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Sunil Khilnani’s ‘The Idea Of India’ hasn't aged gracefully

Twenty-five years on, ‘The Idea Of India’ feels dated in a 21st century India where ever-new horrors are inflicted on citizens every day

The cultural continuities of modern India, or its towering legacies, don’t get enough attention in ‘The Idea Of India’. (iStockphoto)

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In 2006, as I returned to India after spending a couple of years studying abroad, a friend advised me to pick up Sunil Khilnani’s The Idea Of India. “It’s the best re-introduction to the country that will help you see everything from a fresh perspective,” he said. “Especially now that you have decided to become a journalist.”

It was sage counsel and I remember reading it with much appreciation. The Idea Of India is a book-length, scholarly essay, first published on the occasion of 50 years of independence, in 1997. At its core, it is an extended praise and elegy for Jawaharlal Nehru’s vision to create a great nation. It is also a sobering reckoning with modern India’s indisputably elitist origins, a fact that has since become everyone’s favourite stick to beat liberals with.

As Khilnani writes early on in the book, “the drafting of the Constitution rested in the hands of only about two dozen lawyers…. Most people in India had no idea of what exactly they had been given. Like the British empire it supplanted, India’s constitutional democracy was established in a fit of absentmindedness.”

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For a freshly minted graduate out of an elite British institution, one which had sprung generations of excellent Indian lawyers, statements like these were unsettling. As were big claims, like “the settled coherence of the Nehru era is…a retrospective mirage”. Back then, in the days of the United Progressive Alliance, or UPA 1, the cracks in the foundations of the world’s largest democracy were already apparent. Babri Masjid and the Gujarat riots were behind us but the rallying cry to Make India Great Again hadn’t yet pierced the air as ubiquitously as it does these days.

If Ayodhya was “Ground Zero…the rubble-site of the republic” (Khilnani’s words), the roots of authoritarianism had been sown by Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, and, after her assassination, by the organised pogrom of the Sikh community largely carried out by Congress partymen. “Mrs Gandhi flirted with religious sentiments and appeals,” as Khilnani writes, “hinting that the categories ‘non-Hindu’ and ‘anti-national’ overlapped.” The writing on the wall was abundantly clear. But most Indians, especially those who now vociferously defend the “idea of India”, refused to read it until it was too late.

Re-reading The Idea Of India 25 years after its publication is a challenging “task”. Khilnani’s lofty pronouncements, at times through dense and involuted sentences, feel like a chore, especially if you are no longer ensconced within the portals of academia and have had some experience of reporting on the ground.

There isn’t enough of a human face to the history he tells, barring a handful of instances (a few astute observations from the master of sharp thinking, B.R. Ambedkar, and a couple of remarks from A.K. Ramanujan stand out). The cultural continuities of modern India, or its towering legacies, don’t get enough attention. Even the material Khilnani dives into feels sadly dated. This isn’t so much a failure of his insights or lack of prescience, but rather a function of the ever-new horrors that are inflicted on us in 21st century India.

The whimsical judicial decision-making procedures circa 2022, with a fifty-fifty risk of every reasonable outcome being turned on its head, is entirely unanticipated in the book. Mrs Gandhi’s unbridled nepotism and attack on the dignity of the poor have ceased to shock as keenly as they did her contemporaries, having become part of the nation’s social and political DNA. Where communal riots once made headlines and caused outrage, criminal infringement of the rights of minorities is par for the course, recorded on phones and shared on social media. Above all, the phrase “the idea of India” has gained an ambiguous, if not perverse, currency.

Sunil Khilnani's ‘Idea Of India’.
Sunil Khilnani's ‘Idea Of India’.

For liberals across the ideological spectrum, “the idea of India” remains an immutable truth, one where the plurality, harmony and secular underpinnings of the subcontinent coexist. This section bemoans its destruction, but without denying the validity of their mourning for a dying idea (or, rather, ideal), it is useful to look at it through some of the key questions Khilnani poses towards the end of his book.

“The idea of India was created by…collisions between cultures and politics,” he explains, having outlined the troubling evolution of democratic socialism over a region that was, for centuries, ruled by clan affiliations and social hierarchies. This clash of behaviours and expectations between the rulers and the ruled raised three questions for ordinary citizens: “What possibilities are available to them? What challenges are they likely to face? And what is the significance of the history they are making?” The idea of India derives its meaning at the intersection of these answers, which, for every Indian, is likely to be a combination of matters that are uniquely personal and urgently real. This is the crux of Khilnani’s thesis and it holds water 75 years after India’s independence.

The idea of India, in its broadest sense, is therefore entrenched in our faith in democracy. What we don’t remember is that this glorifying force had its origins in one of the bloodiest ruptures in the history of the subcontinent, Partition. Or that ancient habits of thinking, based on caste and institutional inequality, were not demolished on 15 August 1947. Just as any faith that the end of colonial rule would end all of India’s woes was tragically misplaced, so is the belief that the termination of dynastic governance will usher in achhe din, the happy days of prosperity, no matter who replaces the old guard.

In a sharp indictment of the fate of democracy in India, Khilnani laments its devolution into a vehicle for conducting elections. For adult citizens, a vote is an immensely powerful tool. Their franchise can make or unmake kings and queens. But what happens afterwards as the electoral dust settles and the wheels of normalcy begin to grind again?

Democracy that is a living force should act not only as the means for people to express their political choice but also create a level playing field that fosters equal opportunities and dignity for all. It’s a truth Ambedkar foresaw long before his contemporaries did.

As the father of the Constitution put it in his closing speech to the constituent assembly debates: “On the 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognizing the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions?”

His question, needless to say, sadly remains a rhetorical one.

Somak Ghoshal is a writer based in Delhi.

Rereadings is a monthly column on backlisted books that have much to offer in contemporary times

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