Saturday, December 5, 2009

What is the idea of India

by Amartya Sen

Reproduced from here

Political and cultural developments in India over the last few decades have had the effect of forcefully challenging, in several ways, the broad and absorptive idea of Indian identity that emerged in the days of the Independence movement and which helped define the concept of the Indian nation. If we believe that there is something of value in that inheritance, there is a need to understand more clearly precisely why it is valuable, and also examine how that recognition can be articulated…

I shall take as my starting point Rabindranath Tagore's remarkable claim that the "idea of India" itself militates "against the intense consciousness of the separateness of one's own people from others." Note that there are two distinct implications of this claim. First, internally within India, it argues against an intense consciousness of separated culture and the privileging of one religious community over the others, and also more generally, of any one group vis-à-vis the others in any principle of classification (such as caste, class, gender, or region). Second, externally in relation to the world, Tagore's claim argues against the intense consciousness of the separateness of Indians from others in the world, and it also rejects seeing Indian culture as fail and fragile - to be protected through isolation from outside influences.

Tagore's claim involves, therefore, an integrative message - internally as well as externally - and it proposes an inclusionary and absorptive form for the idea of Indian identity. This inclusionary claim has been seriously challenged in recent decades through the advocacy of internal as well as external separatism.


On the philosophical side, we must first examine, if only briefly, the general nature of identity as a concept. The subject of identity in general, and social identity in particular has been something of a philosophical battleground in recent years, partly because of the global skirmished related to identity politics and communitarian philosophy. The debates have often been so unstructured that I must say that it is not really a delight to enter this battleground. However, these general issues have to be addressed before we proceed to examine the demands of Indian identity in particular. Discretion, alas, need not always be the better part of valour.

The importance of the idea of identity can scarcely be doubted. It is of central relevance in understanding a diverse basket of practical problems, as varied as violence in former Yugoslavia or Rwanda, racial discrimination in America or anti-immigrant violence in West Europe, the current controversies surrounding the idea of being British in a multi-ethnic Britain, not to mention the growing appeal of fundamentalism in Asia and Africa.

Our behaviour and our commitments are deeply influenced by the way we identify with some people and not with others. It is, however important to be clear about the demands of the idea of identity. In particular, we have to resist, I have argued elsewhere, two unfounded but often implicitly invoked assumptions: one, the presumption that we must have a single - or at least a principal and dominant - identity; and two, the supposition that we "discover' rather than choose our identity.


The issues of plurality and of choice are immensely relevant to the understanding and analysis of the idea of Indian identity. In arguing for an inclusionary form of the Indian identity, Tagore or Gandhi did not deny the presence and contingent importance of other identities. Rather, in the context of political coherence, social living and cultural interactions, both emphasised the fact that the Indian identity could nto favour any particular group over others within India.

Tagore was different from Gandhi in having a less conventional view of his Hindu identity, and indeed in his The Religion of Man, pointed also to the fact that his family was the product of "a confluence of three cultures, Hindu, Mohammedan and British." Gandhiji's Hindu identity was sharper, and he held regular prayer meetings, in a largely Hindu form (even though other religions were also invoked). But Gandhi did not differ from Tgore in seeing no contradiction between a strongly Hindu identity and an overwhelming commitment to an Indian identity in political and social matters. Indeed, Gandhiji gave his life to a great extent because of his commitment to the latter, in the hands of someone with a simpler view of the congruence of Indian and Hindu identities.


I argued earlier that bother philosophical and historical issues are involved in the idea of an Indian identity. It may be thought that the discussion so far has been less historical than would be necessary, in order to resolve such questions as the relation between a Hindu identity and an Indian identity So I must now take up some historical questions I do this with some hesitation, since after my opening address at the last Indian History Congress in January, no less an authority than the Director of the Indian council of Historical research was reported in the papers as having said that I must not speak on history since I am not an historian. I take the point, but I must confess to being a repeated offender, and not just in history. I had to give the opening address also at the last Indian Sociological Congress without having a degree in sociology, have foolhardily lectured in law at Oxford, Yale and Chicago without a degree in law, have shamelessly been a professor of philosophy at Harvard for a decade without a degree in philosophy, and I am afraid I am somewhat determined to speak on history today without a degree in history (but hopefully with the kind indulgence of the ICHR)

Those who argue that the Indian identity has to be in some way derivative on Hindu identity point out not only that the Hindus constitute a large majority of people in this country, but also that historically Hinduism has been the mainstay of the Indian civilization. There is clearly some substance in this argument, and the counter arguments can be considered only after the basic facts of the case have been recognised.

There are three distinct issues here, of which the first is not concerned directly with history at all. As I have already argued, identity is not a matter of discovery-of history any more than of the present - and has to be chosen with reasoning. Even if it were the case that Indian history were primarily Hindu history, we still would have to determine how a pluralist and multi-religious population can share an Indian identity without sharing the same religion. This, of course, is the basis of secularism in India, and our reasoning about priorities in dealing with competing conceptions of Indian identity need not be parasitic on history. The makers of the Indian constitution recognised that fully, as did the United States in adopting a largely secular constitution for a mostly Christian population. The need to reason and choose cannot be given over to the observation of history, and this point relates to a more general claim I have tried to defend elsewhere - in a lecture to the Asiatic Society entitled 'On Interpreting India's Past' - arguing that while we cannot live without history, we need not live within it either.

The second point is more historical. India has been a multi-religious country for a very long time. Aside from the obvious and prominent presence of Muslims in India for well over a millennium (Muslim Arab traders started settling in what is now Kerala from the eighth century), India has had Christians from at least the fourth century, Jews from the time of the fall of Jerusalem, Parsis from the seventh century, and Sikh from the time that religion was born. Also, pre-Muslim India was not, as it is sometimes claimed, mainly a Hindu country, since Buddhism was the dominant religion in India for many hundreds of years and Jainism has also had an equally long history and in fact,a large continuing presence. Since there is so much discussion these days against Hindus converting to any other religion, it is perhaps worth remembering that arguably the greatest emperor of India was Ashoka in the third century BC (the main rival to Ashoka's claim would be from a Muslim called Akbar), and that Ashoka did convert to Buddhism from what would have been the-then form of Hinduism.

I come now to the third reason against making the Indian identity dependent on the Hindu identity. Hindus are defined in two quite distinct ways. When the number of Hindus is counted, and it is established that the vast majority of Indians are in fact Hindu, this is not a counting of religious belief, but essentially of ethnic background. But when generalisations are made about, say, the divinity of Rama or the sacred status of The Ramayana, beliefs are involved. By using the two approaches together, a numerical picture is constructed in which it is supposed that a vast majority of Indians believe in the divinity of Rama and the sacred status of The Ramayana. For a large proportion of the Hindus, however, that attribution would be just a mistake, since millions of people who are defined as Hindu in the first approach do not share these beliefs which is central to the second approach…

Indeed, by making this attribution, the champions of Hindu politics undermine the rich tradition of heterodoxy that has been so central to the history of the Hindu culture. It is not often recognised that Sanskrit (including Pali and Prakrit) has a larger literature in the atheistic and agnostic tradition than exists in any other classical language. In the fourteenth century, Madhavacharya's remarkable book called Sarvadar-shanasamgraha ('the collection of all philosophies') which has one chapter each on the major schools of Hindu belief, devoted the entire first chapter to arguments in favour of the atheistic position.

The route to Indian identity via a Hindu identity does not, I would argue, survive critical scrutiny for each of these three reasons. They point firmly towards a broader and inclusionary understanding of the Indian identity - much in line with the views of Tagore and Gandhi.

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