India and the Indian: How a country treats its own is the nationalism to be proud of, writes Omair Ahmad

This essay is part of Firstpost’s ‘India and the Indian’ series, which examines the renewed idea of nationalism in vogue today, and what it means.

Read more from this series.


A DECADE AGO, I was sent to interview Jaswant Singh (then in the Opposition) for a series my magazine was doing, themed on ‘returning home’. Singh made an off-the-cuff remark that went something like, “Whenever we were to go to Delhi, my mother would ask if we had our sword by our side.” I cannot remember his exact phrasing, although it must be in the notes that I took, but it stayed with me. My editor did not think much of it, and it never made it into the final copy. I could not explain clearly why it seemed to matter so much.

There is another story — a family story — that may reveal why I was so attuned to what Singh said. 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.

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”.

Maybe the reason that Singh’s remark struck me so strongly was because of this. 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.

 India and the Indian: How a country treats its own is the nationalism to be proud of, writes Omair Ahmad

Illustration © Satwick Gade for Firstpost

It was not always like this. While studying poets in medieval and modern India I was struck by how many were from small towns. This is embedded in names they took, whether Wali Dakkani, Josh Malihabadi, or Firaq Gorakhpuri. Firaq, or Raghupati Sahay, is of particular interest to me because he is from my father’s hometown – Gorakhpur. This is also the town where Premchand was teaching at a school before he quit his job after Gandhi’s great speech there in 1921.

I was fascinated that my hometown would have such a thriving literary scene, one connected to many large cities across the country. It was not there when I did my college degree, or when I taught at a school there. This does not mean that people do not appreciate poetry or art. A few years ago I attended a mushaira there with people from as far away as Punjab, Mumbai, even Nepal, and the crowd was in the hundreds, most of them standing. It started late at night, and when I left at nearly dawn, the audience was still largely in place. But the infrastructure or support to build a community of literature does not really exist.

Asking friends who are historians, I discovered that the Mughal Empire had a system called madad-e-maaz, or ‘help for the people’. This was a way for the central government to extend financial help, often in terms of grants of land, to artists, saints, or other cultural figures. This way the cities on the fringes of empire received support for high culture, and the empire received a certain social cachet from being associated with such people.

I doubt that this was specific to the Mughals alone. Kautilya’s Arthashastra, written more than a millennia and a half before the advent of the Mughals, devotes considerable space to the cultivation of talent and good relations on the borders. And while the Arthashastra itself may have been lost for centuries before its rediscovery, the ideas are likely to have endured.

Today though, that sensibility has disappeared. If we offer scholarships (which would be today’s equivalent of a madad-e-maaz) this is generally for people from small cities to move to big ones. Instead of strengthening and sustaining cultural creativity in the geographies where they develop, they are imported into the centre, starving the rest. And it is these people that then represent us to the world.

But every now and then you will pick up the paper to read of how some athlete, some artist, some musician, who showcased our talent to the world, has slipped into obscurity in their own home town, which did not have the support structure to make use of that talent and nurture others. What kind of nationalism is this, that we feed off of our own, and discard them, that we create islands of power and privilege in a sea of destitution? And ever so often, at a discussion or a conference where we show ourselves to the world, I recall Singh’s words, and keep in mind that the nationalism to be proud of is of how India treats its own internally, more than how it confronts the world externally.

Omair Ahmad is a political analyst, journalist and managing editor (South Asia) — He tweets @OmairTAhmad

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Updated Date: Jun 28, 2019 09:34:32 IST