Let’s revisit the ‘Idea of India’

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There were voices contesting this idea. These voices posed the idea of a Hindu nation and the idea of Pakistan in opposition to the consensus idea of India. The Pakistan idea was realized. The idea of a Hindu nation, in spite of occasional support among some sections of people could never seriously mobilise to replace the pluralistic and inclusive idea of India.

On the other hand, some people find that Indian secularism is not secular enough. According to them, the roots of frictions like those revealed in the ‘intolerance’ debate are ultimately traceable to the ‘halfhearted ‘ acceptance of the secular ideal. They would like to see in India a total separation of church and State, as it supposedly exists in modern Western democracies.

However, to have that kind of separation, one suspects that we need that kind of church. Throughout the history of India, there was no institution comparable with the church of medieval Europe. Hinduism does not have a core dogma and a central authority imposing itself on the faithful. Even in the case of Islam — an organised religion based on a well-defined doctrine, it is significant and interesting that no Muslim ruler of India had to seek permission for marriage from an extraterritorial authority, as Henry VIII of England was asked to.

It was consequent upon such frictions that the Anglican Church was established. Incidentally, the monarch in England is described as the ‘Protector’ of this church even today. In US, Presidents take oath of office on the Bible and currency notes carry the legend — ‘In God we trust’.

Indian secularism has evolved in keeping with its own legacy. On one hand, it goes back to Ashoka’s idea and practice of ‘Dhamma’ and Akbar’s ‘Sulah-Kul’ (peace amongst people of all faiths) and on the other goes it beyond the idea of ‘tolerating’ different worldviews. Plurality and diversity in the Indian tradition is not taken as an aberration to be ‘tolerated’ with condensation but treated as a core characteristic of Indian society. It is not merely bani ( speech) and pani ( water) that change every few miles, as a Hindi proverb rightly notes, what is left unstated here, because it so obvious to any culturally rooted Indian is the fact of continuum underlying the diversity and plurality of bani and pani. In this continuum, diversity goes deeper, plurality provides many layers of richness. It is the plurality of epistemological departures and diversity of worldviews and ways of life, which define the cultural reality of India

The idea of India represents the assimilation of this reality into the modern project of nation building, in which along with cultural legacy, the insistence on rational attitude and scientific temper plays a crucial role. The attacks on this idea of India are in fact attacks on the creative evolution of the Indian genius.

It was with consciousness of this fact, that Dr Zakir Husain, the then president of India remarked in 1968 that, ‘the whole world can learn from the nation-building exercise undertaken in India’. One can imagine that at the time the developed world might have dismissed this claim as hubris on part of a newly independent country. But, today, when the mere perception of homogenous ‘national’ communities turning ‘diverse’ due to inevitable historical processes and pressures gives nightmares to the public and public figures in the developed world, perhaps Zakir Husain’s claim needs to be reassessed.