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What it means to be an Indian?

Nimbupani has an interesting post on “are they us“?, which is still having some active and lively discussions.

Very many years ago, I used to have a very simplistic exclusive view to what Indian means. “If you live in India, you are an Indian”. period.

One fine day, I had to fill in an application form for a scholarship in Singapore, in which the race column had four choices – Chinese /Malay /Indian/Others. Suddenly, Indian was not a nationality, but a race. That was a new concept to me. And my idea of Indian expanded a bit. As I left India, I still wanted myself to be included as Indian. But I didn’t want to include any Singaporean Indians. So I changed my definition to “If you hold an Indian passport, you are an Indian”.

Years went by. I had lived in Singapore for sometime. Things change. Habits change. Mannerisms change. And this FOB Indian seemed to be in a quandary between Fresher-Of-the-Boat Indians and the Singaporean Indian world. Taxi drivers started complaining to me about how they don’t understand the accent of Indians who come from India – they inferred from my fake Singlish that I was born and brought up there. My old definition still protected me, but I was beginning to empathise a bit with the other side too. So I generously expanded my definition to “If you hold an Indian passport OR If you are an Indian by race and I like you, you are an Indian” (ya, I still couldn’t include everyone and that was my loophole).

More years went by. I attended a job interview in which the interviewer asked me out of the blue whether I would be willing to give up my Indian citizenship. The process for visa for Indians (PS. this is not for Germany) was very tedious and he said it would be easier if I changed my citizenship. I don’t know why, but I said a firm indignant No. (Before we start any employer bashing, I did get the job offer regardless of my less-than-perfect answer, but refused it partly because of the long winded visa process and my unwillingness to wait.) Nevertheless, the incident made me ponder what I would have done if really a great job offer depended on my willingness to forsake my citizenship. The truth is, if it isn’t such a sudden unexpected question and if all other factors are excellent, I may not say No a second time. After all, what is in a passport? Its who you are that counts. And to protect myself from any such possibilities in the future, I arrived at my current definition for Indian, “I think I am an Indian, therefore I am an Indian”.

The concept of Indian is fluid and its precisely in its fluidity that it finds its beauty. We all have different definitions for what it means to be an Indian. In my life so far, I have already gone through four. Who knows how many more there are to come. I don’t think a billion people would ever come to a consensus on what it means to be an Indian. Nevertheless, the topic will still be one close to our hearts.

I would love to write about it more, but just don’t have the time now. So for now, I will just leave you with two links.

Scoot over to Divya’s and she (and the commenters there) have some great arguments.

The second one is on the flip side of this coin. Even as we struggle to be included as Indians, we have to fit in into the environs that we live in. Here is one of my old posts on how far I will go in adjusting to a new place.

Gotta go. More later.


38 Responses

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  1. divya says

    Surya: “The concept of Indian is fluid and its precisely in its fluidity that it finds its beauty. We all have different definitions for what it means to be an Indian. In my life so far, I have already gone through four. Who knows how many more there are to come. I don’t think a billion people would ever come to a consensus on what it means to be an Indian.”

    Very beautifully put!

  2. angelsera says

    I agree with what Divya says.

  3. nmk says

    Well put. The definition of what it means to be indian is definitely a personal one.

    The way I look at it (and I seem to be living on a desert island on this one) is someone is an indian if they share a common background with me (heritage, upbringing, cricket or the willingness to argue)and someone to whom I can relate.

    (BTW Sonia Gandhi is IMHO not an indian).

  4. divya says

    NMK: then pardon the verbally challenged, for they are not indians! =D

  5. najeeb says

    I am not so sure about the Indian identity that we keep talking about here. A Pakistani is closer to a North Indian culturally than a north Indian to a keralite. The boundaries of nations were drawn up by the powerful people for their convenience and for us it is a mere coincidence that we happened to be in India. In my view, the whole of south asia shares the same cultural parameters. Anyways, a thought-provoking post :)

  6. surreal reality says

    My only problem with the “cogito, ergo sum” argument towards national identity is consistency, or the lack of it.

    If I think I am NOT an Indian (as most people who adopt foreign accents as soon as they receive their visas), does that make me a non-Indian? What about external perception?

    Illustrates the ubiquitous conundrum.. Nationalism or Rationalism?.

    Najeeb: “In my view, the whole of south asia shares the same cultural parameters.”
    Really?

  7. Atul says

    Beautifully said surya. But i find hard to agree with Najeebs point of view. India is a religion and being an Indian is believing in that whether you are a malayalee or a Punjabi, Gujarathi or Bengali.
    I believe in India. I am proud of my India. Hence i am an Indian.
    And more importantly no matter where you are; kerala,singapore or germany; if you still feel the same belief for your mother land, then only you can be termed as an Indian.

  8. Jojan says

    Good work Surya! It’s no wonder that different opinions arise here, depending on the criteria applied and the answering person. No universally accepted definition of the term ‘Indian’ exists – socially, administratively, legislatively or judicially. An individual’s sacred regard for language, his concept of the creation and his desire to live in harmony with the natural world are applied when seeking to define an Indian. Anyway, I agree more with what Mr.Atul said. My identity makes me what I am. It’s my beliefs that make me an Indian.

  9. Surya says

    Thanks for the comments. =)

  10. Pramod says

    Funny isn’t it that this topic generates so much heat compared to most other….

    Have you ever wondered when did this concept of “Indian” came into existence – and for sure its not an Indian creation….so much for Indianness…

    Anyway in today’s context – I do have to agree with Najeeb about the whole of South Asia encompassing Indianess. I go to Sri Lankan temples – very much Indian, eat at Pakistani restaurants – very much Indian again – more Indian (read North Indian) than what we get in Kerala for sure! And buy “Indian” grocery from a Bangladeshi shop. And in all these places – there isn’t anything that differentiates “them” from “us”

    Today I got a chance to hear Dalai Lama. There was a Q&A at the end – someone asked what does he think is the solution to the issue of Terrorism. His answer was quite interesting. He said – “there are two things that are happening – A short term reaction and a long term result.

    First with the use of war and other forms of violent reactions – today there is just one bin laden, tomorrow there will be 2, then 4 and soon it will beyond anyones control. And technology – developed by no one but today’s governments – makes violence so much more accessible to these angry people. The world might soon become a difficult place to live…

    Most of the countries today are using some sort of violence or exclusion as a solution. But today the world we live in – in terms of economics, ecology and technology are no longer divisible by boundaries. It is no longer possible to differentiate between us and them. There is no us and them. ”

    I tend to agree with him. Its kind of futile to spend too much time in trying to create an identity based on things that are no longer relevant.

  11. Rajesh says

    Surya ,

    A nice one but could have been longer. Anyways for me, I believe am an Indian as far as the National Anthem gives me goose bumps !

    At the end of the day, whereever the Indian is in the world, he will be emotionally tied to India. I am sure people living outside India will accept this wholeheartly !

    Cheers,
    – Rajesh

  12. Surya says

    Hi Rajesh,

    Thanks for dropping by..
    yes, I agree abt the emotional ties..

  13. madan says

    Indians outside India are more like Indians than Indians in India

  14. Surya says

    Indians outside India are more like Indians than Indians in India

    Thats a bit extreme a statement, dont you think? If Indians in India are not like Indians, what are they like? I would say in many ways they define Indian – and the expats have to keep up..

  15. madan says

    Indians in India donot take pride in India. They are fascinated by anything non-indian. I want every Indian to respect India. For that to happen, Indians should act with better civic sense.

  16. jojan devasia says

    please send me some ieds

  17. Surya says

    Indians in India donot take pride in India

    If you say so..
    Living outside India, I will be slow to make that judgement.

  18. kp says

    This is a very interesting discussion. So many definitions for being Indian and all of them so correct. Suryas definition that I think I am Indian and therefore I am Indian is interesting. I am not saying it is wrong, but there is a flaw. We cannot accept the corollary of this definition. If an Indian Citizen starts thinking that he is no longer Indian, but a Newyorker, what do we do? Should we strip him off his citizenship and pack him off to Newyork? I think not. He would still be an Indian, may be mad one, but Indian none the less.
    I read at Divyas blog, how NMK tried to define Indian and how he was crucified for it. I think what he tried to do was describe a feeling of being Indian. How a cricket match against Pakistan is so important for us, how Festivals are so important to us in creating this feeling of unity.(even though just locally) And I think he is right. What you do when you think you are Indian is different for different people. People in Kerala may not celebrate Diwali, but we do cerebrate Onam which an Allahabadi doesnt. But thats the beauty of it. Indianness is more like Hinduism, No rules, only values.

    Have you felt pride when an Indian man becomes the 3rd richest man in the Planet? Do you feel proud to learn that All western countries think India would be a major global power in the next few years? Does it hurt you when some westerners portray india as a country full of snakecharmers and mudeating urine drinking savages? Overall, do you want good for India because you consider it YOUR HOME? If yes, then you are an Indian. Even if you dont think it, even if you dont like it at times, somewhere deep down you FEEL thats the truth. Hence my definition, If you feel Indian, then you should be one… (this allows for all future migrants) And if you dont, you shouldnt.

  19. Surya says

    I like your definition..”If you feel Indian, then you should be one… ”

    But do you think the Indian who wants to be a NewYorker feels Indian? That said, I would much rather stick to these definitions and ship him off to NY.

  20. mini says

    hie people ,
    INDIA is a glorious country and therefore has excelled in all spheres .If u feel d spirit of secularity u r an indian . If u feel that d hoards of foriegn invasions hav enriched ur already glorious culture u r an indian . Being indian is all about bein comprehensive and rational .For we r the indians that rocks the world.

  21. Efby Antony says

    In this era of globalization, should we give so much of significance to whether one is an Indian or Chinese or American??? I feel that nationality, religion, race etc are all arificial concepts and should be shrugged off. I think that we should judge people/places/cultures/languages based on their intrinsic merits/demerits rather than irrational feelings.

  22. surreal reality says

    Efby: Do you ever see the erosion of state boundaries in this “era of globalization”. Its a utopic dream to think of the collapse of the state system.

    This is a “realist” world where national security and survival of the nation state are paramount. No amount of liberalization or FDI/FII blah can change that.

  23. surreal reality says

    My point being that everything else you mention can be looked upon as a social construct but the state, nationality and nationalism cannot.

  24. contd says

    Not the collapse of the state system. The state system is very much needed to protect people from crime and to provide a social safety net. I’m talking about nationalism. As long as the state protects you from crime and allows you to trade(commodities or labor), it doesn’t matter which state you belong to.

    Love, respect, pride etc are feelings that need to be inspired out of free will. The dictum that I should love the country of my birth is as meaningless as the dictum that I should love the person who lives next door. Rather you should love/respect the person who inspires love/respect in you. You love your mother just because she gave birth to you or because she inspired love?

    >>Do you ever see the erosion of state boundaries in this “era of globalization”. ?

    No. But I do see the erosion of loyalties to the country of birth. When one sees that his country of birth doesn’t provide enough opportunities or that the tax that he pays is going into the pockets of some corrupt politicians/bureaucrats, eventually he’ll quit searching for greener pastures. And the ‘love for motherland’ will not remain dangling for long.

    State was made for the people, people were not made for the state.

  25. contd says

    I missed a comma and that changed the meaning of the sentence :( :
    eventually he’ll quit, searching for greener pastures.
    (Meaning he’ll quit his country of birth searching for greener pastures.)

  26. surreal reality says

    >>”As long as the state protects you from crime and allows you to trade(commodities or labor), it doesn’t matter which state you belong to.”

    If everyone left to seek greener pastures who will provide the protection? Or do you see this as the duty of a certain echelon while everyone else takes them for granted and goes to the “promise lands”.

    What about those who go back to their “motherland” to seek green pastures? Or maybe try to paint a greener hue in the otherwise sombre canvas?

    I’m a bit of an optimist and a bit more of a nationalist… so will rest my case before the owner of this blog decides to exercise her sovereign rights :).

  27. contd says

    >>If everyone left to seek greener pastures who will provide the protection?

    Protection is not about charity. Your remark is based on the premise that providing the protection is being done as a moral obligation, which is not the case. Most people join the police/defence forces out of their self-interest (meaning either as a good career or due to passion for that job or due to the salary/perks factor) And the funds required for providing protection is borne by the tax-payers. Understand the division of labor – Everyone cannot do everything.

    There is no free lunch in life…

    >>What about those who go back to their “motherland” to seek green pastures? Or maybe try to paint a greener hue in the otherwise sombre canvas?

    What about those who renounce their entire wealth for their religion, cast etc?? Does that signify anything? My point here is, the ‘motherland’ factor is as meaningless as a religious factor or a cast factor. What really matters is the intrinsic merit/demerit.

  28. surreal reality says

    Yes, I understand now why we have so many armchair critics.

    “There is no scope for change/improvement here, so why bother, lets just take the flight across the border”

    What I find really strange is that through the sands of history, millions and millions of people have died based on “meaningless” factors like nationalism.

    Geez! What idiots!

    Maybe we should just scream across the border “Bhai!! Lets look at the intrinsic merits of the situation. Screw nationalism, you can keep Kashmir but give us Shoaib Akhtar. Part of the free trade agreement!!”.

    Imagine there’s no countries,
    It isnt hard to do,
    Nothing to kill or die for,
    No religion too,
    Imagine all the people..
    Living life in peace…

    The world and Chapman didn’t even spare that poor bastard..

  29. contd says

    Rather than reacting emotionally, I’d advise you to have an objective view on the matter. When you open your mind to reason, you feel free. Let the free thought prevail(along with free trade)!!!! Just because you have been indoctrinated with all the nationalistic stuff since childhood, you are not bound to be enslaved by those.

    >>What I find really strange is that through the sands of history, millions and millions of people have died based on “meaningless” factors like nationalism.
    —-
    If people sacrificing their lives is your yardstick for right or wrong, then through the sands of history, millions and millions of people have died based on factors like religion(hindu-muslim riots, crusades,jihads etc), caste and skin-color. Do you support those people and their ideologies as well?

    >>“There is no scope for change/improvement here, so why bother, lets just take the flight across the border”

    If scope for improvement is your criteria then very good. But why mix it with nationalism? Concentrate on that human society which has the most scope for improvement. Why insist that I’ll improve only my motherland?

    >> Or maybe try to paint a greener hue in the otherwise sombre canvas?

    Very good idea. But again, why mix it with nationalism? Look for the most sombre canvas and paint a greener hue.

    >>Maybe we should just scream across the border “Bhai!! Lets look at the intrinsic merits of the situation. Screw nationalism, you can keep Kashmir but give us Shoaib Akhtar. Part of the free trade agreement!!”.
    ——

    If Indian and Pakistani politicians had looked at the issue objectively and tried to resolve it rather than mixing it with nationalism, the issue would have been solved long ago and we could have saved the lifes of several innocent soldiers and civilians. Unfortunately for most Indians and Pakistanis ‘owning’ Kashmir has become more important than having their daily bread and butter. Irrationality is all I can see…

  30. Ummm? says

    No,we Singaporean Indians do not wish to be associated with you guys.

  31. heartforindia says

    Hi Surya,
    I think your posts are very interesting
    I am a Punjabi from S’pore. I definitely think I am Indian. I think it is unfair to say that Singaporeans or Indians outside of India are not ‘real’ Indians. Alot of it depends on your upbringing. Infact, my mum was born and raised and educated there, coming here only after getting married. We still go visit our grandparents and other relatives regularly. Sometimes I even feel guilty for not identifying myself fully with the sporean culture coz I actually feel very happy when Miss India wins Miss World/ Universe or when some Indian makes it big.You guys blame us for not knowing how to speak fluent Hindi..again think abt it..u have been living in a country where most of the population is chinese..go to schools where the language is nonexistent..at home…some families speak n some don’t..some mixture..it is really different from living in India where everyone on the street knows the language and they are all indian..like for us my mum likes scolding in hindi..haha..has more effect i guess..though both parents do pepper sentences with punjabi n hindi…then theres hindi movies..that we have watched since young. One thing I have to say from what I have noticed..Indians from India are the most unadventurous lot when it comes to food..they dont mind eating bad indian food rather than good chinese food..

    Dont mean to offend.but i have found this to be true… sometimes I think Indians outside India are more ‘indian’than those living there…Indians from India do try to ape the west…well these are just my obervations, i am sure there are exceptions to what i have said.

  32. Valini says

    KP’s definition touched a chord the most to me. My grand parents migrated to British Guyana from Uttar Pradesh and Delhi, and I have felt hurt when Indians from India exclude me because we carry all the Hindu traditions and values that they brought with them still. We have never intermarried to any other race either. I identify with all the things KP said below, and I know in my heart that I am Indian. It is nice to see that many people here recognize the core of what it means to be Indian too. Thank you for making me feel belonginess, which has been rare among many.
    —————————————-
    Have you felt pride when an Indian man becomes the 3rd richest man in the Planet? Do you feel proud to learn that All western countries think India would be a major global power in the next few years? Does it hurt you when some westerners portray india as a country full of snakecharmers and mudeating urine drinking savages? Overall, do you want good for India because you consider it YOUR HOME? If yes, then you are an Indian. Even if you dont think it, even if you dont like it at times, somewhere deep down you FEEL thats the truth. Hence my definition, If you feel Indian, then you should be one… (this allows for all future migrants) And if you dont, you shouldnt.

    By kp on 08.22.05 3:11 pm

  33. Sangeetha Rebello says

    As an NRI (Non-Resident Indian) & TCK (Third Country Kid) I can honestly say that ‘feeling Indian’ just does’nt cut it in the real world. Quite frankly, as Madan put it ” Indians outside India are more like Indians than Indians in India.” But then it brings us back to the question of, what makes an Indian and Indian? Just because we don’t speak Hindi (which btw is just one language out of 250 that Indians speak) don’t dress in salwars & are not sure of the proper eating-with-hands etiquitte, does that make us less-Indian in what is supposed to be our Motherland?
    Non-Indians always find it strange when asking me about racism I’ve encountered I always answer back “by Indians in and out of India.” Even living in the Middle East never brought about such blatant racism as a Punjabi can by talking down to you in Hindi or by throwing in the word “ferenghi.” There is a certain kind of Indian that can make any Indian not brought up in India feel unwanted or out-of-place. Unfortunately for them, there are about 20 million of us living outside of India & no amount of racism, uplifting of brows when an NRI walks into a room, side-comments & whispers about the weird accents/haircuts/dress style, are going to stop THOSE Indians from feeling like an Indian.
    They DID feel excited when Aishwariyah Rai won Ms. Universe, they DID feel proud when Aziz Premji was Forbes 3rd richest man, they DO feel the awe & weight that carries when Lakshmi Mittal aquires another million $$ company.
    Personal choices to move across to greener pastures like our parents did in the 70’s & 80’s are now starting to change. Suddenly India IS the greener pasture. You can’t exclude a certain kind of capitalist just because they wanted out to make a quick buck. Look at Indian now, look at those retail stores that are trying to stay open till midnight just so they can increase sales, increase expenditures, increase the standard of living in one of the fastest-growing economies of the world.
    So I don’t speak with a proper south-indian accent, so I’m not sure what the capital of Uttar Pradesh is, so I still don’t know how make dhaal the correct way or how to tear off a piece of chappati with one hand. Just because I don’t shake my head from side to side or am not sure if you are saying yes or no when YOU do it, does’nt make me any less of an Indian.
    As an Indian from Kuwait who now lives in Canada and who will soon move to the United States, I will still consider myself an Indian who holds an Indian passport and I’d fight anyone who tries to take that piece of identification away from me!

  34. tascha007 says

    damn this blog is cool… well i’ve lived in the the middle east, singapore, south korea and of course india. and when anyone asks me where i’m from, i say i’m an indian, but i live in such-and-such place. because where you stay may change but what you are is always the same.

  35. Webster says

    could someone tell me how difficult is it for a singaporean to understand an indain?

  36. Proud Indian says

    proud to be indian

  37. IndonesianIndian says

    Awesome post, I’m an Indonesia Indian by the way. My family has been here for more than 5 generations and I’m still proud to be called an Indian. Infact, its easy for me to get a Job (Expat look but local salary, hahaha)

Continuing the Discussion

  1. DesiPundit » Who Is An “Indian” linked to this post on July 29, 2005

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