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Behind the Headlines: APA News Blog

Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.

Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.

September 17, 2006

Written by C.N.

India Asserting Its Cultural Independence

As you probably know by now, India is on the fast track to becoming the world’s next economic superpower, along with China. As part of their economic and political development, India is also asserting its cultural independence. As the Christian Science Monitor points out, one prominent example of this trend is the process of renaming its cities:

The trend that began vexing cartographers a decade ago when Bombay became Mumbai, Madras became Chennai, and Calcutta became Kolkata has only gained speed. In part, India is merely sweeping clean the last corners of colonialism – offending few beyond upper-class English-speaking Indians and outsiders who have wrapped India’s identity in its anglicized names. In part, its politicians are using words as a tool – sometimes more to divide than to unite.

But underneath all is a new and unprecedented Indian self-assurance. More than half a century after the British left, India is making a statement that can be seen from politics to its economics: We are now a power in our own right, and the world must come to accept us on our own terms – whether that is nuclear weapons or a high-tech hub that might sound like baby talk to the foreign ear. . . .

Yet some of the other changes take a different tenor. India has slowly found firmer footing as a nation after the tumult of partition with Pakistan and the uncertainty caused by former leader Indira Gandhi’s authoritarian rule in the 1970s and ’80s. In this collective exhale, new and not always inclusive forms of national and regional politics have found space to expand.

Foremost among them has been more extremist strains of Hindutva: the doctrine that India – with an 80 percent Hindu majority – is a Hindu nation and should start acting like it. . . . By this measure, he says, Delhi is Indraprasth – harking back its name in the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata. Even “India” is not beyond revision. After all, India’s namesake – the Indus River – has been in Pakistan since partition. Mr. Gangwar suggests Hindustan. Others favor Bharat.

What should we make of this development? On the one hand, certainly India — as well as any other developing nation — has the right and moral justification to rename its cities however they want to, and not have to accept the Anglicized names imposed on them by their former colonial rulers. At the same time, can this trend be pushed too far, to the point where it starts to divide people by ethnicity, religion, and/or language? Absolutely.

Let us not forget that despite its best efforts, many parts of Indian society still operate according to the caste system, which to this day still necessitates India having to use controversial affirmative action programs to help the lowest caste of “Untouchables.” Also, nationalist Hindu groups have also tried to literally rewrite textbooks in the U.S. on how India’s history should be portrayed, stirring up even more controversy over who, if anyone, gets to “speak” for the Indian American community.

In other words, tensions, differences, and potential divisions still exist among Indians. Like most other issues, I would think that the “best” solution is somewhere in the middle, in which Indian cultural independence can be celebrated and respected, while the cultural, religious, and linguistic diversity that is one of India’s hallmarks can still be respected and celebrated as well.


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Copyright © 2001- by C.N. Le. Some rights reserved. Creative Commons License

Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "India Asserting Its Cultural Independence" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <http://www.asian-nation.org/headlines/2006/09/india-asserting-its-cultural-independence/> ().

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