Brainstorm Think

The Nationalism of an Idea

This is the fourth post on the Brainstorm subject, ‘The Future of the Indian Republic.’

November 26, 1949, marked the conclusion of the long process of Constitution-making. The nationalist movement that gave our Constitution its legitimacy and sanctity had itself used many arguably non-constitutional methods in its struggle against Imperial rule—non-cooperation, civil disobedience, satyagraha. Yet it culminated in a democratic Constitution, the world’s longest and (as so many thought at the time) most imperiled. On that occasion, Dr BR Ambedkar, Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Constituent Assembly, rose in what is now the Central Hall of Parliament to address his colleagues, his fellow Founding Fathers, with a prescient warning to the nation: “However good a constitution may be,” he said, “it is sure to turn out bad because those who are called to work it, happen to be a bad lot. However bad a constitution may be, it may turn out to be good if those who are called to work it, happen to be a good lot. The working of a constitution does not depend wholly upon the nature of the Constitution.” It is a sobering reminder that the Constitution and indeed the idea of India that we celebrate today can be distorted and misused by ‘wrong-minded’ people in power.

India, I have long argued, is more than the sum of its contradictions. It is a country held together, in the words of Jawaharlal Nehru, “by strong but invisible threads … a myth and an idea, a dream and a vision, and yet very real and present and pervasive”. This nebulous ‘Idea of India’—though the phrase is Rabindranath 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, vigorously backed by due process of law and equality before law, is a relatively recent and strikingly modern idea.

Earlier conceptions of India drew their inspiration from mythology and theology. However, the modern idea of India, despite the mystical influence of Tagore, and the spiritual and moral influences of Mahatma Gandhiji, is a robustly secular and legal construct based upon the vision and intellect of our founding fathers, notably (in alphabetical order) Ambedkar, Nehru and Patel. The Preamble of the Constitution itself is the most eloquent enumeration of this vision. In its description of the defining traits of the Indian republic, in its conception of justice, of liberty, of equality and fraternity, it firmly proclaims that the law will be the bedrock of the Idea of India.

How did India preserve and protect a viable idea of itself in the course of the last 69 years, while it grew from 370 million people to 1.3 billion, re-organised its state structures, and sought to defend itself from internal and external dangers, all the while remaining democratic? I have tried to answer this question at length in my books. Certainly the accomplishment is extraordinary, and worthy of celebration. Amid India’s myriad problems, it is democracy that has given Indians of every imaginable caste, creed, culture, and cause the chance to break free of their age-old subsistence level existence.

Our Constitution has been written for a plural society. It has protected and defended that pluralism by enshrining and expanding the rights of various minority groups, notably religious minorities, Dalits and women (but not yet gays and lesbians). It is true, as Nitin pointed out, that the tension between the Constitution’s upholding of individual rights and liberties co-exists uneasily with its framework of defence of communitarian and group rights. Yet, constitutionalism has become the principal means of embodying justice to Dalits, and the Constitution remains their own preferred tool to undo injustice. But recent events have proved that it can still be subverted, if not in principle, then certainly in practice, by those who disrespect its pluralist convictions.

For decades the Constitution has worked to promote our people’s progress through debate and consultation, respect for the opposition and minority points of view, deference to legal process. Such constraints are sadly disrespected today—and not only by the ruling party’s desire to promote a narrow- minded and sectarian nationalism that brooks no dissent, and which for the first time has made some Indians feel unsafe to be themselves in India. They are also challenged by disturbances in the street, ranging from the hartals called (and enforced by intimidation) by Kerala Communists, the sit-in strike led by Delhi’s own elected Chief Minister against his state’s police (who are accountable to the Central Government), and most notably by the Anna Hazare movement that invoked a higher morality than the Constitution provides for.

There is social oppression and caste tyranny, particularly in rural India, but Indian democracy offers the victims a means of escape, and often—thanks to the determination with which the poor and oppressed exercise their franchise—of triumph. The various schemes established by successive governments for the betterment of the rural poor are a result of this connect between our citizens and the State.

And yet, in the nearly seven decades since Independence, democracy has failed to create a single political community. Instead, we have become more conscious than ever of what divides us: religion, region, caste, language, ethnicity. The political system has become looser and more fragmented. Politicians mobilise support along ever-narrower lines of political identity. It has become more important to be a “backward caste”, a “tribal”, or a Muslim than to be an Indian; and of course, to some it is more important to be a ‘proud’ Hindu than to be an Indian. This is particularly ironic because one of the early strengths of Nehruvian India—the survival of the nationalist movement as a political party, the Congress Party serving as an all-embracing, all-inclusive agglomeration of the major political tendencies in the country—stifled the normal process of contention over political principle. With the emergence and growth of other political forces, politicians have been tempted to organise themselves around identities other than party (or to create parties to reflect a specific identity).

Caste, which Nehru and his ilk abhorred and believed would disappear from the social matrix of modern India, has not merely survived and thrived, but has become an instrument for highly effective political mobilisation. Candidates are picked by their parties with an eye toward the caste loyalties they can call upon; often their appeal is overtly to voters of their own caste or sub-caste, urging them to elect one of their own. The result has been the growth of caste-consciousness and casteism throughout society. Indeed, this paradox has been captured by Shruti’s illustration of majority and minority wolves – with the latter hijacking democracies, more often than not. The fact is that in many states, caste determines educational opportunities, job prospects, and governmental promotions; all too often, for instance, people say you cannot go forward unless you’re a “backward”.

Ironically, a distinctive feature of the Nehruvian legacy was its visionary rejection of India’s assorted bigotries and particularisms. All four generations of Nehrus in public life remained secular in outlook and conduct. Their appeal transcended caste, region, language, and religion, something virtually impossible to say of most other leading Indian politicians.

Whether through elections or quotas, political mobilisation in contemporary India has asserted the power of old identities, habits, faiths, and prejudices. Transcending them will be a major challenge for the Indian polity in the 21st Century. One does question: What makes India a nation? In a country notorious for identity politics, especially at election time, 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, half a century later, 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.

So Indian nationalism was not based on any of the conventional indices of national identity. Not language, since our constitution now recognises 23 official languages, and as many as 35 languages spoken by more than a million people each.

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 other compatriots.

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 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.

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 the idea of India is of one land embracing many. Geography helps, because it accustoms Indians to the idea of difference.

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 satisfying repast.

Several years ago in the US, I addressed the Wharton Business School’s India Forum 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 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, a failure of our attempts to deal with the demographic and employment challenges as Amit rightly highlighted, 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 Indianness. The results of the General Elections 2014, and the three 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.

They advocate a nationalism that is divisive rather than inclusive, embodied in a chauvinism intolerant of diversity and difference. They collectively pose the threat of ‘the painfully inadequate and potentially illiberal change’ that Jayaprakash Narayan warns us of.

This is a battle for India’s soul. All of us who believe in the liberal values embodied in our Constitution must strive to ensure that the ultimate winner must be the Idea of India. Indians must remain faithful to our founding values of the 20th century if we are to conquer the 21st.

About the author

Shashi Tharoor

Shashi Tharoor is a two-time Congress MP and Chairman of the External Affairs Committee in Parliament. An award winning author of sixteen works of fiction and non-fiction, he is the author of India: From Midnight to the Millennium, a history of post-Independence India, and, most recently, An Era of Darkness, that tells the story of the British Raj in the subcontinent. He has been Under-Secretary-General at the United Nations and Minister of State for External Affairs and Human Resource Development in the Government of India.