Seventy years ago this month, at midnight on August 15, 1947, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru proclaimed India’s independence from the British Empire. Nehru called it “a moment that comes but rarely in history, when we pass from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.” With that, the country embarked on a remarkable experiment in governance that continues to this day.
It was an experiment that Winston Churchill thought implausible. “India is merely a geographical expression,” he once dismissively barked. “It is no more a single country than the Equator.”
Churchill was rarely right about India. But it is true that no other country matches India’s extraordinary mix of ethnic groups, profusion of mutually incomprehensible languages, varieties of topography and climate, diversity of religions and cultural practices, and disparate levels of economic development.
It is often noted, only half-jokingly, that “anything you can say about India, the opposite is also true”: every truism about the country can be contradicted by another truism. In fact, the singular thing about India is that you can speak of it only in the plural. There are, to use that hackneyed expression, many Indias. Everything exists in countless variants. There is no agreed standard, no fixed stereotype, no “one way” to approach things. Even the country’s national motto, Satyameva Jayaté (Truth Alone Triumphs), can be understood in myriad ways. India is home to at least 1.3 billion truths, if the last census hasn’t undercounted us again.
It is this diversity and complexity that led the British historian E.P. Thompson to call India “perhaps the most important country for the future of the world.” As he put it, “All the convergent influences of the world run through this society…. There is not a thought that is being thought in the West or East that is not active in some Indian mind.”
India’s exceptional pluralism is acknowledged in the way the country arranges its affairs: all groups, faiths, tastes, and ideologies survive and contend for their place in the sun. At a time when most developing countries opted for authoritarian models of governance to promote nation-building and economic development, India chose to build a multi-party democracy.
That democracy may be freewheeling, boisterous, corrupt, and inefficient. But, despite many stresses and strains over the years – including 22 months of autocratic rule during a “state of emergency” declared by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1975 – it has survived, and even flourished.
To be sure, India still strikes many as maddening, chaotic, divided, and even desultory, muddling its way through the first decade of the twenty-first century. But, thanks to its unique diversity, India is not just a country; it is an adventure, in which all avenues are open and everything is possible.
The resulting national identity is a rare animal. It is not, as is most often the case, based on language; India has at least 23 – possibly as many as 35, depending on whether you believe the constitution or the linguists. Nor is it based on geography: the “natural” geography of the subcontinent, framed by the mountains and the sea, was rent by the partition of 1947.
India’s nationalism is not based on ethnicity, either. To be “Indian” does not mean to fit into any single racial type. On the contrary, from the perspective of ethnicity, many Indians have more in common with foreigners than with other Indians. Indian Punjabis and Bengalis, for example, have more in common ethnically with Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, respectively, than they do with their fellow Indian Poonawalas or Bangaloreans.
Finally, Indian nationalism is not based on religion. The country is home to every faith known to mankind, and Hinduism – a religion that not only lacks a national organization, established church, or ecclesiastical hierarchy, but also uniform beliefs or modes of worship – exemplifies our diversity as much as it does our common cultural heritage.
Instead, Indian nationalism is founded on an idea: the idea of an ever-ever land, emerging from an ancient civilization, united by a shared history, sustained by pluralist democracy. This land imposes no narrow conformity on its citizens. You can be many things and one thing. You can be a good Muslim, a good Keralite, and a good Indian all at once.
Whereas Freudians note the distinctions that arise out of “the narcissism of minor differences,” in India, we celebrate the commonality of major differences. If the United States is a melting pot, then India is a thali, a selection of sumptuous dishes in different bowls. Each tastes different, and does not necessarily mix well with the next, but they do complement one another, together forming a single satisfying repast. Put another way – and turning Michael Ignatieff’s expression on its head – we are a land of belonging, not blood.
So the idea of India is of one land embracing many peoples. It is the idea that a nation characterized by profound differences of caste, creed, color, culture, cuisine, conviction, costume, and custom can still rally around a democratic consensus – namely, that everyone needs to agree only on the ground rules of how to disagree. It is this consensus on how to manage without consensus that has enabled India to thrive for the last 70 years, even as it faced challenges that led many to predict its disintegration.
India’s founding fathers wrote a constitution for their dreams; we have given passports to their ideals. But, today, those ideals are being increasingly threatened by rising intolerance and an increasingly belligerent majoritarianism. On this 70th anniversary of Indian independence, all Indians must rededicate themselves to an inclusive, pluralist, democratic, and just India – the India that Mahatma Gandhi fought to free.