India holds together not by ignoring diversity but by granting constitutional and ideational recognition to different ethnic, religious and linguistic groups. The word ‘India’ evokes and symbolizes a “we feeling” in the people's collective consciousness, derived from long-held traditions and pluralist imaginations.
Memories and monuments of the colonial past haunt the citizenship consciousness of postcolonial nations like an ‘intimate enemy’. Recently, the Indian government's use of the nomenclature ‘Bharat’ instead of ‘India’ has created a controversy. Some ruling BJP leaders expressed their willingness to rename India as Bharat. For them, it is unacceptable to identify one’s motherland with a name given by "foreigners". For sections of them, secularism and other religions are also alien to Indian civilization. A pertinent point to be enquired about is this mindset's hidden connection with the wounded consciousness from colonial despotism.
Earlier in September 2022, the iconic Rajpath, the arterial road from Rashtrapati Bhavan to India Gate in the centre of the national capital, was renamed Kartavya Path. A British architect, Edwin Lutyens, designed both Rashtrapati Bhavan, the presidential mansion, and India Gate. India Gate was built to remember Indian soldiers who died fighting for the British in the First World War. Both stand as colonial monuments when the name of Rajpath changed. Names of Race Course Road, Dalhousie Road and Teen Murti Chowk were also changed, reasoned by the BJP to do away with the symbols of the "colonial mindset".
Just before the 77th Independence Day, Home Minister Amit Shah introduced three new bills of criminal jurisprudence, replacing their earlier versions. He said the earlier versions were the "signs of slavery" passed by the British parliament and adopted by us.
Though many other political reasons, such as Hindi imposition, countering the new opposition INDIA alliance, the rhetoric of creating a "new history", etc., are doing the rounds, a sense of woundedness from the colonial past and the quest for triumphalism cannot be ignored in such attempts. The demands for such symbolic name changes among postcolonial nations to assert their self-identity are common worldwide.
Indians are taught that the degradation of colonialism was due to their failures to safeguard the country's political and cultural independence. School textbooks proclaiming India’s natural and cultural wealth when the British arrived, and their inherent disunity, are cited as reasons for the British conquest of the country and figure prominently in their consciousness. This made many hypersensitive to the need for symbolic assertions and reinventions to overcome the guilt of 'losing' their motherland.
A sense of inferiority is an inherent part of postcolonial consciousness. This inferiority is felt in India partly because people attempt to evaluate their self-esteem by the touchstones of Western culture. They are in a perpetual dilemma of not living what is effortlessly their ‘own’ while trying to imitate what could never fully become theirs. Some examples are the use of the English language, Western mannerisms and etiquette, etc. This dilemma has not spared even the Indian leaders batting for the reinvention of their mythic traditions and name changes. Attempts to resurrect India’s mythical cultural ethos may help to feed hyper-nationalist tendencies. But deviating from modern global discourses would also isolate India intellectually and professionally.
Aspirations of postcolonial countries are considerably influenced by what has already happened in the West. In this quest, many try to blindly prove they are as good as the West and developed countries. The portrayal of the canonical Western antiquity has put pressure on the imitating others to reinvent their "great past". India is no exception. On the one hand, India imitates the West regarding its institutions and administrative structures (e.g., parliamentary democracy, gubernatorial positions, etc.); on the other, it critiques and counterposes Western modernity with values from its distant past.
Name changes and other hyper-nationalist rhetoric could be how postcolonial nation-states symbolically assert their self-determination and agency, especially when they think others defiled their country's pristine purity and presumed greatness. It can also be an attempt to transcend multiple identities by invoking a new identity. In this attempt, pluralist civilizations are projected as traditional, lean and homogenous ones. This process might empower some and marginalize others.
Unlike the earlier years of independence when leaders openly spoke about India’s desperate need to develop and alleviate poverty, a recurring theme in the BJP’s politics of today is marked by an emphasis on cultural triumphalism. Today, the representation of reality has become ‘more real’ than what is real. Scientific and defence advancements are politically appropriated and presented as rooted in India’s traditional scientific and medical wisdom. Some examples include claims about the knowledge of airplanes (pushpaka vimana), plastic surgery (elephant face of Lord Ganesha), and test tube babies in the Vedic and Puranic periods. Perhaps it is natural for the BJP, with its ethnoreligious roots, to evoke a mythical past to consolidate its majoritarian vote base. But its social implications for the unity of the nation, which has progressed on pluralistic ethos, need attention.
More pressing issues
Although India is presented by modern historians whose sovereignty is marked by geographical boundaries, it is in fact a socio-cultural and political formation based on narratives and imaginaries. Indian nationalism, in its present form, came mainly from its anti-colonial struggle. When a unitary religion, language and culture were the keystone of nation-building for many post-colonial nation-states, India’s nationalism was built with great foresight on the fundamental values of liberalism, secularism, and democracy flavored by Western modernity.
India holds together not by ignoring diversity but by granting constitutional and ideational recognition to different ethnic, religious and linguistic groups. The unity in the country is constitutionally manufactured rather than organic. The word ‘India’ evokes and symbolizes a “we feeling” in the people's collective consciousness, derived from long-held traditions and pluralist imaginations. The term ‘Bharat’ per se is not so familiar to the non-Hindi-speaking population south of the Vindhyas.
The nation as a group of people bonded by shared kinship, descent, ethnicity, etc., is a pre-modern conceptualization. Modern nation-states are more socio-political entities and byproducts of the industrial and communication revolutions. In the contemporary context, a nationhood's ideational and emotional lineaments are more from people’s lived experiences than from cultural descent or social traditions. What good does the name ‘Bharat’ serve when nationalist sentiments are not based on the idea of an inherited community? Growing inequality, climate change, price rise, unemployment, ethnic violence and religious fundamentalism are undoubtedly more pressing issues to be addressed at the present juncture.
(The author is Associate Professor of Sociology and Director, Centre for Social and Policy Research at CHRIST (Deemed to be University) Bangalore. Views are personal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)