The Impossibility of India
There are two important points I must make here. First, my characterisation of the modern Indian state as an impossible nation is not liberal Islamophilia, as it will be construed by the uber-nationalists in India. It must be remembered that modern India was very much a liberal creation, an idea of a state underpinned by secular institutions. I am arguing that the underlying idea of India, which is now degenerating into an identity-based state, was flawed at birth. Even if the founders did not want it, India was conceived, in the minds of many of its citizens, as 'not Pakistan'. The failure to accept this inherent limitation of the idea is partly the reason why Liberals can't save themselves from the ideological onslaught they are facing now.
Second is that the European ideas of nationhood have just been one among many ideas of collective identity. The imperial centuries and its hangover have presented the human history in starkly simple terms: Nation versus religion. Just as definitive identities of Abrahamic religions are not the only forms of religious identities, European, print-inspired ideas of nationhood are not the only possible alternatives for religious identity. It's possible to read India's history, and much of Central and East Asia's, as a narrative of transient, overlapping identities, where village or community interacted with polity and religion to create the palimpsest of a villain. The founders of the Indian state, such as Ambedkar and Nehru, may have scoffed at Gandhi's idea of the village as a central unit of Indian life and put the individual at the heart of Indian constitution, but Gandhi possibly had a better sense of how Indians make sense of the world. It is that long overdue discovery of what it means to be an Indian is being struggled over now.
That founding idea of India as a political community is now under challenge, as the economic and social promises implicit in a democratic political arrangement have very apparently failed. The alternative vision on offer though is a stillborn, a combination of capitalist Disneyland (one that would leave a majority of Indians behind) and of cultural purity, which may lead to the breakup of India as a political community, besides being incompatible between themselves. While this is being seen as a resurgence of cultural nationalism and decline of liberalism, the diagnosis tells more about the Doctor than the disease: The analytical tools available within the narrow confines of Western ideas of statehood, identity and modernity obscure the fact that the cultural nationalism in India is not a return to the Indian roots, but a desperate attempt to fit India into a straightjacket of Western-style nationality. This is not new: The 'Indian Renaissance' of the Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries was about invoking India's glorious (classical) past and reinventing Indian identity in its context. While the Indian revivalists today embrace this view, they overlook the fact that this 'renaissance' process was not endogenous, but was framed and encouraged by British and Western ideas of India and Orientalist research. Going back to it is no less an exercise of the colonial mind than the exhortations to establish a secular political community in India.
This is why India is impossible to construe. Its very attempts at independence confined it to colonial territorial borders, its imagination of nationhood tore out a thousand-year history and a third of its people and its attempts at keeping itself together has led to a secular confusion and modes of institution foreign in style and empty in substance. And, there is no escape: The alternate imagination on offer leads us back to the imperial black hole of a people permanently at war between themselves.
But there was one other vision of India that the hopeful mid-twentieth century anti-colonial nationalism subsumed. Many nineteenth-century thinkers, at the very birth of the idea of India, were confronted with the same impossibility of India, but compared to us, their India was not this narrow, territorially restricted, partitioned, resentful nation-state, but rather a nation in the world, poor, weak, dominated but still connected with its several millennia old trade and travel routes. This was India before the world's most militarised border disconnected it from the Silk Route and British maritime monopoly killed off the small people's Indian ocean world. This was the India that existed before the English came; the land that stopped Alexander, subsumed the Mongols, domesticated the Bedouins. This was the India that existed as a web of communities, tied to its land, built by geography and gentility, a civil community respecting its Gods but also inventing them in humans. A country that blended Hinduism and Islam into Sufism and Sikhism; one that borrowed the tenets of Christianity to create Brahmism; one where a great atheist religion like Buddhism could be conceived; where all religions shared, strangely, deities, preachers and even castes.
It is this India that these nineteenth-century thinkers looked at for a possibility. As they sought an escape route from the imperial vision of India as a geographical hotch-potch of warring states, they found it in the imagination of India as an integral part of Asia, a melting pot of humanity, a land of moderation and humility, of connection and coexistence. Instead of visions imported from Italy and Germany to reject British imperialism, they used Asia as a method. They challenged the idea of state-based territorial nationhoods with the idea of an overlapping community of people.
This is the vision that's worth reexamining when the idea of India is again open to discussion. Indeed, elements of this thinking shaped Nehru's imagination, as it did of Savarkar and Gowalkar. But the founders of India were all pursuing a strong modern state, differed as they may about the founding principles. It was political and economic, rather than the social and moral, that informed their approach. But now the social is biting back; the economic disparity is breaking the political community of universal suffrage. The impossibility is at the door; a return to first principles is the only way out of the purgatory.