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Mapping a nation: Pluralism at 60
Indian nationalism is a rare animal indeed. It’s notlanguage or race or ethnicity or religion or geography that binds us together as a nation.Indian nationalism has always been the nationalismof an idea—an idea rooted in the spirit of diversity
COMMENTS PRINT

Shashi Tharoor "Indian nationalism is a rare animal indeed. It's not language or race or ethnicity or religion or geography that binds us together as a nation.Indian nationalism has always been the nationalism of an idea—an idea rooted in the spirit of diversity"- Shashi Tharoor Author and former UN Under Secretary General
When India celebrated the 49th anniversary of its independence from British rule in 1996, our then prime minister, HD Deve Gowda, stood at the ramparts of the Lal Qila and delivered the traditional Independence Day address to the nation in Hindi, India's 'national language'. Eight other prime ministers had done exactly the same thing 48 times before him, but what was unusual this time was that the Kannadiga Deve Gowda spoke to the country in a language of which he didn't know a word. Tradition and politics required a speech in Hindi, so he gave one—the words having been written out for him in the Kannada script, in which they, of course, made no sense.

Such an episode is almost inconceivable elsewhere—a country ruled by a man who does not understand its national language, a 'national language' which half the population does not understand, and this particular solution to enable the prime minister to address his people.

The playback singer Yesudas had sung his way to the top of the Hindi music charts with lyrics written out in his songbook in the Malayalam script, but to see that Bollywoodian practice elevated to the prime ministerial address on Independence Day was a startling affirmation of Indian pluralism.

For the simple fact is that we are all minorities in India. There has never been an

"If America can be called a melting-pot, India can be considered as a thali, a sumptuous selection of dishes in different bowls"

archetypal Indian to stand alongside the archetypal Englishman or Frenchman. A Hindi-speaking Hindu male from Uttar Pradesh may cherish the illusion he represents the 'majority community', an expression much favoured by the less industrious of our journalists. But he does not. As a Hindu, he belongs to the faith adhered to by 82% of the population. But a majority of the country does not speak Hindi. A majority does not hail from Uttar Pradesh, though you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise when you go there. And, if he were visiting, say, my home state of Kerala, he would be surprised to realise a majority there is not even male.

 

Even his Hinduism is no guarantee of his majorityhood, because his caste automatically puts him in a minority. If he is a Brahmin, 90% of his fellow Indians are not. If he is a Yadav, 85% of his fellow Indians are not. And so on.

The Common Factor: If caste and language complicate the notion of Indian identity, ethnicity makes it worse. Most of the time, an Indian's name immediately reveals where he is from: when we introduce ourselves, we are advertising our origins. Despite some intermarriage at the elite levels in our cities, Indians are still largely endogamous, and a Bengali is easily distinguished from a Punjabi. The difference this reflects is often more apparent than the elements of commonality. A Karnataka Brahmin shares his Hindu faith with a Bihari Kurmi, but they share little identity with each other in respect of their dress, customs, appearance, taste, language or even, these days, their political objectives. At the same time, a Tamil Hindu would feel he has much more in common with a Tamil Christian or a Tamil Muslim than with, say, a Haryanvi Jat, with whom he formally shares the Hindu religion.

What makes India, then, a nation?

When an Italian nation was created in the second half of the 19th century out of a mosaic of principalities and statelets, one Italian nationalist wrote: "We have created Italy. Now all we need to do is to create Italians."

It is striking that, a few decades later, no Indian nationalist succumbed to the temptation to express a similar thought. The prime exponent of modern Indian nationalism, Jawaharlal Nehru, believed that India and Indians had existed for millennia before he articulated their political aspirations in the 20th century.

Nonetheless, the India that was born in 1947 was in a very real sense a new creation: a state that made fellow citizens of the Ladakhi and the Laccadivian for the first time; a state that divided Punjabi from Punjabi for the first time; a state that asked a Keralite peasant to feel allegiance to a Kashmiri Pundit ruling in Delhi, also for the first time.

The Ever-Ever Land: Under Gandhi and Nehru, Indian nationalism became a rare animal indeed. It was not based on any of the conventional indices of national identity. Not language, since India's Constitution recognises 23 official languages, and there are 35 that are spoken by more than a million people each. Not ethnicity, since the 'Indian' accommodates a diversity of racial types in which many Indians have more in common with foreigners than with other Indians—Indian Punjabis and Bengalis, for instance, have more in common ethnically with Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, respectively, than with Poonawallahs or Bangaloreans. Not religion, since India is a secular pluralist state that is home to almost every religion known to mankind. Not geography, since the natural geography of the subcontinent—the mountains and the sea—was hacked by the Partition of 1947. And not even territory, since, by law, anyone with one grandparent born in pre-partition India is eligible for citizenship. Indian nationalism has therefore always been the nationalism of an idea.

It is the idea of an ever-ever land—emerging from an ancient civilisation, united by a shared history, sustained by pluralist democracy. It is a land of multiple identities. You can be many things and one thing: you can be a good Muslim, a good Keralite and a good Indian all at the same time. If America is a melting-pot, then to me India is a thali, a selection of sumptuous dishes in different bowls. Each tastes different, and does not necessarily mix with the next, but they belong together on the same plate, and they complement each other in making the meal a satisfying repast.

So the Indian idea is that a nation may endure differences of caste, creed, colour, conviction, culture, cuisine, costume and custom, and still rally around a consensus—that in a democracy you don't really need to agree, except on the ground rules of how you will disagree.

India's founding fathers wrote a Constitution for their dreams; we have given passports to their ideals. In May 2004, a Roman Catholic political leader (Sonia Gandhi) made way for a Sikh (Manmohan Singh) to be sworn in as prime minister by a Muslim (President Abdul Kalam)—in a country 81% Hindu. That one simple moment revealed Indian identity. India was never truer to itself than when celebrating its own diversity.

COMMENTS PRINT
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