Battle for minds

India, soon to be 75, seems still a contested idea

By Dipesh Chakrabarty
  • Published 8.06.18
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Even if the Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies do not return to power in 2019 - admittedly an uncertain and unlikely scenario - their intellectuals certainly will have much to do with shaping the discussion in 2022 of what India, the republic, stands for at 75. And their imagination of India would be in contrast to what was mostly said when India turned 50 in 1997. The political scientist, Sunil Khilnani, wrote a nice little book, The Idea of India, to mark the occasion. He gave an elegant and sympathetic exposition mainly of Nehru's vision of India - a vibrant, secular and egalitarian democratic polity, engaged in modernization. No one then thought much of his use of the definite article before the word "idea". Surely, it would not have been unknown to Khilnani that Nehru's was not the only vision of the nation. But like many others he, too, may have assumed that with the writing of the Constitution in 1950, the contest between competing ideas of India had been settled for good.

Four years into the BJP's rule, however, the idea of India, ironically, seems far from settled. Nehru and his colleagues assumed that Indian history had done the preparatory work for nationhood: in spite of all their diversity, Indians had been endowed with a common history and culture from before. The sangh parivar's programme, on the other hand, is decidedly oriented towards the future. For them, the Hindus are a weak people. Their project is to mould them into a strong nation by creating a standard-issue version of Hinduism throughout India. When 2022 arrives and we discuss the "idea" of India again, it will be impossible to ignore the differences between these different visions of the nation, not to mention Dalit and other minority takes on the question. True, there are many elite supporters of the BJP who see it mainly as the party of economic growth. They assume that the cases of anti-Muslim violence and the activities of its various fringe groups reported in the media are at worst the price one has to pay to see India achieve growth. It is also true that Hindutva today is not a vibrant movement of ideas. There are no Savarkars or Deen Dayal Upadhyayas renewing the idea intellectually or even explaining how it fits into visible global trends towards political parties that combine authoritarian rule with the principle of elections. But the project of giving the Indian nation a uniformly Hindu and anti-minority character is clearly on.

It is possible that the Nehruvian period in Indian history, the first two decades of Independence, was a period of grace. The exhaustion and euphoria of Partition and Independence, an understandable keenness among leaders to engage in the painstaking process of nation-building, an idealist Constitution granting Indians universal suffrage and some of the most advanced rights of a liberal-democratic kind perhaps made us forget that the killing of the Mahatma was not an individual act of revenge but a statement that the battle for the idea of India had not yet been decisively won. The contingent and rushed nature of Pakistan, on the other hand, was easily recognized, for, whatever the nature of Muslim politics in colonial India, there was no Pakistan imagined before the 1930s and none demanded until the next decade. In contrast, Nehru's "tryst with destiny" speech completely naturalized the nation and succeeded in making a new India seem old. It has to be acknowledged, of course, the nation-state of India had some advantages over Pakistan. It inherited the imperial capital and most of the imperial structure as its own. Most importantly, it inherited the name "India". In refusing to call itself Hindustan, as Ambedkar or Savarkar would have, and in claiming for itself the older name of India or Bharat, it presented itself as an organic, if not inevitable, outcome of a national movement that had been around since the late 19th century. Growing up as children in this new republic, we often thought of Pakistan as the 'new' nation while India seemed young only in age but ancient in spirit. Books with titles like "Three Thousand Years of Pakistan" evoked derisive laughter in us. But the expression 'ancient Indian history' never surprised us, for did we not have the ancient civilizations of the Indus Valley, the Vedas, and Buddhists and the Jains? Had not our Constitution-makers argued that we owed our republican spirit to that civilization? Even a few years ago, an Indian politician of the Congress, speaking to a global audience in the United States of America, described India as a new nation but an ancient civilization. The connection would have been far more difficult to make if, on Independence, India had called itself Hindustan.

This forgetting of the fact that 'the Republic of India' represented no less a rupture from the past than the nation-state of Pakistan may be seen in many aspects of our cultural nationalism. Take the national anthem itself. When Tagore wrote that song (possibly) in 1911, the prospect of a permanent partition of India was beyond all imagination, so names like "Punjab", "Sindhu" and "Banga" in it celebrate the geography of colonial India, one that Abanindranath famously worked up into the figure of Mother India in 1905. But see how unselfconsciously we transferred the epithet Mother India from Abanindranath's painting to Mehboob Khan's epic 1957 film of the same name. The two 'Mother Indias' do not instantiate the same geography. Abanindranath's would have included "Pakistan", Mehboob Khan's couldn't. Indeed, many moments in the film spoke of the ravages of Partition and the creation of a new citizenry after the deluge. It even showed the map of 'India' as it was after 1947.

However unpleasant, the resurgence of the sangh parivar jolts us out of such historical forgetting. There always were and still are many conflicting ideas of India, from the ugly to the beautiful. They are now all out in the open. They battle for our minds. Our forgetting of this fact was only a decades-long amnesia induced by the headiness of 1947. One remarkable person who was a major architect of the nation that emerged in 1947 and yet managed to keep his distance from this act of collective forgetting was none other than B.R. Ambedkar. Never taken in by upper-caste claims about the naturalness of the nation, his 1941 book on Pakistan bears testimony to the analytical distance he sought to create between himself and the confusing events surrounding the demand for Pakistan even as he took part in the goings-on of the time. His steely intellect and his commitment to rational thought may well be the example we want to follow when the tumult of the debates of 2022 is upon us.