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.