#MeraBharatKahan: Shashi Tharoor on Quest for the ‘Idea of India’
The question “mera Bharat kahaan?” instantly invites a counter-question: “kaunsa Bharat?” Which Bharat am I laying claim to in asking myself that question?
The oldest and most tiring cliché of contemporary political discourse, after all, is the duality between “Bharat” and “India” – Bharat, rustic, poor, and unlettered, versus the cosmopolitan, urban, English-speaking India to which the readers of this op-ed largely belong. And yet how real is that division? After all, don’t the two Indias meet all the time – for instance in politics, in cinema halls, and on the cricket field?
Above all, aren’t the two held together by a shared ‘Idea of India’? Or are there now two opposed ‘Ideas of India’ battling for India’s soul?
The idea of India – though the phrase is Tagore’s – is, in some form or another, arguably as old as antiquity itself. However, the idea of India as a modern nation based on a certain conception of human rights and citizenship, acknowledging India’s plural diversity and vigorously backed by due process of law and equality before the law, is a relatively recent and strikingly modern idea.
What Defines An Indian
What makes India a nation? In a country notorious for identity politics, especially at election times, we may well ask: what is an Indian’s identity?
When an Italian nation was created in the second half of the 19th century out of a mosaic of principalities and small states, one Italian nationalist wrote: “We have created Italy. Now all we need to do is to create Italians.”
It is striking that, during our freedom struggle, no Indian nationalist succumbed to the temptation to express a similar thought. The prime exponent of modern Indian nationalism, Nehru, would never have spoken of “creating Indians,” because he believed that India and Indians had existed for millennia before he articulated their political aspirations in the 20th century.
Nonetheless, the India that was born in 1947 was in a very real sense a new creation: a state that made fellow citizens of the Ladakhi and the Laccadivian, divided Punjabi from Punjabi and asked a Keralite peasant to feel allegiance to a Kashmiri Pandit ruling in Delhi, all for the first time.
Not ethnicity, since the “Indian” accommodates a
diversity of racial types in which many Indians (Punjabis and Bengalis, in
particular) have more ethnically in common with foreigners than with their
Not religion, since India is a secular pluralist state that is home to every religion known to mankind, with the possible exception of Shintoism.
Not even geography, since the natural geography of the subcontinent – framed by the mountains and the sea – was hacked by the partition of 1947.
And not even territory, since, by law, anyone with one grandparent born in pre-partition India – outside the territorial boundaries of today’s state – is eligible for citizenship. Indian nationalism has therefore always been the nationalism of an idea.
Idea of India
It is the idea of an ever-ever land – emerging from an ancient civilisation, united by a shared history, sustained by pluralist democracy. India’s democracy imposes no narrow conformities on its citizens.
The whole point of Indian pluralism is you can be many things and one thing: you can be a good Muslim, a good Keralite and a good Indian all at once. The Indian idea is the opposite of what Freudians call “the narcissism of minor differences”; in India, we celebrate the commonality of major differences.
So my idea of India is of one land embracing many. The Indian idea is that a nation may endure differences of caste, creed, colour, conviction, culture, cuisine, costume and custom, and still rally around a consensus. And that consensus is around the simple idea that in a democracy you don’t really need to agree – except on the ground rules of how you will disagree.
My idea of India celebrates
diversity: if America is a melting-pot, as I have long argued, then to me India
is a thali, a selection of sumptuous
dishes in different bowls. Each tastes
different, and does not necessarily mix with the next, but they belong together
on the same plate, and they complement each other in making the meal a
Defending the ‘Idea of India’
A few years ago, I addressed the Wharton Business School’s India Forum in the US on “realising the Indian Dream”. And I told them that the Indian dream must be a dream that can be dreamt in Gujarati or in Tamil, dreamt by a Muslim or a Parsi or a Khasi, dreamt by a Brahmin or a Bodo, dreamt on a charpoy or a luxury king bed. Any narrower definition of Indianness would not just be pernicious: it would be an insult to Indian nationhood. An India that denies itself to some Indians would no longer be the India Mahatma Gandhi fought to free.
This is the idea of India that we must defend at all costs. India’s founding fathers wrote a constitution for their dreams; we have been given passports to their ideals. Today these ideals are contested not only by stone-throwing young men in the streets of Srinagar and rifle-wielding Maoists in the forests of Chhattisgarh, but also by self-righteous triumphalists in the ruling party who proclaim that all Indians must subscribe to their narrow vision of Hindutva as an alternative to a more capacious Indian-ness.
The results of the General Elections 2014, and the nearly two years of BJP rule that have followed, with mounting anxieties about intolerance of dissent and mistreatment of minorities, have raised legitimate concerns about the threat posed by those who do not share the idea of India I have described. They believe in a different idea of India, resting on a narrow majoritarian definition of Indian-ness, built on bigotry and exclusion, and intolerant of dissent, diversity and difference.
This is a battle for India’s soul. As it plays out, we must strive to ensure that the ultimate winner must be the founding ‘Idea of India’. We must remain faithful to the values we freed India with in the 20th century if we are to conquer the 21st.
(Former UN under-secretary-general, Shashi Tharoor is a Congress MP and author.)