The Impossibility of India

India is an impossible nation.

In fact, that's exactly what the British colonialists used to say: India is no more a country than the Equator, Churchill quipped. A geographical expression, but no nation! The region east of Indus, as the Greeks knew it, was fragmented, by language, religion and customs, when ideas of nation and nationhood arrived from Europe. Churchill was only half wrong: India was never a nation like the European ones.

But he is half-wrong because India existed. India may not be a nation, but the implicit assumption that a country has to be one 'pure' nation is apparently wrong. That Scots voted to stay in Union did not mean that they had given up their national identity; nor did a thousand years cured the Welsh of their Welshness. Nation and its territoriality are neat concepts on paper but hardly exist in its imagined form anywhere. Believe it too much and you get Brexit.

Besides, such territorial ideas are European. Asia long existed as congruent landmasses where differences in customs did not mean borders and the distant authority of the princes did not mean permanent discord among the people. Trade and exchange, travel and education can explain trajectories of Asian history more than any sequence of wars and conquest. And, even religion, which in our contemporary imagination gives some sort of pure form of identity, often existed in intermingled form, even after the Muslim conquest of India. Remember, Buddha became a Hindu avatar (God's incarnation) in time and it would be hard to tell which religion the Indian Sufis really belonged to. The idea of territorially bound purist identities is not Indian.

It's a tragedy though that the English-trained Colonial elite knew no alternate formula to construct a modern state. The whole creed of Independence was built on - and in turn, reinforced - the imaginary of a political community. But this reinvention of India, as we know now, broke India but did not redeem it. The political independence meant a new elite, which looked much like the old elite except in colour, took over mostly pre-existing institutions; but the imported ideas of nationhood and territoriality broke India right in the middle. As if a thousand-year history can just be extracted and separated, suddenly we deemed to have had 'two nations' (and soon after, three). That unfortunate idea, mindlessly violent, pointlessly ignorant, started a futile search for nationhood, unresolved after several civil wars. Pre-partition conflicts in 1946 and 1947, battles over Kashmir in 1947-48, the war of 1965, civil war and genocide in the East (1971) have all been results of that quest, all the while the South Asian landmass remained poor and increasingly climatically challenged. Yet, the idea of nationhood is so seductive that the only solution to this elusive quest is deemed to achieving it, rather than accepting the impossibility of it.

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.


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