Let me state it loud and clear: it’s people crossing diversity borders for political or economic reasons. As I point out in my book, Gandhi, Ambedkar, and Tagore held similar views. Let me produce some quotes from these three thinkers (I’ve used them in my book).
Let me state it loud and clear.
The root of all global problems today is the fact that people are crossing diversity borders for political or economic reasons at an unprecedented rate.
As I point out in Chapter 3 of my book, three of India’s most important thinkers, namely Gandhi, Ambedkar, and Tagore, held similar views.
Let me share some quotes from these three thinkers (I’ve used them in my book).
Mahatma Gandhi pointed out that people become ‘confounded’ when they come in contact with others of different natures, religions, etc. His point was that the very meeting should not take place. He literally considered the British-introduced Indian Railways evil:
[Man] is so made by nature as to require him to restrict his movements as far as his hands and feet will take him. If we did not rush about from place to place by means of railways and such other maddening conveniences, much of the confusion that arises would be obviated. Our difficulties are of our own creation. God set a limit to a man’s locomotive ambition in the construction of his body. Man immediately proceeded to discover means of overriding the limit. God gifted man with intellect that he might know his Maker. Man abused it so that he might forget his Maker. I am so constructed that I can only serve my immediate neighbors, but in my conceit I pretend to have discovered that I must with my body serve every individual in the Universe. In thus attempting the impossible, man comes in contact with different natures, different religions, and is utterly confounded. According to this reasoning, it must be apparent to you that railways are a most dangerous institution. Owing to them, man has gone further away from his Maker.
B. R. Ambedkar issued words of caution to be exercised whenever there is the intermingling of diverse peoples. According to him, if diverse peoples are ‘forced to take part in a common cycle of participation, such as Government’, there can be neither fellow-feeling nor peace because of racial and cultural conflicts which arise due to sheer ‘enforced juxtaposition’:
Why do Tamils hate Andhras and Andhras hate Tamils? Why do Andhras in Hyderabad hate Maharashtrians and Maharashtrians hate Andhras? Why do Gujaratis hate Maharashtrians and Maharashtrians hate Gujaratis? The answer is very simple. It is not because there is any natural antipathy between the two. The hatred is due to the fact that they are put in juxtaposition and forced to take part in a common cycle of participation, such as Government. There is no other answer. So long as this enforced juxtaposition remains, there will be no peace between the two.
Rabindranath Tagore wrote profusely about how India’s task from time immemorial had been to make social adjustments to deal with racial differences between Aryans, Dravidians, Greeks, Persians, Mohammedans of the West and Mohammedans of Central Asia. In an environment charged with fervent Indian nationalism and Gandhian claims of ‘oneness’ in everything that mattered all over India, Tagore was deeply conscious of India’s diversity and deeply worried about its rising neglect. India was ‘naturally many, yet adventitiously one’, and therefore, a reconciliation of race differences was central to India’s mission on earth:
Races ethnologically different have in this country come into close contact. This fact has been and still continues to be the most important one in our history. It is our mission to face it and prove our humanity by dealing with it in the fullest truth. Until we fulfil our mission all other benefits will be denied us.
Clearly, nobody cares for the words of caution issued by these three great Indian thinkers any more.
Today, it has become stupid – even antinational – to think like this in India. How can a patriotic Indian think pan-Indian trade is evil? How can travelling on the Indian Railways be evil? How can someone even think Tamils and Andhras are in any sense different? They’re both Indians! And how can someone talk of different races on Indian soil? And finally, how can someone talk as if international trade is evil? It’s the crown gem of humanity!
This government, like most monarchies in history, wants to get into people’s minds together with a dose of divinity. Once the common man falls for the scheme, he attaches divinity to the government itself. His mind cannot disentangle the two easily, even though the government is no more than India’s biggest corporation. Reason thus blinded, the poor fellow finds it nearly impossible to question those actions of the government which have a greater bearing on his own life. And that’s the whole idea.
This bifurcation takes some time to sink in. It may never happen to those who have been indoctrinated to worship the nation. But if and when it sinks in, it becomes a very good tool to understand the world in general and India in particular.
From this understanding, it becomes clear that Yoga is the product of a society, not a nation. Politics or commerce didn’t lead to Yoga. In fact, when it was first discovered (or invented, you choose), there was no pan-Indian politics or commerce. There was no Indian nation.
The Government of India, on the other hand, is not a social institution. It’s is a national institution, i.e., one of politics and commerce. It’s really the biggest business in the country, and it must behave as such.
While it would be idiotic to deny the greatness of Yoga, it would be equally idiotic to think of the Government of India as having anything to do with it.
Yoga Day, therefore, signifies the usurpation of society by politics and economics, i.e., the usurpation of society by nation.
All those text messages about the importance of Yoga, which the Government of India seems to have sent to every Indian with a mobile phone, all those ads, all that propaganda, were nothing but a vulgar display of the power of the Centre to infiltrate into society and take control.
Let there be no doubt in anyone’s mind that Patanjali is no justification for Modi. However, because of the sheer power that the Government of India wields, many will end up thinking he is. That’s the desired result.
In other words, Yoga Day is designed to justify Mr. Modi and his government, their actions, and their right to rule India. It’s this century’s Indian avatar of the Divine Right of Kings.
This government, like most monarchies in history, wants to get into people’s minds together with a dose of divinity. Once the common man falls for the scheme, he attaches divinity to the government itself. His mind cannot disentangle the two easily, even though the government is no more than India’s biggest corporation.
Reason thus blinded, the poor fellow finds it nearly impossible to question those actions of the government which have a greater bearing on his own life. And that’s the whole idea.
Put differently, Yoga Day is an attempt by the Government of India to appear divine to the people of India by psychologically overpowering them, take away their liberty when they’re unguarded, and thereby win on the material plane. This psychological attack is at the very foundation of the party currently running the government.
It’s no secret that the BJP has forever tried to justify coming to and remaining in power using Hindu gods such as Rama. Having learnt that they’re too controversial, they’ve moved on to Yoga.
This time, together with the execution excellence of Modi’s team, the psychological overpowering is almost completely successful. The Divine Right of Kings, ladies and gentlemen, is back in currency. In a democracy.
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.
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.
The sages of India have produced perhaps the most humanistic philosophy in the world; it is second to none at any rate. Despite all the obvious diversity, those accomplished souls essentially saw the oneness of man wherever he is in the world.
However, the oneness they saw was spiritual, not material. When this simple fact is forgotten, diversity doesn’t get the respect it deserves, and all hell breaks loose. The Indian concept that the entire world is one’s family (vasudhaiva kutumbakam) is a spiritual one whereas the concept of nationalism isn’t. One can’t use the former to justify the latter, but that is exactly what we do in India.
Nationalism is essentially a materialistic concept; it has nothing to do with spirituality. It developed in Europe which is, to say the least, a desert of spirituality. When a culture that had never considered all human beings as one with any seriousness had to come up with a solution to conflicts arising due to the admixture of diverse peoples on European soil, it hit upon what we now call nationalism. This was a way of building what Rabindranath Tagore described as “narrow domestic walls” across which there wouldn’t be too many unmonitored interactions. The Europeans never thought of it in Tagore’s terms, of course; for them nationalism was a natural expression of their culture.
This European material culture imposed itself all over the world like a cancer for several centuries in order to suck it dry of resources, the Indian idea that the world is one family be damned. It spread slavery and created colonies wherever it went, and those slaves and colonies had no option but to respond on the same level as the imposing culture. That is, they had no option but to acquire the European disease of nationalism. Despite all pretense, Indian nationalism is no exception to this.
Although it got this disease, India hasn’t let go of its cultural roots, its idea of the spiritual oneness of all humanity in particular. However, the fact that nationalism is a materialistic concept hasn’t registered fully within India. Used to seeing everything as a spiritual concept, Indian intellectuals with even a rudimentary exposure to Indian philosophy consider the nation, too, as something spiritual. That is why we see right from pre-independence days to today, the names of sages such as Adi Shankara being roped in to justify Indian nationalism. Exactly what they said which requires one political unit called India is never discussed.
But taking materialism out of nationalism, even for a moment, is taking everything out of it. There is nothing in nationalism except dry material transactions with profits and losses. Adding spirituality to the idea of a nation, on the other hand, actually creates a great danger. This, too, is hard to understand for the seasoned Indian philosopher and the novice alike. How can there be anything which my culture of spirituality cannot elevate? This being the fundamental confusion, Indian intellectuals continue to flog a dead horse.
Nationalism, a material concept developed to protect different peoples from hurting each other, as it were, requires one to acknowledge that different peoples exist in the first place, and to recognize those peoples as separate nations. Taking language as the fundamental difference marker, this would mean two dozen or so nations in the place of India. But this is not what we have; what we have is one nation. Plus, there’s the idea that people must give up their diversity to conform. The most erudite reason given for this idea is that Indian philosophy requires us to think of everyone as belonging to the same family. Never mind the fact that that was not meant in the materialistic sense, and never mind that we’re applying this only to India and not the entire vasudhaa (world).
Let us not mind these things either, for argument’s sake, and see what happens when this confusion between spiritualism and materialism enters Indian nationalism. One-sixth of humanity is tucked under one umbrella and all diversity is forgotten in an essentially materialistic setting. The result is that the exact same explosive situation which led to dozens of nations in Europe exists in India, too, but there is no attempt to deal with it. Instead, there’s the repeated assertion that the said situation is unreal and created by those who are unspiritual and anti-national. In reality, it is created by those who refuse to take the realistic definition of nationalism. Again, those who are called unspiritual are not even supposed to be spiritual, and those who are called anti-national are actually national in the real sense of the term, which is materialistic.
In India, the explosive situation in the above paragraph has a very specific nature. It is nothing but the inequality of the Pyramid of Corruption. This is a term I use for the caste-system and everything related to it. This Pyramid has the pure Brahmana at the apex, followed by the Kshatriya and the Vaishya and finally the Shudra at the bottom. Hundreds of millions of Indians, including the whole of South India, are Shudra, and in the context of nationalism, it means that they are ripe for oppression by the other Varnas. In ethnic terms, the lower castes of Aryans and all the non-Aryans are at a risk of economic and political exploitation by high-caste Aryans, and the risk has been triggered. What makes this situation explosive is the fact that all these material differences are neglected by the popular idea of India. It urges us to think on a spiritual plane whereas the crime is happening on the material plane.
Therefore, at the root of India’s problems lies a refusal to think of nationalism as something purely materialistic, and a mistaken belief that spiritualism can elevate the crass materialism of nations. Those who worship Bharat Mata may not have the intention to cause harm. But their refusal to come to terms with what nationalism really is, and their attempt to deify the undeifiable, are nothing but harm. So, the next time you hear someone uphold the oneness of humanity, I hope you ask them whether it’s physical or spiritual oneness; and the next time someone justifies Indian nationalism on spiritual grounds, I hope you tell them they have no clue what they’re talking about.
Rabindranath Tagore has been a great source of inspiration to me. It all began close to fifteen years ago, with one night of reading the Gitanjali from beginning to end as if it were the Bhagavad Gita, and rejoicing in every line. But, to put it briefly, there it did not end.
I don’t always agree with him, but if there is one well-known Indian figure who understood India from the ground up, I think it’s him. What struck me most about him very early was that, though quite evidently a member of the Indian elite of his time, he never distanced himself from the realities of life around him.
Indians today have a lot to learn from the balanced approach he took to nearly everything he touched. He could simultaneously immerse himself in the philosophy of the Upanishads, yet rebel against the caste system. He could simultaneously make the Brahman of the Upanishads his Ideal on the one hand, and on the other criticize the casteism of the brahmanas. I used to adopt the same approach towards Hinduism even before I discovered Tagore. But once I did, his writings gave me the strength to speak and write openly about these two extremes myself.
I can safely say that it is Tagore who brought any clarity I can now claim to possess about politics and economics. In The Pyramid of Corruption, I adopt his definition of a nation as an organization of politics and commerce, though, I must warn you, I don’t agree with his way of dealing with nationalism.
Anyway, as I delved deeper and deeper into Tagore’s writings, I felt many of my own thoughts expressed in them – and it has often been a hair-raising experience in the literal sense. Such was the experience when I encountered the following passage by him. I read it after I had discovered the Kannada linguistics genius, D. N. Shankara Bhat, in fact, after I had spent nine years learning directly from him about my mother tongue Kannada, its relationship with Sanskrit, and the road ahead. Writes Tagore in a 1918 essay titled Vernaculars for the M.A. Degree:
[The] direct influence which the Calcutta University wields over our language [Bengali] is not strengthening and vitalizing, but pedantic and narrow. It tries to perpetuate the anachronism of preserving the Pundit-made Bengali swathed in grammar-wrappings borrowed from a dead language. It is every day becoming a more formidable obstacle in the way of our boys’ acquiring that mastery of their mother tongue which is of life and literature. The artificial language of a learned mediocrity, inert and formal, ponderous and didactic, devoid of the least breath of creative vitality, is forced upon our boys at the most receptive period of their life…
Just take a moment to sink it in. Here was a Bengali poet – Bengali being a descendant of the ‘dead language’, i.e., Sanskrit – and perhaps one of the greatest authorities on the Upanishads in his time, criticizing the unnecessary Sanskritization of Bengali. Here was a brahmana calling Sanskrit a ‘dead language’ – something quite unpalatable to Hindutvavadis (no wonder they don’t even so much as mention his name). Here was an Aryan criticizing the unnecessary infiltration into Bengali of that great language of the Aryans – Sanskrit – and pointing out the problems due to the infiltration.
Today, there are people who think Kannada has descended from Sanskrit; others lament the fact that it hasn’t; and yet others fake an Aryanized tongue. The formal Kannada alphabet continues to carry several useless aksharas required only to write Sanskrit words as they’re written in Sanskrit, and there is hardly any capacity that Kannadigas have retained of coining new words without relying on Sanskrit. And what kind of Sanskrit words do they coin? Such as can neither be pronounced nor understood by the vast majority of Kannadigas. Even Kannada grammar, before it was taken up for serious revision by D. N. Shankara Bhat, was considered as a corruption of Sanskrit grammar, and we Kannadigas have been happy with that for ages.
The fact is, Kannada is a Dravidian language capable of standing on its own. How much more weakening and devitalizing it must be, how much more pedantic and narrow it must be, for Kannadigas to allow Sanskritists to define what ‘good Kannada’ is! How much more nonsensical it is to allow to perpetuate ‘the anachronism of preserving the Pundit-made’ Kannada ‘swathed in grammar-wrappings borrowed from a dead language’! How much more is over-Sanskritization a ‘formidable obstacle’ which is preventing Kannadigas from ‘acquiring that mastery of their mother tongue which is of life and literature’! How much more artificial Kannada is turning and losing its creative vitality, if Tagore had to complain all this about Bengali!
If you’ve read Ramachandra Guha’s India after Gandhi, you’ve probably also read the author’s epilogue in it. Although it is titled ‘Why India Survives’, what Guha writes there is why he thinks the Indian nation survives, not India the country. In reality, the question ‘Why India Survives’ is as unnecessary as the question ‘Why Clay Survives’. There is no special enquiry required because survive India does as long as parts of its landmass do not plunge into the ocean and settle at its floor, or something. The proper question is ‘Why the Indian Nation Survives’, i.e., ‘Why the Clay Sculpture Survives’.
Relying on what he calls the ‘primitive techniques of the narrative historian’[i], Guha suggests that the reason why the Indian nation survives (why India survives, as he puts it) is that the ‘forces that divide India’ viz., caste, language, religion and class and gender are nullified by the great power of democracy and something ‘which can only be described as an Indian spirit’[ii]. Yes, a magical, surreal and inexplicable spirit of a kind—to use Gandhi’s words—‘unknown in other parts of the world’. Crediting the founding fathers with planting a ‘sapling of democracy’, Guha writes:
It is in the nature of democracies, perhaps, that while visionaries are sometimes necessary to make them, once made they can be managed by mediocrities. In India, the sapling was planted by the nation’s founders, who lived long enough (and worked hard enough) to nurture it into adulthood. Those who came afterwards could disturb and degrade the tree of democracy but, try as they might, could not uproot or destroy it.[iii]
Thus, whatever problems one sees in India today, due to which, presumably, Guha himself says that India is a ‘phipty-phipty’ (or fifty-percent)democracy today[iv], are the handiwork of ‘those who came afterwards’. Perhaps unintentionally, Guha makes it seem as if the nation’s founders themselves (the British were the original founders of the Indian nation, but I mean the Indians who founded the independent Indian nation here) have nothing to do with those problems; they apparently had the special ability to turn off one hundred percent the negative influences of ages of societal corruption in India’s history, and possessed the uncanny ability to create a democratic nation with one hundred percent perfectionand effectiveness. Democracy, a concept of public affairs ‘brought into being on an Athenian hillside some 2,500 years ago’[v], was Indianized by the founders with no errors whatsoever, and a perfect sapling was planted. While the founders were apparently infinitely above ‘mediocrities’, it’s only ‘those who came afterwards’ who disturbed and degraded the tree of democracy.
This view of the creation of the Indian nation betrays the fact that rational evaluation of the process leading to the founding of nations often stops the moment the figures of the leaders are cast in bronze and garlanded. This also betrays the seemingly uncontrollable urge to think of nations as divine and infinitely incorruptible in spite of all moral evidence to the contrary. Perhaps there is something about history which makes it appear divine, even to historians. They often make us feel that the problems of the present are entirely of recent origin, the past being golden. But is it not obvious that the past was the present one day, and therefore, that it could not have been without its ‘mediocrities’?
Unless we throw away all the societal corruption that our forefathers had perpetrated in India’s long history of ‘socialized tyranny’ (to use Rabindranath Tagore’s description of the caste-system)[vi] into the surreal mist of blind nationalism; unless we believe in angels with mysterious powers who materialize out of nowhere and create ideal democracies irrespective of the social history of the people; or both; an important truth emerges as we carefully read India’s history. Upon rational scrutiny, one realizes that while the founders of the post-independence Indian nation were certainly visionaries who did their best to relieve Indians from the oppression of the British, they made mistakes in the process. They did not emerge out of thin air or remain all their lives completely uninfluenced by those who had come before them. They too were ‘those who came afterwards’. The feeling that most historians spread, that there could have been nothing amiss in the ‘sapling of democracy’ planted by the founders of the Indian nation is, therefore, to be discarded.
The very fact that an oversized and overly-strong central government was created, by usurping the powers of the people and the hundreds of princes and depositing them in New Delhi, is sufficient proof that a perfect democracy was not put in place by the founders. Guha narrates many of the happenings of this period in a detailed chapter titled ‘Apples in the Basket’, but fails to admit that the basket was actually taken away from the people and presented for consumption in New Delhi. Fruits of the people which were grown for thepeople and which were being enjoyed by the people of India were all basketed and taken away from the people, but Guha does not feel the need to point this out. No, this was the unique Indian method of creating a democracy!
Even today the tendency in India is to centralize anything and everything possible by taking away powers from the people and the states. Indian democracy rests on the principle of absolute power which must sit thousands of kilometers away from the citizen. Political and economic power are not in the hands of the people but concentrated in the hands of those who have assumed lordship over them, just like in the days of the British. Guha describes this as the functioning of a vibrant and well-behaved democracy with all its twists and turns—a reason ‘Why India Survives’.
Or take the example of India’s currency notes. Anybody who has seen one might have easily overlooked the fact that the denomination is printed in fifteen different Indian languages other than Hindi and the language of the original founders of the Indian nation, viz., English. Those fifteen languages have to be literally located on the notes using a magnifying lens. When one ultimately finds them, one realizes that they are not meant for being read by humans. The small font-size used for those languages betrays the ‘importance’ allocated them in the Indian nation during its foundation. Even a dead language – Sanskrit – is given the same place and font-size on the Indian currency note as the living languages, and this speaks volumes of the importance that the Indian nation attaches to the living languages of India (other than Hindi) and their hundreds of millions of living speakers. However, on this topic, Guha happily declares that
The note’s denomination – 5, 10, 50, 100, etc. – is printed in words in Hindi and English (the two official languages), but also, in smaller type, in all the other languages of the Union. In this manner, as many as seventeen different scripts are represented. With each language, and each script, comes a distinct culture and regional ethos, here nesting more or less comfortably with the idea of India as a whole.[vii]
Guha fails to attach even the slightest importance to the fact that the ‘other languages’ are basically neglected by giving them only a ‘smaller type’. This is no trivial fact, but one that illustrates the undemocratic nature of the Indian nation where the languages of India are not treated equally, and where Hindi and English are given larger-than-life statuses. This is the silent rejection of that very idea of democracy on whose basis Guha claims that the Indian nation survives, but he calls this as the nesting of each language, script, culture and regional ethos ‘more or less comfortably with the idea of India as a whole’.
Guha’s failure to recognize such silent rejections of the principle of democracy in the Indian nation, while mechanically listing the raw historical data, is discomforting. Although not in degree, it can be compared in kind to the failure of the Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison to appoint more than one sentence, ‘buried halfway into the telling of a grand romance’, to recount the genocide initiated by Columbus in America. Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States, describes this method of telling history in the following revealing words:
One can lie outright about the past. Or one can omit facts which might lead to unacceptable conclusions. Morison does neither. He refuses to lie about Columbus. He does not omit the story of mass murder; indeed he describes it with the harshest word one can use: genocide. But he does something else – he mentions the truth quickly and goes on to other things more important to him. Outright lying or quiet omission takes the risk of discovery which, when made, might arouse the reader to rebel against the writer. To state the facts, however, and then to bury them in a mass of other information is to say to the reader with a certain infectious calm: yes, mass murder took place, but it’s not that important – it should weigh very little in our final judgments; it should affect little what we do in the world.[viii]
Like most historians of Indian origin, Guha makes the reader believe that a near-ideal democracy was put in place by the founders of the post-independence Indian nation. The story to tell is one of the difficulties they faced in doing what they did, not one of the faults in the system they built – that would be unpatriotic! I would not go to the extent of saying that Guha lies about the past or deliberately omits facts, because one has to know the truth to do either. Guha, like most educated Indians, seems not to have looked at India’s past from a viewpoint which can reveal the truth of the silent rejection of democratic ideals in it. He, too, ‘mentions the truth quickly’ and gets on with other matters, including trivia. But unlike Morison’s use of the word ‘genocide’, Guha does not suggest, even in passing, that something undesirable took place during the founding of the Indian nation. He goes on to make the reader believe with an ‘infectious calm’ that whatever it is, it is ‘not that important—it should weigh very little on our final judgments; it should affect little what we do in the world.’
I concur with Howard Zinn that, like every other historian, Guha indulges in what is inevitable for a historian: selection and emphasis. My own reading of India’s history, which I present in The Pyramid of Corruption, is not free from them. ‘In that inevitable taking of sides which comes from selection and emphasis in history,’ as Zinn wrote, my reading is admittedly biased. I have chosen to rewrite the history of the Indian nation (which is nothing more than an ‘organisation of politics and commerce’[ix]) from the viewpoint of its victims, not beneficiaries. From the latter viewpoint, the only thing wrong with the Indian nation seems to be the operational corruption of mediocre followers: a bribing bureaucrat here, a money-laundering minister there, and the like. It is only from the former viewpoint that the corruption in the very foundation of the Indian nation, i.e., India’s primitive corruption, becomes visible.
I don’t have an answer to the question why the Indian nation survives. What I do know is that India’s primitive corruption is killing it at its own slow pace. Will we understand exactly what this corruption is and take necessary measures to remove it? This, as far as I can see, is the most important question in front of Indians.
[i] Ramachandra Guha, India after Gandhi:The History of the World’s Largest Democracy, Picador India, 2008, p. xxi.
[ii] Ibid., p. xvii.
[iii] Ibid., pp. 756-757.
[iv] Ibid., p. 749. ‘Phipty phipty’ is the Hindi pronunciation of the English ‘fifty-fifty’, as acknowledged by Guha. The aspirated consonant ‘ph’ is pronounced by the speakers of Indo-Aryan languages of the north including Hindi, but not necessarily by speakers of languages belonging to other language families of India. Aspirated consonants are not pronounced by the speakers of the Dravidian languages of the south, although only Tamil script has eliminated them in writing. In south India, therefore, one hears either hear ‘pipty-pipty’ or ‘fifty-fifty’ without the aspirated first consonant.
[v] Ibid., p. 750, citing Sunil Khilnani.
[vi] Rabindranath Tagore (1941) Crisis in Civilisation, in Mohit K. Ray, ed., The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore (2007) Vol. 7, New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers, pp. 980-986.
[vii] Ibid., p. 752. Incidentally, Guha is wrong about ‘seventeen different scripts’. The Devanagari script is used for five languages: Hindi, Konkani, Marathi, Nepali, and Sanskrit. The Bengali script is used for Bengali and Assamese. This makes the number of scripts thirteen, not seventeen. If one admits that the Kashmiri script is derived from the Urdu script, the number becomes twelve.
[viii] Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: 1492 – Present, p. 8.
[ix] Rabindranath Tagore (1915) Nationalism in the West, in Mohit K. Ray, ed., The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore (2007), Vol. 4., New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers, pp. 441-465.