Sunday, 15 August, 2010

Idea Of India

The Idea of India by Sunil Khilnani is, at first glance, an analysis of the way the country has developed since it became Independent in 1947. It is an essay on the creation of a democratic state and its passage to modernity that takes into its narration the political, economical and cultural identity of India. But the slightly veiled and important intent of this book is it's primary argument, the Idea of India that had been formulated and has since then been developed.

Khilnani takes us through his argument by analyzing it in two ways. First, by faithfully recording the chronology of events that occurred in India's development of a nation state since 1947, the second, a more arcane analysis of this Idea that has been a 4 tier process of symbolization. First the larger Idea of Democracy, a symbol of an ideology that was needed to demand Independence, give birth to a nation state and be taken seriously in world politics. Second the Idea of an Economy, agrarian, liberal, socialist or otherwise Economy constitutes as a symbol of materialistic reality, which is needed to make people believe in the workings of a democracy, thereby, reinforcing the idea of democracy itself. Third, the Idea of Cities as versus villages, which became the symbolic barometer to gauge the rise and fall of our economy. The idea moulded around the state of India's cities, reflects the health of our economy hence reinforcing the previous 2 ideas. Lastly all these ideas percolating to the 4th tier which is the core of any nation; identity of the individual as an Indian. The symbolic citizen who gives identity to the country, or is it the country, which gives identity to its citizens? All the elaborately carried out previous ideas will come tumbling down like a house of cards if the citizen refuses to acknowledge and stay in sync with the idea of nationhood that her country has created.

Like a camera Khilnani zooms in from the big picture of democracy and focuses on the fine detail of individual identity and the charade of ideas that is needed to hold the Idea of India together.


In this section Khilnani takes us through the building of the Idea of democracy in India and its manifestation today.

There was no concept of the State of India in the pre-colonial times. An assortment of political arrangements loosely bound the diverse Indian subcontinent. No one ruler had ever ruled the entire subcontinent before the British acquired it and by means of forced cohesion gave it a semblance of a State. Yet as Khilnani observes, there was a ‘prevalent common aesthetics, myths and ritual motifs that attested the presence of a larger more cohesive power even then – the Brahmins.’ As oppressive as they were the Brahmins held their grip over the country through selective literacy. It withdrew from political power and directed its energies on social relationships creating a self disciplined society that had high tolerance for diverse beliefs and religious observances.

Colonialism ruptured this pattern of Indian by vesting power in political terms. Thus the system of representative politics came to India. Excited at first by the political possibilities the Indians soon were to grow tired of the British and form the Indian National Congress in 1885. The demand for a democratic state, which would govern itself, is the single most powerful demand that enabled India to negotiate its freedom from the British in the next century. In a country as rife with differences of caste, religion, politics, language and ethnicity as ours, democracy was the only symbol that would appeal across these divisions in society as it encompassed them all.

After Independence it is the Nehru era which became the upholder of democracy. The period immediately post Independence was torturous for any ruler. During this time a great event instilled people’s faith in democracy. The Constitutional Assembly in January 1950 it announced that India would be a ‘sovereign democratic republic’ It was this power and belief in our new and elaborate symbol, The Constitution, which kept the idea of democracy alive thorough Partition, and several other ruptures in Punjab, Kashmir, Nagaland, Hyderabad, Thailand, Portuguese Goa, Sikkim and Assam. Through all the dissent Nehru’s success lay in the ‘establishment of a State at the core of Indian society’ for the first time in Indian history.

During the following reign of Indira Gandhi too, the abolition of privy purses, the slogan ‘Garibi Hatao,’ the split in the Congress from a party at the centre to one that could speak directly to the regional poor all were re enforcers of democracy till the Emergency. After the Emergency, new parties especially left leaning ones arrived at the scene. ‘Democracy as a regime of laws and rights, as a set of procedures that moderates the powers of the State, had been damaged.’

One of the more ingenious ways in which the State symbolized Democracy was in the election of H.D.Deve Gowda as Prime Minister in 1996. Khilnani highlights the phrase ‘humble farmers son’ to show how we believe the mass appeal of democracy. That anyone from anywhere can have access to the State is what installing Deve Gowda in the Prime Ministers post symbolized. It made Democracy the common mans ideology. It is different that while trying to reinforce the idea of democracy what also happened was Deve Gowda’s PR profile replaced Nehru’s as the symbol of the leader of common men. So now we have the ‘Dalit’s daughter’ Mayawati, who will draw more votes than Dr Manmohan Singh ever will independently.

After 50 years of the Congress and the assassination of Indira Gandhi, the idea of democracy started to work inversely. The Congress from lack of a strong leader that who could garner votes fell back on marginalizing sections of society in the name of democracy instead of unifying them. It created Dalit and Muslim vote banks to appeal for votes, giving rise to regional and caste politics. This gave the opposition BJP the chance to redefine nationalism as ‘hindu nationalism’ and sweep the election. The Bahujans too formed their own party which again differed from the way Ambedkar had visualized Dalit empowerment. While Ambedkar took pride in rising above the confines of his own caste and projected himself as thoroughly refined in English ways as Indian, new figures in politics like Mayawati flaunted their social and cultural origins to challenge the upper caste dominance. The demand changed from being empowered to wanting handouts. This broke down the trend of national politics that had been practiced in India to regional politics. National parties kept breaking down into regional parties that continues today and has taken the form of coalition governments.

Since having a multi party system of government has become the basis of democracy, the elections today have become the greatest symbol of democracy in India as it has come to represent the sole link between state and society. Ironical in itself, as this also is a symptom of a top down system of administration which is imperialist and undemocratic to say the very least. But as Khilnani says, as diluted as our concept of Democracy has become, the hope and idea of it is still strong enough in the Indian imagination to ensure that a community as rife with differences as ours does not revert to ‘a return to the old order of caste or of rule by empire.’ Whether or not in a society as undisciplined as ours, might an autocracy such as China’s help smoothen the initial stages of development, Khilnani does not say.

Identity of an Indian.

Why is it so important to have this glorious idea, why is it so important that one create symbols of nationality that people can identify with? It is because history shows what happens when people cease to believe the nation. Often we have seen the consequences, when this idea frays or is contested with by different ideas. The fragmentation of the Soviet Union being prime example and closer home, the bloody Partition of India and Pakistan. In 1947 right at the time of the inception of India we saw the creation of Pakistan that did not see it align with the idea of the Indian nation state post independence. Bangladesh, the demand for Khalistan, refusal of the North eastern to be called part of India and the recent renewal of vigour with which the Valley demands for Azadi, Ironically in the same way we once did with the British. The turmoil, violence and destruction these factions usually lead to show how important it is for the state to create, project and reinforce symbols of nationality that its citizens can identify with to call themselves Indian

Even the spread of Naxalism and the fresh agitations for Telangana all show that somewhere, somehow the original idea of India did not stick as completely as hoped. It is because the only nationality that we identify with is 1947. Ever since Independence the government has banked on the ghost of the East India Company to unite us. No efforts have been made to archive modern Indian history. For us history ends at 1947 in school text books. While we can recall the Chauri Chaura incident, textbooks do not have any mention of the Indo-China war or the Kargil war, immensely important events that happened during many of our lifetimes.

As our cities are more important than villages, we might still be sensitized towards different religions, as religious divides can be openly seen it cities as well. But since money can disguise caste divides in the city, most of us pass out of school and college insensitive to the caste differences around us. The villages are completely hidden from the city population and for the villages, our cities are a different country.

What is the history of India since 1947 the history of? Percussive nationalism it seems, but who’s nationalism? If Maoists blow up state symbols, Kashmir youth pelt the Indian police and the Nagas kidnap Indian officials it is because they do not share the idea of India that has been propagated through the rest of the country. Like the freedom fighters of yore they are fighting a foreign power in their land - the government of a highly select India.


The history of a state and the history of an idea, one must make the distinction between the two, which one understands better on reading the constitutional assembly debates. The debates are the history of the idea of India that was envisaged, whereas their implementation could be the history of the state that finally came into being, which may at times be vastly different from the idea that was formed in controlled lab like situations. Sometimes Sunil Khilnani’s book makes one wonder if in reality it’s not a nation that we are living in or an identity that we carry, but a mere idea? Or, what a glorious idea?