On 74th Independence Day, examining the idea of India and the Indian through five essays from our archives

As we observe India's 74th Independence Day, amid a pandemic that is swiftly reshaping the world and all that was familiar, we're revisiting five essays from 'India and the Indian', a series analysing the renewed idea of nationalism that is in vogue.

FP Staff August 17, 2020 10:00:32 IST
On 74th Independence Day, examining the idea of India and the Indian through five essays from our archives

Last June — with no warning of the tsunami of events that would engulf us from that August onwards all the way to this one — Firstpost invited several writers to analyse the renewed idea of nationalism that is in vogue. The columns were collected into a series titled 'India and the Indian', featuring works by Pa Ranjith, Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, Aakash Singh Rathore and Omair Ahmad, among others.

As we observe India's 74th Independence Day, amid a pandemic that is swiftly reshaping the world and all that was familiar, we're revisiting five essays from the series.

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'I hope my daughter inherits a country unbound by caste, linguistic strictures'

Pa Ranjith writes —

As children, all of us feel patriotic on Independence Day when the tricolour is hoisted. But when I moved towards Ambedkar, there were many questions that kept coming to me. Is Indian nationalism real? How is it possible for people who were divided into different ethnicities and castes to be united in a country called India? How could they have possibly formed it?

When I saw hatred being inflicted on others — whom I regarded as my own, because they were Indians — in the name of caste, I had to step away from the notion of nationalism. Ambedkar asked how he could call this country his motherland, when we are treated worse than dogs. He asked, when the ‘untouchables’ cannot even access drinking water, how can anybody feel proud about this country? The country continues to discriminate against us, he said, and if we are forced to not be loyal to this nation, the nation alone will be responsible for it.

If caste actively works towards keeping me out of a system, how can I have any belief in this system?

Read the complete essay here.

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'Western theories of nationhood don't capture country's complex realities'

Samrat writes —

India is an ancient land with a tapestry of ancient cultures and a multitude of languages and faiths brought here by people from various parts of the world over many centuries. The Indian of today includes the unknown woman from the uncontacted tribe of the Sentinelese in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands but it also includes the actress Kalki Koechlin, who is an Indian of French origin. Neither of them is the stereotypical Indian, but both of them are equally Indian — as Indian as Smriti Irani or Mohan Bhagwat.

India is not a nation-state. It is a state composed of many nations.

The Western theory of nation doesn’t come anywhere near capturing its complex realities; the foolish attempt to recast it as a homogenous Western-style nation, and to recast fluid Hinduism itself in a rigid Abrahamic way, is an affront to its ancient wisdom that made a people of its diverse nationalities over hundreds and thousands of years.

Read the complete essay here.

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'How a country treats its own is the nationalism to be proud of'

Omair Ahmad writes —

When Govind Ballabh Pant became the Chief Minister to the United Provinces, he dropped in to meet my great-grandfather in Banda. They had been contemporaries in the Legislative Assembly, and my great-grandfather had been his senior as the Deputy Chairman. My aunt (my mother’s younger sister) was supposed to garland Pant, but she was young and tiny, while Pant was tall and had a rather impressive belly. She could not reach, so my great-grandfather picked her up, helping her deposit the garland around Pant’s neck.

Banda is a small town in Uttar Pradesh, and not commonly visited by chief ministers. And there are few figures who could now lift a young child to garland a visiting dignitary. This is the story of what India has become now, a part of the way it has developed, that people leave small towns to go to the capitals of states, or to Delhi. They do not come back.

On 74th Independence Day examining the idea of India and the Indian through five essays from our archives

Illustration © Satwik Gade for Firstpost

Our sense of nationhood rests on how we compare our big cities, and the big people in them, to the big cities of other countries and their residents.

For me, working in the fields of international politics, literature, and journalism, this seems especially stark. My colleagues and friends tend to be people from other big cities, or foreigners. Even if we are from small towns, we live in big cities now, flitting from one to the other, and it leaves me unsure of where we are and what we are doing, and what we talk about when it comes to “the national interest”.

While there is a nationalism that measures India in the world, there is also another nationalism that measures the India of the centre versus the India of the margins, which is no less potent, and no less important.

Read the complete essay here.

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'Will we never be able to achieve consensus on being legitimately Indian?'

Aakash Singh Rathore writes —

During an early encounter between MK Gandhi and Dr BR Ambedkar, it is reported that the latter remarked, ‘Gandhiji, I have no homeland’. Ambedkar’s autobiographical fragment, Waiting for a Visa, gives us hints about how to understand this claim. Consider the autobiography’s title: exactly which visa is Ambedkar waiting for?

A visa, of course, is an official document permitting a person to cross borders and freely travel in or through a foreign country. In this case, it appears that the ‘foreign’ country must be India — Ambedkar is treated as alien there; is this a nation denied to him?

Like an outsider, Ambedkar is hindered all along the way from entering the society freely, from finding accommodation for overnight stays, from travelling without harm or obstruction. Indeed, his life story reveals that a former ‘untouchable’ seems to require some sort of visa, granted as a privilege and not a right, in order to be able to enter Indian social life on an equal footing with bona fide nationals.

The visa for which Ambedkar remained forever in waiting is in a sense the same visa that had been denied to Dr Payal Tadvi, and millions of others for whom her tragic story resonates so viscerally.

So who is in and who is out, and who gets to decide? By which precise criteria do we distinguish the bona fide national from the outsider, or those on the margins forever at risk of falling outside — the Dalit-Bahujan, the Muslim, the Adivasi, the queer, the supposed anti-national? This is a thorny knot that we have been unable to bloodlessly untangle in these 70 years of the republic.

Read the complete essay here.

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'The Remembered and the Forgotten'

Sunalini Kumar writes —

A man remembers his past so he may have a future. Nations offer men their pasts, so they can bring their children up in a better time. Yet it is nations that take these pasts away too, and not simply through the bullet fired by the enemy. The woman who knows the bel flower and the toddy sap, and the way they look at different times of the day, she is remembering the placement of the clouds in the sky for her next planting. The goddess in her field — the one with the plum mouth and blazing eyes — comes from the time of the meteors. Does the woman stack the sky, the flower, the goddess and the nation in the same time-box in her mind? Or does she store them all separately, pulling each one out one by one?

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Even when not through the scar tissue of a bullet injury to your remembering brain, the nation takes your memory away in other ways. It makes your memories irrelevant, your stories ridiculous. It says the sky and sea are not yours to know, the soil is not yours to till, and the goddess is a fiction only illiterates recite. In place it yokes your past to other gods, gods you can never know as well as the sons of the soil, with their books and their armies. And with this half-remembering brain, you struggle because you must have a past and you must have a future, and all too often, because you must be useful to your country.

Read the complete essay, with art by Sarnath Banerjee, here.

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To read all 14 columns featured in our 'India and the Indian' series, click here.

— Featured image via Reuters

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