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The Shashi Tharoor column: The creation of India

FOUR days ago, we celebrated the 54th anniversary of our independence. Yet it is a sobering thought that, in these last five decades, we have become more conscious than ever of what divides us: religion, region, caste, language, ethnicity. The singular thing about India, as I wrote in India: From Midnight to the Millennium, is that you can only speak of it in the plural. What makes us, then, a nation?

Let me risk the wrath of anti-Congress readers and take an Italian example. No, not that Italian example, but one from 140 years ago. Amidst the popular ferment that made an Italian nation out of a congeries of principalities and statelets, the 19th Century novelist Massimo Taparelli d'Azeglio memorably wrote, "We have created Italy. Now all we need to do is to create Italians." Oddly enough, no Indian nationalist succumbed to the temptation to express the same thought - "we have created India; now all we need to do is to create Indians."

Such a sentiment would not, in any case, have occurred to the pre-eminent voice of Indian nationalism, Jawaharlal Nehru, because he believed in the existence of India and Indians for millennia before he gave words to their longings; he would never have spoken of "creating" India or Indians, merely of being the agent for the reassertion of what had always existed but had been long suppressed. Nonetheless, the India that was born in 1947 was in a very real sense a new creation: a state that had made fellow citizens of the Ladakhi and the Laccadivian for the first time, that divided Punjabi from Punjabi for the first time, that asked the Kerala peasant to feel allegiance to a Kashmiri Pandit ruling in Delhi, also for the first time. Nehru would not have written of the challenge of "creating" Indians, but creating Indians was what, in fact, our nationalist movement did.

Indian nationalism is a rare animal indeed. It is not based on language (since we have at least 17 or 35, depending on whether you follow the Constitution or the ethnolinguists), geography (the "natural" frontiers of the subcontinent - the mountains and the sea - have been hacked by the partition of 1947), ethnicity (the "Indian" accommodates a diversity of racial types in which many Indians have more in common with foreigners than with other Indians) or religion (we are home to every faith known to man, and Hinduism - a faith without a national organisation, no established church or ecclesiastical hierarchy, no uniform beliefs or modes of worship - exemplifies as much our diversity as it does our common cultural heritage). As I have written elsewhere, we are all minorities in India. Indian nationalism is the nationalism of an idea, the idea of an ever-ever land.

This land imposes no procrustean exactions on its citizens: you can be many things and one thing. You can be a good Muslim, a good Keralite and a good Indian all at once. Our founding fathers wrote a constitution for a dream; we have given passports to our ideals. Where Freudians note the distinctions that arise out of "the narcissism of minor differences", in India we celebrate the commonality of major differences. To borrow Michael Ignatieff's famous phrase, we are a land of belonging rather than of blood.

Nations have been formed out of varying and different impulses. France and Thailand are the products of a once ruthless unifying monarchy, while Germany and the United States were created by sternly practical and yet visionary modernising elites. Italy and Bangladesh are the results of mass movements led by messianic figures, Holland and Switzerland the creation of discrete cantons wishing to merge for their mutual protection. But it is only recently that race or ethnicity has again been seen as the basis of nationhood, as has become apparent in the prolonged breakup of the former Yugoslavia.

Most modern nations are the product of a fusion of population groups over the centuries, to the point where one element is indistinguishable from the next. The 19th Century French historian Ernest Renan pointed out, for instance, that "an Englishman is indeed a type within the whole of humanity. However, [he]... is neither the Briton of Julius Caesar's time, nor the Anglo-Saxon of Hengist's time, nor the Dane of Canute's time, nor the Norman of William the Conqueror's time; [he] is rather the result of all these". We cannot yet say the same of an Indian, because we are not yet the product of the kind of fusion that Renan's Englishman represents: despite some inter-marriage at the elite levels in the cities, Indians still largely remain endogamous, and a Bengali is easily distinguished from a Punjabi.

So India cannot claim ethnicity as a uniting factor, since what we loosely have in common with each other as a generally recognisable "type" we also have in common with Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans, Maldivians and Nepalese, with whom we do not share a common political identity. (And further distinctions make matters worse - after all, ethnically, Indian Bengalis and Punjabis have far more in common with Bangladeshis and Pakistanis than with Bangaloreans and Poonawallahs.) Nor can we cite religion, Looking again at foreign models of the nation- state, many scholars have pointed out that the adoption of Christianity by both conquerors and the conquered helped the creation of the Western European nations, since it eliminated the distinction between ethnic groups in the society on the basis of their religion. But this is not a useful answer in India, for a Tamil Hindu can share a faith with a Haryanvi Jat and still feel he has nothing in common with him. And equally important, nearly 200 million Indians do not share the faith of the majority, and would be excluded from any religiously-defined community (as non- Christian minorities amongst immigrants in Europe feel excluded today from full acceptance into their new societies).

A third element that has, historically, served to unite nations in other parts of the world is language. In Europe, conquerors and the conquered rapidly came to speak the same language, usually that of the conquered. In India, attempts by Muslim conquerors to import Persian or Turkic languages never took root and, instead, the hybrid camp language called Urdu or Hindustani evolved as the language of both rulers and the ruled in most of North India. But Hindi today has made very limited inroads into the south, east and north-east, so linguistic unity remains a distant prospect (all the more so given that languages like Bengali, Malayalam and Tamil have a far richer cultural and literary tradition than the Hindi which seeks to supplant them).

Language and religion are, in any case, an inadequate basis for nationhood. Over 80 countries profess Christianity, but they do not seek to merge with each other; the Organisation of the Islamic Conference has more than 50 members, who agree on many issues but do not see themselves as a single nation. As for language, Arabic makes meetings of the Arab League more convenient, no doubt, but has hardly been a force for political unity; Spanish has not melted the political frontiers that vivisect Latin America; and England and the United States remain, in the famous phrase, two countries divided by a common language.

A more poetic suggestion made by the French historian Ernest Renan is that historical amnesia is an essential part of nation- building, that nations are those which have forgotten the price they have paid in the past for their unity. This is true of India, though the Babri Masjid tragedy reveals that we Indians are not very good at forgetting. We carry with us the weight of the past, and because we do not have a finely-developed sense of historicism, it is a past that is still alive in our present. We wear the dust of history on our foreheads and the mud of the future on our feet.

Ultimately, what matters in determining the validity of a nation is the will of its inhabitants to live and strive together.

Such a will may not be unanimous, for there will always be those who reject the common framework for narrow sectarian ends. But if the overwhelming majority of the people share the political will for unity, if they can look back to both a past and a future, and if they realise they are better off in Kozhikode or Kanpur dreaming the same dreams as those in Kohlapur or Kohima, a nation exists, celebrating diversity and freedom. That is the India that has emerged in the last 54 years, and it is well worth celebrating.

Shashi Tharoor's new novel Riot was published on August 13 by Viking Penguin. Visit him at www.shashitharoor.com

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