In 1947, India underwent a major political change. King's rule became a thing of the past. British rule went into the annals of history. People's rule was ushered in. We got a country of our own. We got freedom and independence. We got global recognition. We gave ourselves a democracy, a great territory; inherited a vast cultural heritage and a rich tapestry of languages. And three years later we gave ourselves an excellent working constitution.
But, accept it or not, we failed to give ourselves one thing. We failed to give ourselves a national character … a sense of being Indian.
Every Indian has to have an intoxicating desire of being just that. As long as we do not develop this, we remain divided. Historically this has been the main reason behind our thousand years of enslavement.
Why could we not become an independent state earlier? Let us look at our history. Questions galore emerge. Why has India remained divided? What is this India? Is it just a geographical entity? Is it a mosaic of small and big kingdoms? What was the common man's equation with the state machinery? What did the transition to independence mean to the common man who lives in the village and may not even know who Mahatma Gandhi or Jawahar Lal Nehru or BR Ambedkar were?
The Ramayana and the Mahabharata are the two epics that gave a contour to our geographical territory. We only learnt from the Puranas that this entire land was named "Bharata" after the great king of Hastinapur. Bharata was a great warrior king born to Raja Dushyanta of Hastinapur and Shakuntala, who was brought up in the ashram of Rishi Kanva. As the story goes, Raja Dushyanta fell in love with Shakuntala during a hunting trip. He married her at the ashram and promised to take her back as his queen to the palace. After Dushyanta left, Rishi Durvasa arrived at Rishi Kanva's ashram. Shakuntala, distracted by her love for Dushyanta, did not give Durvasha the attention that he desired. An infuriated Durvasha cursed her saying "if you could forget to serve me, you will also be forgotten by the one who you love the most". Shakuntala gave birth to a lovely and brave child even as Dushyanta forgot her just as the rishi had said. Shakuntala named the boy "Bharata".
Dushyanta may have forgotten his wife as a result of the curse but he recognized his son a few years later on another hunting trip. The little prince was, to the astonishment of his father, was playing with a lion cub. He was counting the number of the cub's teeth as a doting Shakuntala looked on. A happy family reunion followed. The little prince Bharata grew up to become a great and benevolent king of India.
There are several stories like this about one king uniting many Indians under him. But there is no story about India or Bharata being a single political entity at any point of time in history. Ordinary individual remained either under the suzerainty of the king, local chieftain or the foreign ruler. Conservatism, religious chauvinism, caste-ism, unequal distribution of wealth, superstitions, poor work culture and the absence of able leadership for management of resources and manpower have been ailing our society right from the period of Aryanisation till today.
My intention is not to narrate history elaborately but take a re-look at history to understand the problems that we Indians are facing today. Over a period of a thousand years we have developed a slavish mindset and independent thinking has been paralyzed with an acquired mindset.
India was a mosaic of over 500 kingdoms with distinct cultures, languages, social rituals, food habits and behaviours before 1947. Small kingdoms used to fight among themselves. Palace conspiracies titillated the common man just like Bollywood does today. Royal murders and conspiracies, royalty's love for lust, the fear of the common man to express his opinion, conservative family systems and lack of mass education have been the basis of our mindset. This mosaic of kingdoms has faced cultural and social onslaughts from the time of the Indus Valley Civilization till the formation of the Independent India. Centuries of turmoil and fraternal conflict among the kings to establish their supremacy provided invaders from abroad a tempting invitation to come to India time and again.
The Aryans arrived 3500 years ago. They came, they fought and they conquered the land. They adopted it as their home. They enriched its culture, and turned into true sons of the soil. This great land also accepted them as its children. Civilization progressed, so did the study of science, ayurveda and mathematics, along with the flowering of indigenous literature.
The Aryans also gave this land a new religion, which had no name in the beginning but centuries later was christened Hindu for purposes of identification. The Aryans introduced the caste system on the basis of distribution of work. Over the next 700 years they advanced further south and east. There were hostilities among the Aryans and locals as the former sought out new settlements. The fights continued for centuries till the Aryans established their dominance over all the indigenous people of northern and western India.
More than a thousand years after the Aryans came, India saw another invasion. The Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great defeated King Puru after marching into the Indus Valley in 326 BC. The northwestern border was opened up for foreigners for all time to come.
The Aryans expanded their territory with the intent of settling down permanently and building their own civilization. India remained divided into hundreds of small principalities till the next imperial dynasty emerged - that of Chandragupta Maurya. After winning over the kingdom of Magadh (present-day Bihar) from the Nandas, Chandragupta Maurya built a large and powerful empire that stretched from Assam to Kandahar (Afghanistan). This was perhaps in its day the largest imperial domain in the world, and one of India's greatest royal dynasties. Under Ashoka the Great (268-231 BC), the Mauryan empire stretched across nearly the entire subcontinent extending as far south as Mysore.
Ashoka conquered Kalinga (present-day Orissa) after an ensanguined battle on the banks of the Daya river in 261 BC. His army shed so much blood - the apocryphal count is 1,00,000 men, women and children in the span of a day - that a repentant emperor gave up the path of violence forever to embrace Buddhism, and by extension, Ahimsa.
In those days Brahmanism, the prevalent social order was replete with social inequities among the castes. This socio-economic discrimination drove non-Brahmins, particularly those perceived to be of the lower order, to the Buddhist fold in large numbers. Buddhism espoused no caste and preached a simplistic faith in the language of the common man, Pali. And it attracted even more followers after the emperor himself patronized it. Along with Buddhism, Jainism - another contemporary religion - also grew in popularity. These faiths propounded by two of the greatest seers of ancient India, Gautama Buddha and Vardhamana Mahavira, received widespread acceptance. Probably, an excess of ritualism and orthodoxy in the prevailing religious ethos of the Aryan era spurred this egalitarianism. Religious beliefs underwent a great churning with the introduction of two new philosophies. India gave to the world the twin lights of peace and non-violence.
The resurgence in faith and advancement in social institutions continued till it reached a pinnacle under the glorious rule of the Guptas. The Gupta era, known as the "Golden Age of Ancient India", witnessed holistic progress in every field of human endeavour, including flourishing of the arts and architecture, advancement in science and technology, and the robust growth and development of imperial and democratic institutions. However, after 250 years of nourishing a remarkable renaissance, the wheel came full circle and the Guptas too inevitably declined.
The empire of Harshavardhana, during which time India once again served as a beacon to the Orient (Huien Tsang called the land the light of the East), emerged as the imperial successor to the Guptas. Between the 7th and 9th Century the light that emanated from the halo that was India faded somewhat. During these three hundred-odd year kingdoms came and kingdoms went, without leaving much of an imprint beyond their fiefs. Social stagnation, weakening of the once-mighty centralized institutions such as the imperial palace and army, religious orthodoxy and a listless economy marked the history of India during this period when vassals fought against each other at the cost of the common man. This was the time when the Arabs and the Ottomans, rejuvenated by the rapidly expanding reach of Islam, set their eyes on a decadent yet rich India.
A divided India had become a soft target for ambitious raiders who dared. Mohammad bin Qasim was the first Muslim ruler to realize the importance of winning the riches of India. He conquered Sind in 712 AD but failed to move beyond. Mahmud Ghaznavi came to India to loot and despoil more than a dozen times in 25 years since 1000 AD. It is said that every cobblestone and marble slab in his capital Ghazni was paid for from the pillage of Indian cities. In one of the worst sequences of plunder in recorded history, Mahmud depleted town after town in repeated raids that unleashed a reign of terror on every occasion.
Mohammad Ghori looked beyond mere plunder; he envisioned an Islamic empire in this land of flowing milk and honey. Thwarted by Prithviraj Chauhan of Delhi in 1191 AD, it took Ghori barely a year to come back and conquer the very victors who now chose to defeat themselves. Jaichand of Kannauj, smarting over Prithviraj's elopement with his daughter Sanyogta against his will, did not assist the brave Rajput in the Second Battle of Tarain in 1192. When one of your own becomes an enemy, he is to be wary of like no other. The betrayal by Jaichand is a classic example of how Indians have always brought their differences to the fore at crucial moments of history at irreparable cost to themselves.
Mohammad Ghori's pillage and plunder sowed the seeds of a sense of suspicion and hatred that Indians have had against foreign invaders. After Ghori's death in 1206, one of his slaves-turned-generals, Qutubuddin Aibak, founded the Slave Dynasty, the first Muslim imperial power centred in India. And after 300 years of the Delhi Sultanate, came the era of the mighty Munhall.
While northern India was at the mercy of wanton attacks from across the north-west frontier since the turn of the Millennium, the South remained unmolested for large swathes of time. It was not until the third Grand Munhall, Amber the Great (1556-1605), that the Decca was annexed, and made a part of Delhi's vast imperial hinterland.
In the medieval era, India endured severe socio-political turmoil. In their pursuit to expand Islam while destroying India's traditional religions and faith, most of the first six Grand Munhall earned the unenviable reputation of being thoroughly detested by the majority of their subjects. While on the one hand Amber won the hearts of Indians by reaching out to all faiths and marrying into Hindu royal families, and Shah Johan gifted the nation a monument of love such as the Tag Mahan, Arrange put many native princes and seers to the sword and even incarcerated his father in his last days.
I do not think Islam or any other religion advocates violence. But medieval Indian history is nevertheless littered with tales of betrayal, greed, murder and mistrust. The enemy from within became the most common conundrum in political and stately matters. This mistrust of one's own perpetrated a cult of corruption and falsehood that has over the centuries pervasively spread its roots into the very body politic of our society.
Islam may not preach violence without cause but many emperors spread violence in its name. Indian monuments were ravaged and thousands were forced to convert. Sycophancy at the cost of communal peace sowed even more seeds of mistrust among the people. The social hiatus between different faiths and classes - which for centuries had lived amicably - widened. Royalty was distanced from the ruled. Those with access to the nobility became the new haves, and they prospered at the cost of the innocent but less privileged.
According to the theory of Social Contract of French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, kingship emerged from man's collective desire for security. The king was the one in whom the people reposed their faith. In medieval India, the king became a totem of the opposite; he ruled in spite of the lack of faith in him, by virtue of sheer force and tyranny. The battle for the durbar became, by extension, a battle between Islam and native religions.
This was the age of the Industrial Revolution in Europe, followed by aggressive mercantilism. Europe emerged from its own Dark Age, priming for global dominance by virtue of its mastery of the seas. Hungry for the riches of the Orient, with a nouveau riche mercantile class craving for the luxuries and spices that India was famed for, a powerful but poor Europe soon turned its eyes on a divided but an affluent sub-continent. The more adventurous of the Atlantic seabed nations, England and Portugal, unleashed a hitherto unknown "financial terrorism" on the subcontinent. Under the guise of commerce, English and Portuguese adventurers conquered large stretches of India over the 16th and 17th centuries and economically impoverished their populations. This was probably the most insidious form of terrorism that India had ever faced.
No period in Indian history was more conducive for a European conquest than the later medieval era. With the once-mighty Munhall firmly on the decline, satraps and vassal states bickered bitterly amongst themselves. Many of them literally invited the Europeans to settle their own scores, little realizing that the British, Portuguese and French were simply marking up their own. While Mir Afar betrayed Siraj-ud-Daulla to Robert Clive in Bengal, Lord Wellesley throttled Tipu Sultan of Mysore in connivance with the Nizam of Hyderabad and the Peshwa. The story unfolded similarly everywhere. Mir Jafar lasted only a few years as puppet Nawab while the Mahrattas were decimated and the Nizam emasculated by the ever-growing Company Bahadur.
But for a few hiccups, the British had it easy. In fact, never did the East India Company have to deploy more than 300,000 White troops in its entire Indian domain at any one point of time. Each time the British went to war, a neighbouring native prince extended active assistance little realizing that he would be the next one for slaughter. And if military exploits were not enough, diplomatic machinations such as Wellesley's Subsidiary Alliance and Dalhousie's Doctrine of Lapse would do in the few native principalities that dreamed of holding their head high. By 1857, exactly a hundred years after John Company became Company Bahadur on the mangroves of Plassey, the British ruled, directly or indirectly, more than two-thirds of this vast sub-continent from Attock to Arakan and Kashmir to Kandy.
And what was the lot of the common man during the first century of British imperialism in India? Like always, the average Indian had little to be happy about with his master, be it native or alien. Poverty, hunger and taxes were the only certainties of life. As kingdoms changed hands, the common man jumped from the frying pan to the fire. If the arrogant native king considered himself to be the representative of God and left the common man to his lot, the British Regent bled him white to fill the hulls of the Company's England-bound ships. In the native fiefs sloth, greed and ineptitude marked the ruling class and slavery and sycophancy were the cornerstones of anarchical governance. In the Company Bahadur's administration unbridled power without responsibility was marked by an unrelenting drain of resources and Draconian laws.
In 1858 India came under the British Crown. Queen Victoria became Empress. For the next 100 years Muslims, who had been the privileged class for centuries, suddenly found themselves ignored and sidelined. Native Hindu and Muslim princes were reduced to mere agents of the British Empire, assigned the task of collecting taxes in lieu of petty platitudes and facetious citations from the Crown. The Raj also ventured into the domain of religion as Christian missionaries poured into India.
Consider the immensity of India's greatness. Over the ages, we had divisions, conflicts of opinions, wars amongst ourselves, contradictions in our thoughts, style of living, variety of cultures and languages. These are also responsible why we could not be a single united country. But ultimately, this land and people have embraced one and all and accepted all and sundry with open arms. All religions have been treated equally, and given the liberty of expression. All nationalities have been welcomed in equal measure. India accepted and made its own men of every nation and all faiths who chose to settle here. The concept of "vasudheiva kutumbakam (the universe is one family)" had always been one of the edifices of Indian culture.
In the great social churning over the centuries, different kings treated different subjects differently. Under a few tyrannical ones Indians lived the life of slaves. There have been instances of kings forcing their subjects to convert. It is also true that the hiatus between the upper and lower castes was allowed to continue by vested interests and the caste divides ran sharp for most of history. But all such differences were overcome with ease when Indians joined hands in the Freedom Struggle.
Independent India made conscious attempts to do away with the barriers of caste and religion. But unfortunately today some politicians continue to try and take advantage of these in the name of social justice so that caste could be converted into vote. Educated Indians should be alert enough to thwart such moves.
As long as caste and religion play a role in elections democracy is bound to come at a price. Goondas and anti-social elements will continue to take the upper hand in the minefield of caste and religious disharmony.
With Independence power was transferred from the British to a group of educated and enlightened leaders who led the National Movement. Power, however, soon found its way into the hands of criminal elements who exploited caste and muscle power to cling on to it at all cost. While participation in politics does not need any minimum academic qualification, the average educated Indian has been taught to hate politics. The general perception is that a concoction of only sycophancy, lies, muscle-power and corruption leads to success in politics. The general observation is that going by the muck that is associated with politics; any attempt to clean the system would be futile.
Our crop of bureaucrats comprises the cream of society, the best brains that Indian can boast of. Yet, our bureaucrats do little to change the system, and instead become a part of it by willy nilly kowtowing to the whims of their political masters. Seeking petty benefits such as comfortable postings and immunity from frequent transfers, bureaucrats also become a convenient tool in the politicians' scheme of things. Most of our bureaucrats do not consider themselves public servants in the true spirit of the term but have grown to enjoy the comforts that came with their posts since the Raj - cozy bungalows, comfortable lifestyles and perks aplenty. I do not understand how collectors, SPs or even top bureaucrats consider themselves to be the new maharajas in the pecking order when there salaries are actually provided from taxes paid by the common man.
For centuries the common man learnt to hate the king, who was in most cases tyrannical and self-serving. His loyalty to his master was commanded and not earned. Fear lay at the crux of this loyalty. Then the aam admi learnt to hate his even more despotic rulers. Today, the average Indian grows up with an inherent mindset of loathing the politicians who "rule" the republic. Rarely does the average citizen understand the need to participate in political activity and be a party to the nation-building exercise. I shall discuss this mindset elaborately in a subsequent chapter.
We are imbibed into thinking merely about ourselves as we progress through the different stages of our lives. As student, family man and citizen, we have a self-centred focus and we simply forget or ignore this land, this soil. Country and nation are farthest from the mind. All that the average Indian thinks of is securing a decent job that pays enough to run his family. His other aspirations in life are limited to getting married and begetting children. By the time he secures an education for his children he gets old enough to contemplate a peaceful retirement and tranquil death. Is this what we had in mind when we sought our own country? Did we want an India orphaned by her children? What then is the Indian mindset?
What is more unfortunate is that I call myself first an Oriya, my friend Gautam Basu calls himself first a Bengali, and Sudha Passi first a Punjabi. Why don't I consider myself Indian first and all things later? This is where the problem lies. We need to be Indians first. We need to say "I am an Indian". And mean it. Why don't we have a craze for the country just like we have one for our region, our festivals, and our cricket team? By craze I refer to an intense sense of belonging. I am crazy about my family. I make every effort to keep my family happy. Can I not think the same way in the name of my village, state and country? In spite of our culture of vasudheiva kutumbakam, we have been taught to be selfish, fuel caste and religious divides and believe that we are superior to every man and his uncle.
When we were in school we were taught to say a prayer which went like this: "O God! The benevolent Lord of the Universe, accept my prayer; grant me the noble vision that I may serve the poor and the needy, for I seek neither wealth nor power for myself. And grant me the courage to speak the truth, and nothing but the truth, even in the face of death." On the other hand, our families teach us to study hard, aspire to be a sahib, get a beautiful wife, and accumulate money and power and pelf. Forget the world, think of yourself and let others envy you: this is the driving force of our existence. A Strange contradiction, isn't it?
I am reminded of an episode in my village of nearly two decades back. My native village Sarangadharpur, about 70 kilometers from Orissa's state capital Bhubaneswar, has been an example for its education and life style in the erstwhile Puri district. I have been deeply attached to my village. Some fellow villagers wanted me to edit a souvenir volume that they wished to publish it to commemorate 300 years of our village's existence. I believed that the name of our village had always been wrongly spelt. I consulted some erudite villagers and also some eminent littérateurs from our state. All of them agreed that the name was indeed mistakenly spelt. But some elderly, and ostensibly educated, members of the village raised an uproar, saying, "What's in a name? If a wrong name has been the norm, so be it."
One day I wrote a letter to one of them, deliberately misspelling his name. He was furious when he next saw me. "You don't know how to spell my name?" he screamed. I coolly replied: "What's in a name? Why should you feel offended when you've no qualms about people mistaking the name of our village?" The purpose of narrating this episode is to stress the need to be 'crazy' about our soil, land, state and country, just as we are passionate about anything to do with ourselves. Not only do we need to create a sense of belonging with regard to our land but also play an active role in the hallowed task of nation-building.
Historically, India was never a united state. Now that the country is a single political entity, we need to retain, and build on, this oneness. For this we need an instrument, a vehicle that will make each and every citizen feel proud to be Indian. What are we doing about it?