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).