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INDIA TURMOIL REFLECTS DESPERATE SEARCH BY PEOPLE EVERYWHERE FOR AN IDENTITY

The events in India seem to become more and more like a lurid hallucination: terrorist attacks in the states of Punjab and Assam, caste riots in New Delhi, shootings and arrests in Kashmir, hundreds of thousands of Hindus marching upon a 16th century mosque in Ayodhya.

The political groupings that whirl through this storm seem bewilderingly diverse: Some are based on religion, some on ethnicity, others on caste or language.

Looking at the unending list, many Indians and foreigners alike are tempted to conclude that the country is stricken by an endemic disease, a peculiarly subcontinental plague: one that is fundamentally not of much interest to the world outside and is in any case impossible to keep up with.

The truth is, however, that at bottom all the movements and uprisings revolve around a single issue: identity. It is for this reason that neither Indians nor the rest of the world can afford to undervalue the events in India.

In one way or another, the majority of the world's population will have to figure out how diverse groups of people are to come together under common political structures.

This question confronts much of Africa, particularly the Sudan, Ethiopia and South Africa. The Soviet Union has had to face it suddenly and dramatically in the past year.

China, on the other hand, has simply swept the question into a barrel and seated its army on the lid. It is just a matter of time before the lid blows off and then suddenly China will begin to seem even more volatile than the Soviet Union.

India has faced this issue earlier than most because it has had democracy for 43 years and, in a way, the issue of identity lies at the heart of democracy. Every person who casts a vote is implicitly asking the question: Who am I, and what is my relationship with the person I'm voting for?

Ideally, the answer would be based on rational judgments about matters of policy. But in the real world it usually has to do with where the candidate comes from, his family background, his personal appeal.

In effect, voting often becomes a matter of choosing between "us," whoever that may be, and "them."

India's limitless diversity leaves plenty of scope for creating thousands of different "us-es" and just as many "thems."

Moreover, each "us," in order to make its influence felt, must mobilize in as large a number as possible. To do so, however, the group must first be persuaded that it is indeed a community.

To outsiders, the substance of these identities appears to be traditional, based entirely on ancient certainties of religion and caste. But in fact the contemporary appeal of these identities is rooted in the fact that they've been recast in a modern image.

Those at the forefront of the movements that seem to be tearing India apart -- the struggle for regional autonomy in the Punjab and Assam, the battle against university quotas in Bihar, the growing Hindu fundamentalist movement -- are invariably drawn from the educated urban middle class, people who are often desperately in search of an identity to give them an anchor within the anonymity of the modern world.

Of course, in the real world identities are always confused and inconsistent, and to bring people together in large numbers, those vital, human inconsistencies have to be suppressed. It is in the process of suppressing them that the movements first turn violent.

That is why some of the most grotesque episodes of violence occur when political activists try to root out divided loyalties. Soon, theatrical, almost ritual, acts of violence become a double necessity for these activists -- partly to keep their followers in line and partly to create a boundary for their group.

These acts in turn often meet with disproportionate responses from the government and the two sides soon come to be locked in an ascending spiral of violence.

Beneath the sound and fury there lies much real injustice and many well-found grievances. The government, by failing to respond effectively to crises, makes matters worse, as for example, when it proved tragically slow in stopping the bloodshed that followed the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984.

The major political parties, by aligning themselves with sectarian groups for short-term electoral gains, frequently add another volatile element to this compound. The result is an explosive mixture that often ignites with the call for secession by regional parties.

But in the long run secession would be a disaster for everyone. It would only lead to an increase in localized wars and almost certainly an uncontrollable proliferation of nuclear weapons.

What is really at issue is the question of finding a political structure in which diverse groups of people can voice their grievances through democratic means.

It seems to me that India is indeed lurching in fits and starts toward finding such a structure. The frequent changes of government, so different from the long periods of one-party rule in the 1960s and 1970s, is a sign of this.

These changes are often perceived by the West merely as evidence of confusion and helplessness. But in fact they prove that new coalitions and alignments are arising constantly now, ensuring that no one set of interests can long exercise dominance and that grudges and grievances are frequently ventilated.

It is easy to be deceived by the images of turmoil in the news reports from India. Behind the headlines daily life goes on mostly unaffected.

Indeed, in many ways, the turmoil is a sign of the astonishing energy that India has generated over the last couple of decades. The Indian economy, for example, reported rates of yearly growth between 8 and 11 percent in the 1980s.

What is most remarkable is that even at the worst moments of the past decade nobody has seriously proposed a totalitarian or absolutist solution to the country's problems. It is worth asking how many other parts of the world will be able to say as much once they begin to confront the issues of the future.

AMITAV GHOSH is author, most recently, of "The Shadow Lines."

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