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We the people

We the people

M V Kamath
April 20, 2000
Title: We the people
Author: M V Kamath
Publication: Mid-Day
Date: April 20, 2000

A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege - and the pleasure - of being invited to meet Lord Carrington, former secretary general of NATO and former secretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs and minister of overseas development. In his years of public life - he is now 81 - he has held so many important positions that his CV could fill a whole book. But the man himself is so unpretentious that he could well have been your next door neighbour.

I was one of half dozen distinguished Mumbai editors invited to meet him and must confess I felt a little out of place in that august company. Lord Carrington was in town to deliver the 13th Sir Dorab Tata Memorial Lecture in the course of which, he mentioned the break up of Yogoslavia and the Soviet Union. He had also expressed 'wonder' at the way India, a country so diverse, had managed to maintain a parliamentary system.

I suppose in 1947 when Britain parted company with us, it did not have much hopes of our survival as a nation. The meeting with Lord Carrington was planned so he could have an exchange of ideas with Mumbai's editors and in the course of the discussions I hazarded an opinion that India had survived because it had a certain cultural unity that was lacking in both the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. I had hardly made that innocuous statement when two of my colleagues pounced on me.

Cultural unity of India? There wasn't any such thing, they kept insisting. Lord Carrington wanted to know what I meant by culture and even while I professed ignorance on the subject (how can one define culture in one sound byte?) I noted that far and wide had I travelled in India but never felt a stranger anywhere. "What about Kashmir? What about the north-east?'' one gentleman wanted to know.

I had visited Kashmir a long time ago but not for a moment did I feel out of place there. As for the north-east, I had been to all except two of the Seven Sisters and had felt quite at home in Assam though I thought Arunachal Pradesh was rather exotic. Tribal life is different in Nagaland and Mizoram, but I could not imagine the Nagas and Mizos as strangers. In the circumstances the reaction of my journalistic colleagues came quite as a surprise to me.

I suppose they thought I was trying to push Hindutva into the discussion which plainly I was not. There was no need to. In my travels throughout India I had opportunities to meet people from different walks of life, from different castes, creeds and communities, had been invited home to dinner in many places and given the privilege of meeting the womenfolk. Sure, they all had different food habits, different gods, different standards but I never felt that I was anywhere else than at home with my hosts. The reaction of my colleagues left me flabbergasted. Whether it was to a Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Jain or Parsi home I had been received with great courtesy and hospitality. It was as if they were practising the ancient adage: athithi devoh bhava. (a guest is god.) Would one call that an aspect of true culture? With all those who hosted dinners for me I felt a common bond. I was among fellow Indians. Isn't that something to be proud of?

I may mention that in years past I have travelled extensively in Europe and the United States but it just wasn't the same thing as travelling in India. In India, we are one people. And I hasten to add: we have one culture, no matter how strongly my friends may disagree with me.

Culture involves a whole lot of things like the way one greets a fellow human being, the way one nods or bends one's head (this is peculiarly Indian), the way one treats women and children, the way even how one eats and drinks. A dinner at an Iyer friend's home is vastly different from, say, dinner with a Punjabi or Bengali friend. But to all styles I had taken swiftly as to the manner born. Should one talk about differences or commonalities when one talks of culture?

In one city, I remember how deeply honoured I felt when the conservative head of the family called out all the female members of the household to be introduced to me and we sat together merrily chatting and even teasing each other - all within a few minutes of being mutually introduced. I was home, I could have been a uncle, a brother or a son-in-law. We shared laughter.

I suppose this calls for adjustment both on part of the host as well as the guest. Adjustment, however, comes easy only when, one is on one's own, does not feel stranger in another company. And may I say that one can be utterly at sea amongst one's own people if one is not at peace with oneself. I must admit that I do not normally strike up conversation with the man (or woman) sitting next to me in a plane. I prefer to read. But while in a train it has always been fun.

One can't stay mum for 24 hours of a train journey. One may be offered a fruit or some eatable by one's fellow travellers and in any event within minutes of the start of the journey one's companion is bound to ask of one's name, profession, marital status and the like. At lest on a couple of occasions I had been recognsied and was led to political discussion till far into the night with several others joining the fun. How can one feel a stranger in such circumstances? And may I add here that I have undertaken train journeys in Europe and the United States and not once had I noticed even a smile on the faces of my fellow passengers. In India, given a chance, the passengers won't let you go to sleep peacefully.

We are one India, one people, a point that my distinguished friend Sadanand Shetty, the industrialist, has been seeking to make in the journal he edits by that name. We in India are culturally united, for all our differences. That is the most endearing part of being Indian. To those who insist that we are all different I suggest that they travel long distance by train. Beneath our superficial differences we are one people and it is that, I told Lord Carrington, that has kept us together. We like to talk and argue. And those who talk stay together.

I referred earlier to the journal that Sadanand Shetty has been bringing out called One India One People. Let me say that there isn't another magazine like that in the entire country. If I were the minister of education or even minister of human resources and development, I would see that every school, every college, every educational institution is given access to it. That magazine is a magnificent unifier. Much too frequently, especially among our intellectuals I have noticed the tendency to be negative, disparaging as I noticed during a brief session with Lord Carrington. I don't know what impression of us he has carried home. Did he think we were an amorphous, squabbling bunch of ethnic groups always at each other's throats? The reaction of my friends to my 'One India one culture' remark surely must have puzzled him. It certainly puzzled me.

I won't quarrel over words. That would be such a waste of time. If one were to substitute the word 'Indian' to 'Hindutva', I wouldn't have the slightest objection. But should Hindus have to be constantly apologetic about being Hindus with a culture of their own which has survived the centuries and which has coloured the cultures of all those living in India? I leave that thought with my readers.

(M V Kamath, veteran journalist takes on all comers)

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