I met Bapu, the original idea architect of India, to discuss the current state of our nation.
Looking forlorn and a little lost, he was seated underneath a jamun tree wrapped in his trademark loincloth and a handwoven shawl. His walking staff was placed right alongside. I opened our interaction by asking him:
Vikas: Bapu,your thought process had such a big influence on the way India has evolved as a nation. Can you start by giving us some insight into what your idea for India was?
Bapu (in a voice which was more a whisper than a response): Every nation state, within the territory it holds, has to have a sense of national identity.This identity is forged from how you perceive yourself as also what your guiding values are. As I studied the landscape of nationalistic thought in Europe, I realized, firstly, that it was not a very old concept (naturally as nation states themselves were just over 200 years old) and secondly that European states were small and homogeneous.
To bind them in one identity be it of religion, ethnicity or culture was easy. Thus once you had identified a unifying trait of the population, it was no brainer to hold that as a common ground for forging a consensual view.Thus French language and culture was the national identity of France and so on.
He paused to instruct a co-worker in the right way of milking a goat and I used the opportunity to state the obvious.
Vikas: India is a unique land. It is a diverse mix of religions, languages, cultures ,ethnicities. So how do you forge a common narrative for everyone when there is no core convergence?
Bapu Smiled: It is simple. You do not. There is something called a notion of civic nationalism. It is based on the idea that citizens of a country want to stay together out of choice and not from any underlying commonalty. It is a concept which Ernest Renan is his 1882 lecture “What is a nation” defined as having a daily referendum or exercising a daily choice, of staying together. When you provide a heterogeneous population with equality, liberty, tolerance and individual freedom they will want to stay together and be together.Thus “unity in diversity” was our idea of core nationalism for a newly independent India. Everyone from Tagore to Nehru, Ambedkar to Azad agreed that it was the best glue we could bind our nation with.
Vikas: Since majority of Indian population was hindu and we had a partition based on religion, did you not consider giving India a religious nationalism?
Bapu (smiling sardonically while adjusting his round glasses): We had a neighbor who had done just that inspite of my advice to Jinnah against it. I knew that religion based national identity soon degenerates into totalitarianism at best or fascism at worst. So that thought repulsed me to my core. Look around yourself and see that all the countries which are based either on ethnic nationalities or religious nationalism would be some of the most corrupt, backward and violent states. By mob tyranny, they will suppress rights of minorities, women and other vulnerable sections. In contrast, I wanted India to be an open, secular, democratic, republic and I ended up paying with my life for that belief.
Vikas: We acknowledge that you beliefs have crafted a unique nation which has no parallel in history of the world. Wholly comprising of indigenous people (not migrants) it is the largest democracy that the world has ever seen and which works. It is also a social experiment which has never ever been conducted in history on this large a scale, where all kinds of people have freedom to practice their crafts, speech and faith. We owe it all to your foresight and wisdom. With that said though what is your view on current developments in our nationalistic thought.
Bapu (tensing up): Are you teasing me? You obviously know my views on it. However let me warn you that, any nationalism which is based on pride in military strength, creation of internal or external enemies, tokenisms of national symbols, cultural or religious hegemony is very harmful to the idea that is India. If a nation as complex as India has to survive as one, it must forever be vigilant against forces which are out to impose their narrow views on it.
Remember nations survive on Institutions and any ideology which builds institutions up is nationalistic and that which degrades the democratic institutions of judiciary, legislature, media and academia is anti-national. Also any force which suppresses freedom of expression or “bars the ongoing daily referendum“ is a sinister thought and should be zealously guarded against.
He was visibly sad and almost in tears while saying this. The love for his motherland was in the tone of his voice as well as in his entire frail frame, which was now almost shaking.
Vikas( Assuringly): Bapu, do not worry. We are the right generation to uphold and cherish the independence and the identity, that you forged for us. Despite the challenges, we are mindful of our ideological heritage. We will pass our nation to the next generation, enriched and stronger; and that let me tell you, is a promise.