Why India Wasn’t a Nation

In The Pyramid of Corruption, I take Rabindranath Tagore’s definition of nation as an ‘organization of politics and commerce’. Unfortunately, this is not everyone’s definition. However, as long as one writes down a definition and sticks to it, discussion and debate are possible between people who define it differently. In this article, I will make a few comments on Sankrant Sanu’s article Why India Is a Nation, which may be seen as representing all shades of popular political thought in India.

In The Pyramid of Corruption, I take Rabindranath Tagore‘s definition of nation as an ‘organization of politics and commerce’. Unfortunately, this is not everyone’s definition. However, as long as one writes down a definition and sticks to it, discussion and debate are possible between people who define it differently. In this article, I will make a few comments on Sankrant Sanu‘s article Why India Is a Nation, which may be seen as representing all shades of popular political thought in India.

The first difficulty in commenting on it is that I agree that India is a nation. Where I disagree with him is the why part, and as my title here makes it clear, on the idea that India was a nation. As I see it, India is a nation because there is one organization of politics and commerce encompassing India the country as we see it on the map today. And yes, it was indeed the British who created this organization. It’s not as if Sankrant doesn’t thank the British for it. In his own words, the “British experience is part of who we are today, so they certainly added to our civilization.” That’s a clear recognition of British presence in the genes of the Indian nation of today – exactly the line I take in my book.

Coming to the question of definitions, what I call the nation is what Sankrant calls the nation-state in his section titled ‘The Modern States and Their Origins’. He admits that the very concept of nation-state (to use his word) is new to the entire world, not just to India. This, of course, is correct. But the problem is, in making the point that the world didn’t have nation-states until recently, Sankrant picks up tiny pieces of land in Europe – the nation-states of Europe, to be precise – and compares them with all of India taken as one nation-state. This is remarkable because it’s like comparing an apple to a apple tree.

That apart, after dismissing the ‘shifting nature of political kingdoms and their boundaries over the centuries’ as a way to ‘legitimize’ a ‘country’ (that’s a new word, but I’m not surprised), Sankrant goes on to suggest later in the article that India had something called political unity from the 6th Century BC. I will come to this notion of political unit shortly, but I’ll let you guess why he makes this argument if it’s no way to ‘legitimize a country’.

Next, Sankrant asks the question as to whether ‘a particular set of people, within a particular geography, imagine of themselves a common socio-cultural geographical heritage that comprised them as a nation’ in India, suggesting, of course, that the answer is ‘yes’. To support ‘a particular geography’, he offers a physical map of Asia and asks his reader to ‘take a deep breath’ and ‘reflect on the significance of this geography’. These deep breaths work wonders in academic circles, don’t they?

Proceeding, Sankrant argues that ‘civilization’ developed on the ‘great river systems of the Indus and the Gangetic plain’. Meanwhile, eminent historian K.A.Nilakanta Sastry writes on page 44 of his History of South India that the antiquity of human life in South India ‘goes back about 3,00,000 years’ and goes on to provide several reasons for this claim. There is a whole lot of recent research which suggests an independent centre of civilization in South India, away from the two river plains of North India mentioned by Sankrant. But this doesn’t figure in Sankrant’s north-centric narrative. The problem with this omission is, it destroys his very thesis that there was ‘a particular set of people’ with a ‘common socio-cultural geographical heritage’, that there was ‘a unique and diverse civilization’. The ‘diverse’ in this last claim, of course, is a weak, unsubstantiated (by him) and half-hearted plug for people who point out India’s diversity.

Sankrant then goes on to provide what he thinks of as examples of political unification in India’s history. Curiously, none of his examples (or any that anyone else can provide) are examples of unification of all of India. The Mauryas conquered almost all of India, admittedly, but did not touch south Karnataka, Tamil Nadu or Kerala. He doesn’t mention that. The other kingdoms mentioned by him didn’t unify all of India even by his own admission. Kanishka didn’t go below central India; the Satavahanas didn’t touch the north; the Guptas didn’t go below the Narmada, but Sankrant pulls some interesting things from the top of his hat: that they were ‘possibly exerting political control even further down south’ and that the states of the south were ‘quite likely de-facto vassal states, paying tributes to the Emperor’; and finally, the Chalukyas and Cholas didn’t conquer the north. Let me leave the Mughals and the British aside because they were indeed not native kingdoms, and everyone knows that they did more to politically unify India than any native kingdom. So much for Sankrant’s suggestion that there has been some sort of unbroken political unity in India.

He says ‘Thus, there was an idea of India that made it be regarded as a separate and whole, even through political change and shifting boundaries of internal kingdoms’, but he has provided not an iota of evidence that any of these kingdoms had an ‘idea of India’, or for the claim that India was ‘separate and whole’ in any sense. All he has provided is proof of political change and shifting boundaries of kingdoms, not ‘internal kingdoms’. One can talk about ‘internal’ when the unit is first proved to exist, and that it can be seen as different from other units. And he hasn’t proved that. What he has proved is the existence of several units with changing boundaries and fortunes on Indian soil.

Āryāvarta (Source: Wikipedia)

Next, Sankrant proceeds to his own trap by claiming that ‘the idea of India, as Bharatavarsha or Aryavrata, appears to have been alive for thousands of years’. Many things can start appearing when one is dreaming, and here it is the idea that Aryavarta was all of India. Sankrant purposely twists Manusmriti 2.22 in reporting Aryavrata as a land ‘stretching from the Himalayas and Vindhyas all the way to the eastern and western oceans’ according to the text. In reality, even this sentence of his doesn’t make any sense. There’s half of India lying between the Himalayas and the Vindhyas, and it’s outrageous to say that there’s one piece of land from ‘the Himalayas and Vindhyas’ to something else. You don’t combine the Himalayas and the Vindhyas like that. They’re two separate mountain ranges unconnected to each other.

For a sentence which claims that there is something which stretches from A (Himalayas) and B (Vindhyas) all the way to C (eastern oceans) and D (western oceans) to make sense, A, B, C, and D must form a quadrilateral with A and B as one pair of adjacent sides, and C and D the other pair. But here, if only one looks at a map, A and B are opposite sides, as are C and D. Clearly, this is an attempt to confuse readers into thinking that Manusmriti refers to all of India using the word Aryavarta, while in fact, only the India above the Vindhyas is referred. It is this region of India which he is calling by the name Bharatavarsha, not the whole of India unless you haven’t recovered from the deep breath he wanted you to take earlier.

Sankrant mentions Mahabharata and Ramayana as further proofs of ‘Bharatavarsha or Aryavarta’. While there is no doubt that these epics are popular all over India, he forgets that they are popular even outside it – for example in Cambodia, Thailand, etc. He also forgets to mention lands south of the Vindhyas when he says the Mahabharata ‘shows a remarkable degree of pan-Indian context’. To be fair, names of kingdoms down south are indeed mentioned in both; I’m only pointing out the fact that it suffices for Sankrant to take names from the north. But to come to the larger point he’s making, it is indeed true that these two epics talk about a large part of what we call India today. The question is: So what? They’re chanting Buddhist texts in China, Japan and Korea even today. So what?

After talking about Mahabharata and Ramayana, Sankrant is acutely aware that these are texts written in the north, in Sanskrit, and wants to prove that there’s been flow in the opposite direction, too. For this he mentions the Bhakti movement, crediting Karnataka and Tamil Nadu for its origin. That’s quite nice, thank you from a Kannadiga, but so what? Let us agree that post the 6th or 7th century AD, there has indeed been this cultural export from South India. So what? Does it prove the existence of an Indian nation or nation-state as in ‘organization of politics and commerce’? No. All it proves is that there has been quite a bit of religious churning within the Indian subcontinent, that the north pioneered the culture of today, and that the south made its contribution beginning the 6th or 7th century AD.

In the rest of his article, Sankrant takes the usual path of taking religion as the basis to claim that there was an Indian nation. If this is all he had to claim, why did he get into the mess he got into with respect to politics? Why did he have to twist the Manusmriti and redefine Aryavarta to fit his political message? I will gladly agree that India is the land of Hinduism, although I will never cease to point out in the same breath that it is extremely diverse and that it sets a not-so-good example of handling human diversity with its caste system, its method of attaching inferiority and purity to people, languages, everything. In fact, I increasingly tend to take S.N.Balagangadhara‘s view that there is no Hinduism at all, if and when I’m forced to reckon with someone who doesn’t admit these things. And I don’t see Sankrant Sanu admiting these things. And finally, what has religion got to do with nationalism, unless as a nation we agree to do nothing more than meditate or worship?

To summarize, then, Sankrant Sanu hasn’t provided any evidence of an Indian nation existing before the British, if by nation one means what Rabindranath Tagore meant, i.e., an organization of politics and commerce. He has, however, reiterated the fact that Hinduism exists almost all over India. He has tried to force fit history and religious texts to support his political message, and has hidden the fact that the roots of Hinduism lie in the India above the Vindhyas. He has taken a definition of nation which has nothing to do with politics and economics (‘a particular set of people, within a particular geography, with a common socio-cultural geographical heritage’) and applied it mostly to Aryavarta, misinterpreting it as all of India. He has displayed no understanding of the pre-history of South India. In all, he hasn’t said anything which proves that India, as we know it today, was a nation. Nobody ever has, or can, and I take this point up in detail in my book. As to India being a nation today, all one needs is to mention the Constitution of India.

Some thoughts on the apex of the Pyramid

In his 1955 classic History of South India: From Prehestoric Times to the Fall of Vijayanagar, the famous historian K. A. Nilakanta Sastri writes:

[The] institution of caste with all its social and economic implications was accepted almost universally, and the upholding of the social order organized on its basis was held to be the primary duty of the ruler. This accounts at once for the prevalence of  much social exclusiveness in matters of food and marriage among different sections of the people, and for the readiness with which they came together and cooperated on matters of common concern like the management of a temple and its adjuncts, the regulation of land and irrigation rights in the village, and the administration of local affairs generally. The emphasis was throughout on the performance of duties attaching to one’s station rather than on the rights of the individual or group. The general atmosphere was one of social harmony and contentment with the existing order; differences and disputes there were – there has been no society without them – but they were seldom acrimonious. Even the quarrels between ‘right-hand’ and ‘left-hand’ castes, a distinction which has an early start and whose origin is a mystery, did not attain the violence that characterized them in subsequent times. Both in towns and villages, the castes tended to live in separate quarters of their own and follow their own peculiar customs and habits. The outcastes who tilled the land and did menial work (under conditions little different from slavery) lived in hamlets at a distance from the village proper. [p. 289]

Sastri is writing about South India in the period from the sixth to the seventeenth century, A.D. Clearly, there is hardly any criticism of the caste-system in the above passage. There isn’t anywhere else in his book, either. Of course, it’s a book of history (an excellent one, in fact) and one doesn’t expect the author’s personal views to influence it. But as I have argued before, selection and emphasis are inevitable to the historian. Sastri has clearly selected and emphasized only those facets of the caste-system which he likely considered positive. The negative facets are buried in vague terms like ‘social and economic implications’ and ’emphasis on duties’; even the slave-like situation of the outcastes finds a mention only within brackets. Before the reader even notices them, the narrative moves on to what Sastri seems to be more interested in.

But why exactly was the caste system, with all its ‘social and economic implications’ that is to say with all its social and economic injustice to the lower castes, ‘accepted almost universally’ (I don’t doubt Sastri’s knowledge of facts)? Sastri himself hints: because the rulers were concerned with upholding the system. It would have been impossible for the people subjected to a monarchy not to accept what the ruler considered his duty; death would have been an easy way of getting rid of dissenters. So then, why did the rulers uphold such an unjust system? This is also quite straightforward: the more subdued and ‘well-behaved’ the people are, the less the threat to the ruler’s authority. This does not mean the people welcomed it, only that they must have had no option but to display ‘social harmony and contentment with the existing order’.

We must also realize that this ‘existing order’ was hierarchical, meaning every layer in the hierarchy had inferiors of their own to oppress, i.e., exploit socially or economically or both. This is what makes it a Pyramid of Corruption where every layer assumes power over layers below and abuses it for its own gain. This structure yields further stability to the whole system because when everyone is corrupt, seldom does anyone raise a voice against the system. I explain this further in The Pyramid of Corruption (Ch. 4):

The Aryan Pyramid of corruption has exhibited an inordinate degree of stability; it has endured for thousands of years. But why is it so stable? It is stable due to a unique feature of its: the most visible and active castes possess not just a certain quota of inferiority, but also a certain quota of superiority. Each of them is inferior to the castes above it in the hierarchy, assuming they exist, but is superior to the castes below it in the hierarchy, assuming they exist. Therefore, the people in the middle of the Pyramid who are most vocal and most in charge of material wealth are equal in that all of them have their quotas of superiority and inferiority. So, all of them can assume power over those southwards of them and then abuse it, at the cost of giving away power to those northwards of them who then abuse it. Life is not only roses but thorns too, and everyone accepts this as normal. The brahmanas at the top of the Pyramid, however, have no inferiority whatsoever and they assume power over the entire Pyramid which lies to their south. The shudras at the bottom of the Pyramid have no superiority whatsoever because all superiority lies to their north; they have their voice removed from them, and, therefore, no complaints are heard from them, even if there is the urge to voice them. Thus, the opportunity that all the vocal and active people in the middle of the Pyramid have to abuse public power for private gain, together with the suppression of the voices of those who lie at the bottom of the Pyramid and an overall reverence for the top of the Pyramid which abuses its power over it, lends stability to the entire Pyramid.

It may now be asked why the brahmanas, not the kshatriya rulers, were (and are) at the apex of this Pyramid. After all, weren’t the rulers the ones who wielded the sword of enforcement? Why didn’t they place themselves at the apex? One easy answer is that the ruler cannot openly declare himself supreme. Among other complications in doing so must have been the fact that he would become the laughing stock of the people should that inevitable defeat in war occur. Instead, the kshatriyas seem to have found it useful to bow down to the brahmanas and spread the belief that their job is to act according to eternal rules laid down by the brahmanas: the dharma. And of course, the brahmanas presented no political or economic threat to the kshatriyas. As Sastri points out, they indeed ‘stood outside the race for wealth and power’. By power Sastri means political power, but the brahmanas were certainly in the race for social power, i.e., social status. Their word was literally taken to be the word of God, and nobody throws that sort of respect away; hardly anyone dislikes kings falling at their feet.

Were the brahmanas the authors of this whole system? Clearly the system required help from the kshatriyas, but they cannot be called its authors. They were merely its protectors. In fact, if the brahmanas had cared, they could have refused to become party to this whole business even if it meant corporal punishment. Many must have actually refused. One expects such adherence to values from the brahmana, not to mention the possibility of escaping to the forest. But the fact is, a good number of brahmanas seem to have happily entered into an alliance with the kshatriyas and considered the creation and sustenance of this system good for one and all. This together with the lower status of the kshatriyas makes them the authors, although Sastri is almost right in pointing out that they ‘lived on voluntary gifts from all classes of people from the king downwards’. It is also true that the brahamanas were the last ones to have benefited materially from this (some refuse to attribute authorship for this reason), but that was not the benefit they sought to begin with. The caste-system is proof that one can make a complete mess of society even if, or just if, one has little self-interest in the material world of politics and economics. Of those who only faked it, on the other hand, there is nothing to be said at all.