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The Idea Of India

A nation is a story. A story told by its citizens to themselves believed amongst themselves, and upheld, or mutated, by themselves.

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How is a Nation Defined?

To understand the idea of India or that of any other nation at that, one must first understand what exactly defines a nation. 

Is a nation defined by political boundaries as drawn on its maps? But, neighbouring countries often have differences as to the details of these maps and the boundaries thus defined. Is a nation then defined by the language it speaks? But, many different languages may be spoken in a nation. Is it then defined by the religion it follows, or the race of its people, or the food they eat, or the government that rules it? Again, the same issues of diversity and temporariness come up in all these possible ways of defining a nation.

The correct answer, following the beauty of Occam’s Razor, is simpler than all others: a nation is a story. A story told by its citizens to themselves believed amongst themselves, and upheld, or mutated, by themselves.

Best-selling author and anthropologist, Yuval Noah Harrari refers to this when he mentions ‘the nationalist myths of modern states’. This capability of myth-making, story-telling, to an extent where people believe fictitious entities as their collective identity, Harari argues, is actually one of the key factors to have ensured humanity’s dominance on earth. When people believe in this collective identity, it gives them a sense of belonging together and it helps them cooperate with people they have never met and do not know, people of different races, religions, and languages, the people who, nonetheless, are their fellow countrymen. This constructive nature of fiction is largely the reason why nation-states continue to exist despite the rapid globalization of the world in the last couple of decades. 

In the light of this understanding about the nature of nations, let us now turn to India and its idea. 

Or rather, its ideas.

A View of Parallel Ideas in Indian History

Since the citizens of India are not a homogenous mass by any parameter, the idea or the story of India also is not a single narrative, but a collection of narratives existing in parallel, and sometimes in contradiction with each other. 

Bhagat Singh’s India: Azaadi in Every Aspect of Life

One such idea of India was borne by Bhagat Singh, a man whose martyrdom often overshadows his great intellect and vision. It is perhaps this misleading shadow of a reactionary and extremist, coupled with convenient ignorance, that often causes right-wing leaders in Indian politics to invoke Bhagat Singh while they try to raise a pseudo-nationalistic fervour in the masses. 

In order to illustrate Bhagat Singh’s idea of India, it feels pertinent to remember a message he sent out to the youth of India in 1931:  “…the struggle in India would continue so long as a handful of exploiters go on exploiting the labour of the common people for their own ends. It matters little whether these exploiters are purely British capitalists, or British and Indians in alliance, or even purely Indians.”

To Bhagat Singh, the idea of an independent India could not be realized merely by freedom from British Colonialism. The independence was supposed to be the beginning of events that would culminate in the ultimate freedom of social and economic equality for all Indians, regardless of their caste or religion. It follows quite logically then that unlike the self-appointed guardians of nationalism today, Bhagat Singh was not one to glorify India.

Today, when the country’s youth rejects narcissistic glorification of the country in favour of drawing attention to the problems it faces, it is termed by the majority of media houses with monikers such as ‘anti-national’, ‘urban-Naxals’, or ‘members of the tukde-tukde gang’. 

But, let us look at what Bhagat Singh had to say in the first article he wrote for a newspaper called ‘Kirti’ in 1928: 

“Our country is unique where six crore citizens are called untouchables and their mere touch defiles the upper castes. Gods get enraged if they enter the temples. It is shameful that such things are being practised in the twentieth century...We claim to be a spiritual country but hesitate to accept equality of all human beings while materialist Europe is talking of revolution for centuries...We are chagrined about discrimination against Indians in foreign lands, and whine that the English do not give us equal rights in India.”

One only has to ask oneself whose idea this resonates with more: the idea of those who would divide the nation along religious lines, or the idea of those who take to the streets in order to defend the principles of liberty and equality for everyone.

Tagore’s India: Society Over Politics, Always

Let us take a detour to another India now, another story, another idea, this time of the Nobel Prize-winning writer and thinker, Rabindranath Tagore. If one is familiar to any degree with his work, it is not difficult to infer that the man who wrote India’s national anthem would have been ashamed to see it become a tool in the hands of those who require people to sing it and stand up for it in cinema halls to prove their nationalism. 

Interestingly, this is what he had to say about nationalism in the Indian context:

"Nationalism is a great menace, it is the particular thing which for years has been at the bottom of India's troubles. And in as much as we have been ruled and dominated by a nation that is strictly political in its attitude, we have tried to develop within ourselves, despite our inheritance from the past, a belief in our eventual political destiny.” 

Tagore was also far-sighted enough to see the dangers we are facing today. He correctly predicted a time when the most conservative section of the society would step up as the guardian of nationalism, thereby defeating the idea of this nation that so many men have died to uphold and preserve. Like Bhagat Singh, Tagore too had warned us, he too had advised Indians to put more value in humanity than in India itself and his message rings more important today perhaps than it did ever since the black cloud of Partition: 

“My countrymen will gain truly their India by fighting against that education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity.”

Neither Tagore nor Bhagat Singh lived long enough to see India shed the shackles of colonialism, but they also were fortunate enough to miss the terrible spectacle of Partition orchestrated by Islamic and Hindu extremists. 

Gandhi’s India: Non-violence and Tolerance for All

The newborn country, a half-baked story, flailed around unsure but was held tight by leaders like Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar, and Patel. From the independence of 1947 to the establishment of India as a secular republic in 1950, these leaders defined their own idea of India and it seeped through them into the public consciousness. This India of their vision came into being as an inclusive nation of liberal-socialist ideas, tired of communal violence that it had recently witnessed and had every reason to hate, with its eyes set pragmatically upon a bright future. The story told again and again by Nehru, Gandhi, and other leaders of the Indian National Congress to India and the rest of the world made Indians believe that the fundamental nature of India was that of tolerance for all communities. 

The legitimacy of this idea of a tolerant nation was helped by the fact that most Islamic radicals had become busy with ruining the newly begun story of Pakistan. The Hindu radicals who posed the greatest threat to this idea also lost their foothold and sympathy among the masses for their cause when they murdered Gandhi. By this act of violence against the man who had in effect created the nation, the ilk of today’s power-holders was foolish enough to contribute the most to Gandhi’s idea of the nation: their violence saw to it that the masses really understood the importance of peace that Gandhi had preached.

Savarkar’s India: The Hindu-Rashtra

It is important to understand however the idea of India that existed in contradiction with that of Bhagat Singh’s, or Tagore’s, or Gandhi’s idea, and for that let us turn to the man who is most often credited with cooking up that idea: Veer Savarkar. In 1928, when Bhagat Singh was envisioning an India of equality, Savarkar was republishing an essay called ‘Hindutva: Who Is a Hindu?’. In this essay, he introduced the idea of ‘Hindutva’, the principle that guides RSS and its political wing, the present overlords of India, Bharatiya Janata Party. Instead of a nation aiming at achieving prosperity for all, Savarkar’s idea of the nation was one that established within itself a clear dominance of the majority and grabbed prosperity for an elite few at the cost of marginalized communities. 

A comparison between the ideas of Bhagat Singh and Savarkar’s India reveals a fundamental contrast: where Singh appeals to the highest in people, Savarkar appeals to their lowest. This is true not just in a political sense, but also in a humane or social sense. For instance, while Bhagat Singh saw women of any community as being equal to men and deserving of the same freedom, Savarkar justified raping women of a community as a means to an end of achieving power. In his book, Six Glorious Epochs of Indian History, Savarkar calmly muses, “What if Hindu kings, who occasionally defeated their Muslim counterparts, had also raped their women?”

Today, when the leaders of BJP, or RSS ideologues, make inflammatory speeches, they are not spouting some newly contrived venom, they are merely repeating the thoughts of their ideological patriarch. 

For instance, when the current Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh says that dead bodies of Muslim women should be dug out and raped, he is echoing Savarkar’s views when the latter quoted and justified Ravana saying, “What? To abduct and rape the womenfolk of the enemy, do you call it irreligious? It is Parodharmah, the greatest duty!”

The story of India as spun by Savarkar is best described perhaps by another writer, Savitri Devi, for whose book he wrote an introduction. A Nazi sympathizer, Savitri Devi wrote, “We would like the Hindus to remember this, and to strive to acquire political power at any cost. Social reforms are necessary, not because they will bring more “humanity” among the Hindus, as many think, but because they will bring unity, that is to say, power.”

Notice how this view endorsed by Savarkar goes directly against the idea of India that Bhagat Singh had dreamt of and died fighting for.

The Cracks in an Idea 

The story that Nehru, Gandhi, and other leaders of independent India wove together about a nation based on secularism has held itself together for 71 years by appealing to the best instincts in us, as well as the common sense that peace is better than war. However, it would be foolish and shortsighted to say that the cracks in this narrative have appeared only in the last six years.

In part, these cracks appeared because the populace had accepted the narrative without ever really believing in it: a distinction that the architects of independent India found convenient to ignore, and perhaps hoped to vanish in the future. Also, the narrative of Nehru and Gandhi sought to sweep the narrative of Savarkar under the rug instead of bringing it out into the light and show it to everyone for the ugliness that it was. In their defence, however, they were facing all the issues of nation-building and perhaps suffered from an over-optimistic vision with regards to the Indian society.

More than blaming the past, however, the bitter truth all of us must face today is that the idea of India was betrayed by all those who should have defended it the most. The educated liberal grew laidback in their prosperity, caste-inequality was ignored and its eradication left off solely to reservations, while middle-class families who swore by Gandhi would still not drink from the same cup as a Dalit or Muslim. Rabid conservatism was allowed and even appeased. Nehru’s daughter herself chose to ape the colonists her father had won against and her son had the audacity to try mass-sterilization as a method of population control. 

Every time a movie was banned because it offended the self-appointed representatives of a community, every time that vote-bank politics was taken as a matter of course, every time the rights of tribals or Kashmiris were ignored for the greater good of the nation, every time that the easy choice of hypocrisy was made in favour of fundamental principles, the cracks and chinks in the narrative that was independent India have grown deeper.

A Minute to Midnight: Time to Make a Choice

In the second term of its governance, the current government has abundantly made clear their idea of India. Disregarding the constitution at every turn, storming universities with impunity, spouting hate-speech disguised as electoral campaigns, and going so far as to place political rivals under house-arrests does not leave any doubt as to the nature of this vision for the nation. Regardless of what the top leadership says, or remains silent about, the message to their cadre on the ground is clear enough: the objective is to turn India into a Hindu Rashtra and bring to fruition the ideas of Savarkar and his ideological fascist kin all over the world.

Fortunately, however, though they may be pouring money like water into the marketing machinery to appear all-powerful, the truth remains that a parallel idea of India continues to exist, and even thrive.  

As we witness some of the largest protests across the country against the government’s divisive acts and chants of Azaadi resound on the streets and minds alike, it is important to understand we are at a crossroads. The people of this country face a choice today between two distinct ideas of India:

The India that old men sitting comfortably in their bungalows are cooking up out of bigotry and hate, an India that talks only of past injustices and how they can be addressed with more injustices. If this idea of India becomes the dominant narrative, it may well stand up for a while, as evil often does, but will also ultimately rot down and fall, as evil always does. Those who choose this India may well do so out of apathy or cynicism instead of bigotry, but they must then admit in the end that the India they get was the India they deserved.

The other India that we may yet choose, is of young students, women, and marginalized communities who may not have seen the fight for independence from the British, but still, echoing the thoughts of Bhagat Singh and Tagore today. Whether it is the women braving cold nights in their vigil at Shaheen Bagh in Delhi, or the university students all over the country standing up to state-sponsored goons without flinching, these people of India are all struggling to uphold the idea of India that every martyr ever died for. The protesters were being labelled as ‘anti-national’ now are the only ones who have ever understood what this nation actually means, they are the only ones who realize the danger it faces today. 

This other India, if it wins this ideological war, will be more glorious than any other idea of India because it would have finally looked the ghost of its doppelganger in the eye and still come out stronger. Unlike, the India that came into existence after the British left, this India would be of acceptance, not tolerance, of elevation, not appeasement. 

We have to make the choice now between these two Indias, and our choice will decide the future of generations to come. There is only a minute left to midnight, we must now decide between dark and light, the time of choosing comfortable twilight, fortunately, is now no more.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


Aditya Mahendra Gautam

The author is an independent writer

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