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    From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 9, Issue 45, Dated 10 Nov 2012
    CULTURE & SOCIETY  
    THE SHAPING THOUGHT

    Ask the question that Nehru asked of voters in 1937: Who is an Indian?

    • The Discovery of India •

    By Mani Shankar Aiyar

    Jawaharlal Nehru

    Photo: Getty Images

    IN THE opening bars of the grand symphony that is The Discovery of India, Jawaharlal Nehru begins by describing his experience of the first-ever democratic general elections in 1937. He says that everywhere he went, he was greeted by cries of ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ (Victory to Mother India). And invariably he would ask the rapturous crowds: who is this Mother India whose victory you seek? Is she this mud? Is she these leaves and grass? Is she a Goddess? Is she you, the people of India?

    And, says Nehru, they would invariably look a little bewildered. For although they did not know how to answer his question, within themselves they had little doubt about who Bharat Mata was. It was self-evident, if not quite articulated. And so Jawaharlal embarks on this journey to discover the India whose independence he has so ardently sought. Extraordinary, is it not — and deeply humbling — that with but a few years to go for achieving the liberation of his homeland, one of the foremost stalwarts of the freedom movement should be asking himself: what is this India whose freedom I seek?

    There is much that can be faulted in this labour of love, which took up much of his time in the jail in Ahmednagar Fort where he was lodged from 1942 to 1945: the purple prose; the mixed metaphors; the dodgy historiography, many specifics of which a professional historian could tear to shreds; the excessive reliance on foreign endorsements from Max Mueller to Romain Rolland to HG Wells, betraying his intellectual origins as a Macaulay ki aulad; and the over-quick judgements. I think, for example, that he has got Aurangzeb wrong in portraying him as a 17th century jihadi without reconciling that unidimensional portrait with the complex personality and the complex times through which Aurangzeb reigned.

    But, at the end of the day, none of its literary shortcomings or historical solecisms can dim the discovery of the fundamental truth — that the continuing thread in the evolution of India over five millennia or more is the unity that persists through all the diversity of geography and ethnicity; the drama of repeated military conquest, the frequent loss of political power, the chaos of economic disruption, interspersed with periods of high artistic achievement, literary accomplishment, and enduring philosophical and metaphysical reflection that characterises much of our history, and, above all, the grand saga of the evolution of our composite civilisation through absorption, assimilation and synthesis of everything of value, whether found within ourselves or coming from without.

    ‘An Indian is one who accepts that anyone else who says he is an Indian is, indeed, an Indian’

    Every other major civilisation has been founded on the principle of unity in uniformity; ours alone in “unity in diversity”. For, while many other civilisations — notably those of the Pharaohs, the Sumerians and the Babylonians — are much older than ours, and those like the Greco- Roman and Chinese quite as persistent as ours, no other civilisation has combined antiquity and continuity with heterogeneity as ours has. Thus “unity in diversity” is the essential building block of our nationhood.

    The Discovery of India, which, as Nehru acknowledges in his Preface, owes more to Maulana Azad’s vast learning than anyone else among his companions in Ahmednagar Fort, is thus the discovery of the civilisational foundations on which Jawaharlal proceeded to build the institutions of our contemporary nationhood: democracy, which comes so naturally to the Argumentative Indian even as it eludes almost every other emerging nation; secularism, without which India cannot survive, and, as his grandson, Rajiv Gandhi, once remarked, “perhaps does not deserve to survive”; federalism in thought, letter and deed, without which ethnic identities cannot be brought under the umbrella of an overarching national identity; and cultural inclusiveness that arises out of not merely the tolerance of diversity but the celebration of diversity.

    Ask yourselves the question that Nehru asked of his voters in 1937: what is an Indian? My provisional answer is that an Indian is one who, when he speaks, is not understood by most other Indians. An Indian is one who does not understand when most other Indians speak. An Indian is one whose race is not the same as other Indians, whose colour is not the same as other Indians. An Indian is one who cannot swallow the food that other Indians eat every day, nor be seen dead in the clothes that other Indians wear every day. An Indian is one whose music and songs are not those of other Indians, whose dances and arts are not those of other Indians. And an Indian is one whose faith and beliefs are not those of many other Indians. Then, what is an Indian? Well, an Indian is one who accepts that anyone else who says he is an Indian is, indeed, an Indian! Elsewhere, ethnicity masquerades as nationality; there are, for instance, about 40 “nation-states” in Europe within the same geographical area as is occupied by one Mother India. In India, national identity is a composite identity, not an ethnic identity.

    If India has survived and flourished since Independence as a secular democracy, it is because ours is just about the only one of around 150 countries that have been liberated since 1947 to have translated independence for the nation into freedom for our people. The Chinese, true to their Confucian heritage, have become a disciplined, efficient and prosperous hierarchical dictatorship. Whatever the many and deplorable departures from our ideal, we have maintained the continuity of the institutions of our nationhood because these institutions have been true to the genius of our civilisation. And the quintessence of that genius is to be found in the passionate pages of The Discovery of India.

    Mani Shankar

    A member of the Indian National Congress, Mani Shankar Aiyar is a former Union minister and currently a nominated Member of Parliament from the Rajya Sabha

    Photo: Shailendra Pandey

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    From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 9, Issue 45, Dated 10 Nov 2012
 
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