There was stubbornness in the decision of the Speaker, Lok Sabha, that Prime Minister Narendra Modi who laid the foundation of the new Parliament building and participated in its Bhoomi Pujan would alone inaugurate it on May 28, 2023. It propelled more than 20 opposition parties, including the Congress, to boycott the inauguration on the grounds that their pleas that the president of India should do it were completely disregarded.
So, while the inauguration by Modi generated protests from the opposition parties within India, a mural placed in the building depicting undivided India, described by parliamentary affairs minister Pralhad Joshi as “Akhand Bharat” and showing Nepal. Bhutan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka as part of it , have stoked protests outside India, especially in Nepal and Pakistan. In fact Joshi tweeted a picture of the mural and wrote, in Kannada, “The resolve is clear – Akhand Bharat.”
— Pralhad Joshi (@JoshiPralhad) May 28, 2023
Asked to explain the content and meaning of his tweet, Joshi said: “The concept of Akhand Bharat comes from ancient Indian culture. The new Parliament building depicts various facets of Indian culture, representing every region and all its facets.” Manoj Kotak, BJP’s Lok Sabha MP from Mumbai North-East, tweeted, “Akhand Bharat in New Parliament represents our powerful and self-reliant India.”
Akhand Bharat in New Parliament 🚩
It represents our Powerful & Self Reliant India.
— Manoj Kotak (@manoj_kotak) May 28, 2023
While Joshi and Kotak categorically indicated that the mural represented Akhand Bharat, the spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs, Arindam Bagchi, said, “The mural in question depicts the spread of the Ashokan empire and the idea of responsible and people-oriented governance that he (Ashoka) adopted and propagated.”
The protests outside India against the mural are certainly worrying. In fact, the mural depicting India in possession of territories of neighbouring countries goes against the very idea of India imagined during the freedom struggle.
The idea of Akhand Bharat embodied in the mural unmistakably transmits the image associated with a bygone empire, and it flags the point that India is expansionist and hegemonic in its neighbourhood. It certainly goes against the very grain of what India has stood for during 75 years of its independence, upholding the ideals of peaceful coexistence with other countries. One ideal that has remained central to our foreign policy and diplomatic orientation is mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.
Sangh parivar and Akhand Bharat
The mural depicting Akhand Bharat forms part of the Sangh parivar’s imagination of India, traced to mythologies such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata. It encompasses in its scope not only the present territory of India, but also, as stated above, the vast swathes of landmass covering countries such as Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Tibet, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
With the partition of India, such an assertion of an Akhand Bharat by the RSS – by reuniting erstwhile West Pakistan and East Pakistan – became part of its long-term agenda. From time to time such demands have been made and it was evidenced by the adoption of a resolution by the Bharatiya Jan Sangh, predecessor of the Bharatiya Janata Party, at its meeting held on August 17, 1965. Noting that “India’s tradition and nationality has not been against any religion…” it affirmed, “Muslims will integrate themselves with the national life and Akhand Bharat will be a reality, unifying India and Pakistan once we are able to remove this obstacle [of separatist politics].”
Eight years ago, in 2015, RSS leader Ram Madhav while interacting with Al Jazeera TV claimed that Pakistan and Bangladesh would come together to join India through popular goodwill and Akhand Bharat would be a reality. Such grandiose ideas have been explained as expressions of cultural nationalism transcending territorial boundaries and defining India based on Hindu identity. It was evidenced by RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s statement in November 2022 when, while addressing a meeting of RSS in Chhattisgarh, he said, “We have been saying since 1925 (when RSS was founded) that everyone living in India is a Hindu” and added, “Every Indian who is part of the 40,000-year-old Akhand Bharat has common DNA.”
While earlier mostly RSS and Hindutva leaders talked about Akhand Bharat, now those BJP leaders who are occupying high positions in the government are also invoking the Akhand Bharat idea. For instance, home minister Amit Shah claimed while speaking in Nanded, Maharashtra, in 2021, that because of the first home minister of India Sardar Patel, Nanded could become a part of Akhand Bharat as the Nizam’s nefarious designs were foiled to integrate Hyderabad with the Indian Union. Earlier in 2019, Shah took legislative measures to scrap the special status of Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370 and stated that Aksai Chin would be made part of India as part of the quest for Akhand Bharat.
Nehru on Akhand Bharat
Such an approach completely countered the stand taken by our leadership during the freedom struggle and at the formative stages of nation building, who never imagined India in terms of exercising hegemony over other countries and attacking their territorial integrity. Stalwart freedom fighter Jawaharlal Nehru in his book Discovery of India wrote that in the Mahabharata, an attempt was made to give a definite conception of India as a whole and it was described as Bharatvarsh. “In this conception,” he added, “a large part of modern Afghanistan, then called Gandhara (from which comes the name of the present city of Kandahar), which was considered an integral part of the country was included.”
However, after the partition of India, Nehru firmly accepted the constitutionally enshrined idea of India and rejected the conception of Akhand Bharat. In a letter to the chief ministers on March 1, 1950 he categorically wrote, “…there must be no thought of putting an end to Partition and having what is called Akhand Bharat.” He was taking that stand to reject the view of the Hindu Mahasabha and other communal organisations for putting an end to partition. Nehru asserted that reversing partition while passions remained inflamed on either side would result in a worse situation than what was prevailing at the time. He, therefore, underlined the necessity of absorbing and making our own the various minorities in India and notably Muslims to ensure the progress and advancement of the country. After partition took place, he declared his belief that “…it is to India’s advantage that Pakistan should be a secure and prosperous State with which we can develop close and friendly relations.”
RSS chief Bhagwat’s aforesaid statement smacks of according primacy to Hindu identity over all other faiths. It is a form of domination and imposition, and Akhand Bharat anchored in cultural nationalism reinforces such domination on the landmass of other countries which are shown in the mural. In contrast, Nehru’s write up ‘A Foreign Policy for India’, authored in September 1927, referred to Nepal as a neighbour and friend, and maintained that Afghanistan would be treated in a similar manner. As far as Burma, now called Myanmar, was concerned, Nehru made it clear that in the future federation of India, Burma would be an honoured member, and should the people there decide on a separation from India, they would be perfectly welcome to do so.
Gandhi’s vision of India free from imperial aspirations
Much before Nehru wrote about the freedom of people of Burma to keep it as a separate country, Mahatma Gandhi, while writing notes on several issues in Young India on June 26, 1922, reflected on Burma and wrote, “I have never been able to take pride in the fact that Burma has been made part of British India. It never was and never should be.” He expressed those thoughts in the context of the rising spread of nationalism in that country to shape their own destiny.
Again on March 10, 1927 in an article ‘Burma and Ceylon”’, Gandhi, while answering a question on if those countries would form part of independent India, asserted, “I have no doubt in my mind that Burma cannot form part of India under swaraj.” Stating that “British India is an artificial description” reminding us of “British domination”, he observed that its boundary was contracted or expanded at the will of those who held us in bondage.
“Free India,” he asserted “will be an organic whole and will include those only who desire to remain as its free citizens.” “Therefore free India,” he remarked, “will have its geographical, ethnic and cultural limits”and “recognize the differences in race and culture of the Burmese, and…will recognize its right to complete independence and help it to regain and retain it in so far as it lies in India’s power.”
On Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, Gandhi, while acknowledging that India shared culture ties with Ceylon and it was inhabited by a large number of Indians from its southern part, declared it is a separate entity. Making it very clear that “…I have no imperial aspirations for India of my imagination,” he stated, “I should be content to regard Ceylon as an absolutely independent State.” However, he said, “I should not hesitate to accept Ceylon as part of free India if the Islanders express their wish to be so in an unmistakable language.”
Gandhi’s firm declaration in 1927 that “I have no imperial aspirations for India of my imagination” constitutes the foundation on which our country rests. The Akhand Bharat idea, by including in its scope several neighbouring countries, smacks of imperial aspirations which were rejected during our freedom struggle. We need to celebrate the rejection of imperial aspirations and uphold the ideals of the freedom struggle. In doing so, the idea of India can be enriched and defended.
S.N. Sahu served as Officer on Special Duty to President of India K.R. Narayanan.