Thursday, September 01, 2005

Culture or Religion: whose dominance will prevail?


1984: Ginza, Japan . During dinner with Izawa san – then marketing manager of Hitachi Medical Corp, Japan and another gentleman from Nissho Iwai Corporation whose name I now forget, I listened intently to their discussions about 21st century world order. This Nissho Iwai person had read a book that predicted the world situation that would be after 50 years. Their forecast was based more on the situation analysis of ground realities with intelligence inputs than mere astrological crystal gazing. He mentioned that this book had predicted three major outcomes that would happen in next four decades. First: Western Europe would come under one flag, one currency and one army; Second: USSR would be challenged by Muslim dominated southern part and it will be split between Muslim and others. Third: India would be divided into 20 smaller republics based on cultural and language identity. Its ironical that First and Second did happen to a large extent and Third was almost following predicted course. India appeared veering for multiple splits with Khalistan, Kashmir, Bodo , Naxal and LTTE separatist movements going gung-ho and vociferous demand of separate statehood for Vidarbha, Jharkhand, Bundelkhand, Telangana. Political leaders were clueless to stop this tide. But at half way mark of this prediction period, some how India appears out of this crisis and portrays more cohesive face.

I am always intrigued by the evolution of various nations. Is it culture, religion, economic prosperity or just geographical topography that drives its formation and growth?

It is no surprise to get divergent reactions on this topic when one gets an opportunity to talk to Indians who come from equally diverse backgrounds.

By and large, most Muslims and Christians reside in Maharashtra (barring Bombay) identify themselves more by their religion than their geographical affiliation. In Middle East, I met many Muslims from Konkan, Marathwada. They speak impeccable Marathi, well versed with Marathi literature and have maharashtrian culture embedded in their lifestyle. But often, when you ask them ‘Are you Maharashtrian?’ the answer comes ‘No, I am Muslim’. It is indeed sad that the State of Maharashtra failed to assimilate other religions into her fold. Somehow being Maharashtrian is relegated to Marathi speaking Hindus.

However, opposite is the case with Bombay - now Mumbai-, the capital of Maharashtra. Here people loudly proclaim themselves ‘I am from Bombay’ even if their association with the city is just for few years. They even go to extent of identifying themselves with the particular suburb they stay. This often leads to additional bonhomie and camaraderie that never happens with any other city residents. It may be said, Bombay has been the place that helped most immigrants to climb the ladder of their material success. People love to associate themselves with good things.

But if there is one state that has succeeded in achieving dominance of culture over religion, that is Kerala. Be it Hindu, Muslim or Christian, all Keralites are woven by web of Malayalam Manorama, Mohanlal, and Karimeen Fish. They all speak same language, wear same attire, cook same dishes and identify themselves as Keralites. This is very consistent from Kasaragod to Trivendrum. Punjab, Bengal, Tamilnadu are not far behind in terms of unified cultural identity. But Maharashtra is definitely no longer in the race.

Dominance of culture is also apparent with neighboring nations despite different religion. Pathan taxi drivers often mention that their region (North West Frontier) has nothing in common with rest of Pakistan. Their language (Pushtu) is vastly different to Urdu and so is their life style. According to them, they should have been part of Afghanistan and Lahore a part of Punjab. This is also true with Muslim Punjabi from Pakistan who is at home with Hindu or Sikh Punjabi from India. Had it not been for economic disparity, Bengalis from India would have been at as much ease with Muslim Bangladeshis. In Trinidad, current generation of Indian immigrants is completely cut off from India. Since three generations, they have never been to India; don’t know any Indian language, but two things they faithfully do: wear dhotis when they do Puja on the day of Deepawali and have Ram Katha during 10 day Dashehera festival. It’s amazing how the cultural traces refuse to diminish. Now Internet and Satellite television have fueled people’s desire to reach for their cultural roots than just being identified with cultural inheritance handed over from previous generations.

We still have another 20 years to judge if the prediction of this book reaches its culmination. Till then, we shall wait and see; if India gets split in 20 different countries based on cultural identities or get unified as a single economic block.

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