Ideas of India


Swapan Dasgupta, Rakhshanda Jalil, Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, Mukulika Banerjee  and Pragya Tiwari, introduced by Malvika Singh

Sneha Khaund

Official JLF at Southbank Blogger


Pragya Tiwari spent two years researching the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the right-wing, Hindu nationalist organisation in India. She noted that it was Tagore who coined the phrase “Idea of India,” and that he was highly aware of the menace that nationalism could become. According to Tiwari, the RSS is fundamentally opposed to a pluralist future for India, and does not consider the country through existing political frameworks, bur rather, through a mythological conception; one largely influenced by Colonial ideas of the Golden Age of Hindu rule and the period of Tyrannical Muslim rule. In Tiwari’s view, there is a profound conflict between India’s plural reality and the RSS’s reductive formula of a sanitized entity along European nationalist lines, that sees a threat in Islam, Christianity and Communism.

Swapan Dasgupta claimed that discussions about the Idea of India did not exist before the 2014 elections, and was actually a political strategy to portray a pristine, singular identity for India that was under attack, and in need of reclaiming. Dasgupta postulated a “sacredness” that united India, but said that trying to restrict India to a particular aspect or idea was “a bit silly,” since the country contained multiple identities. Dasgupta distinguished between India the nation and India the state, observing that as a nation, India was a rich tapestry and an ancient cultural unity, but politically, was still young.

Mukulika Banerjee discussed her story Beauty, about a young girl from a village in West Bengal. Through the story, Banerjee examined subalterns who determine India’s elections, staking their citizenship by participating in the democratic process. She suggested that the current trend of looking to elite Delhi-based forms of politics to debate ideas of India needed to change, and become more inclusive by listening to non-elite political players.

Salman Khurshid agreed with Dasgupta that India is composed of multiplicities, suggesting that the discussion should therefore focus on Ideas of India. He claimed that the critical point about India was that politically, ideas of India could be interpreted differently, but the fundamental ethos of the nation remained liberal. Khurshid suggested that if the idea of India was indeed as plural as Dasgupta claimed, the current government (which Dasgupta supports) would not be supporting calls to rename roads. This was a reference to recent demands to change road names from Muslim historical figures to Hindu equivalents, such as changing ‘Akbar Road’ (after the Muslim conqueror) in Lutyens, Delhi, to ‘Maharana Pratap Road’ (after the Hindu defender). Khurshid argued that the re-naming of historical places was the re-writing of public memory.

Rakhshanda Jalil returned to Dasgupta’s point that discussions on the Idea of India were a political strategy, but the very fact that they were taking place so extensively proved there was a real need for such discussions. Unlike the rest of the panel, Jalil focussed on what was not her Idea of India, such as the increase in litmus tests for individuals – especially from religious minorities – to prove their loyalty to the country. She argued that space for public debate was shrinking, seen in the “culling” of educational curriculums and the effacement of histories, and the way public universities are now under threat whilst the lawyers who rough up student activists get off scot free. Jalil expressed her frustration that it was left to minorities to defend a secularist fabric for India, instead of it being the dominant narrative, suggesting that Nehru’s idea of India as a modern scientific secular nation was a good template.

This was a fascinating discussion, reflecting a wide variety of “Ideas of India.” Whilst all the panellists agreed that multiplicity was fundamental to the Idea of India, they disagreed profoundly about how to politically manifest this idea.


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