Bytes, Bombs, and Bombshells

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India's Search for Identity

In many respects, the India that emerged in the 1990s stands in stark contrast to its former self. Sustained economic growth, multiparty coalition governments, and a greater openness to the West reveal an India in metamorphosis. Indeed, the prominent features of Indian life in the late 1990s--nuclear-power status, dazzling success in the information technology (IT) sector, and even dominance in the beauty pageant circuit--exemplify this change. What is perceived as the new India, however, is in reality closely linked to its old self. The popular response to India's new prominence in these fields shows that the deep psychological issues that have troubled the country for the last half-century continue to color the Indian experience today. These successes are helping the nation mediate questions of its identity and of its perceived inferiority--twin crises that have dogged India since its inception. But a closer examination of the Indian response reveals that this newfound identity is in fact not independent of externally generated Western standards. By orienting India westward for its sense of self, these recent successes threaten to lead India further away from finding itself in its own rich history, thus preventing India from addressing the very real problems that face the country.

Twin Crises

Before advancing, it is useful to clarify both dimensions of the twin crises. Anxiety surrounding India's identity--one face of the twin crises--centers on questions such as, "What is Indian?" and "What is India?" Though the struggle against imperial domination united people across the subcontinent, articulating an identity once the British departed proved more difficult.

India's teeming diversity has long thwarted the successful articulation of such a common identity. Indeed, secessionist attempts in Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Kashmir, and Nagaland have challenged the very notion of a unified state. The numerous languages, customs, and castes have also highlighted the citizens' differences instead of their commonalties. The reservation system to aid the downtrodden dalit and shudra castes, for example, has only widened the gulf between members of various castes and sub-castes. The absence of a unifying native language, meanwhile, has forced the country to look Westward--to English--for a language that transcends the cultural and political baggage accompanying most native Indian languages. It is clear at this point that the Indian identity is still in flux.

Adding to the burdens of identity formation is India's protracted struggle to position itself in the international community--the second face of India's twin crises. This struggle for a sense of place reveals a deep feeling of inferiority. Indian novelist Shobha De sums up the problem: "For so long we've considered ourselves to be losers and second-raters." While the roots of this complex surely lie in the humiliating experience of imperial domination, equally important is the post-independence experience. Governments from Nehru down to the current Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) administration have entertained notions of India being, as Howard Schaffer writes, "a great nation whose size, population, resources, and status as a major civilization entitle it, or even oblig[e] it, to play an influential role on the global stage."

But this rhetoric stands next to a very different reality. India is relatively poor and divided, and the perception that it is a socioeconomic failure remains a common view of many Westerners and Indians alike. This attitude has only marginalized the country in the global arena. Scholar Therese Delpech describes the results: "For the past 50 years, a rather patronizing view towards India has prevailed."

This brief look at the twin crises hardly captures the many subtleties underlying the questions of identity and inferiority. It does, however, demonstrate that the twin crises have a long history in Indian self-perception. …