India and the Indian: Western theories of nationhood don't capture country's complex realities, writes Samrat

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.


MOST INDIANS, it is safe to assume, are not aware of the difference between the nation and the state, or even that the two differ. The words are used interchangeably; the general impression put about is that the nation is the state. This is, of course, at variance with definitions of both. It is also at odds with the reality of India, which is a multinational state.

A very basic definition of the nation, from the Oxford English Dictionary, is “A large body of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular state or territory”. Indians across the length and breadth of the land however do not share common descent, history, culture or language, even if they do inhabit an incredibly diverse territory that stretches from the cold deserts of Ladakh to the forests of Northeast India and the tropical islands in the Andaman Sea.

People have come to India from various places over the centuries. So, for instance, in Assam in the Northeast, the Ahoms, who are now mostly Hindu Indians and “pure Assamese” were originally Shans who came from the area around Myanmar’s current border with China in the 13th Century. The Mughal governor of Bengal who successfully invaded the Ahom kingdom and sacked its capital Garhgaon in 1662, Mir Jumla, was a Persian from Isfahan, not a Bengali. Nor were many of the officers in his navy. The flotilla of boats that sailed up the Brahmaputra accompanying his expedition included a large number of Portuguese officers who were employed by the Mughals.

 India and the Indian: Western theories of nationhood dont capture countrys complex realities, writes Samrat

Illustration © Satwick Gade for Firstpost

These and other Portuguese probably had more interactions with the Indian “mainland” in centuries gone by, in places as far apart as Assam and Goa, than several communities that are now Indian. Many Arunachali tribes, for instance, remained out of contact with the mainstream cultures of what are now India, China and Myanmar until the early 1900s. The Adi community from Yinkiong in the upper reaches of the Siang valley would have had absolutely nothing to do with, say, the Lingayats in Karnataka or the Patels in Gujarat until after the advent of British colonial rule in Arunachal Pradesh in the 1900s. Today, however, both are equally Indian, though they do not share common descent, history, culture or language. This is because they share the same country whose borders came into existence through British colonisation and conquest; that is about all they have in common.

The creation of nations as a recent Western phenomenon seems to escape all nativist nationalists around the world.

The word nationalism cannot be found until less than 250 years ago. According to Robert Gildea in Barricades and Borders, a history of Europe from 1800-1914, the term “nationalism” first appeared in the writings of the Jesuit Abbe Barruel in 1798, to describe hatred of the foreigner — what is now called xenophobia.

The map of the world then was one with kingdoms and occasionally, multinational empires, that constituted state cores, but there remained vast non-state spaces. Travelling on land meant going on foot, bullock cart, or horseback. The effective distance that a state core could effectively administer on a day-to-day basis with those means of communication was severely limited, a point elaborated upon in James Scott’s fine book, The Art of Not Being Governed. For most people on the planet, on most days of their lives, there was no such thing as a “government”. There was certainly no such thing as nation; the current global system of the world being divided into nation-states only began to happen in earnest in the early 1800s in Europe, a process aided by advances in communications technologies.

The idea that common descent, history, culture or language were required to live under a single administration was absurd in every sizable empire throughout history. Indeed, even the kings, queens and emperors who ruled over vast domains often did not speak the language of the masses or share common descent with them. So, for instance, Queen Victoria, the British empress, was of German origin. The language of the Russian court in the early 1800s was French, which was odd because several tsars and tsarinas had a lot of not Russian, but Danish and German ancestry.

For Asia and Africa, the birth of nation-states had to await the demise of old and aspiring colonial empires that clashed murderously in the First and Second World Wars. The Indian and Pakistani nation-states were new inventions that emerged in our part of the world only through the bloody birth-pangs of Partition in 1947.

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.

The idea of the Indian includes a whole vast and diverse range of people, of various descents, histories, cultures and language groups. What is a dialect and what is a language can be a matter of debate and interpretation, but all estimates put the number of languages in India at over 100 at the very least; on the higher side, the estimates run to over 750. The number of dialects runs into thousands. Each group has its own history and its own culture. The local food culture of caste Hindus in Bengal, for instance, includes eating fish and meat. The local food culture of Hindus in Gujarat of the corresponding castes is strongly vegetarian. The language of the Gujarati and the Bengali comes from shared origins. Traced further back, Persian and the European languages also share origins with these languages. If shared origin is the moot point, then to what point in history do we trace these shared origins?


Representational image. REUTERS

The histories of Gujarat and Assam have much in common since the later days of British rule but not a whole lot for thousands of years before that, although there are mythical connections dating back to the Mahabharata. However, there were Hindu kingdoms stretching from Afghanistan to Vietnam at certain points in history. If a Hindu past is sufficient to warrant inclusion in the Hindu Indian Rashtra, Afghanistan, Thailand and Cambodia cannot be left out, and it would be a pity to exclude Bali.

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.

The West is only now trying to embrace multiculturalism, having forgotten about the existence of its own multicultural past from Roman times — when it also had Syrian and African emperors — down to the early 1800s. India did not kill the pagan gods like ancient Rome did. Nor, despite the horrors of casteism, did it lose the complex weave of its living multiculturalism until the rigidities of print-capitalism fixed identities with censuses and borders through maps, thus giving rise to all the little and big nationalisms that have divided the land and people ever since. What is happening now, with Hindutva’s version of Indian nationalism, is that several little nationalisms are being subsumed under the bigger nationalism, and India is being transformed from a melange of cultures and societies to a unitary nation whose ideal is “Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan”. This is exactly the sort of cultural erasure that Christianity and Islam performed around the world in past centuries through conversion.

Over a hundred years ago, a brilliant Indian, Rabindranath Tagore, author of what became India’s national anthem, had spoken against the dangers of nationalism — at a time when Indian nationalism meant fighting for independence from the British. He had also warned against what he called the “colourless vagueness of cosmopolitanism” and the “fierce self-idolatry of nation worship”. Today, a century on, we have forgotten that India had found ways of living beyond the fruitless binary of those two alternatives. The fierce self-idolatry of nation-worship is now all-consuming, and it risks killing the very thing it claims to protect — the soul of Hindu dharma and culture.

The writer is an author, journalist and former newspaper editor. He tweets as @mrsamratx

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Updated Date: Jun 19, 2019 09:19:46 IST