What makes an Indian: People or Territory? By Miniya Chatterji

Miniya Chatterji is the author of Indian Instincts, a collection of fifteen powerful essays that argue for greater equality and opportunity in contemporary India and holds up a mirror to what we Indians have become.

She is a prominent intellectual and speaker, writer and businesswoman. The CEO of Sustain Labs Paris, she has also worked at the World Economic Forum in Geneva, Goldman Sachs in London and in the office of the President of France in Paris.

In her book, she goes from tracing the possible first arrival of man in India to writing about love, sex, money, parenting and values in Indian society and discussing nationalism, religion and democracy, presenting an accessible yet brilliant intellectual treatise about issues that affect Indians the most in her book.

So what makes an Indian? Here are her views.

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“It is odd, vain, irreverent, or naive to be reflecting upon the personal, when the subject of analysis is as weighty as the national economy or its politics.”

This perception is based on the belief that political economy and individual development are separate disciplines such that an enquiry in to the state of democracy, nationalism, or economic growth of a country must neither refer to it’s citizen’s personal experience as a child, adolescent, or parent, nor to his individual values, emotional health, romantic love, taste, and so forth. Must the study of economic growth exclude – as economist Amartya Sen points out – an assessment of the personal capabilities it endows us with?

If one believes that a person’s character is inherited – a favourite argument made by every enthusiastic xenophobic – then this perception would hold true. However, if an individual’s development is believed to be an active and reciprocal process influenced by the environment he lives in, then eliminating a citizen’s personal development from the analysis of a country’s political economy would be a gross oversight.

In this context, central to sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s project was the notion of habitus that referred to the individual mental structures or lens through which people deal with the social world.[1] Bourdieu suggested that habitus is the physical embodiment of one’s cultural capital – the deeply ingrained tastes, habits, skills, mannerisms, and dispositions that one possess due to one’s life experiences. In this way Bourdieu emphasised that an individual’s development internalises his environment over the course of life. Habitus is one of Bourdieu’s most influential yet ambiguous concepts, and essentially establishes the link between social, political, and economic change in the environment to an individual’s personal development. For example, growing up in a rough, crime ridden neighborhood one could likely be influenced by skills to steer clear of violent confrontations and hustle to make a living despite the extremely low employment. Another individual living in that same environment could be affected adversely and be bullied easily. According to Bourdieu, the habitus is different for each individual living in the same environment.

In Glenn Elder’s brilliant study Children of the Great Depression[2], children of different ages experienced the great depression in Europe in very different ways, some gaining and some losing from the economic hardship. According to Elder, the differing outcomes were due to the ways in which the previously established context as well as the social, and personal resources of each child varyingly matched the changing social, political, and economic context of the great depression, and its related options and constraints.

Another example is Hofer, Kracke et al’s research[3] that found that after unification, families in West Germany were more stressed by the economic depression and suffered more in the quality of family interaction compared with families in the East. The families from both the German regions were subject to similar social, political, and economic consequences of the unification, but each family experienced the new situation in different socioeconomic contexts and on the basis of dissimilar life histories prior to the unification.

Indeed different individuals perceive, experience, and act upon stimuli in the environment in a unique manner. In my book Indian Instincts[4], I point out that instincts are a ‘spontaneous rationality’ (or irrationality) developed by our cognitive faculty, in response to the environment. I write that, there is in fact no pre-determined ‘Indian instinct’. I reveal how in India, our spontaneous behaviour is a rational (or irrational) choice under the overwhelming influence of politics, ambition, religious fervour, in the environment we live in.

Social contexts – as distal historical, cultural conditions, and as proximal conditions – affects an individual’s development. Also specific aspects of the environment has an impact on different individuals in different ways. And there are infinite different ways in which the individual and his environment can relate to each other and interact. An individual centric analysis of the political economy of any territory takes in to consideration these constraints and is, no doubt, difficult to execute.

Taking an individual centric approach to India’s political economy would consider both the historical and proximal environment surrounding an individual and how it influences and shapes him constantly. It will also take in to account how reciprocally, the socio-economic status of that individual would determine the nature of his experience of India. This means that every individual’s India is different. How then do we find India? This task at hand is all the more challenging given India’s supremely diverse population, its checkered history, and unequal socio-economic development across regions. To overcome this challenge in my book, I have presented India from several individual perspectives. These include tribals, sex workers, Devdasis, Muslims, Dalits, corporate honchos, entrepreneurs, and many more. Each of these people have been part of my life, which gave me the chance to see India through their eyes. I have written about how they negotiate with the context they live within in India, and how that affects them personally, and vice versa. Indian Instincts is about them – their India. By taking on this approach in my book, I arrived at conclusions on the state of equality and freedoms they enjoy (or not). I found that “freedom in India is subjective, dependent on where you live, which family and caste you were born into, your gender, religion, sexuality, source of livelihood. The guarantee of freedom for our marginalized communities—be it on the basis of religion, gender, sexual orientation or economic status—has always been the most fragile.”

Placing the individual in the centre of an analysis of India’s political economy is as yet unconventional. It has earned me the allegation of being “self-obsessed” by a certain befuddled book reviewer. This is because we are instead more comfortable to make the discussion on governance (politics) and livelihood (economy) specialised, highbrow, and impersonal.

However, the only reason why politics and the economy should matter to us is via an explanation of how they are affecting our individual and community life. In many societies such as in India, while political and economic institutions and the community have a clear linkage – heightened during times of policy interventions, elections, people’s uprisings etc – the linkage between these institutions and the individual is ignored. In his seminal work Mistaken Modernity[5] sociologist Dipankar Gupta has pointed out that the latter is sidelined in India as it is considered an inefficient approach towards attracting voter clout in our society that has a strong community identity such that group values and decisions over ride individual ones.

Ironically, we thus continue to revel in the complexity and the complex ways of explaining the complexity of the social, political, and economic institutions we had once created to make life easier for us, considering it naive to simply reflect upon how these serve our personal life.

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[1] Bourdieu, Pierre (1990). The Logic of Practice. Polity Press.

[2] Elder, G. H. (1974). Children of the Great Depression: Social change and life experience. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[3] Hofer, M.. Kracke. B., Noack, P., Klcin-Allermann, E, Kessel, W., Iahn, U., & Ettrich, U. (1995). Der Soziale Wandel aus Sicht ost- und westdeutscher Familien, psychisches Wohlbefinden und autoritiire Yorstellungen [Social change from the point of view of East- and West German families, psychological well-being and authoritarian beliefs]. In B. Nauck, N. Schneider, & A. TOlke (Eds.), Familie und Lebenslauf im gesellschaftlichen Umbruch (pp. 154-171). Stuttgart, Germany: Enke.

[4] Chatterji, Miniya (2018). Indian Instincts: Essays on Freedom and Equality in India. New Delhi: Penguin Random House.

[5] Gupta, Dipankar (2000). Mistaken Modernity: India Between Worlds. Noida: HarperCollins India.

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