The Idea of India – Sunil Khilnani

Khilnani-SunilToday’s newspaper had this shocking news of a disabled man being abused (verbally with snide remarks this time, but news of physical abuses has surfaced before) for not standing up during national anthem. Yeah, our Supreme Court has this weird obsession towards assertion of patriotism in inappropriate places. Like Amartya Sen rightly expressed: “Indian identity is a combination of internal pluralism and external receptivity”, and efforts to homogenize by coercion leads to perversions like this. The idea of India has been contested and validated over time, and now, we are more interested and invested in who we want to be in this world than who we are. Still even after 20 years of its publication, Khilnani’s trenchant analysis on this open, often revised idea of India is germane to our society in many ways.

Sunil Khilnani is an erudite scholar, and it is often reflected in his writing. On levels that it poses strict competition to Veronica Roth in finding jargons for naming factions in Divergent trilogy.  And language in this book is a bit baroque, if I may use words of his lexicon. I found many things rhetoric and repetitive in that narrative, well, they were hidden so well in his elegant prose that they rarely came up as irritants. He, in this book, tries to express Indian identity through conflicting ideologies of democracy, concepts of Economic progress and Social order. Though written during the time of disillusionment following Nehruvian socialism and emergence of Third Front in politics, it would be wrong to consider this book as a piece of rapporteur of things that has happened till then or as an irrelevant journal in light of events happened thereafter. For the arguments in this book are coherently articulated along the long history of India as a civilization than a nation state.


The frustrating thing about India” according to Cambridge economist Joan Robinson is that “whatever you can rightly say about India, the opposite is also true”. With constitutionally guarded universal adult suffrage, the principle of one man one vote was recognized politically, but socio economic structure continued to deny individual and collective values, in this land of contradictions.

04.jpgThis book has aged quite well and a hermeneutic reading is required to appreciate the nuances. It was published during 1996, time of hung parliament and coalition politics. United Front formed cabinet under HD Deva Gowda, the first India president to speak neither Hindi nor English, the two languages that are considered official among the list of 22 national languages. In Khilnani’s words, it was a ‘talismanic moment’ in India’s public life as it marked strong federal departure(gap between two political terms) from majority of two parties that represented conflicting schools of Indian identities- socialist Nehruvian legacy under Congress and resurgent Hindu nationalism represented by BJP. He then examines the prospective reason for sustenance of democracy in India’s huge impoverished crowd against its hierarchical social order, with respect to subcontinent’s history as a civilization. According to the author, pre-colonial history represents a perpetual instability of political rule, with constant rise and fall of dynasties and empires, where political authority was more a matter of paramountcy than sovereignty. Crown rule or its clone rule by British Raj considered India as their expatriate state in an exotic location, with a language of administration that required its own vernacular vocabulary like Hobson-Jobson. Macauly’s 1835 Education minute imposing English language was intended on dividing British rulers from their Indian subjects and also Indians from other Indians. “Indians who knew their Dicey from their Dickens, and those who did not”, Khilnani puts. Government of India Act of 1935 bought more Indians into administrative representation, but less than one third had the power to vote. Even Congress, “a protean party with an exceptional capacity to constantly reinvent itself” considered individuality as a social being precarious, until Gandhi turned it into a mass movement with culture of dialogue. The secular fabric was further challenged during the event of Partition, an event no one really wanted, but everyone conspired for. Khilnani argues that constitutional democracy was wrested to the people as the political choice of elite, by a remarkably unrepresentative body. I found author’s neglect to the century old tradition of dialogue in subcontinent, and representative politics of very first government in cabinet and drafting committee a bit difficult to digest at this point. The unique federal structure of India left the matters of socio economic reform to states, while retaining military and fiscal powers at center. Further, the federal identities got strengthened after Mandal Commmission with various caste communities competing among themselves for the benefits of affirmative actions for being ‘backward’.

Author argues that the historic success of Nehru’s rule was in establishment of the idea of state in Indian society and establishing its sovereignty in international arena. He briefly goes through the political history and separatists movements which over time got more and more consolidated into community representation in myopic focus on elections. Regardless these seemingly conflicting tussles between regional and central nationalism, the prospectus of affairs being under the democratic control of a collective of equal individuals, as an idea, has entered Indian imagination with permanence.

Temples of the Future

Bhakra Nangal dam inauguration where Nehru described Dams as ‘Temples of Modern India’

In India good reforms are considered bad politics. Though political freedom was attained from British Raj by 1947, it took almost half a century for India to be economically free, of the ‘License Raj’. The liberalization of market economy by 1991 was mostly a consequence of self-created fiscal crisis than reform for the future, and government sanctioned them half-heartedly and apologetically, with reiterations to socialist legacy. And modern polarized views are eager to point the finger than understand the wisdom of forefathers based on then world order. Khilnani traces the evolution of economic policies of India from colonial times and paternal role of state in it, from Dadabai Naoroji’s ‘Drain Theory’ to Bombay Plan to Karachi Resolution to National Planning Committee, and the ideological rifts between Industrialists and Gandhians. Historical reading, alongside global economy, is actually a perspective often ignored, a timeline of ground works that now enables the country to stand on its own, and evolution of economic and political stability through fiscal management. Khilnani’s treatment is highly comprehensive and might feel exhaustive without a prior introduction to Indian economy and politics.



Unlike principally universal European societies that are accessible to all individuals with common interest, modern Indian cities were designed and operated under strict criteria of exclusion. In this brilliant, the only portion of the book I genuinely enjoyed, Khilnani takes readers through the architectural history of New Delhi. It reminded me of Naipaul’s take on Indian Identity, which gave his expatriate grandparents a common history in foreign land; while in India, the same Indian identity tend to trace movement of goods and people even in most modern cities, along lines. Desired colonial interest in rational modernity of New Delhi was to let Indians see for the first time the power of Western science, art and civilization. City was designed in hexagonal grids with housing segments distanced from central acropolis in descending gradient of rank. Instead of creating a society of free intermingling individuals, Raj’s policies concreted the contrary tendencies of Indian society. I found this precedence extremely helpful in understanding the Gandhian economy and self-determination in villages in opposition with Ambedkar’s strong distaste for the same. Gandhi countered colonial nationalism that privileged urban educated elites with a say on behalf of whole country, with the idea of village. He decided to renounce colonial idea of city into village cosmology of Ashrams with his sartorial humility as ‘half naked fakir’ against British imperial pomp. He radically redefined public meetings like prayer meetings for nationalist purposes bringing women and lower caste into the spectrum of dialogue, while India’s colonial cities carefully avoided areas for public gathering in their design. To him, simple Indian occupation of departed English designs didn’t represent true freedom, and Gandhi advocated villages as sanctuary for civilizational powers. To Ambedkar, villages were beyond redemption and nothing but a parochial sink of narrow mindedness and communalism.


Nehru on the other hand was more pragmatic in his approach to modernity, where he drew a distinction between inauthentic modernity, represented by colonial city and genuine modernity, that India should be rational not to reject. Khilnani further illustrates this with development of city of Chandigarh, intended to replace Lahore, that was lost in Punjab partition to Pakistan. Chandigarh’s renouncement to both colonial imagery and nationalist monuments, was intended to place India in international appeal. Well, the city never achieved the cosmopolitanism it craved for, and it’s something for us readers to contemplate on. And story of Bombay, the foremost modern city of India, construes a centripetal narrative towards parochialism from its cosmopolitan past. Khilnani has a wonderful take on Shiv Sena’s narrow efforts to annex and distribute the benefits of modernity to one closed community against Bombay’s congestion which make it impossible for rich to flee the poor or any other selectivity to sustain in first place. Bombay might not be as cosmopolitan now as we can observe in Manto’s pre-independence stories, but it still isn’t that communal like author feared it would be 20 years back. What Khlnani calls as Rushdie’s lament for the old nationalist dream of Bombay-”.. what was beautiful in Bombay was that it belonged to nobody and to all”, still holds true despite everything, and that, to this reader, is a silver lining.

Who is an Indian

India has been weakly united as well as weakly divided, and though alien conquest and imperial exploitation promoted self-invention and unity, early nationalist movements asserted an Indianness based on commonality of religion, even with Gandhi. I found it difficult to digest author’s fascination towards Mill’s History of British India as a potential ‘tabula rasa’ for single historical narrative. Mill wrote it without visiting India nor having any knowledge on vernaculars, in his comfort closet in England, with a magisterial reading in mind, that would reassert ‘white man’s burden’ in young colonial administration. Nationalists found themselves in conflict with India’s sheer diversity to write a common history, and often found solace in ethnic nationalism and religious communalism, and rejection of everything West. Tagore on the other hand was against the rising nationalism in West and opened up fallacies in oriental reading of Indian history to public.

“She was like some ancient palimpsest on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed, and, yet, no succeeding layer had completely hidden or erased what had been written previously. All of these had existed in our conscious or subconscious selves, though we may not have been aware of them. And they have gone to build up the complex mysterious personality of India.” Jawaharlal Nehru, Discovery of India

The ideas collective of first NAM- Jawaharlal Nehru, Kwame Nkrumah, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Sukarno and Josip

In Khilnani’s argument, it was Nehru, who produced an unifying narrative of India’s past along logical accommodation and acceptance, against glorified hindu nationalism and hegemonic orientalists (hear, hear). He turned the gandhian language of colonial victimhood, over time and repair, into a language of confidence in world diplomacy. The existence of India as a single political entity in a neighbourhood where democracy makes cameo appearances, is the result of the responsibility enjoyed by common man to choose between its pluralisms.

Active or passive gerrymandering of the boundaries of Individual and collective selves are dealt with stark criticisms now than ever before. People are more content with the sense of India being a land of belonging, they being a part of accommodating ancient civilization than homogenizing modernity of nationalism. Here collective identities are affirmed through democracy in a political field of coalition between multiple ideologies. And unlike the West that had time to come in terms with equality and economics, India embraced democracy before capitalism and economic freedom, in a society based on inequality of caste and religion, and is still battling towards an egalitarian society.

In this extremely difficult job of consolidating an Idea of India, this reader, like author, also finds solace in tourism board poster caption that paraphrase Tagore, “India is a state of mind”.

One way of defining diversity for India, is to say what the Irishman is said to have said about trousers. When asked whether trousers were singular or plural, he said, “Singular at the top and plural at the bottom”.’

Khilnani hyphenates this diversity and federalism argument by A.K. Ramanujan into idea of India’s nationalism, which is plural even at the top, like a ‘dothi’ with endless folds (hear, hear).


Memories of a Father by T V Eachara Varier (Orachante Ormakurippukal)

The very first Habeas Corpus writ filed in India, after Emergency period was, Prof. Eacharavaryar vs Govt of Kerala. Verdict of the suit toppled then State Government, resulted in resignation of CM, and is still the exemplar of Police brutality and Human Rights violation. This book is an autobiographical account by T.V. Echaravaryar (Eswara Warrier) himself, of his relentless and lonely legal struggle for justice and truth behind the unaccounted disappearance of his son P. Rajan in Police custody.

1975 June 25 midnight to 1977 March 21 was one of the darkest period in modern Indian history when democracy was eclipsed by Prime Minister’s authority to rule by decree. Popularly known as Emergency period or just Emergency, this brief cameo of dictatorship was notorious for curbing of civil liberties, police brutality, imprisonment of political opponents and press censorship. Something present generation of mine cannot​ really think of, or have a reference on. Invocation of Emergency was Mrs. Gandhi‘s antibody against then prevailing political and civic unrest; which in turn was the byproduct of increasing government intervention in judiciary and dissolution of State legislatures. A lot of benevolent reasons have been brought up over time to justify the Emergency from 1973 oil crisis to split in Congress to fallacy of Raj Narain case. But every single one of them falls short when weighed against the violation of civil rights by police activism; a gritty dystopian scenario where fundamental rights of citizens were no longer justiciable nor defendable by Supreme Court.

Naxalism was one of the major target for police crackdown during Emergency. Originating from a small village in WB, Naxalbari, after the Communist split of 1967, the radical movement for tribal autonomy(obvious over simplification of the complex reasons here) gained momentum along the scheduled belt through their reactionary ideas and violent methods. Naxalite movement is still a controversial topic in internal geopolitics which puts sympathizers in a moral tug of war. In rural Kerala, the peak of this activism, during Emergency, involved direct attacks on police stations, which in return witnessed violent retaliations and often vengeance under the misnomer of ‘naxalism’. Police by State backing took full advantage of suspension of civil liberties and MISA (infamously expanded as Maintenance of Indira and Sanjay Act) act, a then civic version of current AFSPA, and went around raiding suspects for interrogation. P. Rajan, a student of Regional Engineering College, Calicut (Now known as NIT Calicut) was arrested by Kerala Police in one of those raids, citing alleged Naxal association and was brutally tortured in custody, and was killed. The interrogation happened in Kakkayam camp, under DIG Jayaram Padikkal, and was said to have employed the extreme torture practice of ‘uruttal’ (rolling); Rajan’s body was disposed off and was never recovered, and by the classic book excuse of no body-no conviction, DIG later managed considerable legal escape.

Rajan Memorial : P. Rajan, martyred during Emergency in 1976 March 2

Prof. Warrier was living his retirement in Cochin when Rajan got arrested; he immediately filed petition asking for his son’s whereabouts and objectives behind the arrest. He made enquiries after enquiries to police officers and to authorities, with all references he could garner, for details behind his son’s disappearance. Later, on learning that the arrest was directed by DIG, Crime Branch, he personally met K.Karunakaran, then Home Minister of State and escalated his petitions to Home Secretary, but none of these efforts were acknowledged. It is extremely difficult to read through his words, filled with sorrow, helplessness and uncertainty. Above all there was the ‘naxal’ tag. Authorities were shamelessly condescending towards Prof. Warrier, for his son was branded as a Naxalite, an anti-national of the highest kind. Media during that time, modulated and biased, and a sorry censored excuse for Press, was mostly antagonistic towards his struggle, and it was extremely difficult to gain a mass movement or even exposure for the excesses happening. He continued his indefatigable struggle by raising representations to President of India, Prime Minister and Home Minister of the time and to Members of Parliament, all with no result. He even appealed to general public by distributing pamphlets of his grievance, and Home Ministry retorted with a brand new excuse of  murder accusation for Rajan being detained. Thanks to convoluted coalition politics, C. Achutha Menon’s communist cabinet in Kerala had K. Karunakaran, a staunch Congress leader as Home Minister; during Emergency. Prof. Warrier was a Communist sympathizer and had friendly connections with many ministers on a personal note. They avoided him for information that could easily have been obtained from subordinate officers, and finally deplored him when pleads became unavoidable. And the communist connection was used as another ploy by Police under Karunakaran to assert Rajan’s Naxalite involvement.

Rajan is said to have been a bright student, with active interest in music and drama. During the time of accused Police Station attack, he had an easily verifiable alibi at neighboring Ferok College, where inter collegiate arts fest was going on. Police never cared for any verification, and is said to have arrested him mistaking for another student by the same name. They were more interested in torturing conviction out of the ones they have in custody than capturing the actual suspects. Over the course of events, a lot of contradicting claims have been made by Police, from denying the arrest altogether to accusing Rajan of murder. Anyway accused was never brought in front of Magistrate. Speculated accounts of torture procedure and body disposal are mentioned in the book, it is blood boiling and heart breaking to read even if you don’t consider, about whom and by whom they were written.

Kakkayam Dam, backyard of which hosted the infamous Naxal camp where Rajan was tortured

By the later stages of his struggle, Prof. Warrier had accepted his Son’s death. Till then he had been vigorously searching central jails and police camps and all other sources he could obtain, physically, to see if Rajan had been kept in any of them. He was careful in keeping the truth off his ill wife, feeding her with lies about their son’s disappearance. Over the course of events, she broke down mentally, got hospitalized and eventually died of the pain, expecting Rajan’s return till her last breath. Eswara Warrier was a retired Hindi Professor, and the long search drained him heavily off money and health, but he kept pushing forward, learning the ways of court in his old age. He writes about the secret eleventh hour struggle to file habeas corpus, when news of Democracy restoration reached him, to escape possible political thread pulling. Unchained mass media was eager to carry the details of writ to public and the very first habeas corpus in history of Kerala gained huge crowd during court hearings. Police finally confirmed Rajan’s death in custody, K Karunakaran was forced to resign from the post of CM which he had pledged only two months before and DIG Jayaram Padickal was convicted and arrested. He later managed to overturn the conviction via appeal. Prof. Warrier continued his legal battle to expose the state sponsored atrocities during the Emergency period, and has been a significant figure in human rights till his death.

A striking feature of the book is Prof. Warrier‘s catholicity in reporting incidents of such personal trauma. He writes about it all, and pleads with readers, not to judge the people involved based on his remote experiences, for he has to write the truth. During his fight, he made serious effort to find out Rajan’s sentiment towards Naxal movement. Though he was never involved in, Rajan sympathized with the cause, and Warrier doesn’t hide this fact from readers. It takes real integrity and bravery to look for and admit even the smallest detail that could point towards the alleged accusation he fought so fervently against. He also mentions previous mental incidents his wife had. Though Rajan’s disappearance escalated her condition to death, Warrier doesn’t try to use it to strengthen his narrative. The compensation amount from case was directed to sponsor a critical care ward in Ernakulam General Hospital, in Rajan’s memory. Rest of the money was donated to University as youth festival endowments, to commemorate Rajan’s interest in arts.

Piravi movie poster from Cannes (left) , Rajan file picture (right)

I am reminded of a quote by Nehru here – “democracy and freedom are in grave peril today, and the peril is all the greatest because their so called friends stab them in the back“. And, we ourselves are more invested in the question of identifying the culprits – Indira Gandhi? Supreme Court of world’s largest democracy that conveniently complied for removal of habeas corpus with a majority of 4 against 1? Communal schism and violent naxalites? MISA? Press? Police? State Government? other et cetras? In this heated debate, often disregarded is the answer to an important question that goes unasked- the victims and their struggle. And the unasked question here is, who are and on what basis are they considered expendable in the mega narrative of democracy that we are so proud of.

Rajan case has been the subject of many books and movies (Nation Award winner Piravi by Shaji N Karun for example) and passing references can be found in various popular mediums. This is because of the perseverance of his Father and his infallible belief in judiciary and constitutional methods as a citizen. Majority, if not all, of the excesses happened during National Emergency got drowned into oblivion over time, because of the censorship Press was subjected to. And then general notion was to overlook them as collateral damages. Sadly, this dangerous tendency is visible in modern democracy as well, where public opinion is often reduced into verbal squabbles over leaders and their ideology. Be it Emergency or Tribal evictions or recent Demonetization, general thought is either to gloriously condemn their political enemies or to find every probable reason, even if it defies ones conscience, to stand by their heroes. The expendable people who get disposed under the pretext of ‘for greater good’, like Arundhati Roy puts it, are rarely at the receiving end of our representation or even sympathy. Even when they are, they soon die once another fresh mishap, something our society aren’t short of, takes its place. And further from our safe vantage, we prioritize our sympathy in the ascending order of first world demographics. Where illogical blame games and subsidized morale cloud us from obtaining a sensible solution, this book is a reminder on how south things can go, when democracy and accountability fails. And that nobody is exclusive of it.

 A poster art commemorating P. Rajan from RAGAM 2017. The famous ToI advert during Emergency is featured.

This book might not reach many people, for its written language- Malayalam(an English translation is available now, DRM free I believe), but nevertheless it is a struggle for democracy and fundamental rights against the autocracy and plutocracy it tend to get reduced to. Second part of the book gives details of Habeas Corpus with court case files and result, is a bit difficult to read with all the legal lingua-franca.

NIT Calicut‘s Art Festival – Ragam, one of the biggest of its kind in South India, is named and celebrated after the memory of P. Rajan. I have personally observed in great admiration, the ardent enthusiasm​ students share in upholding their erstwhile colleagues memory, which is preserved and remembered in due respect over academic generations.


Emergency is a unique feature of Indian Constitution which covert federal structure into a unitary one where Central Government becomes all powerful, without a formal amendment of constitution. Three types of Emergencies are stipulated by Constitution

(1) National Emergency – war, external aggression, armed rebellion [Article 352]

(2) President’s Rule – failure of constitutional machinery in state [Article 356]

(3) Financial Emergency [Article 360]

Fundamental Rights will become suspended during the period (except those guaranteed by article 20 and 21), and State is free to take any legislative action abridging them. After the misuse of this provision during 1975, 44th amendment by Janata Government limited the power and nullified the distortions introduced previously. Emergency has been proclaimed three times so far- in 1962, 1971 and 1975.

Gulamgiri by Jooterao Phooley / Slavery by Jyotirao Phule

9788187496885-551008361e777-largePhule’s text dated 1st June 1873, adorns this little subtitle-‘In this Civilized British Government under the cloak of Brahamanism’, which clearly emanates the dual nature of his struggle, against upper caste chauvinism and imperial oppression. Writing opens with a Dedication towards coloured people of America, as a token of appreciation and affirmation of co-fraternity towards struggle for equality and equity.

English used to portray themselves as the anointed saviors of colonial land with the moral burden to uplift its people to modernity. Though the fallacy of this claim can easily be proved by the figures of their plunder,pillage and vested interests, western education did benefit its people, in exposing themselves to liberal thoughts. Liberal reformers like Ram Mohan Roy encouraged Freedom of Press and writings in vernaculars, and Missionaries, though with an eye for conversion, helped transcend education to lower strata of society. India has an uneven social structure with obvious prerogatives, which doesn’t really have much parallels in the world. Unlike the usual social structure where class is determined by profession and wealth, in India, ones caste, determines and defines the boundary of ones attainable class, from a time as early as ones birth. Brahmins who occupies the Priestly class, is at the receiving end of all privileges. Kshatriyas take care of governance, Vaisyas foresee trade and business, and Shudras, are doomed to do everything otherwise. This system, though occupation based in first sight, used to be, and somehow still is, very rigid, with prevailing taboos on intermixing(the extend was extreme during remote past due to practices like untouchability). In Discovery of India, Nehru calls it as a system that allowed specialization of labour in ancient India, which later got perverted into an excuse for excising supremacy. Ambedkar, Chairman of Indian Constitution draft committee and a member of ‘Dalit’ community, called it modern day slavery, and personally called up for denunciation of Hinduism in its entirety.

Jyotirao Phule is better known by his contributions towards the education of Sudras and ‘Dalits’(Term Dalit is complicated as it mostly denotes the collective of various lower caste groups who are in lower strata than Sudras. The term is more popular in modern days, and Author has been sticking to the usage of word Sudras, to represent the whole of lower class), the lower caste people, who were denied knowledge, for secrets of knowledge were secrets and privileges of Brahmins. Lower caste people weren’t allowed to listen to vedas or learn sanskrit, the divine language, and were kept checked in their ignorance by twisted philosophies of Dharma. Phule’s narrative calls for an educated look into the exploitation by Brahmins (or upper class in general), under the light of conquerors history. He argues that, dark skinned Sudras were the real occupants of the land, which Brahmin outsiders came over to exploit. Aryan invasion involved practice of atrocities by Brahmins on aborigines of the land, for fertile planes and wealth, much like modern day European Imperialists. He extends the common notion of subjugation by British, to the condescending nature of Brahmanism as well.

In Hindu tradition, Brahmins are styled as Lords of Universe, demanding veneration and obligatory favours, form rest of the class. Like Asimov’s rules of Robots, For a Sudra, to kill the Brahmin is considered to be the heinous of all crime. Phule argues that the existence of these rules and the likes are ploys in co existence, by upper class, to exert power and enjoy privileges, on and from the lower caste. An eternal entitlement of immunity and veneration through religious rules. I will share some excerpts from Manava Dharma Shastra, which Phule had included to illustrate this assertion of superiority.

“A Brahmin can do no wrong.
Never shall the king slay a Brahmin, though he has committed all possible crimes.
To save the life of Brahmin any falsehood maybe told. There is no sin in it.
No one is to take away anything belonging to a Brahmin.
A king, though dying with want, must not recieve any tax from a brahmin, nor suffer him to be afflicted with hunger or the whole kingdom will be afflicted with famine.

so on and so forth.

Basically these are the born privileges that Hesse’s Sidhartha exploited to manipulate others in his personal quest for nirvana. The other side of this superiority is of couse the inferiority of Sudras, and Dalits (there is a fine line of distinction when we use the word Dalit, as the word Sudra includes, in a broader sense, what is today known by OBC(Other Backward Communities) as well). Among many other ridiculous restrictions, Sudras were prohibited from superfluous wealth accumulation, while Brahmins claimed entitlements to their work.Phule takes readers into writing of Puranas, explaining the underlying narrative preference, which, on more educated read, looks like ridiculous fooleries than equitable laws. Most of the mythological stories can be interpreted as conflicts between Aryans and Dravidians or the aborigines. He argues that, even if we take them by half of their face value, the British atrocities will look widely insignificant. Again these are not my personal claims to make, and transistorizing mythology, in my opinion, is a dangerous habit, in present day interpretations (Babri Masjid Incident for example).

Phule isn’t the only one who has made this claim in history, his contemporary and townswoman Tarabhai Shinde called for a feminist interpretation of Hindu epics, in her writings, against the Brahmanic and Male chauvinism. Same can be reflected in Ambedkars writing, who viewed the hagiography of many of the Gods with their devotees, as a subtle ploy to assert brahmanical supremacy and infuse obedience among lower class. VS Naipaul, in his controversial India Trilogy, criticizes the caste system and fixation on ancient history as the biggest hindrance for achieving any sensible social progress. The path of Dharma advises strict adherence to ones duty, adherence to which promises the incentive of a hierarchical upper class birth in next life. Thus the system not only openly endorsed this hierarchical treatment, but involved measures to sustain the tradition till end of times. I must add that there are many contratry arguments to this school of thoughts, which this writing doesn’t give credit to. Still, this psychological enslaving of the lower class, in their self acceptance towards exploitation, is not something that can be unseen, no matter how different your views are.

JyotibaBrahmins have basically been despoiling the Sudras for centuries, in their capacity as Priest and exclusiveness in higher studies. This doesn’t mean there wasn’t any Sudras in olden days, who had risen to the upper strata, there are plenty of historical examples to suggest otherwise. Interestingly, the immediate tendency among those who made it big, coming from a lower caste, was indirect denunciation of their caste, by embracing the practices of upper caste. Despisal of the very practices that they once cherished as identity, became their entry doors into societal pseudo assimilation. For example, the practice of Dowry, shift into vegetarianism etc. In fact, even in present day India this scene isn’t much different, and its a bit sickening considering constitutionally guaranteed affirmative actions. Reservation for Scheduled Caste and Tribes, was initiated as a temporary arrangement for representation of lower caste, but it soon got graduated to an expansive eternal business of vote politics. Some might argue that it has done more harm than good in compartmentalizing the caste system, as a privilege card for entry and even promotion in jobs and academics.

“The Beef, the Mutton, the intoxicating beverages stronger and more fiery than the famed Somarasa, which their ancestors once relished, as the veriest dainties are fast finding innunerable votaries among them.”

British Government, which literally been working by taxing on the poorest necessities of lower caste, was invested in patronizing its virtual high class. The basic nature of colonization has been on this ideology, whether its South Asia or America – join the aristocracy, and induce locals to work and provide for them. British appeasement of upper class bought western education and liberal thoughts as well, and though it did help a significant group of people to stand with the oppressed, majority opted to stay in their cocoon of privileges. Phule seems to have been highly disappointed in the prevalence of this regressing mentality. He says that they are not only condescending enough not to acknowledge their errors but also in constant lookout for excuses to cherish their false notions of superiority. And in this 21st century, I am finding it easy to vouch for him, than contradict ancient ignorance with modern liberalism. There are anomalies to this claim, huge ones in heavy numbers, from blue collar jobs to current President of the country. But they are all lost on this clincher- caste based marriages. This supposed to be monopoly field of younger generation, still suffers from the intricasies of caste system, making the infamous term ‘Arranged Marriages’ all the more literal.

He ends the essay with a call for schools in every village, where Sudras can learn, but without brahmin school masters. Pretty regressive, If you ask me, and in lines with the very doctrine of inclusiveness he been writing against. But, the narrative will make sense once read with the rigidity of caste system during those days, where Brahmin school masters refused to teach Sudras. And this call for education, for future generations free of oppression and equitable in their efforts, was the very cause Phule dedicated his whole life for, which in turn changed the course of India.


Jyotirao Govindrao Phule(11 April 1827 – 28 November 1890) was an Indian social activist for the Dalit people, an thinker, anti-caste social reformer and writer from Maharashtra.

His work extended to many fields including eradication of untouchability and the caste system, women’s emancipation and the reform of Hindu family life. He and his wife, Savitribai Phule, were pioneers of women’s education in India. He is most known for his efforts to educate women and the lower castes. Together, they were among the first native Indians to open a school for girls in India, which they did in August 1848.

Countdown by Amitav Gosh

During 1974 India conducted its first Nuclear explosions under the Prime Ministership of Indira Gandhi – Pokhran blasts, code name: Laughing Buddha. The country that pioneered the philosophy of Non-violence, found itself in the dilemma of justifying this destructive muse, with reasons and asseverations such as ‘for peaceful purposes’. In 1998, political coalition led by Hindu right wing under the leadership of BJP, tested five nuclear bombs within the third month of their coming into power- Pokhran II, codename : Operation Shakti. The nuclear tests were popular among middle class, who accepted the weapons of mass destruction into their mass popular culture, with respect; though there were people who refused to celebrate and raised their displeasure over time. The exaltations were rather short lived, for the very following month, Pakistan blasted six nuclear weapons at Chagai Hills, turning ‘the whole mountain white’. Within a year of these developments, India and Pakistan went to war over Kargil, leaving the whole subcontinent and the world under the fear of a possible nuclear holocaust.countdown

Amitav Gosh’s Countdown is more of a long essay than a short book, on the various reactions of nuclear tests at both India and Pakistan, among politicians, soldiers and activists. The book was published before Kargil War and therefore doesn’t account for the confrontations happened.

India’s nuclear programme had really little to do with defending the country, though already nuclear and occasionally hostile China was the cabinet’s excuse for Pokharan II. Paraphrasing one of the interview transcripts of the book, India had this inferiority complex, of being patronized by the colonial imperialism, and to prove herself internationally, she had to shout louder than anyone else. In simpler terms, Nuclear programme was more of a ‘global currency of self esteem’.

After Pokhran II, AB Vajpayee, George Fernandez, APJ Abdul Kalam, K Subrahmanyam (from left to right)

Gosh had the opportunity to closely follow George Fernandez, who was the Defence Minister during Nuclear Tests on 1998 and Kargil war of 1999. Before going into the political view points, Gosh provides a small account of the farmers and nearby occupants of Pokhran after the 1974 tests. The grievances, ecological and biological impacts might seem minimum in comparison with the population, still the under address-ment and under coverage of same, is seriously disturbing. The strategic mastermind of Nuclear policies was K. Subrahmanyam, a civilian defence expert, and the advocate of nuclear power as the currency of global power logic. His logic was clear, global nuclear order is dictated by a hegemonic council of five nuclear nations(The recent Iran nuclear deal and North Korea confrontations are on similar lines), and India had to be a player than an object in that. Though regional threats from Pakistan and Chinese missile programs were immediate excuses, he visioned the Pokhran tests as a card for permanent seat in UN security councils and universal recognition. Looking back to it now from 2017, India has well achieved universal recognition, but not via the means Mr.Subrahmanyan envisioned(I must admit my personal views lining with his reluctant nuclear-ism and super power, though they are rendered useless in terms of war), and UN Security council is still an obsessive dream.

The reactions to the tests, though venerated outside, sparked antagonistic arguments in Parliament, even within the ruling coalition. Indian villages were being washed away in floods, one-third of population didn’t have proper access to drinking water, fifty percent lived under poverty, and Pakistan has been offering friendship in recent years under Nawaz Sherif; arguments went on.

AB Vajpayee  and Nawaz Sherif during Lahore bilateral declaration

George Fernandez who himself belong to the right wing majority party by coalition, later admitted the lack of a political party of India, every party is either explicitly or in-explicitly propelled politically by the burning vote bank of sectarianism. Gosh speaks of him in reverence, as journeyman in the political wilderness, with no regional or caste based support. Neither bunker or fall out shelters were planned along side the nuclear tests, nor a long term policy. This existing adhoc-ism in Indian politics, where the leaders work around agendas for upcoming elections than long term objectives was visible in then economic policies as well; both of them failed later in elections. Gosh then takes readers to Siachin dispute between India and Pakistan and use it along with Nuclear policy to substantiates the lack of vision he been accusing above.

Siachen : Worlds highest and most inhospitable battleground

Though a formal cease fire was established in 2003, Indian military still stations soldiers on Siachen Glacier, a no mans land where temperatures dip up to -50 or -50 degree centigrade. It is the highest and without any doubt the most hostile battleground on earth, as the territory is demarcated beyond the Line of Control(product of first Indo-Pak war,1948) at NJ9842, both India and Pakistan maintains military presence there. And to both parties, the biggest enemy is the weather, it is the biggest causality claimer as well. One of the motive behind Pakistan’s occupation of vacated Indian posts which triggering Kargil War, was a presumed Indian withdrawal of Siachen. It would be good for readers to remember the time of authors visit- after the nuclear test, well before Kargil. It was really heartfelt to read about those soldiers who were then stationed there, who Gosh claims to have never found to be using a denigratory epithet of any kind on their Pakistani counterparts. Coming from the age of youtube/facebook/quora comment section wars, where everyone is too eager to establish on their arrogance of nationalism, this gave me a refreshing perspective. I will list down the words of a soldier, from the book below, which does a better explanation.

‘Most of us here are from north India’, a bluntly spoken major said to me. ‘We have more in common with the Pakistanis, if you don’t mind my saying so, than we do with South Indians or Bengalis.’

The point of mentioning Siachen are on two fronts, one a nuclear explosion there would melt everything and resulting flood would carry Pakistan away, the other is the immense amount of money that is being spend on Siachen stations. Like the nuclear programs, these too are solely matters of national prestige. The administrative structure that British left India with, is a structure that is designed to oppress, exploit and suppress people, Fernandez says. Nobody is interested in a disciplined growth, but adhoc-ism and temporary appeasements for their immediate future.

about one-tenth of the country’s entire defence budget. Pakistan’s costs are much lower but still substantial. The total cost of the Siachen conflict is probably of the same order of magnitude as that of the nuclear programmes of India and Pakistan combined. If the money spent on the glacier were to be divided up and handed out to the people of India and Pakistan, every household in both countries would be able to go out and buy a new cooking stove or a bicycle.

I have never been to Pakistan, but everyone who been to, were offered colouful cordial welcomes, except the personals at disputed territories and vice versa. Outside these conflicts, both sides got more in common than difference. We eat the same food, sing the same songs, watch the same movies, share the same history and the chance of an Indian and Pakistan being friends abroad is more likely than them with any other nationals. There are of course anomalies to this claim, mainly from the right extremists. Gosh’s experiences were more or less on the similar side, and the responses after Nuclear tensions weren’t any different, though it would be safe to keep in mind that this was the pre Kargil War times. His writing captures the economic anxiety at Pakistan, and the threat of Sharia law by a possible fifteenth amendment. And in general, Gosh argues and illustrates through his interviews that there was a greater realism in nuclear discussion there than in India. Being affected by the Cold War and Taliban, even ordinary Pakistani’s seemed well aware of the differences between weapons and icons. They saw nuclear weapons as instruments of mass destruction that pose a whole range of new threats, from political intimidation and blackmail to total annihilation.

Kargil War 1999

“If you ask me, anything is a possibility between India and Pakistan. Because our policies are irrational. Our decision-making is ad hoc. We have been surrounded by disinformation about each other. We have a historical enmity. We have this whole emotionalism of jihad against each other — on our part it is jihad; on your part there is a lobby that will never accept the existence of Pakistan. We are fa tali s-tic nations who believe that whatever has happened — famine, accidents, drought — it is the will of God. We learn to accept every catastrophe. Our decision-making is done by a few opinion makers on both sides. It’s not the ordinary woman living in a village in Bihar whose voice is going to be heard, who is going to say, for God’s sake I don’t want this nuclear bomb, 1 want my cow and milk for my children. She is nowhere, she doesn’t figure anywhere. It worries me. It really worries me.” Asma Jahangir, Pakistani human rights lawyer and social activist.

Gosh ends his book with a what-if nuclear holocaust scenario with scientific simulation. The geography of subcontinent will ensure the effects to entire region, in Nepal it would result in radioactive snow, the Tibetan plateau and Himalayan snow will become a radioactive reservoir, which will in turn affect all our Holy rivers, being the inception point of almost all of them. The immediate results would be far more catastrophic, which would wipe out almost everything that is required for even the reconstruction of a destroyed society. And neither side never answered the question of how to contain such a catastrophe. To give matters a perspective Gosh gives the example of Rangoon bombings, they never expected war at their doorstep and Calcutta located farther and safer from warzone, never any expected refugees at their doorstep.

I know, it is an overkill to write about a seemingly redundant old book, in the present era. But the strangest part is that, even after 18 years of publication, it is still somehow very relevant. Existing tensions between India and Pakistan, and the territorial and verbal annoyances from China shows the fallacies in the diplomacy of our subcontinent in general. And from election results and social media intellectuals, I would safely say that the ad hoc policies Gosh accuse in this book are working well, while real issues are easily sidelined without any coverage


India Unbound by Gurcharan Das

india unboundThough India achieved political independence in 1947, it missed the liberalization bus of Asian Tigers and had to wait till 1991 to obtain some comparable economic independence. Gurcharan Das captures this economic journey in this autobiographical narrative, through his life and that of people around him. But in that ambitious effort, I found him to be doing more of a personal unbounding than that of India as a whole.

According to Das, the economic timeline of India went through a series of crests and troughs. And after the episode of disasters by ‘British Raj’, Independent India adopted a more inward looking import substituting anti foreign(mostly west) economic strategy. Gandhi distrusted technology, though not businessmen and wanted smaller companies over bigger corporations; Nehru on the other hand distrusted businessmen, not technology, and preferred public firms over private establishments. And they both were in full favour of local make over foreign. But in these efforts for embracing an egalitarian socialist slanted mixed economy, Indian was actually chaining her Industrial revolution to neo-colonialisation by its ill managed bureaucracy- ‘License Raj’. Das is both critical and optimistic in his political scrutiny, he respects our forefather’s wisdom of age, in regards with the events happening around the world. In fact, he compares it with the responses of neighbouring Asian Tigers(Taiwan, Korea, Singapore etc.) after global nationalism tide, and tries to defend the then unique Indian stand, which unlike the rest of East, had Democracy before Capitalism.

Indira Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru

Book works both as a memoir and a critical social investigation through variegated business narratives. A greater chunk of the first part is dedicated for exposure of India’s monopolistic public sector which seriously lacked autonomy of working. Industries Act of 1951 made it punishable by law to produce beyond granted capacity, and this over regulation of private enterprises further went into debarring of expansion via Indira’s MRTP of 1969. There was even an entry restriction up to 60 lakhs in Rupees, for certain selected small scale sectors, which did the ill effect of reducing incentives for technology and competition. These legislations pampered organized labour and discouraged foreign investment, there by effectively shutting down the ancient Indian prosperity tradition of export supplementation. Though unapologetic and critical, Das does acknowledges(with numbers) Second five year plan, Green revolution, White revolution and improvement in Indian savings and investments. And remote efforts for liberalization by Desai, Rajaji and Rajiv-Pitroda are also accounted with romantic reverence. But the ‘wage model’ economic slant, according to Das, was always overshadowed by political appeasements, which never followed the rule of demand and supply.

manmohan rao
Manmohan Singh and PVN Rao, architects of 1991

Balance of Payment crisis of 1991 by short term commercial borrowings of 1985 government, oil crisis, and many other complimenting reasons forced Narasimha Rao’s stop gap government to approach Bretton Woods for financial aid. This is where Das starts to actually breathe in the book, like he was personally strangulated by Fabian socialism and license raj till then. What follows is a celebration of Foreign Investment through statistics in dollars and numbers – reduced bank reserve ratios, reduced inflation, reduced duties, de-materialization of stocks, increased foreign deposit and borrowings and stuff. But these Rao-Manmohan-Verma reforms remained ‘soft’, for ‘ Inspection Raj’ still thrived and public sector bleeding, and lay offs followed the same old pattern. Das connects this Cabinet cripple-ment to ‘Elite to masses’ roots of Indian democracy, which will always has its vested interests in old legacies (Nehruvian-Gandhian socialism here).

The narrative is more gleeful towards the end, where he discusses the recent events through Sen’s take on ‘Identity’ and argumentative traditions. ‘Profit’ is no more a dirty word and ‘poverty’ isn’t divine either. The rise of consuming middle class is changing the mainland and diaspora, yet rising concerns are there in clashes of ‘modernity’ and ‘nationalism’. Though Author tries well not to be explicit, his right slant dominates his political scrutiny. And a general anxiety is visible on the the Hindutva movement gaining moment, which could bring back ‘License Raj’ under the pretense of so called ‘Nationalism’. At the start of the book, he argues that Brahmins of India love to chant in Sanskrit and rant in English, showing the class bias and theoretical preference over practical studies. Funny enough, it goes well with the later narrative of IT success, which could be and somehow is the flagship product of country. Anyway, he argues that the important change by this liberalization, privatization and globalisation(LPG) was people relying more on individualism than the hope on government to solve their problem.

an average IT/ BPO section in Bangalore

I was expecting this book to go dense into economy, with real statistics and comparisons. But the read felt a bit blunt in that realm, though it had its appeasing traits. Also, by later portions of the book, in his looking over a whole generation narrative, author was unknowingly painting himself as an Omnipotent outside panel ‘Watcher’ like figure. I found this nonchalant stance, off putting and suggestive of fictitious embellishments, as opposed to the more sincere personal takes I adored at the start. Another uncomforting detail, or absence of detail, was the lack of demographic analysis, for India is very different in parts and any homogeneous analysis without considering the heterogeneity poses threats of absurd results.

This is a soft book on Indian economy that you can sit back and enjoy. And the best part about the conviction of his numbers are the treatment of reality through dreams and lives of people from partition to 21st century. Though Das has done his best to sound catholic, underlying narrative is still an ode to Capitalism.

The Argumentative Indian by Amartya Sen

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

This often debated and allegedly misattributed quote says a great deal about modern schools of free speech and tolerance. In this collection of essays, Nobel winning Economist Amartya Sen celebrates the long history of argumentative tradition in Indian subcontinent, and its contemporary relevance in often neglected modern cultural discussions.

Paraphrasing Sen himself, a defeated argument that refuses to be obliterated can remain very alive; and opening of the book is a research into the mentation of univocal messages of century old epics and history, by broader argumentative wisdom. Independent India became the first country in the non-Western world to choose a resolutely democratic constitution, though drawing heavily on what it had learned from institutional experiences in Europe and America, a great deal was drawn from its own tradition of public arguments and intellectual heterodoxy. Which according to Sen has kept democracy and coexistence of different political ideologies in check, unlike many other countries where democracy has intermittently made cameo appearances. The essay narrative is not trying to impart some sort of uniqueness in Indian history or to side-line democracy as a Western gift, but argues that the it becomes easier to impart and preserve democratic principles where traditions of public discussions exists, West and East alike. Sen then looks back into this tradition in ancient India, from, ‘Buddhist councils’ of Asoka in 3rd century BCE to Akbar’s 14th century ‘pursuit of reason’ and other royal sponsorships for practise of public reasoning. This historical analysis then goes into an unavoidable cliché that every book on India tends to overdo, celebration of subcontinent’s secularism- like how it has been home for Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Christians, Zorastrians, Bahas etc, inter cultural art, literature and music, traditions of Bhakti and Sufi, yada yada yada (no disrespect intended, just casual irritation out of repetition). But interestingly, Sen’s defence for this tolerance of diversity were ancient historical arguments in favour of richness of variation, need for interaction and mutual respect through dialogue.

Akbar’s Durbar

This epistemological departure from orthodoxy provided a catholicity of approach in cultivation of observational science, allowing an interactive openness to Indian work involving both give and take, Sen argues. Though Indian texts majorly involve elaborate religious expositions, there are protracted defences in agnostic or atheistic writings as well. I absolutely adored and enjoyed author’s take on works by Aryabhatta and others in Astronomy and Mathematics, through writings of Iranian astronomer Alberuni and outsiders of the like, thus acknowledging global interactions as opposed to the extreme nationalistic view of indigenous sufficiency.

To celebrate India’s argumentative tradition it is important to distinguish popular philosophies of Hinduism from the fairly crude unique assertion of ‘Hindutva’, which is currently on political offer. The statistical argument of seeing India as a pre-eminent Hindu country (colonial narrative), according to author is a conceptual confusion, for our religion is not our only identity, nor necessarily the identity to which we attach the greatest importance. The Hindutva political propaganda thrives on ‘historical guilt of Muslim conquerors’, by arbitrarily highlighting special chosen anecdotes, often as per convenience, of Muslim maltreatment of Hindus, aimed at generating desired anti-Muslim sentiment; and it undermines by far Indian secularism in broad current of social cultural or intellectual history. History of India, like every other part of world, does contain nightmarish elements, but it also involves people of dissimilar convictions coexisting peacefully in creative activities of literature, music, painting, jurisprudence etc. Sen argues, with much conviction, that India’s past is important for an adequate understanding of the capacious idea of India. He then destroys early BJP government’s ill efforts in rewriting history on NCERT text books and other similar propagandas in creating pseudo history that suites political motives, with well referenced research and scholarship; and compares this exclusive narrowness within the country as cultivated ignorance of a kupamanduka (well-frog).

Tagore and Gandhi

Amartya Sen illustrates the argumentative tradition in modern day using Gandhi and Tagore, who had a relationship of great respect for each other while sharing completely contradicting viewpoints towards nationalism, education, economy and many more. Tagore called for appraisement of Western civilization in an open minded way, for he never saw India’s culture as fragile and in need of protection from Western influence. Author greatly discusses Tagore and ‘sovergnity of reasoning’ in a very delightful manner, and further compliments the same with later discussions on India’s aggregation of heterogeneity, using something this reader least expected- films of Satyajit Ray.

In lines with Said’s ‘Orientalism’, Sen classifies Occident approaches for understanding the Orient, especially India, into three distinct categories – exoticist, magisterial and curatorial. Greater chunk is the romantic narrative of first category, whose major focus is on the wondrous and strange aspects of the country. The ‘magisterial’ approach assimilates a sense of superiority and guardian-hood to its narrative, and wants to view the country as ‘a great scene of British action’. The third category, Sen argues to be relatively free of preconceptions, as it doesn’t rely on the exhibit value (exoticist) nor is weighted down by ruler’s priorities. He illustrates this catholic approach using Alberuni’s ‘Tariq-al-hind’ of early seventh century and the writings of later Chinese travellers, and the more modern works by dedicated scholars like William Jones. Author in fact uses these curatorial works to expose the fallacy of magisterial readings like the ones by James Mill, who wrote voluminous demeaning work without even visiting India for once. Consequences of ‘exotic’ approach are the hallowed position’ mysticism’ and ‘exoticism’ enjoys in Western understanding of India over the traditions in mathematics, science, logic, medicine etc. (specialists in the streams are an obvious exception here). Immediate response of this exotic admiration is the tendency of Indian writers to exaggerate the non-material and arcane aspects (spiritual), often disregarding the more rationalistic and analytic elements (material), thus selectively alienating India from a very substantial part of its past.

Chinese_Sources_of_Ancient_Indian_HistoryContemporary anthropological obsession is to classify world population into civilizations on religious grounds. Sen, dissects this phenomenon using historical closeness of India and China. Though Buddhism could be attributed as the initiator and catalyst for the ‘balance of trades’, the intercultural interactions in trigonometry, creative arts and linguistics weren’t always religion centric. The research provided in this realm is a fascinating read in history and extends to present day economics.

What follows then is a survey on Indian economics in retrospection with Nehru’s ‘tryst with destiny’. Though India has successfully avoided famines and abuse of coercive power in relative comparison, the ‘integrational’ and ‘institutional’ issues of class is a pertaining concern. Though data suggests handicaps in both ‘agency’ and ‘well-being’ in India and its neighbours, they collectively excel West in certain areas of woman participation like female heads of governments. Though no particular effort is being done in the book to explain this, the final concluding remark is a correlation between social achievements and greater voice of woman in that society. Observations are really interesting and contradictory to popular notions, since our general leaning is to connect everything with better access to education. Sen argues that, Fertility rate reduction in certain states like Kerala through consequential efforts of woman agency is often under looked, as we are eager to credit the coercive and brutal measures of China in the field.

Kargil war (May 1999 – July 1999)

The essay that follows (India and the Bomb) discusses geopolitics of India and its relationship between China and Pakistan in relation with existing Nuclear Policy. It is a critique on the asymmetry created by overestimation of persuasive power of the bomb; which crippled India’s massive superiority in conventional forces against Pakistan (as seen during Kargil war) and elevated the role of China as a regional status quo power (US-China joint non-proliferation efforts of 1998).

Much of Sen’s discussions on reasoning as a strong source of hope and confidence, went over my head like an early morning lecture, thanks to the high philosophies by intellectuals whose name I am bound to mispronounce. The undisputed Western dominance of the world today has created a tendency to identify and define other cultures by their contrasts with contemporary Western culture. Common notion is to attribute the origin of values like ‘liberty’ and ‘autonomy’ with West and that of ‘discipline’ and ‘order’ with East. There is often a dialectic of conferring identity by contrast, which though ideally should not, may sometime have a dampening effect on assimilation of values elsewhere than its area of confinement. Sen tries to break this culture specific aspect using historic examples from Asia and Africa. He offers words by Ashoka, Akbar and the likes in defence of India’s judicially guaranteed multiculturalism and constitutional secularism, with role of reasoning. I would like to quote Akbar criticizing Indian sages who preach ‘good deeds’ for favourable after death outcomes- “To me, it seems that in pursuit of virtue, the idea of death should not be thought of, so that without any hope or fear, one should practise simply because it is good”. When criticized for embracing the practise of smoking tobacco, as it is a European custom, Akbar ignored it on the ground that “we must not reject a thing that has been adopted by people of the world, merely because we cannot find it in our books; or how shall we progress?


The final essays are more of an effort to understand the unique nature of ‘Secularism’ in India, with the arguments that are against it. Scepticism about Indian secularism is often argued in lines of non-existence of the same in ‘Hindu’ India, ‘pseudo-secularism’ by Muslim favouritism, absence of homogeneous identity criticism, rather dangerous Muslim sectarianism argument, Anti modernist argument like those who criticized Akbar and prevailing ‘Hindu country’ narrative. Sen compares the Indian status quo with those of its neighbours in terms of constitutional laws to counter argue these rhetorics, thereby illustrating the dangers of each. To explain the argument of secularism being a folly of modernism, he takes readers through the connection between calendars and culture, for functioning and utilization of calendars involve cultural sophistication and urbanity. Indian subcontinent can boast co-existence of at least six calendars in systematic use as per Whitaker Almanak; and all of them suggests distinct elements of basic structure, interconnections and constancies suggesting the existence of definitive identity despite heterodoxy. The concluding remarks in this book celebrates the basic idea of plurality in modern India, and ends with the complex subject of one’s identity, which often calls for ‘homogenization to hegemonize’. Identity is quintessentially a plural concept in India, If I may quote Sen himself, ‘While we cannot live without history, we need not live within it either’.

Unlike contemporary books on India, which takes the matter casually, Sen’s writing is a bit high on the scholarly side with passing references and detailed footnotes. And I believe, this research is the fundamental difference between his optimistic take and Naipaul’s pessimistic vision of India, former looking the past for enlightenment and learning, while latter seeing it as a source and excuse for present to blame on. Also the essays in this compilation seems to have been formed over different time, occasions and narrative intentions, thus making some core substances slightly repetitive.

I would like to enhance the opening quote of this review with another stolen one as an end note, one undisputed this time, by 19th century Bengali reformist Ram Mohan Roy.

“just consider how terrible the day of your death will be.

Others will go on speaking, and you will not be able to argue back.”

India: A Wounded Civilization by V.S. Naipaul

naipaulIn the forward, Naipaul identifies himself to be of the New World, having been raised in a far more homogeneous Indian community in Trinidad, than the isolated countrymen Gandhi met in South Africa in 1983. He also admits to have been washed clean off many religious attitudes, which according to him, are essential in understanding the civilization. This book is a collection of 8 essays in 3 parts, on his experiences and observations about the mainland, during Internal Emergency*(1975-1977).

With this knowledge at one’s disposal, though rude and harsh from an average Indian perspective, these essays offer good critique on life during Emergency period and Indian democracy in general. In the introductory essay he aligns his first Indian visit with what he had learned about the country from RK Narayan‘s 1949 novel ‘Mr. Sampath‘. His Indian experience becomes less accessible and overwhelming, as he finds everyone politically nonchalant like the titular character of book. He then associates his observation with the repeated conquests of land in past and its tendency to respond by retreating to archaism, which provides no substitute for modernities like like Press, Parliament or Courts. He further effeminates ‘Non-violence’ as a means of securing undisturbed calm and reduces it to an excuse for non-doing, noninterference and social indifference. Also contradictingly, he is somehow unable to appreciate any effort for individual and collective(abolition of privy purses and titles, a female prime minister addressing the nation about living in the present without sweeping away the past) advancement, and write them off as mock aggressiveness and mock desperation. Still, in Naipaul’s denial of Hindu response to the world, in its comedy and irony, this reader found a mysterious reverence towards something he couldn’t comprehend.


In the second essay, he brings our attention to another novel by Narayan– ‘The Vendor of Sweets’. Here I found myself aligning with the author, in his complaint of using elated visions of eternity as cheap escapism from ones duties, a concept highly misrepresented in Hesse‘s ‘Siddhartha’. I was ‘hear,hear’ with his viewpoints, in blind acceptance of suffering as ‘karma’ for what one has done in past lives, though he was using it for emphasizing the elegiac fixation of India in its past. Our newfound romance soon found its grave, when he started hyphenating ‘Karma’ as the classical Hindu retreat, who got nothing to offer, when his world shatters. Still, under the light of then deified poverty with Gandhian-ism, it wasn’t difficult to agree with existence and acceptance of antique violence and caste system, justified by the twisted philosophy of past life redemption.

31mumbai11The third essay – ‘The Skycrapers and the Chawls’, is Naipaul‘s ‘Maximum City’. His experiences in Bombay had made him render the city in an image of Dostoevsky’s St. Petersburg, but with a crowd that never truly dispersed. Unable to understand the prevailing street culture, he then goes back to the mistake of relating individual Identity with set of beliefs, and concludes that people are burdened with a nationalism, which, after years of subjection, badly demanded an Idea of India. This underlying narrative prevailed in the essay that followed where his definition of Naxalism is an intellectual tragedy of middle class, incapable of generating ideas of its own, borrowing someone else’s idea of revolution. His next essay, ‘A Defect of Vision’ tries to define Gandhian philosophy as a negative way of perceiving the external world. Naipaul argues Gandhi’s experiments and discoveries and vows as means for answering his own needs as a Hindu, for defining ‘the self’ in the midst of hostility, and not of universal application. He then puts forward an amazing review for U.R. Anantamurti’s novel, ‘Samskara’ to substantiate this fierce inward concentration of ‘hindu nationalism’. Gist of both could be better summed up in Sudhir Karkar’s words – “We Indians use the outside reality to preserve the continuity of the self amidst an ever changing flux of outer events and things”. I wish I could prove Naipaul wrong after what is almost half a century, but Indian Politics still remain narrow, and based on caste and religion as he accuses it to be, back then.

CaptureRemaining portions of book are more or less variegated accounts of Emergency Period, from freedom of Press to Poverty, with the underlying idea of ‘modernity’ or ‘Indian-ness’ being a facade. But he offered a brilliant perspective on Indian political programme being clamour and religious excitation. Gandhian-ism in modern day is reduced to Mahatmahood: religious ecstasy and self-display, and escape from constructive thought and political burdens. Like a solace for conquered people, alienated by the state, he argues. I thoroughly enjoyed his well researched last essay, where he criticized Bhave for overdoing everything and making Gandhi a figure like ‘Merlin’. Yet, by the end of the day, to Naipaul, India is without an ideology, locked in by fantasies of Ramraj(Rule of Ram: an Indian utopia), spirituality and return to village, where everyone is paralyzed with obedience as demanded by ‘dharma’.

The communal accord of history moves along the lines of identifying India primarily by her religious identities, and is uprooted on the colonial assumption of them being fundamentally in conflict. And there are historians who produce voluminous reports in this line, using the century old Colonial pretext of Imperial powers being the anointed benign saving medium. I remember reading an essay associating Naipaul’s acceptance in the New World over Desani, for his West appeasing narrative, and though far fetched, this book inclines me to buy that argument. No matter what he had experienced over the visit, the good, the bad and the ugly of a young nation in its worst period of democratic history, Naipaul was hell bent on finding a way back to his personal clincher – title of the book.

In the first essay, Naipaul mentions about a middle class rich girl he got to meet during a Delhi dinner party, who is married to a foreigner and living abroad. To him, she was in a state of despair and confusion, of having lost her place in the world, not having a caste or a community. And he was amazed by her calmness on return to India during the chaotic Emergency, like its world’s deepest order, where everything is fixed, sanctified and secure. If I may go off the reservation and be a condescending critic as this book was, I found Naipaul jealous of above trait and rather frustrated in his inability to understand the civilization he draws bloodline from, and yet, utterly helpless in being drawn towards it time and again.

This maybe his coping mechanism.

Still, one cannot categorize this book as an archaic critique on antique mindsets, without ignoring the relevance of harsh truths, however little and offending they might be. Especially in our present day ‘triggered’ generation, filled with internal anxieties about food eaten, places of worship, sexual preferences, and intolerance towards everything they can’t agree with. But marginalizing a whole civilization solely on their basis and laxity towards everything otherwise, is where author and this reader part ways.


*Internal Emergency : In India, “the Emergency” refers to a 21-month period from 1975 to 1977 when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi unilaterally had a state of emergency declared across the country. Officially issued by President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed under Article 352(1) of the Constitution because of the prevailing “internal disturbance”, the Emergency was in effect from 25 June 1975 until its withdrawal on 21 March 1977.( source:wiki)