10) The Idea of India Itself
Admittedly, a lot of this section will be based on a book by Sunil Khilnani of the same name, but as always, this will be laced with my own observations, as well. I’ll stay somewhat brief, as you could probably just read his book if you wanted. (You do.)
Basically, as I stated earlier in the “The Touristy Stuff” section, I started wrestling with this idea in earnest when I noticed that, hey, a lot of these things aren’t really Hindu or India. And certainly a lot of them weren’t necessarily Hindu, but they sure as hell are “Indian.” Notice I didn’t say “were.” The idea of India is primarily a postwar concept (that can be shoehorned anachronistically back in time), and to think of today’s boundaries as being a starting place for conceiving of ancient or even pre-colonial India isn’t fair in the slightest to history, religion, culture, or anything really, except for perhaps longitude and latitude. (But even tectonics inch along, I suppose.)
Many smarter people have written on this, but basically the idea of India as a political entity had not existed until basically 1947 when it became a nation-state. The book argues that even today, they are forging the idea of what it means to be “Indian.” Some try to retrofit all sorts of history into a cohesive narrative so that India was, is and always will be. However, history itself doesn’t fit so neatly into this understanding. There’s always been influence from Europe, Central Asia, East Asia, Africa, the Middle East, as well as from the seas. (Nowadays, from everywhere really.) It’s hard to forge a unified history, especially as the government seems to be pushing and/or acquiescing to Hindu nationalism.
Some use politics as the sole model for the idea of India. Simply the creation of the political entity of India, the success (or lack thereof) of democracy is the key marker of Indian-ness. It’s the we’re-all-in-this togetherness that makes India what it is today. But as stated earlier, many Indians see the election as the beginning and the end of democracy; there’s not the continued political action that you see in today’s US or France or Germany or many other places.
And others use Hindu and Hinduism as the unifying force, which has obvious problems, the least of which is that this view is completely at odds with the previous two (history and politics). In any case, the idea of India is a very new problem borne out of the complexities of a nation-state from a region that traditionally never had a powerful centralized government. So it’s tough to say whether the binding agent is history, modern politics, religion or something else entirely.
In fact, the book argues that it’s been historically easy to conquer “India” because the underlying society never changed much with the vicissitudes of time. It was insulated from a central government. The foreign power came in, social structures never changed, and life carried on as usual. The central government never introduced basic needs, and so they never became dependent on them for collecting taxes or roads or plumbing or waterworks or whatever.
Indeed, one of the most morally trying questions I’ve ever tried to tackle was this question: “Was India better off because of British colonialism?” I once argued this with a Punjabi kid at a bar (the best place to argue) but he was self-proclaimed to be of the highest caste, and he said (and I quote directly) “I don’t wanna talk about it, but I kinda started World War 2,” because he was Aryan. So yeah, that’s how I’ll frame that discussion….
But I look back, and it’s hard to balance “loss of sovereignty and agency” and “introduction of a centralized government.” But the British did basically introduce the concept, even if they did so haphazardly – the government buildings in New Delhi had absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the city, a physical manifestation of the distance between the rulers and ruled. But did the institutions the British introduce accelerate the country to a point that offset any sort of the humiliation of subjugation? Let’s say I would have once firmly answer “no,” but have been swayed ever so slightly. A difficult question indeed. It’s easy to flat out say no; it’s harder to dig deeper.
In the end, with competing views of what it means to be India or Indian, I think in the most idealistic way, it must be to embrace the project in which modern India is on (and yes, it’s a project to persist with a 70-year-old democracy born from nothing with 800 million voters). There’s a vast range of ethnicities and languages and cultures and foods, and so individually there is no “India.” Individually there is Dravidian, Hindustani and Sino-Tibetan; Tamils, Bengals and Punjabs; dosas, biryanis and pulaos. Only collectively is there “India.” It must be that all of India comes together and loves one anoth…well a man can dream anyways, can’t he?
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And that’s a perfect place to leave off – a question. I’m guessing for most first time visitors, you leave India with more questions than answers. And it makes sense. There’s a subcontinent of six countries (or is it three? seven?) and thousands of years of history. You couldn’t possibly begin to understand the entire United States in but 10 days, never mind just New England. So maybe you come in with a few preconceptions or a few things you want to see answered. But with a bombardment of the new and intriguing, as has been true since “outsiders” first crossed south from the Himalayas, India leaves you pining for more.
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