‘Antiquity-continuity; diversity-unity; massivity-democracy; multiconfessionality-secularity’
Delhi, August 1947
From London Review of Books:
‘Astonishing thought: that any culture or civilisation should have this continuity for five or six thousand years or more; and not in a static or unchanging sense, for India was changing and progressing all the time,’ marvelled the country’s future ruler a few years before coming to power. There was ‘something unique’ about the antiquity of the subcontinent and its ‘tremendous impress of oneness’, making its inhabitants ‘throughout these ages distinctively Indian, with the same national heritage and the same set of moral and mental qualities’. Indeed, a ‘dream of unity has occupied the mind of India since the dawn of civilisation’.
In patriotic reveries of this kind, today’s admirers of Nehru, even some of his critics, are not to be outdone. For Manmohan Singh, his current successor in Delhi, India’s struggle for independence has ‘no parallel in history’, culminating in a constitution that is ‘the boldest statement ever of social democracy’. With no obligation to official bombast, scholars fall over themselves in tributes to their native land. For Meghnad Desai, the ‘success story’ of modern India in combining unity with diversity is ‘nothing short of a miracle’. For Ramachandra Guha, the ‘humdrum manifestation of the miracle of India’ crinkles in its very banknotes, with Gandhi on one side and their denomination in 15 languages on the other, its radiance anticipating, ‘by some fifty years, the European attempt to create a multilingual, multireligious, multiethnic, political and economic community’. For its part, Indian democracy – Pratap Bhanu Mehta declares – is ‘a leap of faith for which there was no precedent in human history’. ‘Especially fortunate’ in its millennial traditions of ‘public arguments, with toleration of intellectual heterodoxy’, according to Amartya Sen, ‘independent India became the first country in the non-Western world to choose a resolutely democratic constitution’ – founding an adventure that, in the eyes of Sunil Khilnani, represents ‘the third moment in the great democratic experiment launched at the end of the 18th century by the American and French Revolutions’, which ‘may well turn out to be the most significant of them all, partly because of its sheer human scale, and partly because of its location, a substantial bridgehead of effervescent liberty on the Asian continent’. This is ‘the most interesting country in the world’, even the lesser of whose aspects are entitled to their garlands: after independence, its absorption of princely states a ‘stupendous achievement’, its foreign policy ‘a staggering performance’. Nehru himself, ‘in the hearts and minds of his countrymen’, is ‘George Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt and Eisenhower rolled into one’.
All countries have fond images of themselves, and big countries, inevitably, have bigger heads than others. Striking in this particular cornucopia of claims, however, is the standing of their authors: names among the most distinguished Indian intellectuals of the age. Nor are any of the works from which these tributes come – respectively, The Rediscovery of India, India after Gandhi, The Burden of Democracy, The Argumentative Indian, The Idea of India, Makers of Modern India – either casual or uncritical about their subject. All are eminently serious studies, required for an understanding of the country. What they indicate, however, is something they share with the rhetoric of the state itself, from Nehru to Singh: the centrality of four tropes in the official and intellectual imaginary of India. Telegraphically, these can be termed the couplets of antiquity-continuity; diversity-unity; massivity-democracy; multiconfessionality-secularity. Issuing from an independence struggle perceived as without equal in scale or temper, each has in its way become a touchstone of – in a now consecrated phrase – the ‘idea of India’. Though by no means every mind of note subscribes to the full bill of particulars, they enjoy what in Rawlsian diction might be called an overlapping consensus. What realities do they correspond to?