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Time to talk about
the elephant in the room

As the world's largest democracy strives to give 1.2 billion Indians a stake in modern society, caste and divisions are still alive.

By SHASHI THAROOR
New Delhi, October 2010

Canadian synchronised swimmers competing in the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, India, October 2010

Whoops! Something in the water? Canadian synchronised swimmers at the Delhi Commonwealth Games October 2010. - Photo: Getty Images

INDIA, I have long argued, is more than the sum of its contradictions. It is a country held together, in the words of Nehru, "by strong but invisible threads... a myth and an idea, a dream and a vision, and yet very real and present and pervasive". That nebulous quality is what the analyst of Indian nationalism is ultimately left with; to borrow a phrase from Amartya Sen, it is an idea — the idea of India. But what is that idea?

Jawaharlal Nehru articulated it as pluralism vindicated by history, seeing the country as an "ancient palimpsest" on which successive rulers and subjects had inscribed their visions without erasing what had been asserted previously. A generation of secular nationalists echoed him, making "unity in diversity" the most hallowed of independent India's self-defining slogans.

Shashi Tharoor

Shashi Tharoor


Amid India's myriad problems, it is democracy that has given Indians of every imaginable caste, creed, culture, and cause the chance to break free of their lot and offers the victims of social oppression and caste tyranny a means of escape

How did India preserve and protect a viable idea of itself in the course of the last 63 years, while it grew from 370 million people to 1.2 billion, reorganised its State structures, and sought to defend itself from internal and external dangers, all the while remaining democratic? I have tried to answer this question at length in my books. Certainly the accomplishment is extraordinary, and worthy of celebration. Amid India's myriad problems, it is democracy that has given Indians of every imaginable caste, creed, culture, and cause the chance to break free of their lot. There is social oppression and caste tyranny, particularly in rural India, but Indian democracy offers the victims a means of escape, and often — thanks to the determination with which the poor and oppressed exercise their franchise — of triumph. The significant changes in the social composition of India's ruling class since Independence, both in politics and in the bureaucracy, are proof of democracy at work, but the poor quality of our country's politics in general offers less cause for celebration.

In the six-plus decades since Independence, democracy has failed to create a single political community. Instead, we have become more conscious than ever of what divides us: religion, region, caste, language, ethnicity. The political system has become looser and more fragmented. Politicians mobilise support along ever-narrower lines of political identity. It has become more important to be a "backward caste", a "tribal", or a religious sectarian than to be an Indian; and of course, to some it is more important to be a "proud" Hindu than to be an Indian. This is particularly ironic because one of the early strengths of Nehruvian India — the survival of the nationalist movement as a political party, the Congress Party serving as an all-embracing, all-inclusive agglomeration of the major political tendencies in the country — stifled the normal process of contention over political principle. With the emergence and growth of other political forces, politicians have been tempted to organise themselves around identities other than party (or to create parties to reflect a specific identity).

Caste, which Nehru and his ilk abhorred and believed would disappear from the social matrix of modern India, has not merely survived and thrived, but has become an instrument for highly effective political mobilisation. Candidates are picked by their parties with an eye toward the caste loyalties they can call upon; often their appeal is overtly to voters of their own caste or sub-caste, urging them to elect one of their own. The result has been the growth of caste-consciousness and casteism throughout society. In many States, caste determines educational opportunities, job prospects, and governmental promotions; all too often, people say you cannot go forward unless you're a "backward".

Ironically, a distinctive feature of the Nehruvian legacy was its visionary rejection of India's assorted bigotries and particularisms. The Nehrus were, by upbringing and conviction, completely secular. Not only did Indira Gandhi marry a Parsi, but her daughters-in-law were an Italian Christian and a Punjabi Sikh. The one strand of political opinion Nehru and his offspring abhorred was that of Hindu religious revivalism. All four generations of Nehrus in public life remained secular in outlook and conduct. Their appeal transcended caste, region, language, and religion, something impossible to say of any other leading Indian politician.

Whether through elections or quotas, political mobilisation in contemporary India has asserted the power of old identities, habits, faiths, and prejudices. Transcending them will be the major challenge for the Indian polity in the 21st Century.

What makes India, then, a nation? As the country celebrates the 63rd anniversary of its independence today, we may well ask: What is an Indian's identity?

When an Italian nation was created in the second half of the 19th century out of a mosaic of principalities and statelets, one Italian nationalist wrote: "We have created Italy. Now all we need to do is to create Italians." It is striking that, a few decades later, no Indian nationalist succumbed to the temptation to express a similar thought. The prime exponent of modern Indian nationalism, Nehru, would never have spoken of "creating Indians", because he believed that India and Indians had existed for millennia before he articulated their political aspirations in the 20th century.

If America is a “melting-pot”, then to me India is a thali, a selection of sumptuous dishes in different bowls. Each tastes different, and does not necessarily mix with the next, but they belong together on the same plate, and they complement each other.

Nonetheless, the India that was born in 1947 was in a very real sense a new creation: a state that made fellow citizens of the Ladakhi and the Laccadivian, divided Punjabi from Punjabi and asked a Keralite peasant to feel allegiance to a Kashmiri Pandit ruling in Delhi, all for the first time.

So Indian nationalism was not based on any of the conventional indices of national identity. Not language, since our constitution now recognises 23 official languages, and as many as 35 languages spoken by more than a million people each. Not ethnicity, since the "Indian" accommodates a diversity of racial types in which many Indians (Punjabis and Bengalis, in particular) have more ethnically in common with foreigners than with their other compatriots. Not religion, since India is a secular pluralist state that is home to every religion known to mankind, with the possible exception of Shintoism. Not geography, since the natural geography of the subcontinent – framed by the mountains and the sea – was hacked by the partition of 1947. And not even territory, since, by law, anyone with one grandparent born in pre-partition India – outside the territorial boundaries of today's state – is eligible for citizenship. Indian nationalism has therefore always been the nationalism of an idea.

It is the idea of an ever-ever land – emerging from an ancient civilization, united by a shared history, sustained by pluralist democracy. India's democracy imposes no narrow conformities on its citizens. The whole point of Indian pluralism is you can be many things and one thing: you can be a good Muslim, a good Keralite and a good Indian all at once.

The Indian idea is the opposite of what Freudians call "the narcissism of minor differences"; in India we celebrate the commonality of major differences. If America is famously a “melting-pot”, then to me India is a thali, a selection of sumptuous dishes in different bowls. Each tastes different, and does not necessarily mix with the next, but they belong together on the same plate, and they complement each other in making the meal a satisfying repast.

So the idea of India is of one land embracing many. Geography helps, because it accustoms Indians to the idea of difference. The Indian idea is that a nation may endure differences of caste, creed, colour, conviction, culture, cuisine, costume and custom, and still rally around a consensus. And that consensus is around the simple idea that in a democracy you don't really need to agree – except on the ground rules of how you will disagree.

India's founding fathers wrote a constitution for their dreams; we have given passports to their ideals. Today these ideals are contested by stone-throwing young men in the streets of Srinagar and rifle-wielding Maoists in the forests of Chhattisgarh. We must remain faithful to our founding values of the 20th century if we are to conquer the 21st.


Prolific author, Indian member of parliament from Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, and former Minister of State for External Affairs, Shashi Tharoor has also served as a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, and as a senior advisor to the UN Secretary-General. His website is www.tharoor.in

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ricky (23 February, 2012) – India
The Nehrus' may well be secular but certainly not their, party which they lead and have led. How ironic !
The impunity with which the congress has been wooing the muslim voter, disregarding and disrespecting the EC's code of conduct is saddening and has set a sorry precedent. Pandit Nehru must not have dreamt of such a day.
One's secularism doesn't count if their policies divide people on religious lines.
santhosh (23 February, 2012) – India
What the hell is this? Is this about India or Nehru Family? Why the author needs to cite Nehrus as important element in keeping india secular. What Nehrus have to do with this? When will these stooges will come out of this? Self styled neo socialists
gaurav (8 February, 2012) – india
Isn't the same nehru's party is the one which had been in delhi for most of history and had let quota system strive?
rahul (18 July, 2011) – india
nice article
PHILIP (26 October, 2010) – INDIA
TRUE.HOW DOES THE COMGRESS PARTY SELECT CANDIDATES? HOW ARE VACANCIES IN JUDICIARY FILLED UP? THERE IS UNWRITTEN CASTE/COMMUNAL RESERVATIONS HERE ALSO. WRITING ESSAYS WILL NOT CHANGE IT. Genuine action is needed.
shafeeq (21 October, 2010) – qatar
yes,india has blessed with the democratic system and it gives india a good image but thou it has many problems. i agree with tharoor that the indian people are having freedom in all matters but the people of india is misusing this freedom and also a conflict arises for one issu say for example the developmental activities.there should be some control on the democratic system.
mbm.bathurudheen (20 October, 2010) – India
nice article, Our democracy is deferred from other country, people have good confidence on our national growth,innocent and faith of our people misused by politician and government officials.
Minni (20 October, 2010) – Hong Kong
While I take much pride in being Indian first, then a Keralite, I find it difficult to come into terms with so many divisions within divisions in a society where they have residential buildings accredited to only vegetarians, temples that keep other religions away and many such. I see the many youngsters of today with acute intolerance towards other religions and wonder what would propel them to act as one wholesome Indian. There is a huge 'blame game' going on in our country that will not stand to our benefit. And that kind of 'thali' I would not like to eat from!
jp (20 October, 2010) – india
genius !
we miss you in indian cabinet
dr jp
Prathap G (20 October, 2010) – India
I totally agree with the views expressed by Dr. Shashi Tharoor in his article "Time to talk about
the elephant in the room".
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