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 (Talk delivered by Maj.Gen. Vinod Saighal (retd) at the Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Contemporary Studies, New Delhi on May 10, 2003)

The ‘Idea of India’ has been variously commented upon by several persons, many of them well known, from the perspective of their own background, whether they be writers, expatriates, political scientists, constitutional experts, philosophers and the like. Almost invariably the discipline or the academic background of the person putting forward the ideas has manifested itself in the views expressed, perhaps naturally so. This point is mentioned because the diversity of views of the idea of India can be seen to be as abundant as the idea of India itself. On the academic plane, i.e. from the perspective of persons who are able to put across their views to a larger audience through their writings or discourses the ‘Idea’ has been regarded, or at times discredited as one or the other label, most notably cultural, civlisational, political or an amalgam of complexities, too difficult to discern with any degree of clarity. As if these complexities were not enough, the present dialogue on the idea of India has been overwhelmingly coloured by the controversy raging over secular and non-secular debates that have taken place or are taking shape at the very moment when the world itself is being buffeted by contradictions that it thought it had wound down for a century or more.

To a lay person standing aside from the debate on the idea of India, which itself is a subliminal thrust towards a perceived ideal for the person informing the debate, the idea per se becomes a superimposition of the beliefs or prejudices of the person concerned. Standing back, at some remove from a direct involvement, it should be possible for any objective observer to anticipate with a reasonable degree of accuracy the position that would be likely to be taken by a well known person putting across his or her idea of India. This statement should not be construed as a criticism of a given mindset of the idea of India, which in several cases would be seen to conform to the ideal of the person formulating the idea of India. The digression at the start of the paper is made to show that the very subjectivity attached to the idea of India makes it an imperfect ideal for being accepted as such – in case it is meant to be so – by the majority of the people who go through the humdrum of Indian existence without trying to look for anything beyond the travails of their existence. To that extent the debate remains esoteric.

The amorphous nature of the idea of the ‘Idea of India’ allows for as many interpretations as there are people pondering over it as an intellectual exercise. There are so many ways of looking at a country whose civilisational base goes back to the dawn of civilization itself. An individual, or groups of individuals, who in their remoteness remain steeped in the traditions patterned on the lives of their forefathers since time immemorial do not have to delve into aspects that are of analytical, philosophical or historical interest to writers and savants, who debate these issues. They live the tradition. It is part of their very being. It is the continuum that in their mind was without beginning, flows effortlessly into the present, and by their reckoning, moves as easily into the future. It is a faith and an understanding untrammeled by self-doubt or doubt about the tradition in which they are steeped.

There are others, comprising the bulk of the people of India, living in India, who may share the attitudes of their brethren, although the pre-modern type of existence would appear to be an anachronism to many people who have stepped into the modern world. Here again, by and large the new lifestyle adopted by them – by some as recently as the last 30 or 40 years – need not lead to questioning of their civilisational past or their idea of what that past was and how it is to be lived in the present. Therefore, in a statistical sense it would be only a small percentage of Indians who would be grappling with the question of what the idea of India represents to them or for them.

A re-worked idea of India, shaped at the beginning of the new century through the dizzying scientific breakthroughs taking place at a myriad points on the scientific horizon, must take into account the externalities that will have a major effect on the thinking of the Indian nation, of all nations, for that matter. True, that in a country like India the external impulses are felt most keenly, in the first instance, by the power elites and the globalised elites in the metropolitan cities most receptive to them. On the face of it they do not directly buffet the minds of people in communities still steeped in the ways of their forefathers. Although the trickle down effect is slower, much slower, it cannot be escaped altogether, even by people living in remote regions of the country, cocooned in their time warp due to their relative inaccessibility. Nevertheless, since the policies being enacted by the governing elites are directly influenced - or imposed upon - by the prime movers of globalisation they will, over a period of time, have an effect on the lives of most people; whether it would be to a lesser or greater degree will be determined by the distance of the communities from the centers of globalisation. Naturally, there will be other determinants as well.

* * **

The India, which now situates itself at the dawn of the third millennium after Christ, must take into account the political aspect. Modern India, after attaining its independence in 1947 has been shaped, reshaped or become misshapen by the parliamentary form of government that the founding fathers of post-independent India chose for it in the belief that it represented the best ideal for ‘their’ idea of India; for transforming it after centuries of subjugation into a strong healthy society. Therefore, the country’s political identity is based on its commitment to certain fundamental principles, namely justice, liberty, equality, fraternity and the dignity of the individual. Fundamental rights institutionalize, respect and protect the individual’s dignity and freedom. The Directive Principles go further in that they have a strong egalitarian thrust. After 50 years of what many would call national decline, at least in the realm of governance, blame is being put upon the constitution, which India gave itself on achieving independence. Rightly or wrongly, whether condemning it outright or picking holes in it from time to time, it remains undeniable that the people at the helm of affairs who guided India’s destiny through that turbulent period of the partition of India must have based their actions upon their idea of India. Something akin to what is being attempted now; except that in the present case the projections remain academic and possibly idealistic without the compelling burden of transforming those ideas into actions that could shape the country’s future for the next 50 years or more, as was the case with the decisions that followed the ideation of the founding fathers of that earlier era.

It would be futile to keep harping on the rightness or otherwise of the decisions taken at that time by the leaders of the country whose stature and idealism as well as the sacrifices made by them during the freedom struggle conferred upon them an aura and mystique that few leaders can hope to achieve in the present day. Their stature as leaders beloved of their people reverberated beyond the confines of the India’s geographic boundary. It cannot be a matter of satisfaction that charismatic leaders of yester year who rode as colossi on the national as well as global arenas have almost disappeared from the face of the earth, yielding place to pygmies who lead their people through autocratic dispensations or the vagaries of the ballot box. In the latter case, often coming to power for reasons far removed from their ability to lead their people.

Whether the Constitution failed India or the people who were in the ascendant over the years as educators, intellectuals, governing elites as well as the haves, failed the constitution and the country is a debate that is not likely to die down any time soon. Nor is it likely that the constitution, which for all its failings – real or imaginary - has become reasonably well embedded can be displaced or turned over in the foreseeable future. Fed up with the state of affairs, public ferment is bound to lead to changes, mostly for the good of the people as well as the country. Whether intellectuals and the educated elite, both within the country and the expatriates, will play a significant role as harbingers of salutary changes remains an open question. In the earlier centuries, men of letters influenced the thinking of their countrymen, or even the world, over long periods of time. In some cases the movement of ideas would be considered to have been glacial by present reckoning. This is where the most significant change has come in for the men of letters, the shapers of ideas, in the form of information technology. Hence, the ivory tower appellation of rarefied intellectual debates need not apply any longer, or at least not to the same extent. Diffusion and dissemination can take place very fast, with lightening speed if the mediums of transmission and diffusion happen to be receptive to the idea.

The political shape of the nation is bound to play an over-sized part – overwhelmingly larger, when compared to other factors that determine the future of the country. Ignoring this fact, building an ideal that does not take into account the ground reality in which India is anchored in the opening years of the 21st century, or mired as some others might like to word it, would make the idea devoid of substance.

* * *

Two major streams that dominate the intellectual as well as political discourse of the country today relate to the place of religion in modern India and the relevance of the philosophy and ideals of Mahatma Gandhi. Coming first to religion, it was denied sufficient space in the political mainstream - as well as by officialdom - due to the political philosophy and the thinking of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India and the Congress Party that played an overarching role in the country’s affairs in the opening decades after independence. Moreover, it might have been a conscious effort on the part of all concerned to exorcise the ghosts of the violent partition of India. Whether the post- secular society that India became in the last decades of the 20th century was inevitable on account of the transformations taking place in neighbouring countries and their influence on the two largest religious communities in India is a question that could be taken up by future historians. Whatever be the case, religion, in its more assertive and virulent form came up front in many parts of the world. India was no exception. Even if externalities had not impinged upon India, the country would have reached the same point, almost inevitably so, by a different route. If interdenominational clashes between the two main communities had not come to the fore earlier, it was also on account of the firm governance that obtained in the first few decades after independence, due as much to the latent stability resulting from over one century of strong, well regulated centralized authority in India. It was this latent stability, added to the competence and commitment of the leaders and civil servants who governed the country in the period immediately after independence that kept a lid on many of the ills seen raising their ugly heads today in the country. Matters, of course, came to a head during the emergency. The post-emergency decline in almost all spheres of governance and in almost all strata of society has led the country to the state that it finds itself in at the beginning of the new century. That it is not a happy state of affairs hardly needs reiteration.

The second important aspect relates to the philosophy of Gandhi. Although Gandhi continues to form an important part of the ongoing political and economic discourse taking place in the country, and elsewhere in the world for that matter, it has to be mentioned that in spite of the ideals of the Mahatma quoted with reverence at most forums discussing the future course of the country, his economic and political philosophy has not really found acceptance in the country, in so far as their practical application goes. And at the end it is difficult to think of an idea of India that completely dissociates itself from the maxims of the Mahatma, whether they relate to governance, sustainable development, harmony in pluralistic societies or for the conduct of nations in the global arena. It is not surprising that Gandhi continues to attract the attention of so many people around the world, both as the man and the ideals that he stood for. Unfortunately, the debate around the Mahatma rages, especially in India, around elements that were never put into practice in the land where they took birth.

Looking back on the events of the 20th century, both pre- and post-independence in India, one cannot fail to get the impression that although he did not lose hope or his faith in his ideals Gandhi might have died a disillusioned man. If not disillusioned, certainly heartsick at the turn of events. Did the bloodletting that took place at the time of partition in the land where for over four decades he had preached ahimsa indicate that his philosophy had failed? Amongst others, this was the land of Mahavira and Buddha. It did not end with partition. The bloodletting continues to this day, in every part of the subcontinent where the father of the nation traveled. If present indications are anything to go by it could continue till well into the future seeing the current trends across national divides in all directions in the subcontinent. Hence, it can be seen that the ground reality is almost diametrically opposed to the Gandhian tradition that so many Indians continue to extol in public forums, be they intellectuals, social workers, politicians or economists. The ordinary Indian too continues to revere the memory of the Mahatma. When the state of affairs threatens to get out of hand people still go to Rajghat in ever increasing numbers to take a pledge at the samadhi of the Mahatma.

The increasing hiatus between Gandhianism and the policies followed by Gandhi’s successors in India, regardless of their political leanings, raises fundamental questions for the idea of India. For the people of India, and for people around the world there can be no perception of India, real or imagined, where the ideals of the Mahatma do not loom large. How is this contradiction to be reconciled? Because, if it is not addressed and is merely glossed over at every public place within the country and without, where the name of Gandhi is taken, India will not be able to emerge unscathed from this troubling dissonance between the precept and its practice.

Seeing that India itself has veered so far away from the Gandhian mould it should have been possible to reject Gandhi’s philosophy out of hand and move forward without a backward glance at an ideal that was considered impractical; or could not be put into effect in a land were shallowness, hypocrisy and untruthfulness have become the order of the day, at least in public life. In which case, getting rid of the baggage of Gandhianism and getting on with the governance of the country in the non- Gandhian mould that it has adapted should have been easy.

This has not been the case. At the same time that untruthfulness and venality are in full cry, the very leaders who have propelled the country in that direction have not been able to dispense with the trumpeting of Gandhi’s legacy because of a lurking fear that should it be discarded India would not only have lost its way, it would have lost its soul. Then there would be no turning back. The thought of that final break, even shedding the pretence that is, troubles these peoples. They know that without the pretence they would not be able to face their countrymen, not at the hustings, not in public, possibly not even in private. At a deeper level they are not unaware that a final abandonment of Gandhianism would be tantamount to condemning themselves to a karmic descent too horrid to contemplate. For, no matter how immoral the lot that governs the nation, in their heart of hearts they are deeply religious, albeit in a very warped sense of what their understanding of being religious should be. They also know that in India the vast majority of their countrymen revere the Mahatma and in spite of their poverty, deprivation and misery still closely adhere to the thoughts and ideals of Gandhiji. For they are the ideals of Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo and so many other sages and seers who moulded the character and destiny of India through the ages. That destiny that awaited India at midnight of 15th August 1947 has still eluded the country. Beneath the despair and turmoil that afflicts the land that destiny still awaits India. India will yet produce the leaders who will take India to the pinnacle that the Mahatma and the sages before him dreamed of. And therefore, the ideal cannot be lost sight of. The ideal of Mahatma Gandhi is far too important for the redemption of India, if it is to find its feet and its true destiny. For the very same reason it is important for the world as well.

It is necessary to go a step further. The reasons as to why when the majority of Indians believe in it and the political leaders profess to believe in it, Gandhianism has not prevailed in the country of its origin have to be gone into. The main reason could be the difficulty of transplanting the Gandhian ideal of the early 20th century. Under an alien dispensation that ruled the country, and because of it being alien, it started uniting the country ideologically in the earlier decades before independence. The circumstances that obtained post-independence after the partition of India are not the same. And as the years went by, leading ultimately to the dominant market capitalist economy model pervading the world in the 21st century, the implementation of those ideas became even more difficult. Firstly, as mentioned earlier, the conditions had altered radically, and secondly, having moved so far away from the Gandhian philosophy and its economic derivatives it became increasingly difficult to retrace the steps taken. Having said that, the attempts at strengthening panchayati raj and the adherence to the principle, if not the practice, of sustainable development would qualify as a bow in the direction of Gandhianism.

Meanwhile a fundamental change has taken place in the make up of the people of India - and the world as well. More than fifty years after Gandhi’s death, the capitalist model – and the morality that goes with it - have become the norm. Even countries most staunchly opposed to it earlier, have embraced it whole-heartedly, notably Russia and China. Could people of those days when Gandhi was popularizing the charkha have anything in common with Deng Xiao Peng’s famous exhortation to his countrymen that, ‘it is glorious to be rich’. If it is glorious to be rich, then there is nothing left of the Gandhian philosophy. If not the masses, at least the political class and the elites of modern India have embraced Deng’s dictum as fervently as the Chinese in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong, in most cases as strongly as the American themselves. Whatever be the reason for this departure from socialism to capitalism, it is undeniable that going back to the economic idealism contained in Gandhi’s writings would relegate India to an economic abyss from which there would be no recovery in the world of today. May be, when consumerism that is fast overtaking the globe makes life itself unsustainable on the planet, people across the world will start reappraising the economic philosophy of Gandhi. That is why the world is not going to forget Mahatma Gandhi. By association India, rightly or wrongly, will benefit from that grand reversal, whenever it takes place on a global scale. If India is to remain as part of the global economy, without completely shedding some of the desirable aspects of its socialist past, it must start its own reappraisal for benefiting from the vision of Gandhi wherever it is possible to transform that vision on the ground under the prevailing conditions in the country and the world. If the world has to save itself from self-destruction Gandhian non-violence must become the leitmotif of a globalised world, and a reformed UN structure that allows non-violence between states to become the norm for the 21st century.

It was possibly Mahatma Gandhi who said: ‘for my worldly needs my village is my world; for my spiritual needs the world is my village’.

* * *

The Indian diaspora is playing a much bigger role in moulding India’s selfhood than it did before the 1990s. There could be several reasons for the renewed interest and what is more the new activism of the Indian expatriate community, which is now far more affluent and self-assured than their counterparts who left India to seek their fortunes in other lands before and after India’s partition. The self-assurance and higher incomes have allowed people of Indian origin from around the world to participate more directly in India’s development. The pace at which the interaction is taking place could have, over the ensuing decades, a positive effect far out of proportion to the strength of the Indian diaspora that is actively engaged in the exercise to move India forward. More importantly, the Indian diaspora is making itself heard in safeguarding the country’s interest in the corridors of power in USA and elsewhere. The idea of India of the expatriates is in many ways distinct from that of their fellow Indians, in India. It is born out of their need for self-assertion in their adopted countries in a world where civilizations appear to be actually clashing - with the attendant uncertainties that such clashes generate for non-local persons.

The image of India for consumption in the West, notably America, as well as for home consumption in India is also being shaped by Indian expatriates who now number in the tens of millions and whose wealth has grown into the tens of billions of dollars. Their writings, actions and interactions have left an indelible impression on India’s image abroad. The new lot of expatriates that went to find their fortunes in the West after the information technology revolution represented a different breed from those that had gone earlier. The latter day emigrants being largely the products of prestigious Indian institutes started off at higher base income levels and quickly rose to prominence in several fields. For the same reason they were far more self-assured, articulate and conscious of the need to rebuild India, as well as to refurbish its image. Their common institutional backgrounds allowed them to network far more effectively than their predecessors. Networking allowed them to form pressure groups for influencing policy and thinking about India in the countries of their adoption. This cohesion did not go unnoticed in India, by the government of India, the political parties, the states, as well as the Indian media. In-country networking led to inter-country networking. As their self-confidence grows, along with their ability to influence developments in India, it suggests that the Indian diaspora will continue to play a significant role in the years ahead in remoulding India’s image. Over a period of time this interaction between India and Indian expatriate communities is bound to enrich India in several ways.

When one speaks of global projection of the idea of India, there is a dual purpose attached to the idea of India. Firstly, it refers to the idea, which harmonizes with the idea that the Indian diaspora have formed and are propagating. It has to be dynamic. It cannot be something that is congealed in some hoary past and frozen at a given point in time, to be resurrected for showing India in a better light than the situation in the country at the dawn of the new millennium would warrant. Similarly, an idea of India that is superlatively formulated to show India as the repository of all earthly wisdom from time immemorial, to the exclusion of the contribution made by other civilizations would be at variance with the true spirit of the very wisdom that is being extolled. Arrogance, be it intellectual or on account of a great heritage, would not go down well with other components of the human mosaic of the 21st century. Therefore, the other aspect of the image that India wishes to transmit to the world must bring out the harmonizing effect of the ancient message that traveled from India to many parts of the world before many of the world’s religions in the ascendant today had come into being.

India will not be able to find its true identity or realistically arrive at an idea of itself, which the country can live comfortably with, as also make it a worthwhile idea for global projection unless the internal contradictions that are coming up are first addressed.

* * *

No set of people can really live in isolation or remain indifferent to the crosscurrents being generated in the globalised world. The advance of technology will soon invade every remote niche that remains in the world, be it spatial, in the geographical sense, or the privacy of the human mind, in the metaphysical sense. Hence, seeing the pervasiveness of the processes that are being mobilized for invading the last bastions of the human as well as the natural environment it would be appropriate to look around the world to see whether there is any country whose society can be seen, or can be deemed to be progressing towards the ideal state that a conclave of this nature would be attempting to interpret, or define, even if it were to remain a process of mere intellectualization, at some remove from the practicality of the ideal sought.

Who shapes the national - and international - dialogue? It is an important question, because it is those people who have gathered unto themselves the instruments for shaping the dominant discourse of today, who are leading the world into the cul-de-sac of negativism and violence. When scanning the global horizon in pursuit of seeking out societies that my be headed toward an idea of an ideal state that comes nearest to the global ideal of the 21st century, one finds that wherever one looks, be it USA, Russia, China, the countries of Latin America, Africa, Asia or Europe it is seen that almost all these societies have developed into systems that have been unable by and large to maintain or improve upon the social cohesion of societies, which is fast breaking down in most parts of the world. There are many factors that are leading to the fragmentation of stable or relatively stable systems - and societies - that had enjoyed a greater measure of peace and harmony than they do now. Whether the state of churning or flux has been brought on by the post-World War II, followed by the post-Cold War reordering of the world order, or whether it is a byproduct of rapid modernization and globalisation, is a question that can be debated at length. Whatever be the case, the ambient condition today within societies - and between nations - is far from harmonious. Nor, on the face of it, does it seem to be heading in a direction that could bring comfort to people or nations.

* * *

The questions that would be uppermost in one’s mind when contemplating India’s future must take into account some, if not all, of the aspect that are tabulated below: -

Has the political self-assertion, or the attempt at self-assertion by some of the deprived segments of Indian society now finding political representation ameliorated the condition of these classes as a whole or has it merely enabled the new leaders of the backward classes to exploit the situation for their own aggrandizement at the cost of their communities, without bringing any real benefits to the latter? Carrying this thought process further, ‘ will these new leaders be co-opted into the governing elites once the process of self-aggrandizement has reached levels that allow them to emulate the sections that they were agitating against’?
What will be the outcome a few years hence of the metropolitan elites around the world consciously collaborating with the forces of globalisation? These forces might have started from America. However, they are no longer limited to that country.
Leaders of political struggles, revolutionaries, upholders of public morality, social scientists and many others in similar categories have sought to describe their struggle or movement as one of liberation. It can be argued that the phrase ‘struggle for liberation’ has fallen into disuse, or become hackneyed. Nonetheless, it may become necessary to have another look at these clichés. Since they served their purpose admirably in the past, are they still relevant or do they sound hollow? Hollowness can result from overuse or misuse or it can be the result of the quality or worth of the people who use these slogans for purposes that may be far removed from the ideology that they proffer. At the end of it all when applying the term liberation to India, some clarity must obtain as to where the process of liberation would lead i.e., liberation from or liberation to? What the people are being liberated from has been variously described as hunger, want, deprivation, marginalisation, humiliation and all the ills that are visited upon the proverbial have-nots anywhere in the world. ‘Liberation to’ in its ideal sense can best be described in Tagore’s immortal poem, which reads:
Where the mind is without fear

and the head is held high,

Where knowledge is free,

Where the world has not been broken

Up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;

Where words come out from the

depth of truth;

Where tireless striving stretches its

arms towards perfection;

Where the clear stream of reason

has not lost its way

into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;

Where the mind is led forward

by three into ever-widening thought and action –

into that heaven of freedom,

my father, let my country awake.


All countries have their religious practices, faiths and beliefs. The distinctiveness of India lies in the primacy attaching to the concept of self-abnegation and self-denial. In many ways it goes deeper than similar tendencies that manifest themselves in many other religions and countries. It is for this reason that absolute poverty cannot be assigned a true statistical value in India. Because, at any given time, it is difficult to guess as to what percentage of the poor follow a lifestyle, which can be deemed to be below the poverty line due to circumstantial indigence, or the state of poverty being induced volitionally. It is practically impossible to fathom the number of mendicants who go around the country because they have chosen to adopt that particular way of life. Similarly, stories are still heard of well to do people giving up their wealth, finishing their duties as householders, and retiring to the banks of the Ganges to pass their remaining days in prayer, fasting, meditation and the like.

Most religions in the world, if not all of them, stress on the need for forgiveness, tolerance and compassion. In India compassion extended to all living beings. Many followers of Jainism to this day go to great levels to ensure that no harm comes to other living creatures. Compassion for all beings must remain at the forefront of societal activity and, when the country is strong enough, even form part of India’s relations with other nations.

** *

When looking at the tragedy unfolding in the Middle East and the region on account of the unilateral US intervention, shedding at some stage even the fig leaf of justification for occupying Iraq the supine-ness of the leaders of the countries opposed to the intervention has to be examined. This is especially so in the case of India. In spite of the widespread anger against the Anglo-American intervention, the government chose pragmatism as the state response to the tragic event. Although the government’s response was in conformity with the response of practically all the governments in the world that chose to play it safe, the issue is raised in this discussion because it is in juxtaposition to the idea of India, which leaders of India after independence have been propagating to the world. Although the world has long become weary of the sermonizing coming from Indian shores, the message that came through was that India was a country that cherished the ideals of rightness of action and rightness of response. In abandoning its core values - the idea of an ancient civilization, steeped in wisdom and conscious of the difference between right and wrong - as a basis for conduct of foreign policy, the governmental elite of the country has vacated the space for basing international relations on the higher plane of moral principles to non-governmental entities or individuals who might command a measure of respect in public life. Needless to add that such abandonment of the path, or even the pretence, of right conduct, is in conformity with the prevailing norm across nations as the forces of globalisation infuse the world with their non-virtues or the pleasure principle as the fulcrum of all actions.

** *

To project or even propel India into a future which many people view with trepidation one must look over one’s shoulder into the past. Not that remote past from which many people today want to draw their inspiration - more consciously than the ordinary consciousness that inheres in the minds of most Indians as to what that past might have been. That would be going too far back. Here, the past merely refers to the period after independence, divided into those early years when many of the participants (at the discussion) were very young, the Republic of India even younger. How did people of this generation look at India at that time, as it was unfolding in the ever present and flowing into a future that beckoned enticingly, even enchantingly. Doubtless there were difficulties, trials and tribulations, which the nation was undergoing. Whatever may have been happening, dejection and despair were not in the ascendant to the same level that they are today. A few decades on, having journeyed with India into the new century, the same generation has a different vision of India. In spite of the remarkable progress made in many fields – and the achievements are certainly there for everyone to see – the spirit that pervades the nation seems to have lost the freshness and innocence, perhaps naiveté of those early years. What India has evolved into in the first decade of the new century is certainly not in keeping with the vision of what India should have evolved into that people in the first decades after independence cherished.

Here we come to the first dissonance. India has gained in many respects. In several other ways India has declined. How does one strike a balance between the gains and losses when the gains are in the material plane and the losses in planes other than material. Care is being taken to avoid the use of the word spiritual when chalking up the gains and the losses. For while efforts to resurrect the hoary past merge into the realm of the spiritual, the understanding of spirituality obtaining now in India - and perhaps the rest of the world - is not the same as it might have been when the great Vedic hymns to creation were being first sung on the banks of sacred rivers that now stand as polluted as the spirits of the souls that still ritualistically immerse themselves in these flows to seek salvation. Looking at it this way, the foremost image that leaps to the surface in the consciousness plane of the beings of today is a vast sea of pollution where the scum that rises to the surface represents, symbolically, the spiritual progress, even if it cannot be measured so as to be able to offset it against the material gains; represented almost exactly on the day of the discourse by a figure of 77 billion US dollars (the external reserves of the country in early May 2003).

Where does one go from here? Should the country pitch headlong into the globalising mainstream and let the currents carry it in the direction of the new forms of nirvana, attained by the leaders of globalisation - the USA and the West, ably followed by their counterparts in the extreme east, China and Japan. Following the leader, in the true spirit of globalisation and the direction in which it is headed, will prevent people in India from falling between two stools, in this world and the next. The dilemma is very real. There are no easy answers. Having said that, answers have to be found. For it is not a question of black and white, of simply tossing a coin and then following the path indicated by the upward face of the coin, pointing towards the sky, the sun and the stars. It may be easier for other countries to do so, like China has done. India’s manifest destiny does not lie in that direction. It lies in realms that can never be reached by true practitioners of globalisation. Writing in The Hindu (October 1, 2002), Naresh Gupta aptly sums it up when he states: “the world of today has achieved much, but for all its declared love for humanity, it has based itself far more on hatred and violence than on the virtues that make man human.

There is a need to engage with those who belittle and condemn India, so that their varied and rich talent does not remain tied to an acerbic condemnation of their country – no matter how real their concern – in a language that can only be appreciated by the educated elite and foreigners who joyously lap up this condemnation and confer great honors upon the authors. Condemnation for the sake of condemnation no matter how beautifully expressed is not likely to lead to any real amelioration of the conditions that gave rise to the anger or the condemnation. Writing in Young India in 1929, Mahatma Gandhi said: “My mission is not merely brotherhood of Indian humanity… My patriotism is not an exclusive thing… The conception of my patriotism is nothing if it is not always, in every case without exception, consistent with the broadest good of humanity at large.” Rabindranath Tagore said that while nationalism was often a blessing, too often it has been a curse. The Indian philosophy of Vasudeva Kutumbam promotes the feeling of ‘one world’. Jawaharlal Nehru propounded the concept of ‘Panchsheel’ as the basis of mutual relationship. The Bhagvad Gita and the Isavasyopanishad tell us that the yogi sees himself in all beings and all beings in himself. He sees the same in all. If one sees all living things as if they were in his body i.e. feels their joys and sorrows as his own, and sees the same Universal Spirit in all things then there is no need for protecting oneself against others. When a man understands that all beings are, indeed, the all-pervading Spirit, then he realizes the oneness of all things.


Whatever be one’s station in life - from those who are below the poverty line to those who are the wielders of power - all need to be reminded that the primary status of everyone in the country is first and foremost that of a citizen. In that respect, all are coequal. Similarly, the comity of nations will have to push towards a United Nations dispensation wherein from the most deprived nations barely existing as civilized structures owing to over-exploitation and marginalisation, to those mighty nations who decide what is good for the world, all must strive for the democratization of the UN. Therefore, in reshaping the idea of India, its leaders have to recast their philosophy. They must resume engagement with all those who were being referred to as the ‘third world’ countries. The concept of the third world can be redefined to embrace all deprived nations whose primary impulse is towards global stability and harmony. In an over-exploited world these are mostly nations who are struggling to simply find a place in the sun. The idea of leadership itself must undergo fundamental transformation. Traditionally, when talking of a leadership role amongst nations, the implication was to unite the group to confront other groups of nations seeking dominance in some form or the other. That remained the mindset of the post-colonial era after World War II, when the marginalized nations of the world were trying to position themselves as a third force between the two superpowers of the day.

The 21st century reality of the unipolar world does not confer any leadership role upon India, should the country remain wedded to the prejudices of its earlier experience. If India wants to be heard, if it wants to strike out independently for charting a course that propels the world away from confrontation and the growing spiral of violence, it must adopt as a nation the values that enriched India in the past and continue to enrich mankind wherever those values take root. Simply put, those values relate to non-violence and self-abnegation. The aspect of non-violence has already been touched upon. The point at issue now is, as to whether self-abnegation or self-denial, the greatest of human virtues in an individual can be extended to a nation. If the course of the history of violence since the last century, added to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is taken as a guide, the answer must be in the affirmative. There does not seem to be any other way. India is ideally positioned to take the lead. It must continue to make economic progress and strengthen itself internally and externally. However, having achieved these goals it should deny itself a position at the top table. It should not hanker after a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council, as that body is presently structured. India should categorically state that it remains anchored to the aspiration of all third world countries that are looking to change the lot of their people; be they mired in backwardness and poverty because they were the victims of exploitation in the colonial era, or on account of misgovernance. Having been a part of the third world, India must seek a collective betterment for all the nations who comprise the vast collectivity known as the developing nations. Either they all benefit from the new dispensation, even if it were to be so incrementally, over a given period of time, or they collectively hold out for a more just world order. India must assure them that it will not desert them no matter how tempting the offers from the rich man’s club. In reshaping the idea of India the individual and national identity must aspire to march together for a better self and a better world.

* * *

When picking up a daily newspaper at random in any of the metropolitan cities on any given day the impression is likely to remain that India is an aggregation of dissonances.

The images that flicker across the reader’s perceptual frame could include: unity in diversity in juxtaposition to increasing disunity - the more the diversity, the greater the disunity; national integration opposed by national dis-aggregation; cultural plurality yielding place to cultural segregation; multi-ethnicities leading to multitudinous divisions; and now at the beginning of the new century the overarching intrusion of capitalism in full cry, which in developing countries like India translates into the accentuation of the divide between the haves and have-nots’. It hardly needs to be stressed that for India to move ahead it needs to rededicate itself to the ideas of social justice, equality, fraternity, individual liberty and human dignity that were so well set out in the preamble to the Constitution of India.


People who gather together to talk about the idea of India or write about it, wherever they might happen to be have to think about providing a set of guidelines, if not answers, for the new generation growing up at the beginning of the 21st century to shape the future of India. The questions that they would be grappling with would include, inter alia:

· How much has the globe impinged on India?

How much is India impacting the world?
What do the young people of India want?
What questions are they posing?
What is our response?
Do we have a response (to their questions)?
When we write about these matters or articulate them in different forums in India and abroad whom are we targeting?
What audience is it actually reaching?
In the land of tolerance isn’t it strange that discussion on tolerance has become one of the hottest issues?
Role models. Who are they?
Who or what represents the essence of India?
For whom?
India’s conscience. Who are its minders and keepers?
Do we really need minders and keepers?

Whatever the transformation in recent years and regardless of the polarization between religions and ethnic divides that is taking place, humaneness as the deeper instinct prevails more in Indian society than in many other societies. For example, the type of mass exterminations which were carried out during the Muslim invasions in many parts of Asia and during the era of the Christian colonization of the world, have never been attributed to Indian expansionism. Even the atrocities attributed to Indian security forces pail in comparison when compared to the scale of the atrocities committed by the armed forces of other nations. Any number of examples can be given: Pakistan, in East Bengal where the Pakistan army slaughtered three million people and raped half a million women, all of them Pakistani citizens since East Bengal was still a province of Pakistan when these atrocities were committed; the US excesses in Vietnam; the Chinese excesses in Xinjiang and Tibet; and so on.


At the dawn of the new millennium after Christ, when one looks around, it becomes abundantly clear that the spiral of violence within societies, and between nations, has reached self-energizing momentum that might only be stilled by a cataclysmic event, the likes of which has not been witnessed before in human experience.

Between societies and groupings that cohere to form nations the ideal situation that must be worked towards would be one where the need for primacy does not arise. Non-violence appears to be the antithesis of the global reality in today’s world. Nevertheless, the concept of non-violence which can be deemed to be the most profound contribution that ancient Indian thought made to the world must regain its primacy, within India and without, if human society is to continue to live in a civilized form. That the essential harmony of all sentient beings, indeed sentience itself, as put forward by Mahavira, Gautama Buddha and many others was made the basis for India’s freedom struggle by Mahatma Gandhi should not be looked at in isolation, as a mere reiteration of non- violence. By introducing the ancient precept into the mainstream of the anti-colonialism struggle in India, Gandhi may have been looking well beyond to the universal projection of his innate belief in the virtue of non-violence as a survival imperative for humanity, just when scientific breakthroughs were on the verge of putting immensely destructive capabilities into the hands of mankind.

© Vinod Saighal


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