Culture, faith, and Identity

Dear Editor,
If you happen to be in Itanagar these days, you will probably come across one of these posters adorning the street-walls of capital city. Earlier the slogan used to be, ‘loss of culture is loss of identity.’ It seems the shibboleth has undergone a makeover, and now, the keystone of our so-called ‘identity’ is not just ‘culture’, but a not-without-indigenous-faith-culture. The high priests of culture have issued their latest diktat – the basis of our indigenous identity, from now on, has to be our indigenous faith; leaving just two options before us: either we fall in line, or suffer the consequent fallout, that is, to give-up the right to call oneself indigenous. Everyone knows on whose behest the threat is being carried out, and who their intended targets are; through jugglery of words, no prizes for guessing, who they trying to corner are. But what surprised many was the recent move of the government that seemed to have fallen for the trick. Faith is a domain of religion, and questions of culture are the fieldworks of scholars. A secular, democratic and inclusive government, at best, could act as a facilitator; to foster inter-faith dialogues, and promote cultural debates among different stakeholders. Instead, it decided to take upon itself the role of an arbitrator, and went hurriedly ahead to create a ‘department of Indigenous Faith and cultural affairs,’ only to later take its step, fumblingly back. The department was created purportedly ‘to preserve and protect’ ‘the indigenous communities of the state’ who are ‘fast getting disconnected with their rich culture and languages’ ‘due to globalization, exposure and external influences’(whatever may those terms mean). As if, the departments of culture and research do not already exist for the very purpose. What is so different about the culture of ‘Indigenous faith’ vis-à-vis the culture of the rest of the indigenous communities, a reasonable mind would wonder that it warrants creation of a separate department of faith. Leave aside the question as to whether such a department can be created at all by a secular state. Are they waging a psychological war, where the battle lines are drawn over the question about legitimacy of faith? If so, who are they trying to exclude? The Indigenous Christian community of the state, who have always been made to feel like aliens from the beginning – Christian faith is not included in the definition of indigenous faith under the state’s religious freedom act – having felt further alienated, registered their protest in strong terms, questioning the constitutionality of the government’s move. This put the government on back foot even as they were forced to rechristen the department under a new name of ‘cultural affairs,’ sans ‘indigenous faith.’ Perhaps it realized that in its effort to please a particular master, it cannot afford to offend a community that forms the largest electorate of the state.
Coming to the question of culture, faith and identity, I think, they are complex subjects which calls for nuanced arguments in their discussion. It would only be a pity if our debates are reduced to petty sloganeering that serves to only further the rancor. Granted, we all have our own way of looking at things, and in many areas we may not see eye to eye; but I believe, if we look with keen eyes and large hearts, we will find enough common ground of identity that will connect us to our roots, which we all are equally proud of. But for goodness’ sake, let us not confuse our religious identity with our racial or tribal one, for that matter, our national identity. Let us not say, we must continue to worship what our forefathers did or else we cease to be their children. Not only it goes against the basic human right to freedom of conscience, but also, it will, I am sure, make our forebears turn in their graves. Our myths and folklores, our dances and rhapsodies, our dresses and histories…which form part of our cultural heritage, make us unique as we are; and they must be preserved. Yet, let us not forget, their primary purpose, to our forefathers, was not to make the latter look unique. They were means through which they tried to understand the mysteries, cope with struggles, and find meaning and hope in life. And though, the world may have moved from pre-modern to postmodern, yet, are not our struggles still the same, and our longings similar? And in our quest for all that we want and long for in the name of humanity, are we not still in the process of creating cultures? To pinpoint one aspect of the whole and say, that this constitutes the essence of our culture and identity would be missing the wood for the trees.
In our ‘cultured’ world, when we define our self-identities, where the tendency is to fold our arms closed, and exclude our neighbors, the need is to stretch out our embracing arms of culture. And to embrace means to let in, as well as, to let go. The arms that do not let in cannot embrace a brother, and the embrace that is forever closed in soon becomes a tyrannical grip. Globalization has indeed forced us to soul-search our cultural identity, yet, in our eagerness to reclaim a cultural space, let us not strut with our monolithic steps, lest we promote ethnocentrism. It was Tagore who had once said, while commenting on India’s national culture, “that our forefathers, three thousand years ago, had finished extracting all that was of value from the universe, is not a worthy thought. We are not so unfortunate, nor universe so poor.”
His voice was prophetic for our times, more so, for our State.
Dipten Ratan