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


Understanding India

P.B. Venkatasubramanian

India, that is Bharat, is world’s largest democracy and the second most populous nation in the world. One man in every six in the world is an Indian. To understand India, one must first realize its diversity. The Eighth Schedule to the constitution lists eighteen languages; some of these having been added after the constitution of India came into force, in response to the demands of the linguistic groups, which sought recognition. It is often forgotten that India has the second or third largest Muslim population in the world, nearly as much as Pakistan, which was created as a homeland for Indian Muslims (as per the projected statistics reported by the web site Islamicpopulation.com). One great national religion, Hinduism, is to be found here. Further, one of the world’s great religions, which has adherence all over the world, Buddhism had its origin in India. It is overlooked that after the first Diaspora, a group of Jews came and settled down in Cochin, which boasts of an ancient synagogue. Again, the Parsi community found asylum and a place in India where it could practice its religion freely in India. It’s needless to mention the existence of a numerous and vocal Christian community of different denominations. Mention should also be made of the strong and influential Sikh and Jain communities which occupy a prominent place in Indian politics and society. The religious diversity of India is as immense as its population.

There is a great divergence of climate and terrain. Unless people have personal acquaintance with those from other parts of India, regional stereotypes dominate the conception of the nature of people from other parts of India. People think of the burly and brave Punjabi, the wiry and warlike Maratha, the shrewd and canny Gujrati, the volatile and artistic Bengali, and the puny but intellectual and bookish Madrasi. It is overlooked that these all form part of India and the tendency is to emphasize the differences rather than their essential unity.

In view of this, attempts to understand India have proved difficult, as people tend to focus on one aspect of India, ignoring the others. The result has, therefore, too often, been like the attempts of the six blind men, to understand what the elephant was like by each feeling and touching a different part. Each thought that the part which he touched was the whole. The result was that though they disputed loud and long, each was partly right but all were in the wrong.

In this connection, it is important to recall that at the time of independence, many considered that India was only a geographical expression, and that there was no entity which could be classified as Indian, with a common structure and understanding.

British writers were fond of repeating the apocryphal statement attributed to some rulers of Indian states, that if the British left India, there would be no virgins or rupees in most parts of India, a possible exception being the Maratha country and the Punjab. At the time of independence, many rulers of Indian states dreamed of independence for themselves. These predictions have been falsified. Virgins and rupees, though a much depreciated rupee, abound in all parts of India.

Mr. Jinnah thought that India without Pakistan was likely to be made up of 5 countries, including a Dravida land. It is also significant that Mr. Jinnah offered to allow duty-free import of arms through Karachi to states in Rajasthan and encourage them to accede to Pakistan, or to pronounce themselves to be independent.

This nightmare did not become a reality. It is their highnesses who have vanished into history, and the Indian states were integrated with India. However strange, these apprehensions, that at the dawn of independence, India as a political entity might be broken up into fragments and cease to exist, were expressed by pessimists. The pressures caused by partition, the mass movement of the refugees, and the claims of certain groups for separate independent states can all be cited.

In India, however, when the constitution came into force, the fundamental rights did allow persons to preach, and advocate secession by peaceful means, or by proposing a constitutional amendment to allow secession. It was felt that secession by constitutional means, or a constitutional amendment, was permissible, and certain groups favoured such a course.

However by the Constitution, 16th Amendment Act restrictions on the right of freedom of expression were permitted in the interest of the sovereignty and integrity of India. The word integrity is of considerable importance as preaching of secession could be prohibited. By the same amendment, holders of certain offices and candidates for election to parliament and the state legislators, had to take an oath not only of allegiance to the Constitution but also to the sovereignty and integrity of India.

The disintegration of India was predicted not only by those belonging to the political service, but also by others who were in the position to know better. Thus, Sir James Grigg, who was finance member of the Government of India, under the British, and later became Secretary of States for War in the Churchill’s Cabinet predicted in his Prejudice and Judgement “the early disintegration of this Dominion.”

To this list must be added the comrades of the left. Drawing their inspiration from the Stalin’s Constitution of the Soviet Union in 1936, they advocated that the states should have the right to secede from the Union. What they overlooked was that in the Soviet Union, the right to secede did not include the right to advocate secession. Such advocacy would have been deemed as counter revolutionary and would have resulted in the quick liquidation of the advocates.

Armed rebellion was also advocated by the comrades of the left. A circular issued by central committee of the undivided Communist Party of India which was filed in proceedings in the Hyderabad High Court was somewhat in the following terms. “Comrades of the revolutionaries’ struggle of Telangana, the central committee sends to you its revolutionary red greetings.” It then advocates the killing of senior government officials in somewhat the following terms: “Collectors and district superintendents of police, deputy collectors and deputy superintendents of police these must be your special mark for attention, unless any one of them is known to be a good man or a sympathizer.” This attempt met with failure.

The prophets of the doom of Indian democracy were in for disappointment. Fair and free elections on the whole have been held without interruption for more than half a century.

The question as to who would succeed Jawaharlal Nehru was discussed and various names including that of one General who made an inglorious exit from the army were mentioned, but the transition on the death of the first two prime ministers in office was smoothly managed.

It is significant that India alone of the third world countries has not had a military or violent coup after Independence. One attempt to impose a totalitarian regime during the internal emergency received a decisive rebuff from the people. Governments both at centre and states have changed not by bullets but by ballot and by counting heads, and not by breaking them. Any government which the people feel has not delivered the goods as promised has been turned out at the polls. The rejection of the Janata Government in 1980 and of Rajeev Gandhi, who came to power with a far greater mandate than his grand father or mother in 1989, illustrates this as also the changes in the central government from time to time.

One point remained to be underscored. While the children of Mother India seemed to be squabbling endlessly over the division of the benefits of development, the superiority of one language over the other and such other triviality, yet when the country as an entity is threatened, then squabbling is forgotten and the people come together as one. The response to the Chinese war of 1962, the war with Pakistan in 1965, when India was supposed to be a soft target in the post Nehru era, the Bangladesh war of 1971 when the U.S. Seventh fleet was moving into the Indian ocean, the Kargil conflict, all these illustrate the underlying unity of India in the face of external aggression or threat. Sports also provide a demonstration of national unity. From the official gallery in Parliament the writer was listening to a dull debate, when a member came into the house and announced that India had won the test match to be greeted by the enthusiastic applause. An officer of the Calcutta Police mentioned to the writer an incident when two rival political factions were about to engage in armed conflicts when from a neighbouring house there came the sound of an A.I.R. commentary on a test match at a crucial stage. The two rivals paused to listen and when an Indian victory was announced there was common rejoicing and the dispute postponed to another date.

It is a truism that the world is flat, that is so of India also, but it has to be confessed that the North East is less flat than the others. The writer has noticed a reluctance on the part of officials to move to the North East and resist such postings. These are not taken as challenges, but as punishments. But even here with greater mobility, things are on the mend. This is not a one way traffic. Persons from the North East are to be found even in the deep South bringing out the essential oneness of India. Masala dosas are available in the mall at Shimla, and Punjabi food in Madras, and Bengali dishes in the south. The urban professional classes are intermarrying across state, linguistic and even religious lines and a new breed of urban India, which though small in numbers, is growing, and its influence has made its appearance.

It may well be that inspite of offshoring and outsourcing, a desire to benefit in financial terms inhibits many people from saying “Sare Jahan Se Accha, Hindustan Hamara” (of all places our India is the best) and results in immigration of skilled and unskilled workers alike.

But one thing is clear. The children of Mother India , the texture of whose sari varies from rich brocade to tattered handlooms may squabble endlessly over even trifling matters, yet when pain and anguish touch the Mother’s brow in the form of national calamities or threats to her existence, from external sources the response is loud and clear. With heart and voice the people call out “Hindi Hai Hum” ( we are Indians) that is India as she is to be understood. Jai Hind.


The now visually challenged writer could not have attempted or completed the article without the assistance, which he gratefully acknowledges, received from Kumari Divya a college student, Smt. Jayalakshmi and his 12 year old twin granddaughters, Maya Balakrishnan and Tara Balakrishnan.


 Dialogue A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati

Astha Bharati