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Defining a nation - Mid-day

Saeed naqvi ()
19 November 1996

Title : Defining a nation
Author : Saeed naqvi
Publication : Mid-day
Date : November 19, 1996

It was a relaxed social evening. Conversation meandered
past a series of subjects when Richard Holbrooke, former
assistant secretary of state, asked a group of Indian
journalists in one corner of the room: "Was India a
nation before the British arrived?"

It was difficult to gauge why Holbrooke was asking that
question. In recent months, he has been preoccupied with
former Yugoslavia and how that country, put together
under an authoritarian system, disintegrated violently
once communist control was lifted.

Holbrooke's abrupt query did not elicit a straightforward
response. There was considerable humming and hawing and
looking over each others shoulders, like students in an
examination hall, stuck over a question and searching for
a sympathetic vigilator.

We hate admitting it to foreigners, but the fact of the
matter is that we were never a nation-state in the sense
that westerners understand the term. There were three
distinct attempts to bring the country under one rule,
but in each case the project was never completed. Em-
perors Ashoka, Alauddin Khiji and Akbar embarked on the
ambitious mission but large chunks of areas, like the
Pandiyan South, remained independent.

The British did, indeed, bind the country together by an
outstanding civil service, Indian Army, railways, post
and telegraph system, and since Macualay, a deliberate
policy of creating an indigenous, anglicised elite.
Their purpose was to transform this varied land into a
commercial unit.

Many of us imagined that on August 15, 1947, this commer-
cial unit had by the alchemy of power been transferred to
Indian hands. We had been transformed into a nation

To some extent we have all lived this lie. That is why
when someone as perceptive as Holbrooke asks a simple
question, we fumble and search for words.

The irony is that the basic insecurity which makes us
hesitate in responding to such queries is largely mis-

We are not a classical, homogeneous nation-state, but a
civilisation, a secure civilisational unit - our rivers
are holy across the board, the Ganga being the holiest.

A sort of Catholic reverence of all our holy places
informs the works even of major Muslim poets. Some bear
repetition. Take 18th century poet Sheikh Ali Hazim's
couplet in praise of Varanasi:

"Az Benaras na rawam
Maa bade aam ast inja
Har Braham pisare
Lakshman o Ram ast inja

(I cannot leave Varanasi, it is holy place for all.

Every Brahmin here looks like the very son of Ram and

Mirza Ghalib describes Varanasi thus:

"Ibadat Khana e naqoosian ast
Harm na kaaba e Hindustan ast".

(This is the place of worship for those who make music
from conch shells.
Truly, this is the Kaaba of Hindustan)

The Vavar Sami legend, associated with Lord Ayappa at
Sabrimala, is another one of the numerous examples of a
civilisational consensus.

Bound by the Himalayas on one side and the ocean on all
the others, the fundamental unity for India is so bound
up with culture, music and literature - in spite of
linguistic, religious and ethnic diversity - that outsid-
ers used to simple straight-line definitions, find it

An experiment that never fails with friends visiting from
other countries is what I call the currency trick. Pull
out an Indian currency note and read out the 15 languag-
es, including English and Hindi, in which each denomina-
tion is indicated. Foreigners go away rubbing their eyes
with disbelief.

A country of 900 million, consisting of blue-eyed Chitpa-
wan Brahmans and the darkest Dravidians, hundreds of
dialects, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Parsis, Jews,
Sikhs, Buddhists, countless ethnic groups does look like
a forbidding, impossible project.

Some years ago, all Indians did not contemplate the
currency note trick with equanimity. Centrifugal push
was their very real anxiety what with the language agita-
tion in Tamil Nadu, insurgencies in the North-East,
trouble in Kashmir and so on.

The basic instrument for conflict resolution, the one
that has strengthened national unity, has been the demo-
cratic structure - the ballot box as the ultimate arbit-

Gradually, nervousness on account of an imagined centrif-
ugal push has given way to a broad acceptance of our
evolution as a genuinely federal nation. The United
Front experiment is the logical part of that evolution.

The concept of an over centralised Hindu Rashtra never
had the potential of encompassing the Indian diversity.
It is now struggling to retain a foothold in the Hindi
heartland. But I find one huge gap in our currency note,
even though my friends generally consider it a peculiar
kink of mine.

During my five-year stint as a journalist in the South, I
stumbled upon a compelling truth. I was commenting on
the unintelligibility of our All India Radio's Hindi.
This elicited a somewhat annoyed response from my friend,
cartoonist Abu Abraham. "The more Sanskritised becomes,
the more intelligible it is for me," he said. "You must
not forget that 60 per cent of Malayalam is Sanskrit." He
was right. Over 60 per cent of Telugu, Kannada, and every
Indian language except Tamil, is Sanskrit.

In spite of all our attempts, there is no enthusiasm for
Hindi in most states which have their own languages.
Supposing Sanskrit, and not Hindi, had been our national
language, there would have been that much more enthusiasm
for it across all our linguistic belts. But, my friends
say, you cannot revive a dead language.

How have the Israelis transformed Hebrew into a language
of statecraft, science and technology and daily usage? I
ask. I have not heard a convincing argument against this

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