Forging unity through religion

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By Ashok Thakur              

The neo-nationalists as represented by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) make the cardinal mistake of collapsing India into its modern nation-state avatar. That’s why the anxiety displayed in maxims like ‘One Nation One Constitution’ or ‘One Nation One Language’ et al. The nation-state of the present-day goes back to 1950 when India gave itself the Constitution to govern itself. Fealty to the Constitution is only an expression of making the Indian state function with the new ideals enshrined in the Preamble: liberty, equality and fraternity, something the old India knew in a religious and cultural but not in the political sense. So, the Constitution does not guarantee or preserve India’s millennia-old polychromatic cultural unity. The Constitution is not the source of that unity. The sense of unity lies elsewhere. It lies in the cultural consciousness of the people, and that consciousness has evolved over centuries. There is no need then to make a fetish of the Constitution. It is a political and administrative arrangement and we make changes in it as we go along to meet the new challenges of governance and nothing more.

Governance is an administrative instrument. It does not govern the social, cultural, and even the economic, lives of the people. The state has the obligation to preserve the territorial integrity of the country, defend the borders and repel the insurgents. But its role is limited. It cannot dictate terms to the people about their religion and language, food and dress, festivals and customs. Many years ago, the once-upon-a-time BJP ideologue Govindacharya in an interview told me that everything is within the state and nothing outside the state, echoing unwittingly Italy’s fascist dictator Benito Mussolini’s political formulation. It is this obsession with the state that makes nations brittle and vulnerable. The BJP and its ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), will need to avoid the trapdoor of a puissant state which controls the minds and hearts of the people.

The BJP and the RSS do not have to re-enact the dilemma of some of the 19th century Italian intellectuals like Massimo Taparelli, Marquess d’Azeglio, who was prime minister of Sardinia before Count Cavour, the architect of the Italian state, who remarked after the Italian unification in 1861: “We have made Italy. Now we must make Italians.” There is no need to do that in India. Indians remain attached to their faiths, cultural and linguistic identities and therefore they remain Indians. The Tamilians are proud of their ancient language as the Bengalis are proud of the achievements of the modern literary masters of Bangla. They do not have to suppress their local identities to be Indians. They remain quintessentially Indians. The attempt to make Indians out of Tamilians and Bengalis, Maharashtrians and Manipuris is nothing short of being foolhardy. What the statists of today’s India must learn is that India was India long before political unity was imposed on it either by the Mauryas or Mughals, the British or modern Indian nationalists. The bland truth is that India did not need the trappings of a nation-state to be India. Winston Churchill was wrong when he thought India was a geographical expression and nothing more. He was ignorant about the cultural expression that was India.

The authors of the Rig Vedic hymns or the poets of the Sangam Age in Tamil, wrote about people and places in India with a sense of belonging which no empire or state can ever aspire to create. The empires and the state have come long after the cultural oneness of the people has been established by the free will of the people living in a common geographic space. Religion is another factor that forged the sense of unity of India, beginning with the followers of the Veda, followed by the Jains and the Buddhists, the Muslims, the Sikhs and the Christians. In Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, Muslims are part of the local social and cultural fabric, and so are the Christians in Nagaland and in Kerala. These Muslims and Christians are Indians because they are Telugus, Tamilians, Malayalees, UP-ites and Biharis. They are attached to their local customs and cuisine, language and attire. It is often overlooked that Hinduism – Vedic and post-Vedic – and Jainism and Buddhism, Islam and Christianity which spread to different parts of the country, created a sense of unity among the followers. And this soon became part of the cultural consciousness of Indianness of all faiths. Their faiths and languages differed but they were Indians. The Islam practiced in Bengal is different from that followed in Lucknow and Hyderabad, the cultural texture of Christian prayers is different in Jharkhand and in Kerala. And it’s the same with the Hindus in different parts of the country.

Hindus, Muslims and Christians find the ways of their co-religionists in other parts of the country strange. But their Indianness remains intact. The ‘One Nation’ mindset must be abandoned because it doesn’t go with this 5,000-year-old nation. Indians cannot be created on the assembly-line model. People cannot be turned into robotic citizens who will genuflect before the monstrous idol of the nation-state. Pharaonic Egypt lies in ruins with only the pyramids bearing mute witness to the ancient people of Egypt. The state is a means to an end, not an end itself, wrote Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan long ago. The people need a higher civilisational ideal than what a mere state can provide. India lives because of its civilisational ideal, promulgated by its poets in different Indian languages. INAV

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