Subba’s Serendipitous moments

January 7, 2007

If America is a melting pot, India is a thali

Filed under: India — Subbaraman Iyer @ 10:34 am

http://www.ubuntux.org

On the inaugural day of PanIIT 2006, UN Under Secretary-General Shashi Tharoor delivered an inspiring speech, which, he said he was giving in his personal capacity. It is indeed a brilliant exposition of the various facets of India and all things about India. It is sure to make every Indian feel proud of his heritage and his present.

“And so the Indian nation that I want to encourage all of you to build, imposes no pressure to conform. It celebrates diversity: if America is a melting-pot, then to me India is a thali, a selection of sumptuous dishes in different bowls. Each tastes different, and does not necessarily mix with the next, but they belong together on the same plate, and they complement each other in making the meal a satisfying repast.

While he has doen a brilliant job in explaining the complex India to the Indians and the world, I would have liked to see a vision for India emerge. It is only the President Dr. Abdul Kalam who has pained a vision for India, and it is rather sad that the powers to be has not shaped any specific programs or policies to translate that vision.

Reproduced here is the complete text of his address.

It is an honour for me to be asked to address you today. But though Purnendu Chatterjee introduced me as a United Nations official, I should like to stress that I am speaking today purely in a personal capacity.

“I am delighted to be here to address so many IIT alumni in the hope of getting you “inspired to get involved in transforming India.” I am not going to cover the same ground as your other speakers today. I will try not to even mention the word “technology”. Instead, I want to
take literally your overall theme of nation-building. Over 59 years ago, at midnight on August 15th, 1947, independent India was born as its first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, proclaimed “a tryst with destiny — a moment which comes but rarely in history, when we pass from the old to the new, when an age ends and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance”. With those words he launched India on a remarkable experiment in governance. Remarkable
because it’s happening at all. “India,” Winston Churchill once barked, “is merely a geographical expression. It is no more a single country than the Equator.” Churchill was rarely right about India, but it is true that no other country in the world embraces the extraordinary mixture of ethnic groups, the profusion of mutually incomprehensible languages, the varieties of topography and climate, the diversity of religions and cultural practices and the range of levels of economic
development that India does. So how do we go about nation-building?

Well, India is more than the sum of its contradictions. It is a country held together, in Nehru’s words, “by strong but invisible threads…. She is a myth and an idea,” he wrote, [he always feminized India] “a dream and a vision, and yet very real and present and pervasive.”

But even thinking about India makes clear the immensity of the nation-building challenge. How can one approach this land of snow peaks and tropical jungles, with 23 major languages and 22,000 distinct “dialects” (including some spoken by more people than Danish or Norwegian), inhabited in the sixth year of the twenty-first century by over a billion individuals of every ethnic extraction known to humanity? How does one come to terms with a country whose population is over 40% illiterate but which has educated the world’s second-largest pool of trained scientists and engineers, whose teeming cities overflow while two out of three Indians scratch a living from the soil? What is the clue to understanding a country rife with despair and disrepair, which nonetheless moved a Mughal Emperor to declaim, “if on earth there be paradise of bliss, it is this, it is this, it is this…”? How does one gauge a culture which elevated non-violence to an effective moral principle, but whose freedom was born in blood and whose independence still soaks in it? How does one explain a land where peasant organizations and suspicious officials have attempted to close down Kentucky Fried Chicken as a threat to the nation, where a former Prime Minister bitterly criticizes the sale of Pepsi-Cola “in a country where villagers don’t have clean drinking water”, and which yet invents more sophisticated software for US computer manufacturers than any other country in the world? How can one determine the identity of an ageless civilization that was the birthplace of four major religions, a dozen different traditions of classical dance, eighty-five major political parties and three hundred ways of cooking the potato?

The short answer is that it can’t be done – at least not to everyone’s satisfaction. Any truism about India can be immediately contradicted by another truism about India. It is often jokingly said that “anything you can say about India, the opposite is also true”. The country’s national motto, emblazoned on its governmental crest, is “Satyameva Jayaté”: Truth Alone Triumphs. The question remains, however: whose truth? It is a question to which there are at least a billion answers – if the last census hasn’t undercounted us again.

But that sort of an answer is no answer at all, and so another answer to those questions has to be sought. And this may lie in a simple insight: the singular thing about India is that you can only speak of it in the plural. There are, in the hackneyed phrase, many Indias. Many of you have come from the US, and are all familiar with the American motto, “E Pluribus Unum” — out of many, one; if India were to borrow it, it would read “E Pluribus Pluribum”! Everything exists in countless variants. There is no single standard, no fixed stereotype, no “one way”. This pluralism is acknowledged in the way India arranges its own affairs: all groups, faiths, tastes and ideologies survive and contend for their place in the sun. At a time when most developing countries opted for authoritarian models of government to promote nation-building and to direct development, India chose to be a multi-party democracy. And despite many stresses and strains, including twenty-two months of autocratic rule during a “state of Emergency” declared by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1975, a multi-party democracy — freewheeling, rumbustious, corrupt and
inefficient, perhaps, but nonetheless flourishing — India has remained.

One result is that India strikes many as maddening, chaotic, inefficient and seemingly unpurposeful as it muddles its way through the first decade of the twenty-first century. Another, though, is that India is not just a country, it is an adventure, one in which all avenues are open and everything is possible. “India,” wrote the British historian E.P. Thompson, “is perhaps the most important country for the future of the world. All the convergent influences of the world run through this society…. There is not a thought that is being thought in the West or East that is not active in some Indian mind.”

That Indian mind has been shaped by remarkably diverse forces: ancient Hindu tradition, myth and scripture; the impact of Islam and Christianity; and two centuries of British colonial rule. The result is unique. Many observers have been astonished by India’s survival as a pluralist state. But India could hardly have survived as anything else. Pluralism is a reality that emerges from the very nature of the country; it is a choice made inevitable by India’s geography and reaffirmed by its history.

So the first challenge is that we cannot generalize about India. One of the few generalizations that can safely be made about India is that nothing can be taken for granted about the country. Not even its name: for the word India comes from the river Indus, which flows in Pakistan. That anomaly is easily explained; yet each explanation breeds another anomaly. Pakistan was created as a homeland for India’s Muslims, but — at least till very recently — there were more Muslims
in India than in Pakistan.

Nearly ten years ago, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of India’s independence, I wrote a book called India: From Midnight to the Millennium. In it I focused on India as a country standing on the cusp of four of the most important debates facing the world at the beginning of the twenty-first century:

the bread vs freedom debate: can democracy literally “deliver the goods” in a country of poverty and scarcity, or do its inbuilt inefficiencies only impede rapid growth? Is the instability of political contention (and of makeshift coalitions) a luxury a developing country cannot afford? As today’s young concentrate on making their bread, should they consider political freedom a dispensable distraction?

the centralization vs federalism debate: does tomorrow’s India need to be run by a strong central Government able to transcend the fissiparous tendencies of language, caste and region, or is that government best that centralizes least?

the pluralism vs fundamentalism debate: is the secularism established in India’s constitution, and now increasingly attacked as a Westernized affectation, essential in a pluralist society, or should India, like many other Third World countries, find refuge in the
assertion of its own religious identity?

the “coca-colonization” debate, or globalization vs self-reliance:
should India, where economic self-sufficiency has been a mantra for more than four decades, open itself further to the world economy, or does the entry of Western consumer goods bring in alien influences that threaten to disrupt Indian society in ways too vital to be allowed? Should we raise the barriers to shield our youth from the pernicious seductions of MTV? Since the East India Company came to trade and stayed on to rule, were our nationalist leaders right to be suspicious of every foreigner with a briefcase, seeing him as the thin edge of a neo-imperial wedge?

These are not merely academic debates: they are now being enacted on the national and world stage, and the choices we make will determine the kind of Indian nation we can hope to build in the 21st century. And since the century has begun with Indians accounting for a sixth of the world’s population, our choices will resonate throughout the globe. But in my remarks today, I do not have time to do justice to all these debates. Instead, I will focus on your central theme: that of nation-building in today’s India.

At that famous midnight more than fifty-nine years ago, the British Empire in India came to an end amidst the traumatic carnage of Partition and the sectarian violence that accompanied it. In these nearly six decades of independence, many thoughtful observers have seen a country more conscious than ever of what divides it: religion, region, caste, language, ethnicity. What makes India, then, a nation?

To answer that, I’d like to take an Itlaian example — not “that” Italian example! Amidst the popular ferment that made an Italian nation out of a mosaic of principalities and statelets in the late 19th century, one Italian nationalist (Massimo Taparelli d’Azeglio) memorably wrote, “We have created Italy. Now all we need to do is to create Italians.” Strikingly enough, no Indian nationalist succumbed to the temptation to express the same thought — “we have created
India; now all we need to do is to create Indians.”

Such a sentiment would not, in any case, have occurred to Nehru, that pre-eminent voice of Indian nationalism, because he believed in the existence of India and Indians for millennia before he gave words to their longings; he would never have spoken of “creating” India or Indians, merely of being the agent for the reassertion of what had always existed but had been long suppressed. Nonetheless, the India that was born in 1947 was in a very real sense a new creation: a state that had made fellow citizens of the Ladakhi and the Laccadivian for the first time, that divided Punjabi from Punjabi for the first time, that asked the Keralite peasant to feel allegiance to a Kashmiri Pandit ruling in Delhi, also for the first time. Nehru would not have written of the challenge of “creating” Indians, but creating Indians was what, in fact, the nationalist movement did.

Let me illustrate what this means with a simple story. When India celebrated the 49th anniversary of its independence from British rule ten years ago, its then Prime Minister, H.D. Deve Gowda, stood at the ramparts of Delhi’s 16th-century Red Fort and delivered the traditional Independence Day address to the nation in Hindi, India’s “national language”. Eight other Prime Ministers had done exactly the same thing 48 times before him, but what was unusual this time was that Deve Gowda, a southerner from the state of Karnataka, spoke to the country in a language of which he did not know a word. Tradition and politics required a speech in Hindi, so he gave one — the words having been written out for him in his native Kannada script, in which they, of course, made no sense.

Such an episode is almost inconceivable elsewhere, but it represents the best of the oddities that help make India. Only in India could a country be ruled by a man who does not understand its “national language”; only in India, for that matter, is there a “national language” which half the population does not understand; and only in India could this particular solution be found to enable the Prime Minister to address his people. One of Indian cinema’s finest “playback singers,” the Keralite K.J. Yesudas, sang his way to the top of the Hindi music charts with lyrics in that language written in the Malayalam script for him, but to see the same practice elevated to the
Prime Ministerial address on Independence Day was a startling affirmation of Indian pluralism.

For, you see, we are all minorities in India. A typical Indian stepping off a train, a Hindi speaking Hindu male from the state of Uttar Pradesh, might cherish the illusion that he represents the
“majority community,” to use an expression much favoured by the less industrious of our journalists. But he does not. As a Hindu he belongs to the faith adhered to by some 81 or 82% of the population, but a majority of the country does not speak Hindi; a majority does not hail
from Uttar Pradesh; and if he were visiting, say, Kerala, he would discover that a majority is not even male. Worse, our archetypal UP Hindu has only to mingle with the polyglot, multi-coloured crowds (and I’m referring to the colour of their skins, not their clothes) thronging any of India’s major railway stations to realize how much of a minority he really is. Even his Hinduism is no guarantee of majorityhood, because his caste automatically places him in a minority as well: if he is a Brahmin, 90% of his fellow Indians are not; if he is a Yadav, a “backward class”, 85% of Indians are not, and so on.

Or take language. The Constitution of India recognizes 23 today [and the number keeps going up, but you can see fourteen scripts on our rupee note], but in fact, there are 35 Indian languages which are spoken by more than a million people — and these are languages, with their own scripts, grammatical structures and cultural assumptions, not just dialects (and if were to count dialects within these languages, there are more than 22,000). Each of the native speakers of
these languages is in a linguistic minority, for none enjoys majority status in India. Thanks in part to the popularity of Bombay’s Hindi cinema, Hindi is understood, if not always well spoken, by nearly half the population of India, but it is in no sense the language of the majority; indeed, its locutions, gender rules and script are unfamiliar to most Indians in the south or north-east.

Ethnicity further complicates the notion of a majority community. Most of the time, an Indian’s name immediately reveals where he is from and what his mother tongue is; when we introduce ourselves we are advertising our origins. Despite some inter-marriage at the elite levels in the cities, Indians still largely remain endogamous, and a Bengali is easily distinguished from a Punjabi. The difference this reflects is often more apparent than the elements of commonality. A Karnataka Brahmin shares his Hindu faith with a Bihari Kurmi, but feels little identity with him in respect of appearance, dress, customs, tastes, language or political objectives. At the same time a Tamil Hindu would feel that he has far more in common with a Tamil Christian or Tamil Muslim than with, say, a Haryanvi Jat with whom he formally shares a religion.

Why do I harp on these differences? Only to make the point that Indian nationalism is a rare animal indeed. [reminds me of the American and French diplomats in the Security Council arguing about a problem: “it may work in practice, but will it work in theory?”] It is not based on language (since we have at least 23 or 35, depending on whether you follow the Constitution or the ethnolinguists). It is not based on geography (the “natural” geography of the subcontinent –
framed by the mountains and the sea — has been hacked by the partition of 1947). It is not based on ethnicity (the “Indian” accommodates a diversity of racial types in which many Indians have more in common with foreigners than with other Indians — Indian Punjabis and Bengalis, for instance, have more in common ethnically with Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, respectively, than they do withPoonawalas or Bangaloreans). And it is not based on religion (we are home to every faith known to mankind, and Hinduism — a faith without a national organization, no established church or ecclesiastical hierarchy, no uniform beliefs or modes of worship — exemplifies as
much our diversity as it does our common cultural heritage). Indian nationalism is the nationalism of an idea, the idea of an ever-ever land — emerging from an ancient civilization, united by a shared history, sustained by pluralist democracy.

So in building this nation, our land imposes no narrow conformities on its citizens: you can be many things and one thing. You can be a good Muslim, a good Keralite and a good Indian all at once. Whereas in the former Yugoslavia, people who looked alike and even shared common
surnames and a language massacred each other, leading Freudians to speak of “the narcissism of minor differences”, in India we celebrate the commonality of major differences. To stand Michael Ignatieff’s famous phrase on its head, we are a land of belonging rather than of blood.

So the idea of India is of one land embracing many. It is the idea that a nation may endure differences of caste, creed, color, culture, cuisine, conviction, costume and custom, and still rally around a democratic consensus. That consensus is around the simple principle that in a democracy you don’t really need to agree — except on the ground rules of how you will disagree. The reason India has survived all the stresses and strains that have beset it for fifty years, and
that led so many to predict its imminent disintegration, is that it maintained consensus on how to manage without consensus.

Now I realize some of you will see this as an excessively rosy pricture, and I will deal with their cynicism in a moment. But let me admit straight away that India offers plenty of scope for
misunderstandings. [Tractor story.] So what you understand depends on what your assumptions are!

I’m here to share my assumptions about the nation we are trying to build. My former wife and I have twin sons, born in June 1984. Though they first entered the world in Singapore, and though the circumstances of my life have seen them grow up in Switzerland and then the United States, and they are now living in Hong Kong and London, it is India they have always identified with. Ask them what they are, and that’s what they’ll tell you: they’re Indian. Not “Hindu”, not “Malayali,” not “Nair”, not “Calcuttan”, though they could claim all those labels too. Their mother is herself
half-Bengali, half-Kashmiri, which gives them further permutative possibilities. They desire none. They are just Indian.

Yet in recent years they have seen an India in which that answer no longer seems enough. Political contention has erupted in violence: the destruction in December 1992 of the Babri Masjid by a howling, chanting mob of Hindu fanatics, and the massacre of perhaps 2000 innocents, mainly Muslim, across Gujarat in early 2002, were both emblematic of this tragic development. Headlines spoke of riots and killing, Hindu against Muslim, of men being slaughtered because of the mark on a forehead or the absence of a foreskin. This is not the India I had wanted my sons to lay claim to.

My generation – and there are so many of you here whom I’ve met years ago at your IIT campuses — grew up in an India where our sense of nationhood lay in the slogan, “unity in diversity”. We were brought up to take pluralism for granted, and to reject the communalism that had partitioned the nation when the British left. In rejecting the case for Pakistan, Indian nationalism also rejected the very idea that religion should be a determinant of nationhood. We never fell into the insidious trap of agreeing that, since Partition had established a state for Muslims, what remained was a state for Hindus. To accept the idea of India you had to spurn the logic that had divided the country.

This was what that much-abused term, “secularism”, meant for us. Western dictionaries define “secularism” as the absence of religion, but as you all know, Indian secularism means a profusion of religions, none of which is privileged by the state. Secularism in India did not mean irreligiousness, which even avowedly atheist parties like the Communists or the southern DMK party found unpopular amongst their voters; indeed, in Calcutta’s annual Durga Puja, the Communist parties compete with each other to put up the most lavish Puja pandals to the
goddess. Rather, secularism means, in the Indian tradition, multi-religiousness. I remember how, in the Calcutta neighbourhood where I lived during my high school years, the wail of the muezzin
calling the Islamic faithful to prayer blended with the tinkling of the bells accompanying the chant of the mantras at the Hindu Shiva temple and the crackling loudspeakers outside the Sikh gurudwara reciting verses from the Granth Sahib. And St. Paul’s Cathedral was just round the corner.

Throughout the decades after Independence, the political culture of the country reflected these “secular” assumptions and attitudes. Though the Indian population was 82% Hindu and the country had been partitioned as a result of a demand for a separate Muslim homeland, three of India’s eleven Presidents were Muslims; so were innumerable Governors, Cabinet Ministers, Chief Ministers of states, Ambassadors, Generals, and Supreme Court Justices. During the war with Pakistan in 1971, the Indian Air Force in the northern sector was commanded by a Muslim [Lateef]; the Army Commander was a Parsi [Manekshaw], the General Officer Commanding the forces that marched into Bangladesh was a Sikh [Aurora], and the General flown in to negotiate the surrender of the Pakistani forces in East Bengal was Jewish [Jacob]. That is India.

The irony is that India’s secular co-existence was paradoxically made possible by the fact that the overwhelming majority of Indians are Hindus. It is odd to read today of “Hindu fundamentalism”, because Hinduism is a religion without fundamentals: no organized church, no
compulsory beliefs or rites of worship, no single sacred book. The name itself denotes something less, and more, than a set of theological beliefs. In many languages — French and Persian amongst them — the word for “Indian” is “Hindu”. Originally Hindu simply meant the people beyond the river Sindhu, or Indus. But the Indus is now in Islamic Pakistan; and to make matters worse, the word “Hindu” did not exist in any Indian language till its use by foreigners gave Indians a term for self-definition.

“Hinduism” is thus the name others applied to the indigenous religion of India, which many call “sanatan Dharma”. It embraces an eclectic range of doctrines and practices, from pantheism to agnosticism and from faith in reincarnation to belief in the caste system. But none of these constitutes an obligatory credo for a Hindu: there are none. We have no compulsory dogmas.

I grew up in a Hindu household. Our home always had a prayer-room, where paintings and portraits of assorted divinities jostled for shelf- and wall-space with fading photographs of departed ancestors, all stained by ash scattered from the incense burned daily by my devout parents. Every morning, after his bath, my father would stand in front of the prayer-room wrapped in his towel, his wet hair still uncombed, and chant his Sanskrit mantras. But he never obliged me to join him; he exemplified the Hindu idea that religion is an intensely personal matter, that prayer is between you and whatever image of your maker you choose to worship. In the Hindu way, I was to find my own truth.

I think I have. I am a believer, despite a brief period of schoolboy atheism (of the kind that comes with the discovery of rationality and goes with an acknowledgement of its limitations). And I am happy to describe myself as a believing Hindu: not just because it is the faith into which I was born, but for a string of other reasons, though faith requires no reason. One is cultural: as a Hindu I belong to a faith that expresses the ancient genius of my own people. Another is, for
lack of a better phrase, its intellectual “fit”: I am more comfortable with the belief structures of Hinduism than I would be with those of the other faiths of which I know. As a Hindu I claim adherence to a religion without an established church or priestly papacy, a religion whose rituals and customs I am free to reject, a religion that does not oblige me to demonstrate my faith by any visible sign, by subsuming my identity in any collectivity, not even by a specific day
or time or frequency of worship. As a Hindu I subscribe to a creed that is free of the restrictive dogmas of holy writ, that refuses to be shackled to the limitations of a single holy book.

Above all, as a Hindu I belong to the only major religion in the world that does not claim to be the only true religion. I find it immensely congenial to be able to face my fellow human beings of other
faiths without being burdened by the conviction that I am embarked upon a “true path” that they have missed. Hinduism asserts that all ways of belief are equally valid, and Hindus readily venerate the saints, and the sacred objects, of other faiths. Hinduism is a civilization, not a dogma. There is no such thing as a Hindu heresy.

How can such a religion lend itself to “fundamentalism”? That devotees of this essentially tolerant faith have desecrated a shrine and assaulted Muslims in its name is a source of shame and sorrow. India has survived the Aryans, the Mughals, the British; it has taken from each — language, art, food, learning — and grown with all of them. To be Indian is to be part of an elusive dream we all share, a dream that fills our minds with sounds, words, flavours from many
sources that we cannot easily identify. Large, eclectic, agglomerative, the Hinduism that I know understands that faith is a matter of hearts and minds, not of bricks and stone. “Build Ram in
your heart,” the Hindu is enjoined; and if Ram is in your heart, it will little matter where else he is, or is not.

But the twentieth-century politics of deprivation has eroded the culture’s confidence. Hindu chauvinism has emerged from the competition for resources in a contentious democracy. But why blame just the Hindus? Politicians of all faiths across India seek to mobilize voters by appealing to narrow identities; by seeking votes in the name of religion, caste and region, they have urged voters to define themselves on these lines. As religion, caste and region have come to dominate public discourse, to some it has become more important to be a Muslim, a Bodo or a Yadav than to be an Indian.

This is why the development of what has been called “Hindufundamentalism” and the resultant change in the public discourse about Indianness is so dangerous. The suggestion that only a Hindu, and only a certain kind of Hindu, can be an authentic Indian, is an affront to the very premise of Indian nationalism. An India that denies itself to some of us could end up being denied to all of us.

The reduction of non-Hindus to second-class status in their homeland is unthinkable. It would be a second Partition: and a partition in the Indian soul would be as bad as a partition in the Indian soil. For my sons, and for all the reasons that I have described, the only possible idea of India is that of a nation greater than the sum of its parts. That is the only India that will allow them to call themselves Indians.

And so the Indian nation that I want to encourage all of you to build, imposes no pressure to conform. It celebrates diversity: if America is a melting-pot, then to me India is a thali, a selection of sumptuous dishes in different bowls. Each tastes different, and does not necessarily mix with the next, but they belong together on the same plate, and they complement each other in making the meal a satisfying repast.

Less than two months ago, I addressed the Wharton Business School’s India Forum on “realizing the Indian Dream”. And I told them that the Indian dream must be a dream that can be dreamt in Gujarati or in Tamil, dreamt by a Muslim or a Parsi, dreamt by a Brahmin or a Bodo, dreamt on a charpoy or a luxury king bed. India’s founding fathers wrote a constitution for their dreams; we have given passports to their ideals. Any narrower definition of Indianness would not just be
pernicious: it would be an insult to Indian nationhood. An India that denies itself to some Indians would no longer be the India Mahatma Gandhi fought to free.

I have already transgressed on the time available to me this evening. We are all like Egyptian mummies, pressed for time! But I do want to say I have great hope for the survival and success of Indian pluralism. I believe no one identity can triumph in India. Both our country’s diversity and the logic of the electoral marketplace make this impossible. And the sight two years ago, after the awe-inspiring experience of the world’s largest exercise in democratic elections, of a Roman Catholic (Sonia Gandhi) making way for a Sikh (Manmohan Singh) to be sworn in as Prime Minister of India by a Muslim (President Abdul Kalam) – in a country more than 80% Hindu — has affirmed, as nothing else could have, the shining example of Indian pluralism. But if your political tastes are different, it doesn’t matter, since in leading a coalition government, the Hindu-inclined Bharatiya Janata Party had already learned that any party with aspirations to rule India will have to reach out to other groups, other interests, other minorities. After all, there are too many diversities in our land for any one version of reality to be imposed on all of us.

Equally, democracy is vital for India’s future. For there is no easy way to cope with such diversity, but democracy is the only technique that can work. What is encouraging for the future of democracy is that India is unusual in that democracy is not an elite preoccupation, but
matters most strongly to ordinary people. Whereas in the United States a majority of the poor do not vote, [in Harlem in the last Presidential elections, the turnout was 23%] in India the poor turn
out in great numbers. It is not the privileged or even the middle-class who spend four hours in the hot sun to cast their vote, but the poor, because they know their votes make a difference.

So a democratic nation is being built. No one speaks seriously any more of the dangers of disintegration that, for years, India was said to be facing. In my view, the experiment begun nearly sixty years ago has worked. Though there have been caste conflicts, linguistic clashes, communal riots and threats to the nation from separatist groups, political democracy has helped to defuse each of these. Separatist movements in places as far-flung as Tamil Nadu and Mizoram
have been defused in an unsung achievement of Indian democracy. The formula is simple: Yesterday’s secessionists become today’s chief ministers, and (thanks to the vagaries of politics) tomorrow’s leaders of the opposition. The explosive potential of caste division has also been channelled through the ballot box. Most strikingly, the power of electoral numbers has given high office to the lowest of India’s low. Who could have imagined, for 3000 years, that a Dalit woman would rule as Chief Minister of India’s most populous state? Yet Mayawati has done that not once but twice in UP. Nine summers ago, K. R. Narayanan, a Dalit, — a man who was born in a thatched hut with no toilet and no running water, whose university refused to award him his degree at the same ceremony as his upper-caste classmates even though he came first in the university — was elected President of India. He led an India whose injustices and inequalities he had keenly felt as a member of an underprivileged community; yet an India that offered — through its brave if flawed experiment in constitutional democracy, secularism, affirmative governmental action and change through the ballot-box — the prospect of overcoming these injustices. He was succeeded by the extraordinary man we have heard today — a Tamil
Muslim, who as a boy peddled newspapers, and who happens to be the father of India’s missile program. If the Presidency symbolizes the Indian State, it is still a remarkable symbol of India’s diversity, and of its democracy.

I have written in my books of the many problems the country faces, the poor quality of much of its political leadership, the rampant corruption, the criminalization of politics. And yet — corruption is being tackled by an activist judiciary and by energetic investigative agencies that have not hesitated to indict the most powerful Indian politicians. (If only the rate of convictions matched the rate of indictments, it would be even better…) The rule of law remains a vital Indian strength. Nongovernmental organizations actively defend human rights, promoting environmentalism, fighting injustice. The press is free, lively, irreverent, disdainful of sacred cows.

On my annual visits home, I discover that India is anything but the unchanging land of cliché. There is an extraordinary degree of change and ferment. Dramatic transformations are taking place that amount to little short of a revolution — in politics, economics, society and
culture. In politics, we have gone from single party governance to a coalition era. In economics we have gone from protectionism to liberalization, even if is with the hesitancy of governments looking over their electoral shoulders. In caste and social relations, we have witnessed the convulsive changes I have just mentioned. It’s still true that in many parts of India, when you cast your vote, you vote your caste. But that too has brought about profound alterations in the country. And in a sense in cultural affairs, with the notion of Hindutva being proclaimed, and argued and debated from the rooftops in recent years, we have had a searching re-examination of identity. Now, any of these transformations could have been enough to throw another country into a turbulent revolution. But we have had all four in India and yet we have absorbed them, and made all the changes work, because the Indian revolution is a democratic one, sustained by a
larger idea of India, an India which safeguards the common space available to each identity, an India that remains safe for diversity.

I have not touched on economics today, because so many speakers better qualified than I am will do so during your conference. You are all familiar with the forecasts that at least in GNP terms India could be the world’s fifth-largest economy in the next 20 years, after the US, China, Japan and a united Europe, and we could move up to third place a decade later. This is quite a change, since for more than four decades India suffered from what I call the economics of nationalism,
which equated political independence with economic self-sufficiency and so largely isolated India from the world economy. The political choices made by successive Indian Governments meant that for over four decades we put bureaucrats on top of the commanding heights of the
economy rather than businessmen, and we spent 45 years regulating stagnation and trying to distribute poverty. Economic reforms have changed India irreversibly. You IITans have contributed hugely to the new image of India: your success in Silicon Valley and elsewhere means
that India is no longer seen as a land of poverty and snake charmers – though both exist – but as a nation of computer geeks and software entrepreneurs. You have replaced the idea of the Indian rope trick with an Indian hope trick – and thanks to you it is not a trick but a reality that most Indians have reason to hope their tomorrow will be better than their today. And I urge the NRIs amongst you to play your full part in building that hope – since, as I’ve written, “NRI” could
stand for “Not really Indian” but it could also be “Never Relinquished India”, and I think the NRI IITans here are in the latter category.

Yet many Indians still fear that economic liberalization will bring with it cultural imperialism of a particularly insidious kind — that Baywatch and burgers will supplant Bharatanatyam and bhelpuri.
Instead, India’s recent experience with Western consumer products demonstrates that we can drink Coca-Cola without becoming coca-colonized. Indians will not become any less Indian if, in
Mahatma Gandhi’s metaphor, we open the doors and windows of our country and let foreign winds blow through our house. Our popular culture has proved resilient enough to compete successfully with MTV and McDonald’s. Besides, the strength of “Indianness” lies in its ability to absorb foreign influences and to transform them — by a peculiarly Indian alchemy — into something that belongs naturally on the soil of India.

But in any case the winds of globalization must blow both ways. The exports of Bollywod are reaching beyond NRIs to new foreign audiences. And Indian food has gone global. In England today, Indian curry houses employ more people than the coal, iron and steel and shipbuilding
industries combined. So the Empire can strike back.

I believe in an India open to the contention of ideas and interests within it, unafraid of the prowess or the products of the outside world, wedded to the pluralism that is India’s greatest strength, and determined to liberate and fulfill the creative energies of its people. Such an India can make the 21st century its own.

So, to return to the kind of nation I’m supposed to help inspire you to build: For observers of India across the world, wary of the endless multiplication of sovereignties, hesitant before the clamour for ethnic division and religious self-assertion echoing in a hundred remote corners of the globe, there may be something to think about in this idea of India. It’s a deceptively simple idea, familiar to developed democracies but few others — of a land where it doesn’t (or shouldn’t) matter what the color of your skin is, the kind of food you eat, the sounds you make when you speak, the God you choose to worship (or not), so long as you want to play by the same rules as everybody else. If the overwhelming majority of a people share the political will for unity, if they wear the dust of a shared history on their foreheads and the mud of an uncertain future on their feet, and if they realize they are better off in Kozhikode or Kanpur dreaming the same dreams as those in Kohlapur or Kohima, a nation exists, celebrating diversity, pluralism — and freedom. That is why India can face the new millennium with confidence, if not with optimism. But then I define “optimism” as “regarding the future with uncertainty”; a pessimist says “everything will go wrong”, whereas an optimist belives “everything might go right”. I believe I have given you enough reasons to imagine that everything might go right.

So that is my idea of the Indian nation we should build: a pluralist land that celebrates its diversity and makes it a source of strength rather than weakness, and that enables each Indian to fulfil his or her potential. That is a nation which we are capable of building. Since Purnendu mentioned that I am an Indian writer, let me tell you an Indian story — a tale from our ancient Puranas. It is a typical Indian story of a sage and his disciples. The sage asks his disciples,
“when does the night end?” And the disciples say, “at dawn, of course.” The sage says, “I know that. But when does the night end and the dawn begin?” The first disciple, who is from the tropical south of India where I come from, replies: “When the first glimmer of light across the sky reveals the palm fronds on the coconut trees swaying in the breeze, that is when the night ends and the dawn begins.” The sage says “no,” so the second dsiciple, who is from the cold north,
ventures: “When the first streaks of sunshine make the snow gleam white on the mountaintops of the Himalayas, that is when the night ends and the dawn begins.” The sage says, “no, my sons. When two travelers from opposite ends of our land meet and embrace each other as brothers, and when they realize they sleep under the same sky, see the same stars and dream the same dreams — that is when the night ends and the dawn begins.”

There has been many a dark night for India in the century that has just passed. By preserving the diversity that is its essence, and our democratic values and traditions, I believe India can not only build a great nation but ensure that its people can enjoy a new dawn in this century.”

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3 Comments »

  1. an excellent piece by Tharoor, intelligently summarizing the most difficult thing to summarize viz. India or rather ‘Indianness’.
    I take the liberty to propose that he speaks for most of the young minds of present times.
    Atleast, thats what i sincerely believe.
    Kudos to Mr Subbaraman Iyer to post such a nice article.
    We are looking forward for some serious stuff on ur pages.
    Jai HIND

    Comment by attri — April 18, 2007 @ 12:49 am | Reply

  2. […] And if you want a more cerebral article on the differences between US and India read this: […]

    Pingback by Tips to doing business in India « Subba’s Serendipitous moments — May 14, 2008 @ 9:55 pm | Reply

  3. […] And if you want a more cerebral article on the differences between US and India read this: […]

    Pingback by Tips to doing business in India | Expanding Thought — March 10, 2011 @ 5:15 pm | Reply


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