Ideas of India

(Published in the Business Standard, May 2010. I’m working on a longer version, and will share that when it’s done; each of the people quoted offered far more in the way of insight and experience than I had space for in the span of a newspaper article.)

If you’ve ever ridden the Himsagar Express, you know the pull of the idea of traversing India from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. The actual journey is, as most tourists and pilgrims discover, dusty, unromantic and unremarkable. It’s the idea that’s attractive—performing a discovery of India, snaking down the country’s spinal cord, and the magic of that phrase: Kashmir se Kanyakumari tak. As writers, thinkers and travelers have discovered over the centuries, going in search of the idea of India is equally frustrating, and equally compelling.

Pawan Verma, chronicler of the great Indian middle class, is the most recent in a long line of authors to do an “audit” of the idea of India. For him, Becoming Indian is an ongoing project. “The impact of colonialism on a people’s sensibilities does not disappear with political freedom,” he writes. “The Empire continues to exercise its sway at the psychological level. The formerly ruled deny this, and yet their mental servitude is apparent in so many ways.” We are still, he argues, Macaulay’s grandchildren, still enslaved by the elevation of English over other Indian languages, in constant danger of forgetting our own past and culture—which he identifies, unfortunately, as primarily North Indian and Hindi-speaking.

And with that, he joins a grand tradition of arguing over India. The historian Irfan Habib has pointed out that it wasn’t until the late 14th century that the Hindus began calling India “Hindustan”—Ind or Sindh-stan was a chiefly Greek and Persian construct before this time. Much before that, though, Alberuni (973-1078 AD) and other travelers would comfortably refer to the inhabitants as Hindus: “The Hindus believe that there is no country but theirs, no nation like theirs, no kings like theirs, no religion like theirs, no science like theirs.” And many centuries later, Veer Savarkar would take this to an extreme, demanding that India must be a Hindu land, “reserved for the Hindus”. “India is such a huge concept, like Europe,” observes the historian and writer William Dalrymple, “it’s something you encounter only when actually thinking about it.”

A bookshelf devoted to “ideas of India” would have to be large, roomy and argumentative, with space for Vivekananda, Gandhi, Naipaul, Sunil Khilnani, Amartya Sen, Ramachandra Guha, Tagore, Veer Savarkar and a score of others. Pavan Verma and Naipaul would agree that India is a wounded civilization locked in a willed amnesia over its past of multiple invasions, home now to a million shifting mutinies. They might find some overlapping, though not entirely common, ground with Swami Vivekananda, who argued over a century ago that India had been ruled in turn by Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas, and that British rule had reduced us all to shudras in our own country.

For the historian Sunil Khilnani, India inherited a history of thinking in terms of villages and varnam (caste), but overlaying this and shaping our “modern” India is the overarching concept of democracy. And Amartya Sen argues for a more fluid identity, saying that beyond the simplicities of caste and religion, we all inhabit far more complex identities.

How far back does the idea of India go?

One school of thought makes the case that India, as the BJP Manifesto has it, “is perhaps the most ancient and continuing civilisation of the world”. But this harking back to the glories of a past that must be resurrected can lead to extremist movements, and not everyone agrees. The eminent historian Ramachandra Guha says bluntly: “As a political entity, India is a modern construct. The British, accidentally and for their own motives, created an artificial territorial unity; and then Gandhi and the national movement fostered a political unity and shared moral purpose to the people who lived in that territory. The search for ancient or medieval progenitors of the idea of India is unhistorical, and also dangerous, since it tends to end with a narrowly Hindu idea of Indian nationhood.”
Dalrymple might agree that India acquires a political unity in 1947, and that until then, “there is almost no point in Indian history where the whole of India is united—not under the Cholas, or Akbar, or the British”. But he also points to the fact that there has been a continuous, historical notion of India as a geographical entity: “There is at least a concept of India.”

What shapes our personal ideas of India?

Nehru found his history in jail, during the National Movement, through a series of letters to his daughter; and then through the project of writing about the history of the country he was fighting for. Gandhi found his through the age-old Indian tradition of the padayatra, the personal pilgrimage, lathi in hand, around his country.
For today’s authors, the discovery of India is almost always a slow, cumulative progress: there are no shortcuts. Mukul Kesavam, scholar and professor at Jamia Millia University, began thinking about India as an idea when he was writing his pamphlet on secularism in India. “I knew that ‘Indian’ secularism was meant to be different from the western sort (not a rigorous separation of the public realm from religion, but a state that was equally intimate with all religions etc.) but it hadn’t occurred to me that Indian nationalism was singular or original or odd. Not only was secularism in India a species of pluralism, but so was nationalism.”
For the journalist Sadanand Dhume, author of My Friend the Fanatic, his ideas of India were shaped by “lived experience—neighbourhood cricket, Hindi films on Doordarshan”. Naipaul was an early and lasting influence, but as an adult, it was the view from elsewhere in what he calls “two major dislocations” that would be useful. The first shift was conventional, a move from New Delhi to New York: “The Indian goes to the West and sees his country anew from a distance. But equally important, and less usual, was the four years I spent living in Southeast Asia, in Jakarta, and the experience of writing about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Indonesia.”
And for Dilip Simeon, chairperson of the Aman Trust and author, it was his time as a student travelling to famine-stricken Bihar, and time spent in “so-called revolutionary activity” that would be key. But there’s an image that stays with him, from the research he did on the history of labour in Jamshedpur and Jharia: “Among my most horrifying and fascinating sensations was the sight of the flames of the Jharia underground fire, emanating from vast fissures in the earth; and the vast swathes of subsidence. It began in 1930, and still rages.”
Dalrymple speaks about growing up in Britain on an early ‘80s diet of Jewel-in-the-Crown infused Raj nostalgia: “I’m the last generation brought up with the Eric Newby/ Rudyard Kipling reading list.” The man who would make his name as an indefatigable traveler had visited very few countries before he made his first visit to India, completely unprepared for the reality he would encounter. “The first culture shock was massive,” he says.

What’s at the core of the idea of India?

“Indian nationalism fetishises both equality and difference,” Kesavan observes. “Diversity and pluralism aren’t optional extras with Indian nationalism: they are the whole deal; take those away and the project collapses.”
For Dalrymple, the “sacred map of India” is essential. “I don’t think democracy is “the” idea of India—Hinduism, Bollywood, cricket, these are all important elements in the construction of our identity. You can’t escape the fact that this is a strongly Hindu country, and that the various forms of Hinduism do provide a cohesion. The rightwing may have exploited this idea, but despite the deep hesitations, there’s no question that the network of sacred sites and the sacred map of India is a very important part of most people’s conception of India, predates the modern nation and the birth of democracy. I think you do need to talk to the pilgrim on the way to Vaishno Devi and ask him which is more important—the network of shrines or the ballot box.”
But if you want to understand the idea of India, Ramachandra Guha suggests that you look closely at five of the key figures in pre-Independence India—Gandhi, Nehru, Tagore, Ambedkar and Rajagopalachari.
“Gandhi and Tagore together fostered an idea of India that did not demonize other nations and cultures, but promoted an open-minded engagement with them. Gandhi and Nehru together fostered an idea of India which was inclusive within its borders, and afforded equal citizenship to all regardless of class or gender, while respecting religious and linguistic pluralism.
Gandhi and Ambedkar, working in parallel and sometimes in opposition, together ensured that in free India there would be special rights for the most historically disadvantaged, namely, the former Untouchables. Gandhi and Rajagopalachari, working together, fostered a skeptical attitude towards the powers of the state and thus opened the way for the protection of individual liberties and the encouragement of individual creativity (whether in entrepreneurship, literature, or the arts).”
Perhaps there’s still a need, 60 years after Independence, to become Indian, as Pavan Verma argues. But the more interesting question, given the choices, is: what kind of Indian would that be?


1) The Mahabharata
2) Alberuni: The Indica
3) Sunil Khilnani: The Idea of India
4) Amartya Sen: The Argumentative Indian
5) Ramachandra Guha: India After Gandhi
6) Gandhi: My Experiments with Truth
7) Naipaul: A Wounded Civilisation, A Million Mutinies Now
8) Veer Savarkar: Hindutva
9) Indian Studies in the History of an Idea: edited by Irfan Habib
10) The Discovery of India: Nehru


  1. And what is your idea ? This is a succinct account of the search for the idea of India but I look forward to your personal view.One of the problems is that most of those you have described keep looking for a dominant unifying thread – the modern Indian State,religion, culture, cuisine, Bollywood, cricket , politics whatever. The fact is that plurality and diversity itself is the unifying thread . Mukul touches on it but the notion deserves to be elaborated at a deeper theoretical level . Wendy Doniger does it , I think, in a very satisfying way.

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