The “Idea of India”: Is there need for a debate?

By Jaideep Saikia

Of late there has been discussion in informed circles about what constitutes the “Idea of India”. While it is both academically sound and sensible to “revisit” a concept every so often and ground it in newer garb, the fact that a debate has suddenly come to the fore about the need to “define” a civilisation that has watered a multitude of contemplation since the existence of time is leading to some puzzlement. After all, even the immortal Indologist Max Mueller under whose scholarly direction the magnum opus Sacred Books of the East was prepared had stated over a century ago that “If I were asked under what sky the human mind has most fully developed some of its choicest gifts, has most deeply pondered over the greatest problems of life, and has found solutions of some of them which well deserve the attention even of those who have studied Plato and Kant, I should point to India.”
It was, therefore, with some bewilderment that the author of the article had wondered about the need to “reinvent” India. Indeed, he had grown up to the fascination of the Brhadaranyaka and the Chandogya Upanishads which among other enduring aspects decreed that the notes of the drum have no existence apart from the general note of the drum. Yet—presently—a debate has begun about a realm that had spawned the very nature of existence! But perhaps there was—as aforesaid—a need for a revisitation. After all recapitulation had been the way of even the seers of yore. Approval, not derision, has always accompanied repetition of the consecrated and aspects that have been considered to be hallowed.
Another question that is also being asked along with the quest for the “Idea of India” is what determines “Inclusive India.” Indeed, in these trying times when custom is more honoured in the breach than the observance, the question has gained in prominence and needs to be answered. However the question that has not escaped the author is the fact that the notion of “Inclusive India” is an inherently loaded concept. Is India a nonconforming receptacle endowed with only specificities of ingredients, albeit in exclusion of the other?
Inclusiveness entails that an aspect has to be broad, comprehensive and all-encompassing. Therefore, when one speaks about “Inclusive India” one must perforce refer to every single facet that makes up the nation. These must range from features incorporating the entity that is termed as India from the moment Indic civilisation—in all its manifestation—came to be used in scholarly parlance to characterise an expanse within which the broad geographical contours of Bharatavarsha is referred to. However, there must be clarity about not only what constitutes the physical boundaries of India, but also the emotional shape and component of that colossal confine.
There has been sage mention of the “inherent strength of pluralistic India”. It primarily speaks about the array that characterises India’s religious diversity. The Muslim community of India, for instance, constitutes almost 15 % of the country’s population leaving no doubt about the shaping contribution it has made to the nation’s growth. In Assam, for instance, the Muslim population—by way of even a liberal decadal growth projection of the outcome of a possible census that has not yet taken place—could be close to 45 % of the total population making them an expanse that would decisively determine every aspect of the state’s fortunes—from economy, to politics, to traditional security. The fact that the state abuts an ever-changing socio-cultural landscape that makes up Bangladesh so closely is also a geo-political reality as is the fact that there have been—and will continue to be—economic and climate migrants from the country in the future. However, the reality is also that the “transformative moment” which Islam is passing through has willy-nilly led to a “clash of civilisation” and the narrative is leading to suspicion about an entire community. Agent saboteurs alien to the Indian ethos are aplenty in a “conflict zone” (especially after the Talibanisation of Afghanistan and the manner in which the Taliban has “reneged” on the Doha Agreement with the United States) and there is a distinct possibility that sinister forces may engineer and convince the Indian Muslim that the quam is in danger and has to be protected at all cost. Prejudiced statements about exclusive radicalisation of the Muslim community, too, have not helped matters. Indeed, such pronouncements seem to have been geared not only towards “manufacturing consent” but ones which are premeditatedly conspiratorial.
In this context it must also be underscored that radicalisation per se is not peculiar to any faith. History is testimony to the fact that almost all religion has exhibited radicalisation in one form or the other at different times of human existence. Indeed, it may seem to be a contradiction in terms, but even Buddhism—a belief system known for its inherent pacifism—have displayed radical conduct in the past.
A debate is also raging at present about the attribution of value or otherwise to two contrasting concepts. Deradicalisation is a concept or rather the preferred methodology for law-enforcers all over the world, especially in the backdrop of 9/11. However, a different manner of addressing the problem had been fine-tuned and fashioned by the author around 2015 for the Special Branch of the Assam Police. It was termed Counter Radicalisation. The simple stratagem seeks to prevent radicalisation from manifesting itself in the first place and one, if properly calibrated, can even co-opt the services of the Muslim community which indeed the Special Branch did with success! Moreover the “Cost-Benefit-Analysis” of Counter Radicalisation is far more rewarding than Deradicalisation which as has been seen in the past can relapse into recidivism. Counter Radicalisation also has the merits of halting the progression of a process that could invariably lead to violence before it is even contemplated. If a comparison has to be drawn with the “prevalent” but non-existent notion of Deradicalisation that most countries (law-enforcers) including India continue to grapple with then it would be analogous to “shutting the stable gates after the horse has fled”. As aforesaid, radicalisation is a phenomenon that has come to be an accepted norm—one that is being waged against puritanical Islam. Proclamation of a counter narrative—primarily by the state—that Islam has within it varying strains that can ideologically and successfully combat the Wahabi or the Salafi school of thought in Islam was the recommendation that was made by the author. Indeed, this is the only way out of the dilemma of the present.
The syncretism that has guided Assam is unique. The nearly 600 year rule of the Ahoms who regardless of religion provided employment to Hindus and Muslims ascertained this distinctiveness. Therefore, there were Saikias in both communities who were in the service of the Ahom rulers. Assam is, therefore, the correct laboratory for the Counter Radicalisation experiment, the success of which can be extended to other parts of India which is facing radicalisation.
In any event it is Islam that is passing through the aforesaid “transformative moment” and as a result is being held responsible for the “Clash of Civilisation”. Radicalisation is, therefore, one way or the other inextricably intertwined with Islam. To that end, the discourse of Deradicalisation and Counter Radicalisation has to be examined within its greater ambit. It is a great pity that the merits of Counter Radicalisation have fallen on deaf ears. This is despite the fact that the author had produced a manual for the establishment six years ago.
But to return to the narrative of inclusiveness and the “Idea of India”, it has been witnessed that recent events that have overtaken the country have only sought to widen the divide when there should have been clear-headedness in the manner in which unfortunate events could have been managed. The easiest way out of a situation that has gone awry is to blame it on a “foreign hand”. Indeed, this may well be the case. But the fact of the matter is that both nation building and defending the nation is the duty of both the state and the citizenry. To that end, it is time to take stock of the situation and get down to the business of correct national “house-keeping”. A “broad-brushing” exercise that seeks to colour every Muslim as a suspect is dangerous. It would only result in alienating a constituency that clamours to be heard. The realistic way to combat an agenda that seeks to perpetuate “us and them” should be to calibrate a course of action that has pragmatism and imagination in its ambit. More importantly it should be the bounden duty of every Indian—irrespective of caste, creed and religion—to take upon themselves the task of thwarting the alien design and ensure that not only has India always been an inclusive one, but the debate about the “Idea of India” has long been resolved.
(Jaideep Saikia is a conflict analyst and author. He is also the sole Asian Fellow in the Irregular Warfare Initiative, West Point, USA)

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