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‘India knows itself, but only in bits and pieces’

A man close to the city’s heart was in town to deliver the 74th Acharya Jagadis Chandra Bose lecture on the 96th foundation day of the Bose Institute.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi, the former governor of Bengal, was at his eloquent best on Friday, speaking on the subject “Does India know itself?” Presiding over the event was Ashok V. Desai, economist and consulting editor with The Telegraph.

After the director of the Bose Institute, Shibaji Raha, had welcomed the guests and spoken a little about the history of the institute and its illustrious founder, Desai introduced the speaker as “a serious thinker who has continued to think, and make us think, in spite of having held a number of important positions in his life”.

Gandhi began his address by posing the question, “Does India know itself?”, to the audience. On the face of it, the idea may seem absurd, he said. “India is a country, a landmass, a geophysical entity, a geo-historical template that is inert and cannot think for itself,” he said. “But”, he added, “the people living in it and studying it have woven great tales and epics around it. India then becomes interchangeable with the idea of a mother goddess. India of the imagination has the power to know itself.”

Gandhi drew attention to the Constitution of India and its father, B.R. Ambedkar, as exemplars and beacons of a self-aware nation. But in the 21st century, he said, “that self-awareness has increasingly turned into self-congratulation. Now, India tends to think only of its constituent parts, and not of itself as a whole”.

This led Gandhi to speak of India’s political image as a motherland. “People have been asking for ‘homelands’. There are aspirations for Bodoland, Gorkhaland and others, an aspiration for a unique linguistic identity. But the ‘homeland’ vocabulary within the ‘motherland’ idiom is very problematic. The nation ends up looking like a jigsaw puzzle of a number of homelands, which makes it difficult for India to know itself.”

“India’s self-knowledge is much below what it needs to be,” Gandhi rued. “Do the people know”, he wondered, “that India is going through a slow burn?”

“Individuals”, he added, “have lost the ability to make common cause with big causes. Idealism has suffered debasement. Our forebears faced similar challenges, but they went on to become the ‘us’ in the people of India. Today, the ‘we’ in ‘We, the people’ is narrower than the Constitution envisaged. India knows itself, but only in bits and pieces.”

Gandhi drew a parallel with a problem that plagues the nation. “Illegal mining”, he said, “is unscientific mining. It pollutes what it excavates. It puts lives in danger. It is not just a violation of mining dharma, it is also a violation of India’s soil.”

“Plunder is neutral to politics”, he said. “Politicians have dipped their hands in mining plunder. The nexus between this plunder and electoral politics is nasty and tight. Does India know this about itself? It does not have an integrated image of itself as Bharat, as Hindustan. ‘Bharat’ has become exclusivist; it does not include ‘Hindustan’ in its definition.”

Gandhi said that as a citizen of the nation, he would like to feel he could call the whole country his own, and not just fragments of it.

As to whether scientists can make a difference in a world that requires one to possess a “political touch”, he said not many people who have that so-called touch have succeeded. “Nelson Mandela isn’t what he is because he said that he opposed White racism. He is what he is because he said he also opposed Black racism.”

The political touch, Gandhi said, “must also be tempered with pragmatism”.

He called on young scientists to “help India see itself as the ever-improving home to great life. For this, young scientists must take on a pioneering role”.