Shashi Tharoor writes: A struggle between two Indian ideas


A narrow conception of Indianness, intolerant, suspicious and vengeful, competes with the other Indianness, broader, voluminous and inclusive

At midnight on August 15, 1947, independent India was born when its first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, proclaimed “a rendezvous with fate … a moment … which rarely occurs in history. , when we pass from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds expression. With these words, he launched India on a remarkable journey – to create a national identity out of a country that many believed could not be a nation at all.

“India,” growled Winston Churchill once, “is only a geographical expression. It is no more a single country than the equator. Although Churchill was generally wrong about India, it is true that no other country in the world embraces the extraordinary mix of ethnic groups, the profusion of mutually incomprehensible languages, the varieties of topography and climate, the diversity of religions and cultural practices; and the range of levels of economic development in India.

A struggle between two ideas from India

And yet India, as I have repeatedly argued, is more than the sum of its contradictions. These contradictions have been repeatedly pointed out by the British leaders in the self-justification of their rule. Thus Benjamin Disraeli argued that India was not a nation: it lacked a common language, a common religion, a shared tradition, a historical experience, a cohesive majority and a defined territory, which he all considered the essential ingredients of a nation. . But Indian nationalists have had an effective response. India is a country united, in Nehru’s words, “by strong but invisible threads … a myth and an idea, a dream and a vision, and yet very real, present and omnipresent”.

However you think of it, the challenge of defining India is immense. It is a land of snow-capped peaks and tropical jungles, with twenty-two main languages ​​listed in the Constitution and over 20,000 distinct “dialects” (some of which are spoken by more people than Swedish, Maori or Estonian. ), inhabited at the start of the third decade of the 21st century by 1.38 billion people of almost all ethnic origins known to mankind. He gave birth to four great religions and provides a home for many more; it preaches doctrines of spirituality and wisdom, rooted in universalism and inclusiveness, while still being afflicted by a caste system that inflicts severe handicaps on millions of its inhabitants. It has two great classical musical traditions (Carnatic and Hindustani) to accompany countless folk disciplines; several forms of classical dance (Kathakali, Kuchipudi, Bharata Natyam, Kathak, Manipuri, Odissi, etc.) which create a rich jambalaya of various cultures transmitted by gurus directly supervising selected students; trains more engineers than any other country and produces by far the most films in the world. In the words of the American poet Walt Whitman, it is vast; it contains multitudes. Is there even, one might ask, a single indisputable idea of ​​the Indian nation?

Yes there is. I wrote in my book An era of darkness how the notion of Bharatvarsha in the Rig Veda, from a land stretching from the Himalayas to the seas, contained the original territorial notion of India; for the limits imposed by the mountains and the oceans have also created common links, making the conception of India as a single civilization inhabiting a coherent territorial space and a truly timeless shared history. There are therefore deep continuities in the imagination of the Indian nation, which transcend centuries of internal division. In this sense, the idea of ​​India is as old as antiquity.

However, the idea of ​​India as a modern nation based on a certain conception of human rights and citizenship, vigorously supported by due process and equality before the law, is a relatively recent idea and surprisingly modern. Earlier conceptions of India were inspired by mythology and theology. The modern idea of ​​India, despite the mystical influence of Tagore and the spiritual and moral influences of Gandhiji, is a solidly secular and legal construction based on the vision and the intellect of our founding fathers, in particular (in alphabetical order !) Ambedkar, Nehru, and Patel. The preamble to the Constitution itself is the most eloquent enumeration of this vision. In her description of the characteristic features of the Indian republic, and her conception of justice, liberty, equality and fraternity, she firmly proclaims that the law will be the basis of the national project.

In my last book The battle of belonging I have argued that India is a civic nationalism, rooted in the Constitution and its liberal democratic institutions, a nationalism of belonging rather than blood. For my part, when I refer to my own nationalism, despise any non-Indian allegiance and proudly wear a tricolor pin every day, I truly subscribe to a patriotism that is based on this conception of India – a love of my country because it is mine, anchored in the institutional and constitutional pillars of civic nationalism. For me, Indian nationalism derives its political legitimacy not from ethnicity, religion, language, culture, or any of the enduring attributes that people acquire from birth, but from consent and participation. active participation of our citizens, as free members of a democratic regime.

For our nationalism to rise above the “Hindi-Hindu”[tva]-Hindustan “of India proclaimed by the current dispensation from power, we must preserve the idea of ​​India anchored in the Republic created by our founding leaders – supported by liberal democratic institutions, a constitutionalism which guarantees the freedom of expression and association, and a representative democracy that has empowered the individual citizen regardless of caste or creed, region or religion, language or literacy. When our current leaders tell us that to disagree with them is anti-national, or that to be a true Indian one has to be a Hindi-speaking Hindu, we can respond by pointing to the Constitution, which they so brazenly despise the idea of ​​India. will tell you that in our democracy you don’t really have to agree all the time except on the ground rules of how you will disagree.

Dividing our people into majority and minority, Hindu and Muslim, Hindi-speaker and Tamil, nationalist and anti-national, is fundamentally anti-Indian and does not reflect the true nature of our society. The suggestion that only a Hindu, and only a certain type of Hindu, can be a genuine Indian is an affront to the very premise of Indian nationalism. Uniformity is at the cost of the unit; the insistence on conformism destroys the imperative of consensus. An India that denies itself to some of us could end up being denied to all of us.

As we enter the 75th year of our independence, a struggle takes place between these two ideas of India. One is based on a narrow conception of Indianness; she is intolerant of difference and suspicious of diversity, and seeks revenge on history by committing new wrongs today. The other is broader, broad and inclusive, accepting difference and embracing diversity, ensuring that these are best suited to democratic institutions and processes supported by our constitutionally guaranteed freedoms. Which idea will prevail will determine the character of India which will celebrate its centenary in a quarter of a century.

Shashi Tharoor is the author of 22 Sahitya Akademi Prize-winning books, the most recent of which is “The Battle of Belonging”.

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