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E-Mail this address to a friend Ultimately, what is India?

Shashi Tharoor finds out


Part I: Who is an Indian?

Let's talk about the whole notion of majority and minority in India. I intend to affirm that we are all minorities in India. I know that the less industrious of our journalists like to speak of the so-called majority community but where is this majority community?

Let's take a typical representative of this majority community, a good UP Hindu stepping off a train in any one of India's crowded railway stations. Now this chap may well think he belongs to the majority community but of course even though UP, if it were independent, would be the seventh largest country in the world and even if you were in UP, you would be forgiven for thinking that the majority of Indians were there, the fact is that UP does not represent a majority of India. In fact if this railway station that this archetype stepped out in happened to be in my home state of Kerala, well, a majority in Kerala is not even male.

So which of these various categories shall we choose? Shall we choose his language? Well, Hindi is not spoken by a majority of Indians. Should we choose his caste? If he is a Brahmin, then I'm afraid 89 per cent of Indians are not Brahmins. If he is a Yadav, 85 per cent of Indians are not of that so-called backward caste and so on and so forth. But you get my point? In our country we have diversities, we can cut this majority community in a hundred different ways and find minorities lurking within.

You also have to look in terms of what makes the national. Now, in our country, it is an absolute fact that you could have a Haryanvi Jat on one hand and a Tamil Brahmin on the other and the two of them notionally belong to the same majority Hindu community. But they have almost nothing in common in terms of dress, appearance, language, culinary taste and these days, political opinions. Whereas a Tamil Muslim, a Tamil Hindu and a Tamil Christian would have far more in common with each other than other co-religionists from some other part of the country.

Why is it that I harp on these differences? It is not to divide the notion of Indianness, it is rather to affirm a notion of Indianness that is larger than the sum of its parts. Let's take these classic theories of what makes a nation. What are the various things that unite a country to create a nation? In fact when I talk about India in this context, I'm often reminded of the wonderful argument that two political scientists are having about a problem. The first political scientist says, how do we solve the problem, the second one gives a solution to the problem and the first one replies that the solution will work in practice, but the question was if it would work in theory!

You can ask the same question about Indian nationalism. The national idea has worked very well in practice but it doesn't hold up in theory. After all, we don't have nationalism that is based even on geography because the natural geography of the sub-continent was hacked by the Partition of 1947. It's not language, as we have 17 official languages, 35 depending on whether you follow the Constitution or the ethnolinguists. It's not ethnicity because by most definitions of ethnicity, there are Indians who have nothing in common with other Indians and there are Indians who have more in common with foreigners than with other Indians.

For example, an Indian Punjabi or Bengali has more in common with a Pakistani and a Bangladeshi respectively than they do with, let's say, a Bangalorean. And it is not based on religion because we are a country that is home to every religion known to humankind with the possible exception of Shintoism. And Hinduism is in many ways as much a reflection of our cultural heritage and our national diversity as a factor that under guards the notion of Indianness. So ultimately, what is India?

India, I would argue, is an idea. It is an idea of a nation, as I mentioned earlier, which has a civilisational unity, a historical commonality with overlapping histories in different parts of the country, a geographical space not complete because it has been affected by the century's politics but common geographical space nonetheless in which to work this out and a democracy within which this diversity is enshrined, supported and ultimately plays itself out. And in that sense one can argue, one can stand Peter Pan on his head that ours is indeed an 'Ever-ever land'. A nation, an idea, a country, a civilisation that has always existed but which has found a new space and new shape since 1947. A space which transcends the various diversities of which it is comprised.

I mention this because I've been living for some years in New York in the United States and we have this wonderful notion of the United States as a melting pot. In my book I've actually written that if the phrase 'melting pot' had existed 1,500 years ago, India might have had better claim to that title because of the various waves of migration into India at that time that created the ethnic mix that we all represent today.

But today, I would argue to Americans that if they are a melting pot, we are a thali. We are a collection of different dishes in different bowls on one common plate. These dishes may not necessarily mix with each other, which is why they are in different bowls but they combine on the palate to produce a satisfying repast. That, to me, is the notion or metaphor of the Indian identity.

Of course, I understand that many of you will say that is an excessively idealised view of Indianness and I'm particularly aware of the differences, the divisions, the pitfalls of misunderstanding, the arguments. And I am also aware of my vulnerability to criticism as someone who has parachuted down from far away to come and spout wisdom to you. In fact, one of my favourite Indian stories is the story not of the NRI but of the American agricultural aid expert who comes to India to give advice on agriculture, in the 1960s.

This man comes and visits this small Indian farm in Punjab where land holdings aren't very large and land reforms have worked in some parts of the country better than in others. But this Sikh farmer welcomes him very proudly and says, 'My land extends all the way to the national highway there.' (To the American it looks like a dirt road.) 'Do you see that bunch of trees out there? My land goes as far as that. Can you see that little irrigation canal?' (The canal is barely a trickle from the American's point of view.) 'My land goes all the way there.' Then he turns to the American and says, 'How far does your land go'?

Now this American is a farmer from the mid-western prairie states like Kansas, with huge holdings. He smiles and says, 'Well, in the morning I get into my tractor and I drive six hours south, to the southern boundary of my farm, and then I turn west in my tractor and I drive another three-and-a-half hours to the western boundary of my farm and I break for a sandwich and afterwards I get into my tractor and it's four hours north to the northern boundary of my farm and finally at sun-down, I spend another couple of hours in my tractor getting back to my farm house.'

The Sikh farmer smiles very sympathetically and says, 'I know, I know, I too used to have a tractor like that.' So it is possible to speak the same language and understand different things. The whole point about Indianness is that we can speak different languages and understand the same thing.

And that brings me, of course, to the developments in recent years of what is been, inaccurately in my view, dubbed as Hindu fundamentalism. I say inaccurately because Hinduism is uniquely a religion without fundamentals. We have, after all, an extraordinary diversity of religious practices within Hinduism which have no single sacred book but many. Hinduism is, in many ways, predicated on the idea that the eternal wisdom of the ages and of divinity cannot be confined to a single sacred book and we have no compulsory injunctions or obligations. We don't even have a Hindu Sunday, let alone an injunction to pray at specific times and frequencies.

Instead, what we have is a faith that allows each believer to reach out his or her hands to his or her notion of the creative Godhead of divinity. A faith which uniquely does not have any notion of heresy in it, you cannot be a Hindu heretic because there is no standard set of dogmas from which you can deviate that make you a heretic. Here is a faith so unusual, so unique, that it is the only major religion in the world that does not claim to be the only true religion. I find that incredibly congenial. For me, as a believing Hindu, it is wonderful to be able to meet people from other faiths without being burdened by the conviction that they are embarked upon a wrong path.

Hinduism believes that there are various ways of reaching the ultimate truth. To me, the fact that adherence of this faith in a particular perversion of its tenets has chosen to destroy somebody else's sacred place, has chosen to attack others because of the absence of foreskin or the mark on the forehead, this ultimately makes me, as a Hindu, deeply sorrowful and, in a very fundamental way, ashamed. Build Ram in your hearts is what Hinduism has always enjoined. If Ram is in your heart, it would matter very little what bricks or stones Ram can also be found in, but this is a pluralist notion of Hinduism, this eclectic tolerance, which was very much in the minds of the believing Hindus in the nationalist movement as well as of those emerging from this Indic civilisation, who shared this pluralist national conviction.

That this notion of Indianness has somehow been reduced to a sectarian notion of so-called Hindutva is, to me, a travesty of what Hinduism really is. I too, as a Hindu, can say when people tell me garv se kaho ki tum Hindu ho, that I'm proud to be a Hindu, but in what is it that we are to take pride? I take pride in the openness, the diversity, the range, the lofty meta-physical aspirations of the Vedanta; of the various ways in which Hinduism is practised, eclectically, tolerantly, that is what I take pride in.

Unfortunately, there are those who take pride in Hinduism the way in which one might support a football team, (these days one can't support the cricket team, so let's leave that aside!) -- as a badge of identity, rather than as a set of values, principles and beliefs, and so Hinduism becomes reduced in their retelling to nothing more than a label.

The word for Indian has almost become Hindu. All the latter meant was the people living across the river Sindhu or the Indus. Of course, the Indus now flows in Pakistan but nonetheless, the fact is that the notion of Indianness and Hinduness is very much caught up in what Dr Radhakrishnan so memorably spoke of as a way of life. That way of life has very little room for intolerance, for dogma, for attacks on others because of what they don't believe.

And this brings me back to the notion of political democracy in India because ultimately that political democracy is what has been the saving grace of the Indianness that I talked about. Because if those who have ridden to power through the political support of others who advocate extreme notions of Hindu fanaticism, if those who have come to power have learnt anything through the process of working with others, it is that you can only rule India in alliance with people who are not like you. That you will not be able to rule India only by speaking Hindi, only by impositions, only ultimately by deciding that those who do not worship a certain kind of Hinduism are the only first class citizens in our country.

That discovery is vital because to reduce any other Indian, anyone else who lives on this soil, who carries an Indian passport, has no other notion of an extraterritorial loyalty to turn to, to deny any of those people the same first class citizenship that these Hindus claim as their birthright, would be a second Partition, this time not on the Indian soil but in the Indian soul. That partition would be in negation of this fundamental notion at the core of Indian nationalism that India is greater than the sum of its parts.

As I said, I would not want to bore you excessively, I would much rather have an opportunity to engage directly with you but let me say, in conclusion, that this is why I believe that whatever the political merits of Mrs Sonia Gandhi, whether you wish to vote for her or not, whether you wish to vote for her party or the parties allied with her or not, that ultimately is a matter of your political preference. It is ultimately a matter of what the electorate believes she is capable of doing. I hold no brief for her politics or that of any other politician in our country.

But what I do want to say to Sharad Pawar, Tariq Anwar, Purno Sangma and others like them is that, as an Indian, I cannot accept the right of any politician or any group of politicians to tell me who is an Indian. The notion of Indianness is something that is far greater, far larger, far more fundamental, far more rooted in 5,000 years of this country's civilisation, than any set of politicians or legislators can reduce.

To me, the territorial, sectarian or other notions of Indianness are essentially irrelevant. This is a society, a culture that has embraced anyone who has wanted to be a part of it, whether it was the Parsis who came in the seventh century, the Muslims who came peacefully to Kerala in the seventh, eighth and ninth centuries, or the other communities who have evolved on the soil or come to the soil. We have not questioned anyone's right to be a part of us. The notion of 'us' is more important than allowing any set of people to start dividing us into 'us' and 'them'. Ultimately, if India is denied to anyone who wants to be an Indian, has an Indian passport and claims Indianness, one day it could be denied to all of us.

I want to end with a very simple story which was told to me by my father many years ago in my childhood, which has stayed with me all these years. It is a typical story from our Puranas and is a classic story of a sage and his disciples. The sage says to his disciples, 'Tell me, when does the night end?'

"The disciples replied, 'At dawn of course.'

"The sage says, 'I know that, but when does the night end and the dawn begin?'

"The first disciple, who is from the southern part of the country, answers, 'It's when the first streaks of sunlight show you the palms on the coconut trees, swaying gently in the breeze, that is when the night ends and the dawn begins.'

"The sage says, 'Sorry my son, you're wrong.'

"He turns to the other disciple, who is from the north, who says, 'I know the answer. It is when the first streaks of sunshine across the sky glint off the snow glistening on the mountain tops. That is when the night ends and the dawn begins.'

"The saint says, 'No. It is when two travellers from the farthest corners of our land meet together and embrace as brothers. When they realise that they sleep under the same sky, see the same stars and dream the same dreams, that is when the night ends and the dawn begins.'

"We have seen many a tormented and painful night in the history of our country. Let us, at the start of this new millennium, work together, undivided, towards a new dawn. Thank you very much.

Shashi Tharoor, a senior United Nations official, commentator and novelist, delivered this address in Madras a few weeks ago.

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