"I have been with the UN for the past 28 years, I joined the organisation when he was 22. I have so much personal stake in the success of the UN", says Shashi Tharoor in his first major interview (on rediff) after the government of India declared him as the our official nominee for the post of secretary general of the UN.
Government sources indicate that the Ministry of External Affairs has officially instructed all its ambassadors, especially those in the capitals of members of the Security Council, that Dr Shashi Tharoor is India's candidate for the post of secretary general of the United Nations, and asked the ambassadors to make the case with decision makers in the respective countries where they serve, and seek support.
I do beleive, that when Shashi walked in through the corridors of the UN for the first time at the age of 22, 28 years ago, he had made up his mind. He wanted to reach the very top. I am quite sure, he has done his home work well (as with almost everything he has done so far) and we are going to see him elected.
On that midnight 58 years ago, the British Empire in India came to an end admidst the trauma of partition of India with Pakistan, and the sectarian violence that accompanied it. In these last five and a half decades of independence many thoughtful observers have seen the country more conscious than ever of what divides it — politics, religion, caste, language, ethnicity. What makes India, then, a nation?
To answer that question I am going to take an Italian example. No, not "that" Italian example! It is an example from the 19th century, because when the Italian nation was created in the second half of the 19th century out of a mosaic of principalities and statelets, one Italian nationalist [Massimo Taparelli d'Azeglio] wrote >We have created Italy. Now all we need to do is to create Italians.'
What is striking about that example is that no Indian nationalist succumbed to the temptation to express a similar thought. Nehru never said "we have created India, now we have to create Indians." Because our nationalist leaders, Nehru above all, believed in the existence of India and Indians for millennia before they gave words to their longings, before they articulated the political aspirations of Indians in the 20th century.
Nonetheless the India that was born in 1947 was in a very real sense a new creation. A state that made fellow citizens of the Ladakhi and the Laccadivian for the first time. A state that divided Punjabi from Punjabi for the first time. A state that asked a Keralite peasant to feel allegiance to a Kashmiri Pundit ruling in Delhi also for the first time. Nehru would not have written about the challenge of creating Indians, but creating Indians was in fact what the national movement did.
Let me give you a local example of what this actually means. When we celebrated the 49th anniversary of our independence, nine years ago, our then Prime Minister, H.D Deve Gowda, stood on the ramparts of the Red Fort and delivered the traditional Independence Day address to the nation in Hindi, India's national language. Eight other Prime Ministers had done exactly the same thing 48 times before him. What was unusual was that this time Deve Gowda, a son of Karnataka, spoke to the country in a language of which he did not know a word. Tradition and politics required a speech in Hindi, and so he gave one. But the words had been written out for him in his Kannada script, in which of course they made no sense.
Now I mention this simply because such an episode is inconceivable anywhere else in the world. But it represents the best of the oddities that make India, India. Only in India could we have a country ruled by a man who does not understand the national language. Only in India for that matter is there a national language which half the population does not speak. And only in India could this particular solution have been found to enable the Prime Minister to address his people. One of India's finest playback singers, the Keralite K.J. Yesudas, sang his way to the top of the Hindi film music charts with lyrics in that language written for him in the Malayalam script for him to sing. But to see the same practice elevated to the Prime Ministerial address on Independence Day was a startling affirmation of Indian pluralism.
For you see, as Stephanians instinctively understand, we are all minorities in India. A typical Indian stepping off the train, let us say a Hindi-speaking Hindu male from Uttar Pradesh, may cherish the illusion he represents the majority community, an expression much favored by the less industrious of our journalists. But he does not. As a Hindu, sure enough, he belongs to the faith adhered to by 82% of the population. But a majority of the country does not speak Hindi. A majority does not hail from Uttar Pradesh, though you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise when you go there. And, if he were visiting, say, my home state of Kerala, he would be surprised to realize a majority there is not even male.
Worse, this archetypal Hindu male has only to mingle with the polyglot, multi coloured crowds — I am not referring to the colours of their clothes but to the colours of their skins — thronging any of India's major railway stations to realize how much of a minority he really is. Even his Hinduism is no guarantee of his majorityhood, because his caste automatically puts him in a minority. If he is a Brahmin, 90% of his fellow Indians are not. If he is a Yadav, or another "backward class", 85% of his fellow Indians are not. And so on.
Or take language. The constitution of India recognizes 18 today. But, in fact there are 35 Indian languages spoken by more that one million people each. And these are languages, with their own scripts, grammatical structures, and cultural assumptions, not just dialects. And as I mentioned, if you count dialects you get to 22 thousand.
Now each of the native speakers of these languages is in a linguistic minority, because no language enjoys true majority status in India. Thanks in part to the popularity of Bollywood cinema, Hindi is understood, though not very well spoken, pretty much across the country. But, it is in no sense the language of the majority, because its gender rules, grammatical conventions and even its script are unfamiliar to most Indians in the South or in the North East.
Or take ethnicity. Ethnicity further complicates the notion of a majority community. Most of the time, as we all know, an Indian's name immediately reveals where he is from or what her mother tongue is. When we introduce ourselves, we are advertising our origins. Despite some intermarriages at the elite levels in our cities, Indians are still largely endogamous, and a Bengali is easily distinguished from a Punjabi. Now the difference this reflects is often more apparent than the elements of commonality. A Karnataka Brahmin shares his Hindu faith with a Bihari Kurmi, but they share little identity with each other in respect of their dress, customs, appearance, taste, language or even, these days, their political objectives. Now at the same time, a Tamil Hindu would feel he has much more in common with a Tamil Christian or a Tamil Muslim than with, say, a Haryanvi Jat than with whom he formally shares the Hindu religion.
Now, why do I harp on these differences? Not to stress division, but only to make the point that Indian nationalism is a rare animal indeed. Seeing so many distinguished scholars here reminds me of a story of two professors of law, probably at the Law Faculty of this university, arguing about a problem. One professor says "you know how we can solve this? We can do this and this and this and we can solve it." And the other professor says "yes, yes, yes, that will work in practice — but will it work in theory?"
And you know this is precisely the issue of Indian nationalism. It has worked very well in practice, but it doesn't work too well in theory. It is not based on any of the classical political science theories of nationalism that apply elsewhere, for example to the nation-states of Europe. It is not based on language, for the reasons I have already given you. It is not based on geography, for the natural geography of the subcontinent (framed by the mountains and the seas) was hacked in the partition of 1947. It is not based on ethnicity, because we all accommodate a variety of racial types, and ethnically some Indians have more in common with foreigners than with other Indians (Punjabis and Bengalis, for example, have more in common ethnically with Pakistanis and Bangladeshis respectively, than with Poonawallahs or Bangaloreans). And it is not based on religion, because we are home to every faith known to mankind, with the possible exception of Shintoism. Hinduism, which is after all a faith with no national organization — no established church or ecclesiastical hierarchy, no Hindu Pope — exemplifies as much our diversity as it does our common cultural heritage.
So what does that leave us with? It leaves us with the rather Stephanian notion of Indian nationalism as the nationalism of an idea — the idea of what one might call an ever-ever land. Emerging from an ancient civilization, united by a shared history and sustained by a pluralistic diversity. In our democracy, this land imposes no narrow conformities on its citizens. The whole point of Indian pluralism is you can be many things and one thing. You can be a good Muslim, a good Keralite and a good Indian all at once — and a good Stephanian too, while you are about it. It is the opposite of what Freudians call >the narcissism of minor differences.' For example, in Yugoslavia, we saw during the horrendous civil war there, people with so much in common — in fact all descended from the same Slavic tribes that populated the Balkans during the 7th and 8th centuries — often bearing the same surnames and similar appearance, harping on the minor differences between them in order to justify their hatred and killing of each other. So, while in Yugoslavia we had this narcissism of minor differences, in India we celebrate the commonality of major differences. To stand Michael Ignatieff's phrase on its head, we are a land of belonging rather than of blood.
So the idea of India, as Tagore and more recently Amartya Sen have insisted, is of one land embracing many. It is the idea that a nation may endure differences of caste, creed, colour, conviction, culture, cuisine, costume and custom, and still rally around a consensus. And that consensus is really around the simple idea that in a democracy you don't really need to agree — except on the ground rules of how you will disagree.
The reason why India has survived all the stresses and strains that have beset it for 58 years — and that led so many journalists and political scientists of the west in the 1950's to predict the imminent disintegration of the country — the reason why it didn't happen, the reason why we survived, is because India maintained a consensus on how to manage without consensus.