A country of many nations, will India break up?

The beehive,
The beehive,
Image: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui
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This is a forbidden question we must ask. I began by remarking that as a 70-year-old nation state, India was older than some which had a shorter shelf life. Yugoslavia and the USSR were mentioned among others. I have also said that maintaining its integrity and unity has been the greatest achievement of India, and democracy has been the key.

But never say never.

Even within the last few years, unpredicted events have happened. Donald Trump’s election as the US President, the UK vote to leave the European Union, and the surprise emergence and success of Emmanuel Macron in France have all led to heated debates. Even the election of Modi with a single party majority for the BJP was hardly expected. Even less expected was the dismal number of seats the Congress won in the 2014 election. In the case of Yugoslavia, it was the unevenly large size of Serbia relative to other units which caused trouble. In a federation with unequal units, if they are treated equally, there is the chance of friction. 

India has avoided equal treatment of unequal units. Representation in the Rajya Sabha is proportional to population size. If anything, it is the smaller states that may complain about being marginalised, though so far none has. The larger states thus dominate both Houses of Parliament. It would be difficult for small states to object, much less initiate reform. In future, small states could unite to present their case for better treatment. Except for Punjab and Nagaland, there has been no attempt to challenge the status quo.

The issue, however, is that India has still not fashioned a narrative about its nationhood which can satisfy all. The two rival narratives—secular and Hindu nation—are both centred in the Hindi belt extending to Gujarat and Maharashtra at the most. This area comprises 51% of the total population and around 45% of the Muslims in India. It is obviously a large part of India and is contiguous. Of course, ideas of secularism and Hindu nationhood capture the imagination in other parts of India too, but even so, there is a lot of India outside this.

In the agitation to establish Hindi as the sole national language in 1965, India came close to a rupture between the north and the south. It was the Chinese debacle which united the country. But the idea of the south seceding was openly discussed. The north-east is a region which has long felt alienated from what it calls the “mainland.” It has never been woven into the national narrative, just as the south has been ignored. Privileging the Hindu-Muslim divide has left the numerous other minorities and linguistic nations outside the idea of the Indian nation. The current agitation about beef eating and gau raksha is in the Hindi belt just an excuse for attacking Muslims blatantly. As most slaughterhouses in UP are Muslim-owned, owners and employees of these places are prime targets.

But that apart, the idea that beef eating is anathema to Hindus across India is just wrong. Hindus, with the exception of Brahmins, have been known to eat meat, even beef. South Indian Hindus, for example, eat beef. The lower castes and Dalits openly do. Then we come to the tribal people. They have no reason to be deprived of their food sources because some upper caste Hindus in Awadh feel strongly about beef eating.

Across India, Hindus and non-Hindus eat beef. No one has the right to impose a uniform eating culture on others. Just because the BJP has won a large vote in UP, it does not license vigilante attacks on beef eaters. There will be other elections and Indian voters are known for expressing their displeasure through the ballot. The democratic process has bound the different regions and nations together because everyone has a hand in the election of governments. But the idea that India has just two “nations,” Hindu and Muslim, is far too simple.

There are many nations. Across the Dandakaranya are tribes whose names are unknown even to most Indians.

The recent incident at a Delhi club where a woman wearing a north-eastern dress was denied entry as someone in the management decided she was “improperly dressed” tells all. This relative isolation of the peripheral, low-density areas of India is a worry. It has not taken an agitational form as yet. But the integration of the tribal people in India as bona fide citizens has yet to be achieved. The categories of Hindu or Muslim may not apply to them. They may have their own religion, some form of animism or worship of the land. They could be Christians. There are, after all, a number of Christian sects in India as Christianity has been practised in India since the first century ce, before Islam was even preached. The many tribal languages have yet to gain recognition.

An ambitious narrative

There is an esoteric but significant indication of the lack of a national narrative of independent India. Before Independence, Indians read their history as written by the British in the Oxford or Cambridge volumes of Indian history. After Independence, the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan under the stewardship of KM Munshi published The History and Culture of the Indian People edited by RC Majumdar in 11 volumes. The project took 26 years. Nothing else of such an ambitious scale has been attempted by any Indian university or the Indian Council of Historical Research since. Such a project if undertaken with seriousness could meet the challenge of constructing a truly pan-Indian narrative of Indian nationhood in which all its various regions, all its castes, tribes and communities with their varied religions and languages and histories could find their due place.

India will stay as one but it needs work. A special effort has to be made to see it as a rich collection of many nations. These nations are interconnected by history and geography and democratic politics. There has to be a narrative of nationhood which sees India in its diversity rather than imposing a false unity.

Perhaps by 2047 that may have become possible. Let us hope so.

Excerpted from Meghnad Desai’s book The Raisina Model with permission from Penguin Random House India. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.