| 5 MINUTE READ | A review of ‘A new idea of India – Individual rights in a civilizational state’
India can be a beacon of change for a world to be guided more by the equanimity of its inner voice than the confusions of its outer conflicts
Science & Prayer
Our courts recently heard a petition challenging the recitation of the Sanskrit mantra ‘Asato ma sadgamaya’ at the morning prayers held at Kendriya Vidyalaya’s across the country. The prayer means ‘lead me from unreality to reality’. This practice dates back to 1964.
The contention in the suit was that an overt expression of religious faith in a state institution is both unconstitutional and will weaken the development of a scientific temper in our children. The court acknowledged the need for a further examination of the constitutional questions raised. To which the Solicitor General of India pointed out that the shloka from the Upanishads was not necessarily religious in nature, and that the Supreme Court’s own motto, ‘Yato dharmastato jayah’, or ‘where there is dharma, there is victory’, is from the Mahabharata.
Ironically, the Vedas are filled with the kind of scepticism that would gladden the hearts of philosophers and physicists even today. Aligned with the fundamental premise of scientific enquiry, that an unknown truth can be learnt through iterative experimentation and exploration. It is hard to imagine a zeitgeist which does not draw value from who we were, to be able to effectively guide us to what we can become.
The bridges of debate
While speaking to the New York Times seven years ago, the political scientist Ashutosh Varshney said the idea of India had a clear place for minorities as minorities, not minorities as simply individuals. This led to a vigorous debate on the idea of India, initiated by Harsh & Rajeev, the young authors of this book. Multiple voices joined both sides of this discussion across the print media in what was hailed as the resurrection of the op-ed space. ‘A new idea of India’ is both an outcome of this dialogue and an effort to further expand its scope.
It explores the relevance and expression of our civilizational legacy, as it integrates into the politics and socio-economics of a modern state. The essence of our history endures in us as people. As inherited sensibilities that inform us on who we are and what life is. Can a static constitutional view or a deracinated academic analysis, that does not recognise the civilizational psyche present in our people but absent in our colonial institutions, inspire the confidence and creativity required to integrate them together? True independence is when our native authenticity is given the space to influence how we educate our children, manage our economy, understand our faith, decentralise our bureaucracy and debate our politics.
This book begins an important conversation on these issues, with well-constructed perspectives and actionable ideas – that open themselves up for examination and critique. It is elegantly structured and ambitious in scope. Our traditional approach to knowledge as a catalyst for deeper understanding rather than as dogma for enforcement is used as a prism to locate the centrality of individual liberties and rights. It is within this framework that the authors delve into economic and political policy. It has the right mix of intellectual rigour, strategic sharpness, an insightful and engaging writing style and an eye for detail that is grounded and contextual.
The silken threads that bind us
Nehru understood that the age old criss-crossing and intermingling of pilgrims across what they considered holy land were the silken threads that stitched together an underlying sense of unity across a diverse region. Transcending the borders of kingdoms and the cultural flux of languages and dialects, they capture our enduring relationship with pluralism.
In 1989, when Francis Fukuyama heralded the fall of the Soviet Union as the end of the great debate between democratic capitalism and totalitarian communism, Samuel Huntington argued correctly that this would raise deeper questions about identity, like ‘who are we?’ as opposed to ‘what do we believe in?’, causing global fault lines to migrate from ideological questions to civilizational ones.
In Sunil Khilnani’s book ‘The idea of India’, he wonders if partition should be seen as the ‘division of one territory between two nations’ or ‘the breaking of one civilisation into two territories’. In viewing India and Pakistan as two distinct civilisations, the authors conflate the deeply ingrained influences accumulated over millennia with the more volatile geopolitical and religious frictions between states and citizens.
In doing so they contradict their own view on the essence of our civilizational legacy as being anchored by the enquiry of ‘who we are’, and shaped by the ubiquity and diversity of paths that lead us to it. An intuitive and inherently liberal process that melts the devout, the agnostic and the atheist into the same pot. One that is largely unaffected by the negotiations of power between people and sustains its influence even amidst the most dystopic external conditions.
While the western world view approaches events as a linear progression, the Indic perspective recognises the cyclic nature of existence. This alters the way life is experienced – through a shift in emphasis from binary external outcomes to evolutionary inner experiences – from resistance to acceptance.
Arjuna & Ekalayva
The Mahabharata reminds us that the collective stories of humans have always resonated with sharp polarities. It was the right thumb sacrificed by Ekalavya that enabled Arjuna’s ascent to become the greatest archer in the world. Meditative skill, cruel deception, the myth of heroes and selfless surrender – these qualities were implicit in this powerful event in the Mahabharata and remain present around us today.
From a sprawling story of victory and defeat, it evolved into a realistic treatise on the politics of power and the karma of choices. Which culminated in Lord Krishna’s message to a profoundly confused Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, to recognise the illusion of the individual self while participating in the great game of life. As a detached observer, guided by the voice of dharma and consumed by the inscrutable course of destiny.
It made Arjuna pick up his bow to fight again. It made Ekalavya unhesitatingly accept the tainted request of his Guru. Immersed in action. Expecting nothing. Prepared for anything.
Nations are defined more deeply by the ideas that empower them than the borders that circumscribe them. A wide consensus on an idea of India would coalesce around one that is inclusive, authentic and insightful. Inspired by our history, aware of our present and fearless towards our future.
The start of a wider discussion
While the Chinese have had a near-unbroken experience of statecraft over two millennia, Indians did not have a state for centuries and have understandably forgotten the art and science of statecraft. The last seven decades have been a time for relearning and adaptation.
A confluence of narratives is necessary, to see the world around us for the malleable mosaic of change and contradictions that it is. But for it to be sufficient to sustain dialogue, it must illuminate both sides while not alienating either. The economist Kaushik Basu accurately captured the reason for the common gridlocks in public discourse when he said ‘the difference between a political debate and a scientific debate is that in the former you first decide which side you are on and then join the debate, whereas in the latter you use the debate to decide which side you are on’. The title of this book, that prefaces its ideas with ‘a’ instead of ‘the’, reflects the humility to acknowledge the basis for an honest debate.
This book does not skirt around hard territories, bombard us with generalities or reduce idealism into a graveyard for common sense and a guardian of convenient status quos. It instead makes persuasive arguments rooted in pragmatism that are refreshingly simple and confidently specific. They echo with optimism and evoke reflection.
The idea of India that has resonated through time, is the one that makes us feel inspired by the land we all come from. That celebrates silence, understands the essential and is uplifted by the indescribable. As a great Indian sage once said, ‘the mind creates the chasm, that only the heart can cross’.
(This post was published in ‘The Sunday Guardian’)