Shashi Tharoor on Indian Nationalism

Shashi Tharoor, currently the UN Under secretary General for communications & Public information and India’s Nominee for the post of UN secretary General has given a excellent analysis about Indian Nationalism in his writings. But a lecture he had given on 12th November 2005 at St Stephen’s college, Delhi during its 125th Anniversary celebrations brings out the Unity in diversity of India in all its rich colour.

For you see, as Stephanians instinctively understand, we are all minorities in India. A typical Indian stepping off the train, let us say a Hindi-speaking Hindu male from Uttar Pradesh, may cherish the illusion he represents the majority community, an expression much favored by the less industrious of our journalists. But he does not. As a Hindu, sure enough, he belongs to the faith adhered to by 82% of the population. But a majority of the country does not speak Hindi. A majority does not hail from Uttar Pradesh, though you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise when you go there. And, if he were visiting, say, my home state of Kerala, he would be surprised to realize a majority there is not even male. Worse, this archetypal Hindu male has only to mingle with the polyglot, multi coloured crowds — I am not referring to the colours of their clothes but to the colours of their skins — thronging any of India’s major railway stations to realize how much of a minority he really is. Even his Hinduism is no guarantee of his majorityhood, because his caste automatically puts him in a minority. If he is a Brahmin, 90% of his fellow Indians are not. If he is a Yadav, or another “backward class”, 85% of his fellow Indians are not. And so on.

Or take language. The constitution of India recognizes 18 today. But, in fact there are 35 Indian languages spoken by more that one million people each. And these are languages, with their own scripts, grammatical structures, and cultural assumptions, not just dialects. And as I mentioned, if you count dialects you get to 22 thousand.

Now each of the native speakers of these languages is in a linguistic minority, because no language enjoys true majority status in India. Thanks in part to the popularity of Bollywood cinema, Hindi is understood, though not very well spoken, pretty much across the country. But, it is in no sense the language of the majority, because its gender rules, grammatical conventions and even its script are unfamiliar to most Indians in the South or in the North East.

Or take ethnicity. Ethnicity further complicates the notion of a majority community. Most of the time, as we all know, an Indian’s name immediately reveals where he is from or what her mother tongue is. When we introduce ourselves, we are advertising our origins. Despite some intermarriages at the elite levels in our cities, Indians are still largely endogamous, and a Bengali is easily distinguished from a Punjabi. Now the difference this reflects is often more apparent than the elements of commonality. A Karnataka Brahmin shares his Hindu faith with a Bihari Kurmi, but they share little identity with each other in respect of their dress, customs, appearance, taste, language or even, these days, their political objectives. Now at the same time, a Tamil Hindu would feel he has much more in common with a Tamil Christian or a Tamil Muslim than with, say, a Haryanvi Jat than with whom he formally shares the Hindu religion.

Now, why do I harp on these differences? Not to stress division, but only to make the point that Indian nationalism is a rare animal indeed. Seeing so many distinguished scholars here reminds me of a story of two professors of law, probably at the Law Faculty of this university, arguing about a problem. One professor says “you know how we can solve this? We can do this and this and this and we can solve it.” And the other professor says “yes, yes, yes, that will work in practice — but will it work in theory?”

And you know this is precisely the issue of Indian nationalism. It has worked very well in practice, but it doesn’t work too well in theory. It is not based on any of the classical political science theories of nationalism that apply elsewhere, for example to the nation-states of Europe. It is not based on language, for the reasons I have already given you. It is not based on geography, for the natural geography of the subcontinent (framed by the mountains and the seas) was hacked in the partition of 1947. It is not based on ethnicity, because we all accommodate a variety of racial types, and ethnically some Indians have more in common with foreigners than with other Indians (Punjabis and Bengalis, for example, have more in common ethnically with Pakistanis and Bangladeshis respectively, than with Poonawallahs or Bangaloreans). And it is not based on religion, because we are home to every faith known to mankind, with the possible exception of Shintoism. Hinduism, which is after all a faith with no national organization — no established church or ecclesiastical hierarchy, no Hindu Pope — exemplifies as much our diversity as it does our common cultural heritage.

So what does that leave us with? It leaves us with the rather Stephanian notion of Indian nationalism as the nationalism of an idea — the idea of what one might call an ever-ever land. Emerging from an ancient civilization, united by a shared history and sustained by a pluralistic diversity. In our democracy, this land imposes no narrow conformities on its citizens. The whole point of Indian pluralism is you can be many things and one thing. You can be a good Muslim, a good Keralite and a good Indian all at once — and a good Stephanian too, while you are about it. It is the opposite of what Freudians call >the narcissism of minor differences.’ For example, in Yugoslavia, we saw during the horrendous civil war there, people with so much in common — in fact all descended from the same Slavic tribes that populated the Balkans during the 7th and 8th centuries — often bearing the same surnames and similar appearance, harping on the minor differences between them in order to justify their hatred and killing of each other. So, while in Yugoslavia we had this narcissism of minor differences, in India we celebrate the commonality of major differences. To stand Michael Ignatieff’s phrase on its head, we are a land of belonging rather than of blood.

So the idea of India, as Tagore and more recently Amartya Sen have insisted, is of one land embracing many. It is the idea that a nation may endure differences of caste, creed, colour, conviction, culture, cuisine, costume and custom, and still rally around a consensus. And that consensus is really around the simple idea that in a democracy you don’t really need to agree — except on the ground rules of how you will disagree.

The reason why India has survived all the stresses and strains that have beset it for 58 years — and that led so many journalists and political scientists of the west in the 1950’s to predict the imminent disintegration of the country — the reason why it didn’t happen, the reason why we survived, is because India maintained a consensus on how to manage without consensus
On the political culture of the country

Throughout the decades after independence, the political culture of the country has always reflected the so called secular assumptions and attitudes. Though partition had occurred, though what was left was a country which was 82% Hindu, 3 of India’s President’s have been Muslims. So were innumerable governors, cabinet ministers, chief ministers, ambassadors, generals, supreme court justices and chief justices. In fact it is interesting that during the war with Pakistan the Indian airforce in the northern sector was commanded by a Muslim [Air Marshal Lateef], the army commander was a Parsi [General Manekshaw], the general commanding the forces that marched into Bangladesh was a Sikh [General Aurora], and the general who was helicoptered in to Dhaka to negotiate the terms of surrender was a Jewish [Major-General Jacob]. That is India. That is the Indian pluralism that makes sense to Stephanians. And the irony of all this is that India’s secular coexistence was made possible paradoxically because the overwhelming majority of Indians are Hindus.

On the so called Hindu fundamentalism

It is odd to hear people speak of Hindu fundamentalism, because in my view, Hinduism is a religion without fundamentals. We have no organized church, there is no pope, no compulsory beliefs or rites of worship. Even the name “Hindu” suggests something more and something less than a set of theological beliefs. Because in many languages, in French and Persian today, the name for Indian is Hindu. It simply means the people beyond the river Sindhu. And the word Hindu did not exist in any of the Indian languages until its use by foreigners gave Indians a term for self-definition. So “Hindu” is merely a name others applied for the indigenous religious practices of India. But none of these practices is obligatory for a Hindu. We have no compulsory dogmas. In our faith we are free from the dogmas of holy writ. Hinduism is a faith that has refused to be shackled by the limitations of any single holy book — that has so many holy books, and so many ways of reaching out to the divine. And as a Hindu I belong to one of the very few religions that does not claim to be the only true religion. I find it immensely congenial to face my fellow beings of other faiths without being burdened by the conviction I am embarked on the only true path they have somehow missed.

Hinduism asserts all ways of worship are equally valid. And Hindus readily venerate the saints of other faiths. Hinduism is a civilization, not a dogma. There is no such thing as a Hindu heresy.

On Votebank Politics

It is our post-independence politics of deprivation that has eroded the culture’s confidence. Hindu chauvinism has emerged from the competition for resources in a contentious democracy. Politicians all over India are trying to mobilize voters by appealing to narrow identities. By seeking votes on the basis of caste, region, religion, they have urged voters to define themselves on these lines. And as this has happened it has become more important for some to assert their identities as a Brahmin, as a Bodo, as a Yadav rather than as an Indian.

India as a thali

I have come to Delhi from a country which calls itself a melting pot. I like to tell Americans >If you are a melting pot, to me India is a thali.” It’s a selection of sumptuous dishes in different bowls. Each bowl tastes different. It does not necessarily mix with the next bowl. But, they all belong on the same steel plate, and they combine on your palate to make the meal a satisfying repast.


Filed under India, India and the World, International Politics

3 responses to “Shashi Tharoor on Indian Nationalism

  1. He is a great example of Indian nationalism. So many years away from the country and he still maintains an Indian passport!

  2. Venkata Rebbapragada

    Dear Sirs,

    Great article.We India are united by Geographical advantage or isolation.Ocean three sides & largest mountains in the world on the North..
    Poverty,Ignorance,prejudicies towards our own kith & kin are our foundations.Castes, religion, regiolism are our walls.We are (Un) comfortably living in the castle we built it over centuries.Like in every huge household there are friendships ,love,hatred,abuse etc.We have all of them.
    Like every where in the world we have 90% politicians ,90% religious leaders who spoil the name of remaining 10% decent people.
    Solutions to our complex problems is simple people like Gandhi & Nehru not the complex personalities like Indira Gandhi & Advani.

  3. Arun Kumar

    And to think that Tharoor is rumoured to be the next UN Chief!! Or, may be, it does make sense.

    I was looking for a piece to use for a discussion on the mainstream, upper caste, upper class, Hindu-male-universal Indian Nationalism. How lucky I was!

    It amazes me out of my wits that how brazenly and for how long one can continue to be oblivious of the historically and culturally and routinely marginalized. India marches ahead with its thali-democracy, of course, with all the dishes in different bowls creating a highly pallatable wholesome meal. I recall a prof of mine telling us in a seminar how diversity can mean tolerating each other’s non-sense….This is before cultural relativism became available to me.

    On a baser note, ‘the college accross the road’ lives up to it reputation!

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