December 29, 2015

Let’s revisit the ‘Idea of India’ (Purushottam Agrawal)

Tehelka, 2016-01-09, Issue 1&2 Volume 13

Among multiple versions lie a core
Purushottam Agrawal

Pillars Though they had differing opinions as individuals, India’s visionaries agreed on core democratic values

Any current reference to the ‘idea of India’ seems to resonate with the debate on ‘intolerance’. This is natural, as secularism in its Indian variant of ‘sarva dharma sambhava’ is indeed an integral part of the idea of India. Still, although integral and in fact crucial, it is only a part, not the whole. It is also clear that the forces which attack the secular part of this idea also vehemently contest the very idea itself. The reason is fundamental. The present idea of India, with all its theoretical ambiguities and practical shortcomings, is a democratising and modernising idea. This reflects, for example, in the design of the constitution. Modernity in this context must not be confused with either crass consumerism or with copycat devotion to western societies. The idea of India under threat today is rooted in a vibrant dialogue between modernity as it historically developed in the West and India’s own interrogation of tradition rooted in precolonial movements such as Bhakti.

The Karachi Congress session of 1931, presided over by Sardar Patel, passed a resolution, which can be taken as the first systematic articulation of the idea of India. This resolution laid out the parameters on the basis of which independent India was to be governed such as fundamental rights; universal adult franchise; protection of minorities; state ownership of key industries, mines and minerals; minimum wage and other protections for workers; and free and compulsory primary education.

This was preceded by the Lahore session, where it was stated that poverty and other challenges can be met only, ‘on the basis of the genius, culture and traditions of thought of the Indian people’.

The Karachi Congress saw a culmination of the ongoing democratisation of the political process, which had started with Gandhiji transforming politics into everybody’s concern instead of the professional or revolutionary elite’s vocation. It was also the fructification of Indian soul-searching coming down from the early modern phase of Indian history. Gandhiji’s and others’ dialogue with Bhakti poets of vernacular languages reflect this continuum.
Purushottam Agrawal | Chairperson, Centre of Indian Languages, Jawaharlal Nehru University

Purushottam Agrawal | Chairperson, Centre of Indian Languages, Jawaharlal Nehru University

It is crucial to recall, that the Indian freedom struggle, far from being merely a cry for political independence, was a self-consciously moral exercise. That is why, in spite of all their differences of opinion on many issues, the views and agitations of Gandhi, Nehru, Subhas Chandra Bose, Sardar Patel, Maulana Azad, Sarojini Naidu, Rajendra Prasad , C Rajagopalachari, BR Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh converged on the core of the idea of India as a secular democracy evolving its own rich cultural legacy into a modern nation.

Those who are today quite eager to appropriate one or the other of these great souls, conveniently obfuscate important events not amenable to their narrow narratives. For example, the provisions for the protection of minority rights were moved by Sardar Patel in the constituent assembly. Bhagat Singh was critical of the Congress leadership for not being sufficiently Left of the Centre in its political programme. Ambedkar was irked that radical steps were not taken to eliminate caste. Whatever the fascination of Netaji Bose with ‘military’ action, he was ‘secular’ to the core. It was Bose in his capacity as Congress president, who appointed a Planning Commission and invited Nehru to chair it. He drafted distinguished persons such as Meghnad Saha and M Visvesvaraya as members of the body. This model is followed even today when the Planning Commission has been rebranded (a chief concern of the present executive) under a peculiar acronym.

In other words, the idea of India as imagined by the leaders of the national movement envisages a welfare state which is to proactively lead India to the goal of a just, inclusive and rational society.

There were voices contesting this idea. These voices posed the idea of a Hindu nation and the idea of Pakistan in opposition to the consensus idea of India. The Pakistan idea was realized. The idea of a Hindu nation, in spite of occasional support among some sections of people could never seriously mobilise to replace the pluralistic and inclusive idea of India.

On the other hand, some people find that Indian secularism is not secular enough. According to them, the roots of frictions like those revealed in the ‘intolerance’ debate are ultimately traceable to the ‘halfhearted ‘ acceptance of the secular ideal. They would like to see in India a total separation of church and State, as it supposedly exists in modern Western democracies.

However, to have that kind of separation, one suspects that we need that kind of church. Throughout the history of India, there was no institution comparable with the church of medieval Europe. Hinduism does not have a core dogma and a central authority imposing itself on the faithful. Even in the case of Islam — an organised religion based on a well-defined doctrine, it is significant and interesting that no Muslim ruler of India had to seek permission for marriage from an extraterritorial authority, as Henry VIII of England was asked to.

It was consequent upon such frictions that the Anglican Church was established. Incidentally, the monarch in England is described as the ‘Protector’ of this church even today. In US, Presidents take oath of office on the Bible and currency notes carry the legend — ‘In God we trust’.

Indian secularism has evolved in keeping with its own legacy. On one hand, it goes back to Ashoka’s idea and practice of ‘Dhamma’ and Akbar’s ‘Sulah-Kul’ (peace amongst people of all faiths) and on the other goes it beyond the idea of ‘tolerating’ different worldviews. Plurality and diversity in the Indian tradition is not taken as an aberration to be ‘tolerated’ with condensation but treated as a core characteristic of Indian society. It is not merely bani ( speech) and pani ( water) that change every few miles, as a Hindi proverb rightly notes, what is left unstated here, because it so obvious to any culturally rooted Indian is the fact of continuum underlying the diversity and plurality of bani and pani. In this continuum, diversity goes deeper, plurality provides many layers of richness. It is the plurality of epistemological departures and diversity of worldviews and ways of life, which define the cultural reality of India

The idea of India represents the assimilation of this reality into the modern project of nation building, in which along with cultural legacy, the insistence on rational attitude and scientific temper plays a crucial role. The attacks on this idea of India are in fact attacks on the creative evolution of the Indian genius.

It was with consciousness of this fact, that Dr Zakir Husain, the then president of India remarked in 1968 that, ‘the whole world can learn from the nation-building exercise undertaken in India’. One can imagine that at the time the developed world might have dismissed this claim as hubris on part of a newly independent country. But, today, when the mere perception of homogenous ‘national’ communities turning ‘diverse’ due to inevitable historical processes and pressures gives nightmares to the public and public figures in the developed world, perhaps Zakir Husain’s claim needs to be reassessed.

(Published in Tehelka Magazine, Volume 13 Issue 1&2, Dated 9 January 2016)