The ‘Indian’ resides only inside the pages of the passport

Conflicts between states are, in one sense, not surprising as they reflect a deeper reality which is that people from different states tend to look at each other with suspicion.

Conflicts between states are,  in one sense, not surprising as they reflect a deeper reality which is that people from different states tend to look at each other with suspicion.

The “Indian” as an identity is rather paradoxical. Within India they are everywhere, yet they are nowhere. Else, how would you explain the recent firing and killing of Assamese policemen by colleagues from neighbouring Mizoram? And, as if to make a point, the bloodletting happened just three weeks before the 75th anniversary of India’s independence.

Group clashes are pretty common in the country for a variety of reasons, from the personal to the communal. But what stood out in the July 26 clash was the fact that both were employees of the state and their brief — to protect the life and property of common citizens. Neither had any personal grouse against each other and yet the Mizo police fired and killed six Assamese colleagues.

The Assam-Mizoram border is not an international line; it hardly matters if a few square metres of land is either in one state or the other. It was not as if there were huge oil deposits below the disputed patch of land which could have yielded revenues to either of the states.  Not that this would have justified the firing, still one could have forgiven it as a lapse. But, in the absence of any pressing reason, one can only scratch the head until all the hair has dropped off.

Also read: Aftermath of Assam-Mizoram clash: Battle scars all around ground zero


The undeclared “war” (what else can one call it?)  between two states is the clearest confirmation that neither of the police forces considers themselves Indian, that they were  fraternal forces and it did not matter if some territory was in this side or that. It points to a glaring truth that “Indians” and “Indianism” are in short supply within the country, even 75 years after independence.

The government, especially the current dispensation at the Centre, may cry hoarse over One India this, and One India that….but that is still largely confined to rhetoric. It could probably even be counter-productive, for such rhetoric has done a disservice to federalism and diluted the autonomy of states.

As the Mizo-Assam clash showed,  people still identify themselves largely as the natives of a particular state. An individual becomes an “Indian”  only when s/he gets a passport and travels aboard.

But the North-East incident is not the only instance when the hollowness of being an “Indian” shows up.

On Friday, reports said Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar asked the prime minister to merge Marathi-speaking areas in Karnataka’s Belagavi region with Maharashtra. This, on the grounds that Marathi-speakers in Karnataka were being “meted injustice”.  Disputes like these are similar to the one between Assam and Meghalaya,  bordering on the ludicrous.

Explained: Assam & Mizoram’s 100-yr-old border spat

If Pawar is to be believed, one would imagine that Maharashtra is a state where justice was found in abundance and people of that state enjoy all the privileges that the Constitution promises them. But that, as we know, is far from reality. The state, or rather Maharashtrians, are plagued by evils that other states, including Karnataka, are riddled with – poverty,  inequality, farmers’ suicides, caste oppression etc.

It would hardly matter whether a Marathi speaker lives in Maharashtra or in Karnataka. Still politicians go on ad nauseam harping on inane inter-state disputes forgetting they are anyway part of a larger entity called India. One need not have a passport to travel from one state to another and there is literally no restriction on the right to movement, guaranteed under the Constitution. Unfortunately,  there is a constituency for such tripe and political parties even come to power based on such nonsensical assertions like Pawar’s.

And, not to forget issues like water-sharing disputes, such as Cauvery (between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka). While it is natural that water being a scarce resource, there can be a dispute in the matter of sharing the river, the ridiculous levels to which governments,  political parties and by extension their supporters have taken it to makes one wonder whether the two warring states even belong to the same nation.

The 1991 riots in which Tamils were targeted in Bangalore and in Karnataka was the lowest point in relations between two fraternal states that have a rich history of a shared culture that, more often than not, blurs even linguistic and ethnic differences. One could have attempted to forgive the violence had it been between two different countries. But that it happened within a single nation is a sign that it requires a lot more than, for instance,  unfurling the national flag and saluting it to be genuinely “Indian”.

The Cauvery dispute eventually was resolved constitutionally, by setting up a tribunal, hearing all sides to the issue over a period of time and giving an opportunity to all concerned.  Yet,  when the final award was announced,  the states were not willing to accept it — on specious grounds.

Also read: Mekedatu dam: Easing one state’s water shortage to make it worse for another?

Incidentally, the Interstate River Waters Disputes Act is among laws that have a strong legacy, drawing from international experiences and local realities. Still, political parties have chosen to politicise it to the point where the river is a permanent trigger for inter-state conflict. As for the larger entity called India,  that does not figure in this dispute.

Even today,  the Mekedatu project across the Cauvery river is heading into the regressive realm of one state versus the other. If Karnataka is pushing for it, Tamil Nadu is resisting it. In the process, the merit of the project itself is taking a backseat with some reports even warning of large-scale ecological damage to the Kabini basin and to the Cauvery wildlife sanctuary.

The larger issue of best practices in the usage of the Cauvery river water has rarely figured in any discussion. It is widely acknowledged that a large wastage of the river water occurs due to archaic methods of irrigation and use of the water in both disputing states when the rains are good and water is available in abundance. But no effort has been made to conserve the water to everyone’s benefit.

Conflicts between states are,  in one sense, not surprising as they reflect a deeper reality which is that people from different states tend to look at each other with suspicion.

People from different states ensure that they mutually keep each other at arms’ length distance. Their friendliness ends where marriage starts, for instance.   Rarely do matrimonial advertisements, for example,  seek out brides or grooms who are “Indian”.

Also read: Culture in Modi’s India: In reverse gear

Almost everyone invariably prefers sameness – of language and caste, among other things.  In the process, despite all these years of independence, communities live in silos, sometimes going to the extent of killing their own progeny if they dared cross boundaries of language and caste.

The recent case of a Kerala origin man, who was murdered in cold blood allegedly by his Rajasthani in-laws as he dared to marry his friend’s sister,  is a stark pointer to the real state of Indianness in this country. According to a report in The Federal,  the family of the girl said they had no idea what being a South Indian meant.

This succinctly sums up India, in the diamond jubilee year of its Independence.