The Idea of India


By Harish Alagappa

Official Jaipur Literature Festival Blogger


If you want to be accurate to the point of being pedantic; the idea of India began 70 million years ago when a chunk of the Earth’s crust broke off from the southern supercontinent of Gondwanaland and moved rapidly (by plate tectonic standards) towards Eurasia, colliding around 50 million years ago to create the Himalaya Mountains and the Indian subcontinent.

Humans took a while to arrive here, with the first moving in around 70,000 years ago as part of the earliest human migrations out of Africa. Were these people the first Indians? They obviously felt an affinity to this land, as they stayed behind while their peers went on to colonize Southeast Asia and eventually Australia. Genetic studies conducted in the early 21st century revealed their traces firmly embedded in the genes of rural communities in modern-day Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

Perhaps the first Indians were the residents of the Indus Valley Civilization, whose heyday lasted from between 3500 to around 2000 BCE. Their cities spread from what is modern-day Afghanistan, across modern-day Pakistan to modern-day Gujarat. Indus Valley sites share a flair for urban planning that is missing from most modern South Asian cities and appear to have been part of a large, unified trading network. Did they see themselves as a single political or social entity, though? We do not know; their writing remains the most tantalizingly indecipherable script in modern archaeology.

Maybe the first Indians were the first people who named the subcontinent after themselves, the Proto-Indo-European settlers who migrated into the Indian subcontinent from Central Asia in the second millennium BCE. They called themselves Aryans and called the land Aryavarta (land of the Aryans). They were driven here by climate change and possibly by conflict with rival religious and political groups, who also called themselves Aryans and instead settled in the Zagros Mountains in modern-day Iran, a nation whose name comes from the word Aryan. These people composed the Vedas, spoke Sanskrit, worshipped Gods who are still venerated in the Hindu pantheon, and are thus the progenitors of a culture that is still alive, active, and undeniably Indian.

By the Iron Age, the subcontinent was divided into dozens, even hundreds of kingdoms and city-states and proto-republics, each fighting the other for resources and political dominance. Did the denizens of these states identify themselves as Magadhans, Gandharans, or Kalingans rather than as people living in a larger Indian subcontinent?

We can keep extrapolating over the next two and a half to three thousand years of Indian history and find a new idea of India for every decade of that time. Ultimately, the idea of India exists more in the mind of its citizens than it does as a real entity. The idea of ‘the nation’ is arguably a working fiction, an abstract idea that can unite a very large, disparate group of individuals towards a common goal. In a sense, it is a co-creation, because those common goals can end up imbibing the citizens of that nation with shared values, habits, and perspectives.

Within the seven-decade history of independent India, the idea of India has morphed from a Fabian socialist, secular republic to a Soviet-styled centrally planned state to a globalized capitalist democracy to a right-wing Hindu democracy. Yet some central characteristics prevail; a belief in democracy, a fanatical obsession over cricket, a near universal love for cinema ranging from Bollywood to Goddard, and perhaps most importantly, the notion that despite our differences, we are all subsets of a greater, undefined – possibly undefinable – amalgam.

Perhaps this is the secret behind the idea of India: there is no fixed idea of India. The country and the idea that defines it is a placeholder, a space where this disjointed joint family of cultures, religions, and languages can move and change with the times. It is simultaneously conservative and allowing of multiplicity, constantly redefining itself in its eternalness, a universal that cannot be homogenized. In this way, each Indian can retain and express their own idea of India, and a diverse population of over a billion people can manage to live under one umbrella in relative peace.

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