seen from the evolution of Indian culture, the Bhakti movements, the impact of Jainism, Buddhism and other sects of Hinduism, work of Christian missionaries, active emergence of Fakirs, absorption of ideas and practices of many specific tribal or native peoples’ cultures, impact of modern European Renaissance and attendant world outlook etc... all of them had a place in India and amidst Indian people.

In that process, many syncretic traditions and symbiotic forms of co-existence emerged. Many of them are still continuing, in spite of continual attacks by identity politics we have drescribed earlier. In fact these syncretic traditions, and tolerance resulting from symbiotic existence, form the essence of Indian civilisation. Every Indian language has an equivalent of the Tamil saying: “Yaadum Oorey; Yaavarum Kelir” (Each place is our place; All are our relatives). Acceptance of all religions and faith forms is the strength of India. It is exemplified from the bhakti literature and works of saints like Kabir, Guru Nanak Dev, Tukaram, Jnana dev, Ramalinga Swamigal, to name a  few. Even now, some of those traditions continue, though in some cases, high pressure advertisements by a number of contemporary religious leaders tend to mask the inner undercurrent of “acceptance of all” (not just tolerance).

At this point, it is worth looking at a quote from a book by an English ICS administrator Philip Manson “The Men Who Ruled India” (2002 Sixth Impression Rupa and Co.)

“It is not easy for honesty and pity to flourish at the court of absolutism anywhere… No one need be surprised that such growths are hard to find among Mogul courtiers and officials.  But somehow, among the peasants, in their stony soil of fear, hunger and poverty, these virtues did survive; they were still to be found in the villages, if you went to look for them, three hundred years later, together with a warm hospitality and the dignity of people poor in material possessions but conscious of long ancestory. It is hard to understand how these things survived but they did.”

Mahatma Gandhi saw these very clearly and hence was asking for decentralisation to the village levels. After about 66 years of independence, these may be valid but they are being severely shaken.

Unfortunately the Indian governance systems, post independence, have been moving more and more away from these traditions. Under the names of secularism, post-modernist ideas of individual liberties as articulated in Europe and USA, the overly centralised iconisation by the media, etc... tend to disrupt the beautiful harmony carefully preserved through the evolution of syncretic traditions and acceptance of symbiosis in India, as a way of life. Idea-absolutism is being forced from Delhi and by media monopolies.

There is a continuing over centralisation of many items at the Central Government level and at best some elements are delegated to the state government levels. The policies and procedures are increasingly framed with short term political motivations, and also using technocratic bureaucratic approach. One-size-fits-all “pan-India” or “pan-State” models are pushed: like identity cards, direct transfer of benefits, single model syllabus, single entry exams, single type of lists for subsidies etc... The knee jerk controls on movement and sale agricultural products, based on such single-type models, cause lots of local damage.

Way of life of Indians, which has seen many such onslaughts through its long history, adapts to more acceptable local forms through mechanisms of corruption, adhoc local changes (which are strictly speaking illegal and which is beautifully described in Bengaluru “adjust maadi”!) Some years later, some of these are “exposed” as scams! Why in the first place adopt rules and regulations that do not fit in properly? Why not adopt governance systems which empower local adjustments in a consultative manner? Yes, in the process, the centralised power structures in the political parties and in govts will become less powerful! Do we want powerful India and increasingly better lives of Indians at all levels of the social-economic hierarchy? This decentralised governance is not an utopia; some European countries like Switzerland practice this governance system, a large extent USA practises it; even the counties in USA have power; individual communities enjoy their freedoms. 

If this is done, it will greatly reduce the IDENTITY CRISIS we had described earlier. When empowered locally, the people will learn how to exercise power, and to live  more harmoniously. The persons who fail to implement will be available locally to answer, not sitting in distant air conditioned rooms. The person present locally to implement cannot escape pointing fingers at “Melidam” “Oopar sey order lena padegaa” (higher place; we have to get the order from higher authorities).


Governance systems are important first foundation to avoid the identity arises spreading amongst our people because in the existing systems they feel that they are powerless; they have to catch “somebody-in-the-power-hierarchy” to get even simple things in their lives. They are thus ready material to be manipulated for some form of “identity politics” or “false-hope schemes”. They become so gullible to fall for various schemes announced as their final “saviours”.

But as we have noted earlier, governance systems are subservient to the political powers and the political processes. Therefore there is a critical need to change the political processes away from IDENTITY POLITICS and IDENTITY CRISES towards more tolerant syncretic traditions of India. Even sharp differences can be adjusted in symbiotic relationships, as biology shows us and as Indian civilisation has shown us.

How to effect such changes to the political processes? Not by another spate of constitutional amendments or enacting new Bills. No doubt some of existing laws would require changes and even jettisoning, as most of them have been enacted under the heat of identity politics or political number games.

These apart, real changes can sustain in our society, only when we re-learn to capture the essence of our traditions, described earlier rather briefly in this article.

If we look back recent Indian history, the entire Independence struggle revolved around the recapturing of the Indian traditions and give them prime importance in the modern context. Blending the strengths of our traditions, with modern knowledge of science, technology, engineering, medicine, economics and administration, was the key motive force. We see this in the writings of many of leaders: Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajaji, Ambedkar, Subramanya Bharati, Vivekananda, Maulana Azad and many others from all parts of India. Though in detail there may be many shades of variations, on the aspiration of such a blending there was almost a near consensus.

But post-independence, this aspiration was abandoned, to be repeated only during some special annual functions, but not for actual practice.

In addition to the hurly-burly of electoral politics, abandoning of Indian languages (which the British described as vernaculars, the language of the slaves) accelerated the speedy disconnect with the Indian traditions. Though in form, linguistic states that were formed and the languages used for local administrations were Indian languages, they were mere replicas of English – that too in complicated forms, not making much sense to the people.

At a time, when British Government has made it mandatory for all UK government offices to use plain English, we are complicating government’s language in English and in turn the Indian languages are made to copy them as translations!

Languages are the repositories of and identities of culture. That is why India has a few hundred well developed dialects, though not necessarily having separate scripts.  Many dialects are falling into disuse and may wither away. In addition, the major Indian languages from Assamese to Bengali to Telugu to Urdu (see the Indian rupee note) are suffering from major atrophies. Even when students are taught in the local language, it is in some “cloned forms” to adopt the texts of NCERT written in English. The social studies contain some “caricatures” of local histories. Local people are often dismissed as tribes or with some pronouns describing them.

The entire bulk of literature which describe dharma in story forms or poetry forms or other textual forms are dumped as items to be specialised during post-graduation. The entire folklore (Naadodi Paadalgal in Tamil) are relegated to some special art forms; they were the strengths of our people, reminding them in simple language, the realities of life, the responsibilities in life etc; similarly epics like Ramayana, Mahabharata etc... and literary master pieces of Kalidasa or Silappadgaram, Manimegaliai etc... (and similar ones in Indian languages), Pancha Tantra stories, as well as works in Indian languages about other religions like Christianity, Islam etc... are kept away from our more “endowed” children (who are fed with “Daddy-Mummy culture” without its attendant disciplines as it is in West) or even from “ordinary” children who study in Indian language medium, under some pretext or another. 

We can save the Indian languages only when all our children who finish standard 10 to 12 are reasonably well familiar with such literature including folk tales at least in one Indian language. This familiarity should be beyond mere passing of examinations or scoring high marks. It should be such as to kindle in them an excitement to explore more and share more.

That brings us to another important point. The availability of such literature, folktales, prose etc... in down loadable e-forms on a massive scale is necessary to sustain their interest. Today efforts of a few individuals or groups, are giving cyber presence to Indian literature. But it should be on a massive scale. Government should take a lead. Instead of squandering tax payers’ money in schemes for issuing identity cards or creating data bases (partly aimed as a “stimulus” package for our IT industry), such a cyber project for Indian languages will be lot more useful to re-invent Indian traditions through Indian languages.

Simultaneously efforts should be made to describe modern knowledge bases in Indian languages not as mere translations of complex English forms but as simple forms to reach people. Let us bear in mind the British Govt’s instructions on plain English. The officials / offices in Indian languages should follow similar lines, with the strength of local traditional use.

Look at the Indian word “Lakshman Rekha”: how much more rich, it is in contents and dimensions than “Red Line” used by President Obama for Syria. Of course English has its own such words: but rich in their context than which can appear in Tamil or Hindi translations!

Thus a massive movement is necessary, not just to talk in Indian languages or to introduce it as a compulsory subject, but to create conditions for our youth to learn the truths and traditional wisdom about life through our languages. Then they will gain a special identity for themselves; when taken collectively in a holistic manner, that will be the Indian identity which has evolved over millennia. Simultaneously, growth of our languages in modern knowledge domains, for which good knowledge of English is a must. Capturing into the Indian languages, foreign words as necessary, will further strengthen the process of having all Indian people drawn into modern life with the strength of our traditions.


If this is well done, even our politics will change. The force of our traditions imparted through our age old literature, will be an antidote against the poisons of identity-politics-hatreds; excessive greeds; irresponsible tendencies for instant gratification; unnecessary fears against “others”. That force of tradition will also imbibe many positive features in our people: such as evolution of syncretic traditions in modern forms; acceptance of certain symbiotic relations as a necessary part of life; enjoying diversity and above all the ability to adopt the great principles and pillars of ethics: reciprocity and empathy (we have described about them in an earlier article in Kisan World).

An India with a new face and all Indians with new strength, vitality, vigour and hope will find a new IDENTITY for themselves. They will also shine in the world with the strength of Indian languages and English.

Y S Rajan.