Friday, August 15, 2014

Independence Day Lecture: Before the Nation State

As India marks its 68th Day of Independence from the British Empire, there is a tendency to view India as having been born on that historic day in 1947, followed by a bloody Partition that effectively created three new countries from the ashes of an Imperial empire. Actually, 1947 was just one in a series of events in the world's oldest, continuous civilization. It was not the first time that an empire collapsed, nor was it the first time that new borders were created.

Going Back 
The history of the indigenous population of India is old and contested. One school of thought propounds the Aryan invasion theory, which divides Indians racially as Aryans in the North and Dravidians in the South. However, this theory has been well-contested by a body of scientific work that underlines the essential genetic unity of the Indian subcontinent, with the differences being insufficient to warrant a separate race. But to look upon the history of the subcontinent from a racial point of view would be quite against the very spirit of this land.

What defines India is not race or religion, but the land. It is the geography of the subcontinent, from the Himalayan rivers - the Indus, the Ganga, the Brahmaputra and the Irrawaddy - to the vast ocean named after this land, that has shaped the culture here. Indeed, no invading force, no immigrating people were able to escape the power of this land. Thus was born here Sufi Islam, rendered here was a new architectural style that fused multiples cultures, envisioned here were millions of Gods, a God for each one, and here was Mother Mary, draped in a white sari; here are the tribes of the hills, preserving their language and culture, here were given a home, the Jews expelled from Israel, and here are the people of the islands, unwittingly a part of a grand history with their land and their sea.

What's in a name?
This then, is India. Or is it? The very name is foreign to the land. Jambudvipa, Bharat, Hindustan, India... well before the formation of the modern Republic, this land has had many names and many empires within it - from the great Indus Valley Civilization to the Delhi Sultanate to even the British Empire. It was probably the Greeks who created the name India, and the Persians Hindustan. For the natives and immigrants, this land has, for much of history, had no name. It was just that - our land.

What then, constitutes the Indian nation state? By the European definition of a nation, India is not even close to being one - the diversity of the land is just incompatible with the homogeneous populations there. But then, since when has Europe had a monopoly on defining the lives of people. The Indian nation well predates the European notion of it and it is this land and its continuing civilization that define its people. Political borders are meaningless, for nature does not recognize them. Unlike the European ones, the Indian nation is a natural one, born of nature, a people united not by ideology but by the land and sea themselves. It is not backed by blind belief but by the experience of life itself.

The Day
Therefore, while we do celebrate Independence Day, and our neighboring countries in the subcontinent celebrate theirs separately, this is really just another event in the history of our shared civilization. Emperors' birthdays have been celebrated with pomp and glory before, events in the lives of Gods and Prophets have been fated before... this day to mark the birth of the modern countries within the nation is just one among many in that list.

The Indian Nation State existed long before the modern countries in the subcontinent appeared. And it will be here long after they have disappeared - as long as this land is our land, the sea is our sea.

Happy Independence Day
Jai Hind! 

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