29 August, 2009

The Mystery That is India

I am continually fascinated by the greatest anomaly of our times, the Republic of India. In an age dominated by ethnonationalist states, India's existence is a modern mystery. It is a hundred nations contained in one, a crucible of religions, cultures, and peoples whose history is as old as recorded history itself. That such a disparate state exists is nothing short of miraculous.
Oft times those of us not living in South Asia have trouble comprehending the level of diversity or the sheer number of people found on the Indian subcontinent. In such situations, I call often on a clever phrase to help me along:

If the entirety of Europe was one country, it would almost be as impressive as India.

The analogy of a united Europe and the Republic of India is apt. Consider a few statistics:

The population of Europe is approximately 830,000,000 people. The population of India is approximately 1,170,000,000 people.

Europe's populace can be divided among more 80 ethnic groups. India's populace can be divided among more than 1,000.

83 different languages are spoken in Europe, 30 of which have at least one million speakers. 415 languages are spoken in India, 29 of which have at least one million native speakers.

Europe's religious diversity is sourced in the schisms of the Christian tradition. The most practiced religion in India - Hinduism - is likewise fractured and divided. More telling are those outside of the Hindu tradition; India has the third largest number of adherents to Islam in the world, and the largest population of Sikhs, Jains, and Bahá'i.

This comparison prompts a question: with all of these similarities, why is it that Europe and India are treated so differently in the American mind?

That Europe is composed of 50 states and India one* plays a factor, I am sure. But this is insufficient to explain the vastly different perceptions we have of the region.

An easy example is the Western grouping of continents. Any school child can tell you there are seven continents: Africa, Antarctica, Asia, Australia, the two Americas, and Europe. Unlike the other six continents, Europe does not gain its special status because it is a landmass set asunder. Europe is simply a peninsula of the larger Eurasian landmass. Europe's continental character is defined not by geography, but by culture. Because the people of Europe are believed to be culturally and politically distinct from the rest of Eurasia, everything between the Iberian penisula and the Ural mountains is labeled a separate continent.

This is all fine and good, but it causes me to wonder why India, another Eurasian peninsula, is not provided the same distinction. Those living in the subcontinent share a common history and heritage that is distinct from other Eurasians. Comparable to the cultural spheres of the Western and Chinese traditions, the common assumptions, values, and social structures of Bharata provide, as in Europe, social glue for diverse peoples. And for what it is worth, India has a better geophysical claim to continenthood than Europe could ever dream of having.

The way Americans talk of both Europe and India further betrays a simplistic view of the latter. While the adjective European is used rather sparingly in discussions of the cultures found across the pond, we are quite comfortable labeling anything of the subcontinent Indian.

Food provides a perfect example of such. We do not speak of European cuisine, but of French, Italian, or Greek dishes. In contrast, a dish may be eaten and produced in Tamil Nadu, Bengal, or Punjab, but we never think of it as anything more than Indian.

Why is this so? What is it about India that makes it near impossible for Americans to grasp the full range of diversity found in the subcontinent? Is it simple cultural ignorance, or are there broader structural forces at work?

I am particularly interested hearing from readers who have experience living in India, as I know a few of you do.

*If you include the entire subcontinent, this number can be enlarged to five.


Onager said...

Great post. I will link to it on my blog. Anyhow, I agree with your points. I recently went to my friend's wedding which was a Bengali wedding. Of the Americans of European ancestry at the wedding, I was the only one that (1) would attempt to politely correct someone when they called it an Indian wedding and (2) would explain that my friend (and their friend!) was Muslim not Hindu. How sad! It is clear to me why there are so many people in the world that think we are a bunch of idiots.

jk said...

I dunno, man. After I meet a few more Europeans and Indians who appreciate the difference between Colorado and New York, maybe I'll beat up on the ugly Americans.

As to the differential between Europe and India, I cannot credit it all to ignorance. The different nations of Europe, with different foreign policies and tax structures, provide a reward for Americans to treat them separately.

Then, count the immigration from Europe and the relative ease and economy of travel and it does not strike me as odd.

Wil Robinson said...


Europe is white, India is not.

India is used an example of how the "natives" were supposed to run things post-colonialism, based on the arbitrary borders we drew for them. Thus, we think it's nothing special - simply proof that our map-making skills were correct and that Africa and the Middle East just can't get it right.

Why does India succeed? Because the identity of the country is not based on religion (i.e., Pakistan). Pakistan was supposed to be a secular state for Muslims, but Ayub Khan quickly turned it into a religious state for Muslims to distract critics of his coup. Now we find out that Pakistan is, in fact, made up of the same diveristy - tribes, ethnicity, etc. - that India is. But with a "religious" identity, people fight over what that is.

India has no such problem (to an extent). The identity is based on a national history, centered on Gandhi and his secular, tolerant message (though some groups, like the BJP and others, try to thwart this).

When Westerners look at India, they see a bunch of brown people who all dress the same (in our eyes). We don't recognize the differences in language because no Westerners speak Hindi (much less Marathi, Bengali, Punjabi, etc.) Thus, we don't think anything of their unity.

But when Westerners look at Europe, they see different people, different languages. We speak French or Spanish or German. We see the subtle differences in culture and fashion that we don't recognize in others.

Essentially, it does come down to ignorance. Westerners are relatively ignorant of Asia, and that means we simply can't distinguish and identify subtle points. Ignorance leads to generalizations.

T. Greer said...

@Onager: Indeed, that is quite sad. If it had been a random passerby perhaps it would be acceptable- but their own friend! Sad indeed.

@Jk: Most Indians who have graduated from university can tell you the difference between California, Texas, New York, and Florida. How many U.S. university students can do the same with Indian states?

Of course, this obscures my point- the peoples of California, New York, Texas, and Florida all belong to the same culture. People from Massachusetts and Wyoming may think their counterparts are insane, but they all speak the same language, share the same heritage, and respond to the same cultural reference points. The difference between Gujarat and Tamil Nadu is more akin to the difference between Italy and Germany than it is between any two states in the U.S. you may name.

However, the point about immigration is an excellent one, and is not something I had considered.

(I should also note that I was not trying to pick on Americans in particular here. Originally I had the word "American" replace with "Westerner" throughout the post, but I figured I did not have enough exposure to Europeans, Australians, etc. to make judgments about them. )


I think that this oversimplifies the issue. Americans recognize the difference between Japanese, Korean, and Chinese peoples. Heck, most even know that China is divided between Mandarin and Cantonese speakers.These East Asians are not of the same race as most Americans. Western perceptions of East Asia are quite nuanced, when one compares their view of Indians.

The funny thing about this is that Western culture draws just as much on India than it does on China. Everybody and their brother includes Gandhi as one of their heroes; no one uses Mao as their political ideal. Since the sixties onward bands have been using Shruti Boxes and Sitars to make exotic sounds; I have yet to see a Ruan or Pipa make it into the Western pop-rock repertoire. I have yet to meet a college freshmen who has not heard of the Kama Sutra- no one has heard of a Chinese classic, outside of the odd reference to Sun Tzu's Art of War.

So, why the difference? Why do we grasp the Orient with more nuance than the Subcontinent?

JT said...

To "TGreer's" comment/question: "So, why the difference? Why do we grasp the Orient with more nuance than the Subcontinent?"

I believe it has to do with the fact that Europeans reached East Asia later during the age of empires. Africa, South America, and South Asia took a fair while to subjugate. In fact Britain was able to penetrate China, only with the help of the army mostly hired from India. If the British had not taken a century and half to dominate India, they would have had the bandwidth to gobble up South East Asia as well. This left room for the French and the Dutch to colonize parts of South East Asia.

By the time Europe made its mark on East Asia, Japan was already on its trajectory to "modernism". Japan emerged as a competing imperialist power to the Europeans. Hence the recognition of the Japanese as being distinct from the Chinese. Japan gobbled up Korea and almost submerged the identity of the Korean people.

South East Asia was distinct from time immemorial in that it clearly had its native cultural heritage that was influenced by Indic and Sinic religions and traditions. Ethnically as well, South East Asia was distinct from both South Asia and China.

To get to the point, once you conquer a people, it is much easier to deal with them and generalize them as "natives". Subjugated people throw up an educated elite that learns to thrive in the new dispensation. In India these elites came to be known as "brown sahibs", and at a social level the British could treat them all as representing some sort of a faceless populace comprising of brown people.

Another perspective on subjugated people. Consider the native of the Americas. How many Europeans (and Americans for that matter!) are familiar with the many tribes south of the Unites States? Very few. It did not help that disease and exploitation decimated so many of these tribes. If it were not for the prolific westerns featuring cowboys and "Indians", most Europeans and Americans would not be familiar with the tribes from the US either!

Those that you subjugate, you learn to discount into a homogeneous mass!