India’s very existence was questioned by skeptics who found the idea of India absurd, if not laughable.
History has always shown, and will no doubt continue to show how great ideas are marginalized and buried under the soils of doubts, jocose and cynicism. Yet, someday, out of nowhere, these ideas are pursued by a neglected, but valiant entity- which not only resurrects the idea- but shoots it towards the skies like a cannon, for the rest of the world to gape and admire.
India was such an idea.
During the bloody years of the mid-19th century, when the idea of Indian Nationalism was born after the sepoys of the Imperial army launched a rebellion against the British Raj, what we today call ‘The Indian Mutiny of 1857’ (much better than the dishonestly called ‘Sepoy Mutiny of 1857’), a certain Sir John Strachey wrote and argued that ‘India’ was more or less only a label of convenience, and rather than an idea; “A name we give to a great region including multitude of different countries” he noted. Strachey, who was a member of the council of the Governor General of India, was so skeptical about the notion of a nation that was a melting pot for languages, class, cast and religion that he announced to his audience in Cambridge:
“The first and the most essential thing to learn about India- is that there is not, and never was an India, or even any country of India possessing, according to any European ideas, any sort of unity, physical, political, social or religious.”
Focus, dear reader, on how scantily old Strachey referred to the states of India as ‘country of India’. For him, the idea of India was similar to the idea of Europe. In the mid-nineteenth century, almost every country in Europe had seen a similar cultural evolution, but weren’t so alike as to kindle and nurture the idea of European nationalism. The social and political build up in the continent prevented any mind from thinking that Europe can exist as a country. For Strachey, the same analogy fitted India. The distinctions between Madras, Bengal and Punjab were such, that he found it more appropriate to refer them as a ‘country’ rather than a ‘state’ or even a ‘province’. He sharpened up his picture further by adding:
“It is conceivable that national sympathies may arise in particular Indian countries, But that they should ever extend to India generally, that men of Punjab, Bengal, The North-Western provinces, and Madras, should ever feel they belong to one Indian Nation, is impossible.”
The old man’s effrontery didn’t cease here. He made sure how much he meant his words regarding the cultural disparateness by declaring that ‘Scotland is more like Spain than Bengal is like Punjab.’ However, it would be wrong to blame the Strachey or to call him a cynic for his cocky pessimism. In his time, history had never shown or had no plans to show that men of different social, religious and political backgrounds could ever come together and pursue the idea of common nationalism. Moreover, nationalism was itself struggling to get rid of Colonialism’s grip and even the countries which became a nation, like the United States of America, had civil and racial differences. The religious were at each other’s throats.
The Church as usual enjoyed great powers and effortlessly silenced dissenters. Jews faced persecution almost everywhere. Islam found a cradle in the mighty Ottoman Empire, and the only empire to that could sustain men of different religions together, the Mughal Empire, had come to an end. In the face of such mighty odds, it was almost impossible to conceive a nation that could foster, or even hold the idea of multiculturalism in the mid-19th century. Thus, it was not only Strachey who was skeptical of this wild idea, great author Rudyard Kipling was also the member of this league.
After being questioned by an Australian journalist about the idea of India being under self-rule, Kipling remarked: “Oh no! They are 4,000 years old out there, much too old to learn that business. Law and order is what they want and we are there to give it to them and we give it them straight.” It is hard to determine how Kipling connected the dots between antiquity and non-autonomy, but other men had better reasons. A British cricketer and plantation owner asserted:
“Chaos would prevail in India if we were to ever so foolish to leave the natives to run their own show. Ye Gods! What a salad of confusion, of bungle, of mismanagement, and far worse, would be an instant result. These grand people will go anywhere and do anything if led by us. Themselves, they are still infants as regards governing or statesmanship. And their so-called leaders are the worst of the lot.”
Certainly both of the above critics weren’t wrong in their assertions. Centuries had witnessed the mind-boggling diversity that India displayed- of languages, lands, castes, and religions. Yet, India had never existed as a country at all. Hundreds of kings and princes of hundreds of provinces and kingdoms had ruled hundreds of different parts of the country, and to suggest that all these royal heads and their subjects being left to themselves, that too as a single nation was an idea never to be taken seriously.
Yet, ideas are never expected to be stationary. By the time 20th century dawned, a spectator might expect the notion of India to gain momentum, or at least start making sense to some. Nations had started popping up, the Soviet Union gained notoriety as the first huge and successful state propped up on the idea of communism, an idea that a century before seemed as ridiculous as the idea of ‘India’ itself. In the midst of such developments, where the most eccentric ideas transformed into realities, it was perfectly decent to ask: Can there ever be an India? A little group of idealistic men had already answered in positive.
The Indian National Congress was formed in 1885 by individuals who thought that no matter what the differences, a nation state can be erected out of such dissimilarities. But from this point to the point of independence, more than half a century passed. This period saw the First and the Second World War, the Spanish Civil war and rise of Nazism and Stalinism; also producing great statesmen and political figures. One of these, Sir Winston Churchill, was another grand skeptic, openly indifferent to not only Indians, but to the concept of ‘India’, which is found whimsy. The idea of Indian autonomy, said Churchill, is ‘not only fantastic in itself but criminally mischievous in its effect’. The old buzzard went on to a length saying that “to abandon India to the rule of the Brahmins would be an act of cruel & wicked negligence.” He also argued that if the British left, the great enshrinements of the empire- the railways, the system of judiciary and the public works would decease and “India will fall back quite rapidly through the centuries into barbarism & privations of the Middle Ages.” No doubt Churchill had to make amendments through such statements in the face of an eroding political career and a demanding war, but as long as one’s belief in one’s sayings matters, the grumpy racist meant each and every word he said. And as long as we’re talking about grumpy racists who were also great statesmen, let’s not forget Der Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler.
Hitler, near the end of Mein Kampf, refers to the idea of Indian nationalism as “childish and incomprehensible hopes” and to those who nourish such notions as ‘Asiatic mountebanks’. But his final word on such a ‘hope’ comes in the form of cold words: “I as a German would far rather see India under British domination than that of any other nation.” And yet, this was a man who is held in high regards in Hindu nationalist circles. No doubt a phenomenon as erroneous and diabolical as Hindu Nationalism only attracts the sympathies of hypocrites: those look up to the man for inspiration, the man who didn’t want their ‘rashtra’ to even exist in the first place.
But the questions persisted: How can a land of such axis of demarcations, singular and in tandem, even sustain itself without succumbing to sectarian and political conflicts? Even before we the idea of India was put into practice, we were ravaged by riots and divided by partition. Such brutality and savagery did nothing but only reinforced the same old skepticism into the minds of Stracheys and Churchills. With such pessimism was set the stage for the world’s biggest democracy.
And yet, on the 15th day of the August of 1947, India had tryst with destiny. The idea of India, which had been laughed upon, joked about, criticized and marginalized had finally materialized in the form of an insuperable slogan: Unity in Diversity. That night, India wasn’t just born. India resumed. An idea that was paused in the midst of its metamorphosis. A land whose inhabitants had never attempted to conquer the territory of others, a land which gave refuge to the Persians when they were slaughtered and ousted from their own land. A land which clasped Jews in the face of world-wide persecution and to this day remains the only country that has never showed signs of anti-Semitism. Yet, the land was divided by men who didn’t believe in the idea of the ‘idea’ of India in the first place. Those who distrusted unity and for whom an Islamic theocracy came above a secular society. That’s what demarcates the idea of ‘India’ from the idea of ‘Pakistan’.
India stood for those majority of crores of Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and Jains who breathed faith into the motto of ‘Unity and Diversity’. If the majority of the Hindu population of India wished to counter what the majority of Muslim population wanted- a religious homeland, then India too would have been an embodiment of the absurd ‘Hindu rashtra’. But the Hindus chose the secular route, along with those Muslims who believed equally in a secular society and thus, was born India. To this day, it remain the boldest experiment in democracy.
But that doesn’t guarantee us immortality. The greatest experiments in the greatest ideas run a successful sprint only as long as the values of the idea are not corrupted by evil forces. The idea of India faces two major threats in the contemporary times: Islamic terrorists and the Hindu Nationalists. Islamic terrorism is an intertwinement of medieval, hostile doctrines and envious political forces. It is caressed and nurtured in Pakistan, and wants to destroy us, thus, we must destroy it first. Hindu Nationalism on the other hand, is a product of a stupid idea of ‘Hindu homeland’. It was started, propagated and perpetuated by men who were so deep into the mire of bigotry and hate against anyone who didn’t belong to their religion, that they supported the British rule as long as it kept Muslims at bay.
They have modelled themselves on the very man, MS Golwalkar, who opposed a secular and united society, and wanted his compatriots to focus more on driving out the Muslims, than the British. Dear reader, organizations like All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIN) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its junior wings are a grave threat to the very core of values on which this nation is based on. To save ourselves and our nation from these foul, bigoted, sadomasochistic communalists, and the clerical bullying they subject us to – we should not only eschew their propaganda, but fight them and destroy them.
Once we surmount hate, hypocrisy, chauvinism and the abject forces which threaten our pluralism, only then we will be able to look into the skies and realize, that there’ll always be an India.
By: Ayush Tiwari