Reclaiming the Nation: Charting a Course

Could India be in danger of forgetting where it started?

Below is part one of a two-part series on the role of the nation today. Part two will deal with the trajectory of India’s twin nation state and why a few degrees make all the difference.


Setting course is the most basic duty of a helmsman. Yet arguably, it’s the most important for any journey. Imagine a ship sailing westwards from Mumbai. A few degrees could determine whether it docks on the sun kissed beaches of Oman or dodges bullets and pirates in war torn Somalia. The need for constant care, oversight and vigilance can’t be overstated.

A nation isn’t too different. Like a ship, it’s mass, weight and the sum of its parts doesn’t make it easy to change course. Yet once this is initiated, it will land at a completely different destination. 

In 1986 the nation shifted a degree. It was the year of Shah Bano and the opening of a lock at a mosque in Ayodhya. In 1992 it shifted another, creating the new ‘normal’ that many said was ‘course correction’.

In 2019, we are so far down the ‘correction’ that we could be in danger of forgetting where we started.

The history of a nation therefore needs care, oversight and vigilance too. American historian Carl Degler said, “If you don’t write it, someone else will.” At a time when many are eager to write and reinterpret versions of it, it may be useful to remind ourselves not just where we started but importantly where we intended to be. Like Hollywood, an ‘origin story’ is critical in the life of a nation.  

Also read: Amit Shah’s Communal Dare to CAA Critics, ‘Say You Will Welcome All Muslims to India’

In 1947, hundreds of princely, subsidiary, annexed and other states of the land called India that had united or divided in innumerable permutations under empires, invasions, war, unity and cohesion over millennia, found themselves uniting or dividing again but under that relatively new invention – the nation state.

This was an entity that had to be newly imagined and created to somehow give everyone from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, a larger sense of belonging beyond his or her immediate identity. 

An image from 1947 showing the partition of books from India and Pakistan, at the Calcutta National Library.

An image from 1947 showing the partition of books from India and Pakistan, at the Calcutta National Library.

Henceforth the Indo-Mongoloid clans of the North East would jostle with the Dravidians down South, the Scheduled Tribes of Bihar and Indo Europeans up North — all equal to the Untouchables. And of course Muslims who stayed back as Indian citizens would be as equal as those Hindus who fled Pakistan. 

India’s helmsmen had 50 years of the freedom struggle to think up, borrow and refine revolutionary ideas for this nation state. These were roughly the ideas they envisaged in 1947:

The end of empires, monarchs and feudalism. Equality.

One man-one vote (that Jinnah took such violent objection to).

Secularism. Social Justice. Merit. Independent Judiciary and institutions…and many more. 

The leap the Indian nation state took then is unimaginable in today’s world. There is little that compares to it. A people whose life was ruled by a maze of multiple covenants and customs – a caste driven existence, class differentiation, religious diversity and the idea of a distant maharaja or mai baap — were given agency to decide for themselves. Dalits could topple Maharajas electorally – and they would go on to do so.

Since 1947 however, both Hindu and Muslim right wing forces, have dismissed these ideas as a silly, mirthful construct of soft English speaking elites who know nothing about the ‘real’ India (or the ‘real ‘Islam’). It is one of several commonalities that have given them a shared understanding.

It is the reason why the BJP identifies with Jinnah so easily. 

This ‘real’ India (or ‘real’ Islam) both forces have claimed, has purity at its heart. It has a ‘glorious past’ that has been sullied by invasion or diversity or modern ideas that have diluted its value. Whether it is the Hindu Rashtra or the Muslim Land of the Pure, followers believe they have a higher moral standing and authenticity, unlike others who have ‘compromised.’ 

It is therefore worth examining why India’s founding fathers made the choices they did. Understandably, they wanted to land on sunny beaches.

But the Indian nation state was born in perilous times. It was bankrupt after a massive three-century transfer of wealth to Britain. Its traditional industries and agriculture were destroyed.

It was broken in three parts, a million slaughtered by their own fellow citizens and 10 million who lost their homes and fled across new borders. 

For a collective which consists of diversities, secularism is a must. Photo: Reuters

Why then, did they choose secularism after being divided by religion? Why did idealism rule even after Pakistan had declared its own majoritarian intention? Why did India not declare itself a Hindu Rashtra and save itself the burden of carrying along Muslims?

How did they imagine the wearying Muslim insistence on an Islam-first identity that had already broken up India, would give allegiance to the larger identity India’s founding fathers wanted to build and its modern goals like a uniform civil code, family planning or the battle against Pakistan’s irredentist ambitions?

Could it be that the decision to be secular was not a silly, idealist fantasy in this challenging era but actually a deliberate choice based on a clearheaded understanding? That the only way they could transform India’s civilisational unity into a modern nation state without falling on the swords of religion, caste, ethnicity and geography — was to have the most inclusive, broadest possible definition of being an Indian. 

Could it be that the founding fathers understood after 50 years of fighting for freedom, that civilisational unity had never been enough for modern nationhood? In 2019, it is still not enough for Europe despite the EU. Empires, mighty and insignificant in India, had come and gone. At the end of 5000 years, the times when Bharat, Hindustan, India was one ‘country’ give or take a few states; could be counted on one hand. 

Could it be that the founding fathers having actually fought a mass-based freedom struggle with the diverse peoples of this vast country; knew a truth in 1947 that the RSS not having fought such a campaign; didn’t.

Namely: Narrowing an Indian identity would only help break it up faster than it could unite. 

And that’s why despite all those questions raised by Partition, Pakistan’s founding and the migration of lakhs of Muslims to the Land of the Pure, they held fast, refused to buckle and still chose to keep the broadest understanding of Indian identity – one that stands the danger today, of too much ‘correction’.

Alpana Kishore has covered Kashmir as a journalist, writer and researcher for over two decades. She has focused on the competing narratives of India and Pakistan since Partition and the effect on their rival identities on the region.