Do Indian people in general feel more allegiance to the nation of India or to their individual cultures? was a question that came on Quora. This is what i have to say about it.
I am no professional anthropologist but will try and address this one from my perspective.
The fact is that India is a huge country. It has a population that exceeds the number living on the African continent!
Realistically, Indians have more reasons to be divided than be united. You can dice up the populations on any number of metrics – language, religion, caste, economic class or a combination of these. The ‘India’ that we know now came into existence more or less only 200 years ago when the British took full control (c 1818). Till that time it was a mix of principalities and nation states which were, more often than not, at war with each other.
When the British left India in 1947, a large number of political observers predicted a fall out since the single common ‘enemy’ was now gone. It has been a matter of great mystery to many that this did NOT happen. I guess one reason is that the feeling of being Indian was strongly embedded in our psyche during 150 years of British rule. Also luckily the first few leaders after independence were giants who operated beyond the pale of narrow political considerations and they kept this feeling going. Mainstream political parties stressed the unity amidst diversity all through.
There have been separatist movements but they have not really ended up in secession. Also in most cases secession movements were based on very real political and economic marginalisation. Invariably the central government has responded positively, allayed fears and kept the country intact.
The national identity is very strong.
However, that does not mean that the sub-cultural identities are weak. Most of these identities are around geographies. Let me explain; Kerala is a State in Southern India. It has almost equal number of people from three religions Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. A Hindu Brahmin in Kerala worships the same (almost) Gods as a Brahmin in say North India. However, culturally (language, diet, art and even one festival!) the Kerala Hindu Brahmin has more in common with his Muslim and Christian neighbours in Kerala. In fact apart from the religion, he has almost nothing in common with his brethren in North India. This is the case for most Indians.
The cultural identify is also very strong.
The cultural identity is now very clearly manifested in the political space. Over the last 2-3 decades, the political landscape in India has changed and regional parties have emerged showcasing the aspirations of local peoples. No longer is it possible for any of the three national parties to form the central government on their own steam. The last such instance was 1984. (when the Congress won over 400 of the 500 odd parliament seats riding a sympathy wave following the assassination of the then prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi)
Indians have now learnt the art of balancing both identities. Voting patterns in national and local elections provide a clear insight into how this is managed.
You take any Indian out of India and (s)he will be just Indian. If you are in India – be prepared to face a slew of identities.