A Question of Identity

There seems to be a sudden surge of write ups going viral on social media about being a Hindu.  Questions are raised on secularism and why the onus seems to be only on Hindus to prove that they are secular.
I find this entire question of religious identity a very problematic one. Let me explain ..

If you were to ask me who I am, my religion would be the last thing that I would use to define myself. Okay, so I may be an atheist / agnostic.. But what about my mother? She is what one would call a very religious person- constantly pampering her “Devi/ Devatas” so that their wrath does not turn on her children and their families. But if you were to ask her to define who she is, she would say she is a Tamil Brahmin! So, now we  have a caste and regional angle being used to define identity. And what is interesting is that just being Tamil or a Brahmin are not necessary or sufficient conditions for her to say who she is. She does not really identify herself with any Tamilian or anyone who might be a Brahmin from any other part of the country.

Now let me talk about myself. Every time I have stepped outside of the four ( okay five now ) southern states, I have been identified as a “South Indian”. The fact that I am from Tamilnadu does not really matter to the people north of the Vindhyas. To them we are all “Madrasis” and if they are little more sensitive then they refer to me as “from South”.

To our maid in Chennai, our Bihari cook is the “Seth Paiyan” – the Seth boy (Seth is a local word for a merchant/moneylender and refer to the people from Rajasthan who had settled in the city ages ago and involved themselves in these businesses). Never mind that the poor fellow in all probability comes from a family neck deep in debt forcing him to migrate to a city where he cannot even speak the language.

My father defines himself as a "Retired railway employee"- to him the thirty odd years of his life spent between the two rails is the best possible way to tell the world about who he is. His late older brother always called himself a "Retired headmaster".  

So where does religion come into this?

When I married a Christian, I found that the identity question there was equally complicated. Though inlaws define themselves as “Syrian Christians from Kerala” my mother in law like my father and uncle always referred to herself as a "Doctor" and never as a Malayalee or a Christian! The house that she lived in all her life in Chennai, though located in the heart of a  Tamil Brahmin locality is even today referred to as "Doctor Amma's house"! Nobody has ever identified it as a "Christian" or a "Malayalee" home. Notice the complete absence of religion here?

When it came to dealing with my identity, I was always introduced by my mother in law as her “Brahmin daughter in law”! To her I suppose, given the neighborhood she lived in, that was the defining factor! I remember her once telling me that she was glad her son had not married an “Indian Christian” ****!!!! Surprised? I was startled because until then I had always assumed that she was as Indian as I was ! But I realized what she meant was a “non  Syrian Christian”. The word Syrian by the way, only defines their antecedents as St. Thomas was supposed to have landed on the shores of Kerala from Syria. They are otherwise about as Malayalee as the rest of Kerala! It would not matter if it were a Nair or a Moplah that they might meet. They would still break into Malayalam and want to know where their “house” is!

During my stay in Andhra Pradesh/ Telangana I found that it was the district  one came from that was the defining factor of identity as also the caste. In Tamil Nadu again, the district is a general defining factor of your identity unless you are a Brahmin where you transcend region!!!! But a majority of people (with the exception of Brahmins) in Tamil Nadu take pride in their Tamil identity and their Dravidian ethnicity.

Interestingly, in Bengal, being Bengali is enough by way of identity. There are no religious or caste riders to this. Anyone who is not Bengali is simply a “Non Bengali”. No one cares if you are Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Brahmin or Kayasth as long as you are "Bengali"!

So, given the fact that there are so many facets that define one’s identity in our country why should religion become the primary defining factor?  One does not have to be a rocket scientist to know that it is politically motivated by groups who probably find the diversity too much to handle. Therefore, what they are trying to do is to bring religion into the forefront. Since Hinduism as a religion by itself is so complex , abstract and subject to regional/caste based interpretations, that it is difficult to bring it together as one identity. Therefore we try and define the “other”

We dig up history, bring up invasions and point our fingers at Muslims. Yes..!! They may be a minority in our population but are sufficiently large in number to be targeted as the "villains". We break a historical monument stating that it was built by an invader and seek to “right the wrong”. We want to build a temple there for a deity who does not have an entity outside of northern India. We are envious of a community in Gujarat that is seen to be doing well in trade and so we engineer riots to “put them in their place”. And now it looks like we want to control what they eat!

In this politics of hate, an artificial sense of identity is being sought to be created for Hindus! And it is sad that people are falling for this propaganda. Unlike the US , UK and other western nations where Muslims came in as immigrants in recent times and might therefore be treated as second class citizens, the Indian Muslim is as much a part of this country as anyone else. Muslims have been part of our history and Islam has influenced our art, literature, culture and cuisine. The reverse has also been true. You just need to go to Southern India to see this.

So why this hue and cry and the sudden spurt of intolerance? Why does the word secular draw sniggers?  

Why can’t we let religion be where it belongs – within the place of worship or the four walls of our home? As a person who comes from a mixed religious family I can say that religious diversity has only enriched our lives. We have had more occasions to celebrate and more people praying for our welfare than anyone else that I know of! I do not see why it cannot happen in a country?

It is for us to decide who we want to be and what we want to believe in. We can spew hatred or accept everyone for what they are. Things are not going to change for the average “Hindu” if we become a “Hindu Rashtra”. The poor will still remain poor, the rich will still exploit, and corruption will continue. Those in power will probably think of some other issue to rake up and we will start thinking that will solve all our problems. 


  1. "Interestingly, in Bengal, being Bengali is enough by way of identity. There are no religious or caste riders to this. Anyone who is not Bengali is simply a “Non Bengali”. No one cares if you are Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Brahmin or Kayasth as long as you are "Bengali"!"

    - can totally relate with that :-)

  2. a visitor from the Uk. Came to your blog by accident. Similar in some respects ( Tamil ex Brahmin married to non Hindu ). Still am vegetarian etc, do not impose my views on family. Chanced upon similar sounding blog after listening to divine bhavani Dayani sung by the great Begum Parveen Sultana. The meaning is out of this world. My most inspirational book was wings of fire by the true mahatma Abdul Kalam. Wish we were all like him. I must be a true (mixed up) Indian!


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