Just A Legal Indian

It is today politically fashionable to speak of a certain community and its culture as truly Indian, but the fact is that there are no pure native Indians, or any pure native Indian culture


Pro patria mori! Die for your fatherland! This ancient Roman exhortation can still be heard around the world, bellowed in many different tongues.

Nationalism, though it is a relatively modern phenomenon as a people's movement, has very ancient roots indeed. In fact, its roots go further back than the earliest territorial states, and are embedded in primitive, xenophobic tribal psyche. And these tribal passions in turn are analogous to the practice of animals to mark their territory with their urine and fight off intruders.

Our much-vaunted spirit of nationalism thus turns out to be the atavism of an animal instinct. "Nationalism," wrote Einstein, "is an infantile disease...the measles of mankind." Tagore damned it as a geographical demon, under whose influence "the whole people can carry out its systematic programme of the most virulent self-seeking without being in the least aware of its moral perversion". In India, this virulence is further exacerbated by the fact that we are possessed by not just one demon of nationalism, but by many demons, at least one in each of our states.

The Republic of India is (hopefully) a nation-state in the making, but it is today only a union of nations, not a nation-state. Nor has India ever been a nation-state in its long history, because we have never had the basic elements common history, religion, language, culture and ethnicity essential to forge national unity. In fact, India has no stronger basis for national unity than Europe has it has less basis, really, because of its greater diversity. This is the core problem that vitiates politics in the northeast, and in Kashmir.

It is today politically fashionable to speak of a certain community and its culture as truly Indian, but the fact is that there are no pure native Indians, or any pure native Indian culture. After all, man did not evolve in India. All Indians today are descendants of migrants or invaders. The earliest to enter the subcontinent were probably Negritos and proto-Australoids; then came Dravidians, Aryans and a host of others, creating our present racial and cultural melange.

So what defines an Indian today? Certainly not any ethnic, linguistic, cultural or historical distinctiveness. We are Indians because we are citizens of the Republic of India. The only valid definition of the Indian is the legal definition.

There has been since ancient times some awareness of India as a distinct geographical unit, found in such expressions as Himachala setu paryantam, but this was only a geographical description, not an expression of nationhood. People living in different parts of India hardly knew each other, and had little in common with each other. As for the term Bharat, it is derived from the name of a transiently dominant Aryan tribe that lived along the upper reaches of the Saraswati in Vedic times. It is absurd to speak of India as a land of the Bharatas.

Later there came into existence, for short periods, a couple of pan-Indian empires, like those of the Mauryas and the Mughals, but these were established by conquest, and not by any national integrative process.

Even the political unity that India enjoys today is the result of conquest, the British one. And whatever national spirit exists today in India arose out of our opposition to that conquest. If the British had not brought the subcontinent under one government, India probably would have been a congerie of independent states today. And even these Balkanised states would not have had any nationalist cohesion, for hardly any of the states that existed in India at the time of the British conquest were nation-states, but merely the realms of kings and warlords.

A peculiar aspect of Indian history is that not only was there no pan-Indian nationalist sentiment, but even the linguistically- and culturally-cohesive communities in India the Tamils, for instance did not consider themselves as one people. What prevented this was our caste system our loyalty was to our caste, not to the larger society, certainly not to the state. The state was transient; the caste permanent. It was only after independence and the introduction of democracy that regional and linguistic nationalism came to the fore, as a means of sharing the power pie. Sub-nationalism is a byproduct of democracy.

The point of all this is not to negate the value of our nationhood, but to acknowledge its fragility. Our national unity cannot be taken for granted. Nor can it be protected through chest-thumping sloganeering. What it requires is wise and tender nurturing.

("In the beginning there was no India," is how Eraly begins his latest book Gem in the Lotus, Viking.) .

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Referred by:Benjamin P Kaila
Published on:10 Sep, 2001
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