Tamil Nadu Governor R.N. Ravi has yet again raked up a controversy by contending that there is nothing called “the culture of a State.” He said States were created only for the convenience of governance, and that their creation created political identities. This theory is similar to a what Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh ideologue M.S. Golwalkar wrote in his book, We, or Our Nationhood Defined.
“For where religion does not form a distinguishing factor, culture together with the other necessary constituents of the Nation idea, becomes the important point in the making of individual nationality. On the other hand, in Hindustan, Religion is an all-absorbing entity. With us, every action in life, individual, social or political, is a command of religion,” wrote Golwalkar. “...Culture is but a product of our all-comprehensive religion, a part of its body and not distinguishable from it.”
Mr. Ravi’s interpretation of culture seems to be shaped by Golwalkar’s ideology. It has led him to complain that the creation of States “created political identities such as ‘Tamilians’, ‘Telanganites’, UP-ites’... and all kinds of fictional identities [which] have been undoing and undermining the core strength of this country.”
Edward Said had said American identity is too varied to be a unitary and homogenous thing and that the battle within it was between the advocates of unitary identity and those who see the whole as a complex but not a reductively unified one. This holds true for India too.
“Even assuming that we accept the Governor’s argument, there arises a question: can there be a separate culture for a country? His argument leads to the conclusion that there can be just one culture for the whole of humanity,” said noted Tamil writer Jeyamohan. Explaining that India has been a melting point of cultures, Mr. Jeyamohan said, “Just because a river flows through a big lake, we cannot call it a river instead of a lake. India is a common idea, but within it are unique features... It is foolish to emphasise one and ignore the other.”
It is this unique mix that allows Malayalis to celebrate the arrival of Mahabali as Onam, while in other parts of the country, he is seen as a Rakshasha. There are hundreds of versions of the Ramayana and not many celebrate the way the Tamil epic poet, Kamban, glorified Ravana in his Ramayanam. Dussehra celebrates the triumph of good over evil: in the north, it commemorates Rama’s victory over Ravana, but in many other States, Dussehra is an integral part of Sakthi worship. These differences clearly show that culture is rooted in regional characteristics too.
Mr. Ravi’s argument also goes against the underlying principle of the concept of linguistic States. One of the reasons for reorganisation was that different language groups were emotionally integrated and saw themselves as cultural units. In a State such as Tamil Nadu, culture is rooted deeply in language, which is considered as important as religion.
Strands of Hinduism are seen across India, but regional variants and movements testify to their roots in unique cultural contexts. Devotional poetry is a cultural commonality in the country, but the Bhakti movement in Tamil is unique. In Tamil Nadu, the movement is seen as a revolt against Vedic religion and rituals and as having played a key role in rejuvenating the Tamil language. “The historical reasons for its emergence in diverse regions are varied — ranging from the rigidity of Brahminism to the need to carve out a spiritual identity vitalized by, and yet distinct from, the Shramana movement...,” wrote Arundhathi Subramanian in Eating God: A Book of Bhakti Poetry. Though Sanskrit was not entirely ignored, “For all her lapidary refinement, her exquisite subtlety, Sanskrit gradually began to seem inadequate to meet the needs of a growing tribe of religious aspirants,” she wrote.
Further, life, culture and society are rooted in the landscape and terrain. Tamils themselves did not demonstrate a unitary culture. The Tamil concept of land division (Thinai) meant that culture, civilisation and even deities were identified with the land.
As Said said about culture: “It means all those practices, like the arts of descriptions, communication, and representation, that have relative autonomy from the economic, social, and political realms and that often exist in aesthetic forms, one of whose principal aims is pleasure.”