Dialogue  July-September, 2006, Volume 8  No. 1


Understanding India

Balmiki Prasad Singh


How should one try to understand one’s own country? The country grows on you and you grow in the country. Understanding one’s own country becomes more difficult if you are an Indian. India - a civilisation of hoary antiquity, of great achievements and numerous shortcomings, fills one’s mind and often causes bewilderment. Some finest Indian minds and also travellers and scholars from abroad have tried to unravel India and in the process several of them have provided rare insights. All these are valuable aids to understanding, and yet it does not fully help in constructing in mind a picture gallery of different aspects of India. At the end, one has to undertake one’s own journey, howsoever, formidable the task may be.

Upbringing and operation of fundamental social and political forces

I was born on 4th November 1941. This was a momentous period in the history of India from three significant angles: political, religious and literary. At a small but highly meaningful scale, Bihat, my village, where I grew up was an important centre of freedom struggle, religious harmony and culture.

At the global level, the Second World War was on its peak causing bloodbath and inflicting untold miseries on people of Europe and Asia. The war cries were heard and witnessed in India’s north-east too. The major political battle in India was struggle for freedom under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi which reached its zenith in Quit India Movement (1942-44). Freedom could be smelt. Mahatma Gandhi mobilized the people of India for a non-violent struggle against foreign rule and its scale and depth was unprecedented in history. The repression of such a non-violent struggle by the British only eroded their moral authority and also of their Indian collaborators, the zamindars, the landed gentry and the princely rulers and thus, unintended though, served the cause of struggle for independence. Alongside, the freedom movement also had the distinction of bringing for the first time millions of women into the political realm of civil disobedience and satyagraha campaigns.

These eventful years also witnessed hardening of attitudes among the leaders of the Congress and the Muslim League. The talks between India’s two top leaders Mahatma Gandhi, supported by Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, of Congress and Mohammed Ali Jinnah of the Muslim League were showing signs of strains. The communal divide between the Hindus and the Muslims had stiffened leading to political division of the country. On 15th August, 1947, India attained freedom but it was an India divided into India and Pakistan. It was accompanied by unprecedented violence with more than one million dead. Many then felt that the partition was temporary while others feared that this will impede India from getting her due position in the comity of nations. The shame of violence was widely shared.

Side by Side, there was a literary movement to which Rabindranath Tagore in the north and Subramaniya Bharati in the south provided leadership with imagination and fervour. This had all begun with Raja Rammohun Roy in West Bengal in the eighteenth century. This new literary movement not only talked of beauty and nationalism but the new and rapidly growing corpus of books and monographs also revealed to its readers India in terms of its spirit, its philosophy, its arts, its poetry, its music and its myriad ways of life. This was a revolution in literature which made deep impact on revolution in politics and also got influenced by that. All these brought a new perspective in an Indian’s understanding of his surroundings, of emerging challenges and, of course, of his country. An age was ending and the ‘soul’ of India ‘long suppressed’ was finding ‘utterances’.

India could be understood in many ways.



Viewed in terms of geography, the Indian sub-continent “is a world of its own, extensive yet enclosed by marked geographical boundaries.” To the north, it’s bounded by the massive mountain ranges of the Himalaya. Its shores are washed by formidable oceans: the Indian Ocean to the south, the Arabian Sea to the west and the Bay of Bengal to the east. The east is also marked by tightly grouped mountain ranges extending upto Burma (Myanmar). In the west, India opens to the arid and contorted mountains on the edge of the Iranian Plateau.

India stretches from 38 degrees north latitude well above the Tropic of Cancer to 7 degrees above the equator and that groups it with only a few countries on the earth that extend over so many latitudes.

Geography plays a very important role not only in terms of ecology and climate but also in respect of common traits and attitudes. India has a huge population of 1.1 billion people covering an area of 12,69,419 sq. miles (32,87,782 sq kms). India extends 2,009 miles (3,214 kms) from its mountainous northern border with China (in Jammu & Kashmir) to the southernmost tip of the mainland (at Kanyakumari).

Geography provides a distinct physical personality to the Indian sub-continent. And yet the Indian sub-continent and more so the Indian mind was never closed to the world.


A recent survey has indicated that 4,653 communities live in India (that include all major religions of the world in a predominantly Hindu society with sizeable Muslim population), professing different faiths, practising diverse forms of worship, entertaining different notions about migration of soul, speaking several languages and dialects. Each group has its own folklores and its agriculture, industry and handicrafts too in many ways are distinct from others. But India is more than a sum of these. Jawaharlal Nehru once said, “India is a cultural unity amongst diversity, a bundle of contradictions held together by a strong but invisible threads”. In fact, for the past five thousand years or so, the Indians have developed common traits, thoughts and feelings. These have given successive generations of Indians a mindset, a value system, and a way of life, which has been retained with remarkable continuity. Despite the passage of time, repeated foreign invasions, and the enormous growth in population, the Indians as well as people of Indian origin have possessed retained a unique personality and it is going to embellish in coming decades marked by unfolding of an era of globalization and democracy.

The Indian Mind

In terms of history, it is not very clear when the Indian mind started delving into fine arts, poetry, philosophy and science. The myths and legends, cults and rituals, as well as agricultural practices and handicrafts indicate that civilisational attainments in India commenced earlier than 5000 years ago. The Indus civilisation which flourished during 2400 – 188 BC provides the beginnings of Indian historical experience. The archaeological excavations at various sites connected with that civilisation, such as at Mohenjodaro, Harappa and Dholavira, have amply proved that there existed a well-developed city life, irrigation system, and agricultural operations in India during this period.

Much later, (and largely associated with the Aryans around 1500 BC) the divine narratives were pieced together out of unconscious allegory, poetic symbolism, personification of nature, or worship of spirits. But in all these, the human mind played as important a role. It is this feature of the Indian mind which is responsible for the rapid growth of Indian philosophical pursuits and the development of mathematics and astronomy.

The notes recorded by the Greek ambassador, Megastheners (3rd century BC), the Chinese pilgrims, Fa-hsien (5th century AD) and Huein-Tsang (7th century AD) and of Al-Biruni (11th century AD) provide vivid description of India’s society, religion, philosophy, politics, arts and industry. Earlier, the rock edicts of Asoka (3rd century BC) amply revealed the richness of India’s culture and political system.

The beginnings of Indian literature are found in the Vedic hymns in Sanskrit composed around 1500 BC. Early literary forms also include Tamil verses from the south, Prakrit and Pali tales from the mainland and tribal lores from the hills and uplands.

Literature in early days was primarily religious. The Hindus recognized two kinds of authoritative religious literature: shruti (hearing) which is eternal and self-existent and divinely revealed; and smriti (recollection) which is a product of human authorship. The entire Vedic literature is shruti. The Ramayana, the Mahabharata including the Bhagavad Gita, and the Upanishads and Dharmashastra represent the finest examples of smriti tradition.

Sanskrit became the medium of expression of poets, authors, storytellers, as well as valuable treatises on philosophy, astronomy, science, town-planning, architecture, music, drama and dance. Sanskrit and more particularly its classical style was the language spoken by a cultured minority. Alongside, folk literature flourished in popular dialects and in languages like Pali and Prakrit. However, Sanskrit, Pali and Prakrit grew and developed at the same time. Pali became the sacred language of Buddhism and Prakrit, of Jainism. Sanskrit, Pali and Prakrit, have greatly contributed to the growth of modern Indian languages like Hindi, Marathi, Bengali and Assamese, and have enormously influenced their script, grammar and literature.

There is enough evidence to indicate that from ancient times, India had developed a system of conferences and free discussions to which specialists came from all over the country. The summaries of those conferences were known as samhitas, the compilers being editors, not authors.

Uniqueness of the Learning Process

The term smriti signifies an oral tradition wherein the teachers passed to their students the texts which they themselves had received from their masters. The guru-shishya parampara (teacher-student tradition) was a significant institution that grew and flourished in this behalf. The students were sent to live with a guru and learn not only the scriptures but also statecraft, music, warfare, science and agriculture. In time a student would attain the status of a guru, and carry on the tradition of transmitting his knowledge to his disciples. The institution of guru-shishya parampara covered the entire gamut of creative activity, namely religious discourse, history, dance, drama, poetry, painting, and sculpture. In this process, the learned mind renewed the sacred texts in the light of new social, religious, and economic realities as the guru was required to interpret the scriptures to find answers to emerging problems.

The institution of the guru-shishya parampara declined over the years and it is now seen mainly in the realm of music and dance. New schools and institutions, seminar and discussion forums have, however, emerged replacing, in a way, the traditional modes of learning. The development of writing manuscripts, followed by the technology of printing books and journals, and the storage of literature in computer software these days have ensured that we do not lose anything of the past. There is no denying that archives, libraries and computer technology play an important part in conservation and comprehension of the past. However, the present system has its own paucity as the renewal that occurred through dialogue in the old tradition is not a part of computer software. For renewal comes by using, by doing, and by making the past an effective memory that is of great value for the present.

It is true that maintenance and renewal are inter-related. But renewal is not revival. What is necessary is to free a thought from specificity of its context and to help what is immanent in that thought to emerge in the new context in order that it meets the social and intellectual requirements of the present. Such developments in new directions have infinite possibilities in India. Renewal also presupposes the capability of a civilisation to reject an ideal. We have learnt from other civilisations by studying their experience and thereby enriching our own and the process continues.

The wider meaning of history

In a wider sense, history encompasses the development of human consciousness, a handing over or easy passage of ideas and beliefs from one generation to the other. As a remarkable feat of conservation of memory, the Hindus, through the tradition of Smriti and Sruti, have passed on the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Bhagavad Gita and other sacred texts to the present day. This aspect of historical consciousness of Indians was highlighted by Rabindranath Tagore in his paper, ‘A Vision of Indian History’, where he writes:

I love India, not because I cultivate the idolatry of geography, not because I have had the chance to be born in her soil, but because she has saved through tumultuous ages the living words that have issued from the illuminated consciousness of her great sons.

The Ramayana and the Mahabharta had been a part of the collective Indian consciousness for an extensive period of time. Similarly, the folklores and folktales go a long way in understanding of Indian mind. In the second half of the last century, television shows serializing the Ramayana and the Mahabharta in India proved so popular that at the time of their telecast traffic in towns used to come to a standstill! In rural areas, working people and children invariably sat spellbound in front of a television set at a community center or in a home. They wept and laughed as the situation demanded.

In recent years, Richard Attenborough’s film entitled ‘Gandhi’ have contributed to understanding of India’s freedom struggle and its values. The New York Post called it “a film that staggers the mind and feeds the soul.” Mahatma Gandhi was a revolutionary who believed in the possibility of resolving social conflicts through non-violent techniques. He had an unshakeable faith in the spirit of mind and the power of love. “The hardest fibre must melt in the fire of love. If it does not melt, it is because the fire is not strong enough.”

An impressive corpus of literature on India in the last two centuries authored by Western scholars and travellers ranging from James Mill to Dominique Lappaire and Marc Tully provide insights on history, politics, religion and behaviour of common Indian people. Recently (July-August 2006), I had the opportunity to interact with 16 US educators who were on a 6-week visit to India. As I opened the familiarization programme, I found them extremely keen to understand this country. In the de-briefing session at the end of the programme, almost everyone felt that India is a complex country where generalizations could go wrong as what applies to a Tamilian is not of relevance to a Bengali; a Maharashtrian could view things in a different fashion than a Punjabi, and so on. And yet they were impressed with unity of Indian mind, its politics and economy. Personal conversation revealed that they were most impressed by Taj Mahal and ghats of Varanasi. They detested India’s beggars and also dirt and filth at public places. India’s hospitality and warmth too moved them and a few of them were in tears while revealing their impressions.

Genius of India

Where lies the genius of India? The Western writers deeply impressed by the metaphysical bent of the Indian mind and by their strong religious instincts and proclivities have viewed the Indian genius largely concerned with the other world, dreaming and running away from life. But this is far from correct. As Sri Aurobindo rightly observes:

“Spirituality is indeed the master-key of the Indian mind; the sense of the infinite is native to it. India saw from the beginning, - and, even in her ages of reason and her age of increasing ignorance, she never lost hold of the insight, - that life cannot be rightly seen in the sole light, cannot be perfectly lived in the sole power of its externalities. She was alive to the greatness of material laws and forces; she had a keen eye for the importance of the physical sciences; she knew how to organize the arts of ordinary life. But she saw that the physical does not get its full sense until it stands in right relation to the supra-physical; she saw that the complexity of the universe could not be explained in the present terms of man or seen by his superficial sight, that there were other powers behind, other powers within man himself of which he is normally unaware, that he is conscious only of a small part of himself, that the invisible always surrounds the visible, the supra-sensible the sensible, even as infinity always surrounds the finite.”

It is thus not surprising that during the period of recorded global history of the past 2500 years India was a major power for 1300 years (roughly up to 8th Century) and became again a major power for over a period of 100 years during the Mughal rule. We developed rational traditions in this country “as this was a country in which some of the earliest steps in algebra, geometry and astronomy were taken, where the decimal system emerged, where early philosophy – secular as well as religious – achieved exceptional sophistication, where people invented games like chess, pioneered sex education, and began the first systematic study of political economy”. The Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Upanishads and the Bhagavadgita, the finest works of art and sculpture of Ajanta and Ellora and various Buddhist shrines, the best universities of the world of their times at Nalanda and Vikramshila are achievements that should give us pride in our heritage.


The Story of Civilisation

In its 5000-years long history, the Indian civilisation has undergone both external and multidimentional internal upheavals. In this epic story, five encounters (among millions) have been particularly significant.

The Vedic Age

The Vedic period (1500 BC and before) witnessed the intermingling of the Aryans with autochthons which made a decisive influence not only on religion and spirituality but also on patterns of agriculture, industry, trade and overall productivity. The Vedas and the Upanishads and the great epics: the Ramayana and the Mahabharata (including Bhagavad Gita) came to guide and determine the way of living and thinking of the elite as well as the common people. Besides, there were notable advances in music and medicine, mathematics and astronomy.

The Age of Revolt

The second most significant encounter was through the discourses of Lord Mahavira (599-521 BC), the founder of Jainism, and Lord Buddha (566-486 BC), the founder of Buddhism. It came as a breath of fresh air. Both Lord Mahavira and Lord Buddha questioned the established religious orders and presented a rational way of looking at things, emphasizing the role of non-violence in human behaviour and ecology. They strove to build an inclusive social order.

I have found the encounter between the Vedic philosophy and the Buddhist precepts a highly interesting dialogue of great value in understanding the Indian mind. The fact that Buddha was a Hindu and that he died as a Hindu were significant. It is equally important to know that Buddhism attained its highest expression both in terms of literature and institutions like monasteries and universities in India. The Buddhist world-view generated introspection among the Hindu elite. As a response, a revitalized Hindu society, on the one had decried the increasing role of rituals and rigidity of caste structures and on the other, it incorporated Buddha into its pantheon by treating him as an incarnation of Vishnu.

The greatest loss in my view on account of the ‘banishment’ of Buddhism from India was to the approach of rationality and scientific enquiry that Buddhism had encouraged. In the long run, the absence of the Buddhist approach encouraged the forces of regression in the Indian society and constricted our capacity to look at different interpretations of a given idea in arriving at a conclusion concerning religion or nature. It also contributed to widespread illiteracy and ignorance in our society.

The Brahmanical order which excluded women and the working class (of farmers, artisans and dalits) from reading and writing reasserted its position in the name of religion and tradition and pursued with its dogmatic policies with renewed vigour. In such a society, the decline was inevitable and the Indian society gradually slided into backwardness maintaining alongside a few islands of prosperity and some persons of exceptional intellectual talent.

Islam comes to India

The period of decline that began in the economy and polity after the eighth century AD established an empty space that was filled by the Muslim invasions and eventual Muslim rule in India. Thus commenced the third encounter- that between Islam and Hindu belief systems.

Islam in a predominantly Hindu society became the religion of the ruling elite for nearly 600 years till it was replaced by the British colonial rule. It imported among believers of this faith a single God, a rigid code of worship and a way of living. To its believers, Islam provided a distinct facial expression, dietary system, dress, language, music, system of marriage and divorce, architecture and spirituality. Unlike Buddha, Muhammad would not and could not be accommodated in the Hindu pantheon. The economic and social principles of Islam in so far as it dealt with property and inheritance, marriage and divorce codes was different from the Hindu order.

There were, however, significant attempts to find a modus vivendi between Islam and Hinduism. It meant that India had to devise a means by which Hindus and Muslims could live together in a society based on different spiritual and social conceptions. In fact, Islam gradually lost its Arabian and Persian identity and absorbed many Hindu folk traditions. The influences from Persia and Central Asia gradually began to coexist with indigenous traditions in languages, styles of dress, music and cuisines. The creative genius of the Indian people – both Hindus and Muslims – found unique expression in Sufism and Bhakti literature, in music and painting, in birth of Urdu language and enrichment of other Indian languages, and in architecture and urban centers.

Christianity in India

Christianity came to India well before it went to several European countries. But the civilisational encounter began with the entry of Europeans in India and establishment of the East India Company by the British in India. With the spread of the English language and the concept of democracy and rule of law began the fourth civilisational encounter and that led to introspection in the Indian society. The religious and social reforms of Hinduism in the nineteenth century were attempts to assimilate these new influences. The birth rights of kings and maharajahs to rule was slowly yielding place to democratic (severely limited to begin with) institutions of governance. The first sign of this political awakening was the inauguration of the Indian National Congress in 1885 and that gradually led to a new conception of nationhood and struggle for independence.

The ICT Revolution

Since the end of the last century, another fifth great civilisational encounter encompassing all aspects of our living is taking place. This is, popularly known as the information and communications revolution. This revolution is rapidly transforming our ways of communication – which has become enormously rapid, integration of markets as well as trade, sharing of cultural values as well as products, and disseminating information as well as imparting training. New approaches are on the anvil to raise productivity and to tackle poverty. The information and communication revolution has the momentum and dynamism to catalyse and sustain our development efforts. The roots of this renaissance that we are witnessing today lie in the freedom movement that strengthened the forces of democracy and rule of law, of equality and individual liberty.

One is reminded of Abraham Lincoln, who said in the famous House Divided speech that the United States of America could not endure half slave and half free. It would become all one thing or all the other quite all free or all slave. Then he asked, “Have we no tendency to the later condition?” In contemporary Indian history, Mahatma Gandhi more than others succeeded in accomplishing freedom through non-violent struggle involving common people. It was in fitness of things that the framers of the Indian constitution unanimously agreed to give all Indians equal rights of franchise irrespective of sex, caste, creed and religion. In terms of our democratic and constitutional imperatives, every Indian is entitled to education and fullest development of his personality in terms of his genius.

The most significant expression of the new revolution took place in Silicon Valley of the United States and Bangalore in India. Several Western scholars have also attributed it to the Indian tradition of toleration and innovative problem solving techniques. The tradition of logic and mathematics, imaginative stories of the Bhagavad Gita and other epics in the making of the Indian mind and competence in English are other sources of strength of the Indians.

Today, a new kind of knowledge is being produced and circulated based on India’s own traditional knowledge as well as scientific achievements of the world. In understanding this phenomenon one ought to be also aware of the circumstances governing the kind of knowledge that the new generation of Indians is producing and circulating. A visit to work place, research institutions, cultural and media centers, and interaction with men and women in villages and urban centers, dialogues and seminars gives one a clear idea about confidence levels of young Indians. Young Indians are trying to reach across cultural divides and understand languages, scientific methodologies, histories and faiths other than their own. New perspectives are being added and these are indeed enriching experiences.

The respect that a nation-state would command in the global community in coming decades would be directly related to its strength in the field of modern knowledge. Several of the Indian universities and science and technology centres are known for their excellence in the world.

The most compelling aspect of democracy in India today is the rise to power of the lower castes and classes such as the dalits and backward classes. In response to political pressures from castes, communities and regions, seats in universities and technology and management centres are being enlarged. While this will help the universities and science and technology centers in the long run to become more inclusive and thus help generate equity and harmony in society, but threat to culture of excellence should not be lost sight of. Promotion of excellence in science and scholarship should receive equally strong attention of all concerned. For power of modern knowledge has both quantitative and qualitative aspects.

The number of renaissance men and women in the country is on the rise. They have courage, intellect and ability to compete in the world and a significant number of these persons have a strong desire to connect with the rest of their community and to make a contribution towards building a strong and just India.


The Renewal of India

The revolutionary changes in ideas call for innovative attitudinal and institutional responses. India needs to build a participatory and inclusive ethos by involving all segments of society. This is surely not too difficult for a society which in the past has successfully accommodated and assimilated different points of view and in the religious domain in particular created images and institutions for 330 million gods and goddesses.

India has been living through pluralistic challenge longer than several other nations. In terms of faith, well before the advent of Christianity and Islam in the West and other parts of the world, India was a significant playfield of civilisational encounters between Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. Both Judaism and Christianity came to India in the first century itself. Islam too commenced its entry through coastal towns of the Indian peninsula from the 8th century onwards. In the 9th century, when the Zoroastrians of Persia felt that their religion was in danger from the invading Muslims, they moved to the north-west coast of India. Their descendants still live there and are known as Parsis. The birth of Sikhism in the 15th century in India had the avowed objective of bringing peace to conflicting encounters among Hinduism and Islam. In the last century, when the Tibetans felt a threat to their religion and culture, they chose India and a large number of them live here.

Multi-culturalism is a basic feature of India’s civilisational experience. Multi-culturalism as practiced in India is not atheistic in character but a combination of religions. It was to this aspect of communitarian life in India that Mahatma Gandhi – a devout Hindu – had passages read from the holy books of all the major religions in his prayer meetings. Secularism in India as elsewhere establishes that the State shall be neutral in the matter of religion. But multi-culturalism demands flowering of different faiths and belief patterns. Secularism and multi-culturalism are not in conflict. It is this openness of the Indian experience that provides basic origination in making of public policy of harmony. It establishes that disputes shall be settled through dialogue and that there shall be no restriction on flow of ideas to thought processes from different parts of the world.

We are living in a period of great turbulence in India, in our neighbourhood and in the world. Terrorism, Naxalism and insurgencies, sectarian violence and narrowness, politicisation of ethnic, caste and religious ties, and lack of opportunities are causing enormous distress in our society.

Since the last decade of the twentieth century, we witnessed an acceleration in the pace of senseless killings on account of terrorist activities in Jammu and Kashmir and elsewhere. The Babri-Masjid demolition in December 1992 was followed by Mumbai riots that killed 1800 people in sectarian violence. The Godhra carnage in 2002, led to another major sectarian violence in Gujarat killing about 2000 persons. What emerged from the Gujarat holocaust was an expression of shameless violence and breakdown of the system of rule of law.

In the present circumstances of India, we have to recognize that the countries and groups which promote religious extremism and seek to advance their cause by way of terrorist training camps and suicide squads are causing immense damage to their own societies and polity as well as in the long run it will impart among children fundamentalist lessons and brutalise every sphere of human activity. It is true that democracies are more vulnerable to terrorism because democratic values inhibit effective anti-terrorist action. Intensive surveillance, curtailment of liberties, restrictions on movements, and other such tedious security procedures are highly unpopular in a democracy because they affect the quality of life of citizens. And yet in the long run democracies alone through their unity and determination shall prevail over terrorist forces.

It is well known that the Industrial Revolution that swept Europe and the United States bye-passed India. Fortunately, India is one of the major centres of information and communications revolution in the world. Software and business process outsourcing exports are increasing rapidly. One of the strengths of knowledge-based industry could be seen in the fact that India today provides white-collar services to major companies of the world.

In recent years, India’s achievements in economic domain is quite impressive. The Indian economy has grown at 6 per cent a year from 1980 to 2002 and over 7 per cent a year from 2002-2006. The Indian middle class has a size of 250 million people. However, concerted policy action is needed to lift more than 200 million people, concentrated in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and Rajasthan, out of poverty.

India’s new economic policy has unleashed creative energy of the business class along with elimination of those interventionist policies which gave so much discretion to politicians and civil servants. There is new emphasis on efficiency, productivity and competition. In this environment, there is need to place considerable stress on integrity as well because the Indian psyche still attaches considerable importance to moral values. That integrity in public life is also linked to economic efficiency and transparent work ethic need to be accorded special attention. In a broader spectrum, efficiency can be promoted by positive attitude towards work, speed and integrity in taking decisions, willingness to accommodate the claims of each other and rule of law. The right to information (Right to Information Act – 2005) has emerged as an effective instrument in the hands of common people to check corruption, fight injustice and make governance transparent.

A silent revolution among Indian women is taking place. A vibrant Indian democracy has ensured participation of 1.2 million elected women officials. The Indian economy is being supported by nearly a million active women micro-credit workers and more than half of the workforce in a country of 1 billion people are women. Decentralisation and experiences of panchayati raj may provide needed impetus to eradicate poverty.

In today’s India, democracy supports inclusiveness (notwith-standing polarization on caste and religious lines) and this would be furthered through education and availability of Internet facilities in the major languages of India. This will also mean better governance, a more informed society and market, and prosperity for our people.

We have to create and sustain an environment that will enable and encourage competition, efficiency and inclusiveness. Towards this, we need fresh ideas and new policies and programmes based on these new ideas. And we need boldness and a sense of purpose to implement those policies and programmes. Dialogue – an essential pre-requisite of democracy – would ensure that.

There can be no one way – religions, caste, culture, or linguistic of being an Indian. Pluralism is the founding principle for building a pan-Indian identity and need not be in conflict with other identities.


India of the Future

I have been a keen student of India’s history. I have found inadequacies of the traditional approach of ruler-centric narrative of events in understanding my country. I have thus tried to hear the voices of saints and mystiques, poets and sculptors, scientists and engineers, farmers and artisans. I have learnt more from the common people living in our villages than others. I have also found that folklore and folk tales are as important in understanding as scientific inventions, economic processes and political events.

Gautama Buddha and Mahatma Gandhi as also epics have convinced me that truth and non-violence occupy centrality of place among India’s messages not only to her children but also to the people of the world notwithstanding a long history of revenge and violence. The message of the Mahabharta stressed that revenge led to destruction of almost everyone including Krishna and his clansmen. The lesson is obvious that violence and revenge would lead to a lawless society and to a moral and emotional desert.

It is in this context that I find one attitude that has greatly contributed to the enrichment of Indian life is respect for another person’s view of truth with hope and belief that he or she may be right. This has been best expressed in the Rig vedic hymn which enjoins

‘Ekam Sad Vipr Bahudh Vadanti’.

[The truth is one the sages describe it variously]

I imagine this approach of “one truth many expressions” was formulated by our rishis both in order to understand the complexities of natural objects and their inter-relationships and for harmonious living in society among people of many-sided beliefs and practices and each claiming superiority over the other.

The Bahudh approach not only underlines for equal respect for all points of view but it also calls for – and that is significant – inculcation of a habit in which one person thinks that the other person’s point of view may perhaps be right. Understanding the point of view of those with whom one profoundly disagrees is the first step toward learning to create a society which manages such disagreement. The very pluralism argument is a metaphor for the pluralism of India’s civilisation.

As one moves around the country, one becomes aware of passionate conviction among the people about uniqueness of India’s civilisation and its contribution to humanity. The yearning that India should resume its rightful place in the world is also widely shared. Today, India is both a rich civilisation and a democratic nation state. “We the people” the Constitution of India opens, puts it clearly that it is people of India who will decide in times to come what kind of country India would be in future.

There is a strong desire to make India both economically and politically powerful. It is crystal clear that political power comes from economic and military strength. Contemporary events where political ambition of Germany led to the First World War and of Germany, Japan and Italy to the Second World War are vivid reminders of evil consequences of use of military power. It is in this context that India needs to pursue and it rightly does a policy of peaceful coexistence towards its neighbours.

There is new sense of purpose among the people of India. The great fact of reality in India today is that it is both strong and weak. The growing economy, liberal political democracy and professional armed forces are adding to India’s economic and political strength almost on a continuing basis and yet India’s weakness lies in persistence of lawless elements like terrorism, insurgency and naxalite violence as well as in religious divides. As India succeeds in controlling these countervailing forces, the country becomes economically and politically more powerful.

One can visualize that India would succeed in eliminating acute poverty and in giving cohesion to its society and strength to its polity. India’s dream is not likely to be of becoming another America with its economic and military and political strength. But it is to be of a strong and powerful India keeping its moral vision in terms of its recent history of freedom movement and its age-old civilisation. While religions, ethnic, and caste ties would thrive, the India of future should reflect what the preamble of the Constitution enjoins upon all of us of building “a sovereign, socialist, secular and democratic republic”.

My India

In the first decade of 21st century, I wonder as to what kind of India my grand-children and generations to come thereafter will have. The emergence of India as a global player in economic and political terms in coming years is visible and along with that greater awareness of India’s cultural heritage. In 1915 Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy reflected as follows:

Each race contributes something essential to the world’s civilisation in the course of its own self-expression …. the essential contribution of India, is simply her Indianness; her great humiliation would be to substitute or to have substituted for this own character (svahbava) a cosmopolitan veneer, for then indeed she must come before the world empty-handed.

The developments in India particularly since 1947 give me confidence that in the new millennium India will not face the world empty-handed either in terms of civilisational attainments or economic strength. Several persons have viewed recent rapid economic growth in China and India in terms of their domination over global economy and polity. It was not, therefore, out of place when a young computer programmer of Indian origin, now a British national, commented at the end of my lecture at the Nehru Centre, London on 10 February, 1997, that culture may be important but what is more important is that India is going to become an economic superpower in the 21st century. I answered that like him, I am concerned about poverty, illiteracy, child labour and lack of health care facilities in India and that economic development is an imperative requirement to overcome all these. But the moot point is whether India is going to imitate the west, and become an economic superpower, and in the process lose its Indianness. It would be sad if that happened as once the Indian identity is lost it will be difficult to bring it back.

I do also believe that like individuals countries too have their destinies. India’s emergence as a significant global power is full of promise. Tomorrow’s India will be a country free of scourges of poverty and illiteracy. Its age-old cultural strength would continue to be renewed as long as Indian society and polity encourage creative minds in literature and arts, science and technology, and give primacy to democratic institutions and to an approach of inclusive and just social order.

I am 65. I am still learning about India. At times, India’s history, its achievements and failings makes one happy, at times feels one with anger. But I always feel proud not in narrow sense of nationalism which in itself is significant but in the wider sense of values that India provides to her children: a simple living, family ties including marriages, tolerance for points of view of others, spiritual quest and respect for ecology. This journey of understanding India is always absorbing and full-stop is not in sight.


 Dialogue A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati

Astha Bharati