The Evolving Idea of India – Revisiting History
The following write up of mine was published in a publication by IPPAI a Delhi based organisation / think tank . Was also invited to speak at their Goa seminar (IPPAI’s Regulator’s and Policymakers Retreat , Marriot Hotel , Goa) but couldn’t make it unfortunately. Extremely greatful to Pathikrit Payne for having my write up published.
I was invited as Chief Guest for the Independence Day function at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan (Pune) on 15th Aug 2015. I gave a speech there along similar lines.
What exactly do we understand by the words, ‘the idea of India?’. Although the Republic of India has existed for nearly seventy years, when we speak of India, we always refer to its five thousand year old history and not just its existence as an independent country for the past sixty eight years. This is unique, although it has become so routine for us, that we fail to realise this. Ask anyone as to what is the first image that springs to their mind when someone says ‘India’, and it could be anything: Yoga, Ramayan, Ashoka, Chandragupta or perhaps the Taj Mahal, Mahatma Gandhi or even the modern IT revolution. For me the idea of India is the continual thread that joins the hoary past to the 21st century. If this link is broken, the concept of India, as we know, dies with it. As an example, let us apply the same logic to America. What comes to mind when we say USA? Along with the strides in the modern age, perhaps Abraham Lincoln, or may be Christopher Columbus. Nothing further. Although people have lived in America too for over fivethousand years, the prevalent image of USA does not take us much beyond 1492, the year it was ‘discovered’. Thus, the thread which takes us to the age of the Rig Ved is something to be cherished and preserved, because, as we see, the idea of India immediately encapsulates everything, from ancient Ayurved to modern day pharmacy giants, to cite an example. The idea of India can now be expounded into various spheres – cultural, religious, political, historical, etc. I will try and tackle the question from the history point of view and later, delve into how this idea of India also connects with the geography of the country. Our perspective of history should reflect this evolving idea of India. The narrative that is taught or imbued by the lay person is very important in this case. This narrative should reflect positivity and connect people to their past. Unless we feel we are directly connected to our remote and ancient times, we cannot feel proud of it. And the moment our history seems distant and remote, we feel a disconnect with it and the thread taking us there starts to strain. This present shape of India we see is something unique. For we have overcome centuries of domination to build this country by choice and run it with values based entirely on this land. This can be seen in the Ashok Stambh emblem of India and the many Sanskrit slogans of various government departments, to give an example. The last time something similar happened, Chandra Gupta Maurya was around. From the golden age of the Guptas and Mauryas, came a series of events which eventually brought us where we are today. All the people and events in between are about how our ancestors preserved the idea of India. And about how they did not allow the link to the remote past to break. The sacrifices they made, the defeats they faced and most importantly, their victories. One can draw a loose line from the distant past to the Kingdom of Harshvardhan to the north and to the Rashtrakutas to the south. A line that joins the Gurjara Pratiharas and the Battle of Rajasthan and also weaves through the Delhi Sultanates and the Mughal Empire and the struggles and victories of Shivaji, the Marathas and our freedom fighters to culminate in today’s India. But to feel proud of this history and remember it, we must take a positive view of our land’s past. It is a human tendency to move on and forget the negatives and imbue the positives out of anything. If we regard our history as a series of failures, a sequence of defeats, then obviously at some point we will lose all connect with it. Who wants to associate with failures any way? When this happens, the idea of India which we have built and cherished will begin to suffer. Unfortunately, the way we look at history has for a long time taken very negative overtones. One is hard pressed to associate himself with or feel proud of this kind of writing of history. True, it is important to write about mistakes and defeats, but it is equally important that we know about the victories achieved, for these victories in the past are the stepping stones to today’s India. Each victory achieved in politics and on the battlefield by various Indian powers has contributed to the idea of India. In many ways our rendition of history is a reflection of the times. Through the 1970s and 1980s, this defeatist view of history, which went against the idea of India, prevailed. The country also reflected this rather sombre mood with its protectionism and inward looking policies. But as India has opened to the world, we find that people are willing to look afresh at the past, and derive and draw inspiration and positives from it. The evolution of the idea of India is a continuous process, and each age contributes to it in its own way. Thus if the remote past gave us the Vedas, the modern day has given us information technology, all building into the idea of India. So to understand why we are extremely lucky to be born in the India of today, knowledge of the past is essential. Only then can we appreciate that all the ethos that many of our ancestors fought and died for have been upheld by the Indian Republic. Since we are on the topic of history, I will also delve into geography a bit. Or to put in better words: it is history from a geographical perspective. Since the idea of India is not merely a thread that joins us to the remote past but also a line that joins the four corners of the country, it is important that we appreciate and understand this aspect too. Unfortunately, we have a very regional outlook towards studying history. How many of us have heard about the Cholas? Or the fact that they reached Southeast Asia? How many of us have heard about the Gajapati Dynasty of Orissa or the Ahoms of Assam? These histories are not merely the histories of Tamil Nadu, Orissa or Assam but should be regarded as the history of India. We must recognise that these men fought for and upheld the idea of India in their own way in these corners of the country. They have helped preserve, expound and continue the thread that leads us to today. The idea of India has evolved in unique ways in all its regions and provinces, and thus the whole is more than the sum of its parts. So I would like to conclude by saying that the idea of India has evolved over a period of time and will continue to evolve. Although changing and adapting to the circumstances, it has a kernel which leads back to the ancient days. Various parts of the country have preserved and defended this ideal, and all of us should be aware of such events and personalities. Only when we realise the enormity of the political achievement that is the Republic of India, from a historical and geographical point of view, can we truly appreciate the meaning of our Independence Day and Republic Day.
The views expressed are of author and do not necessarily represent the views of IPPAI.
© Aneesh Gokhale