Seeking Communal Roots in Multiethnic India


By Sunil Khilnani.Farrar Straus Giroux

263 pp., $22


By Trevor Royle

John Murray

291 pp., $22.95 (paper)

The modern state of India came into being on the stroke of midnight, Aug. 15, 1947. In the same moment, the neighboring state of Pakistan was created by the act of partition that divided the Indian subcontinent in two and precipitated a shocking eruption of violence, as Muslims in predominantly Hindu areas fled to Pakistan and Hindus, now finding themselves in the new Muslim state, fled to India.

The dream of India's nationalist elite, led by Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohandas K. Gandhi, was a democratic, multiethnic state. But from the outset, there were those who envisioned India as a Hindu nation, and those, like Pakistan's first Governor General Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who felt the only way to safeguard the interests of the Muslim minority was to create a Muslim state.

For the past half century, India has remained a multiethnic democracy. In recent years, however, Hindu nationalist parties have been gaining political strength. In his pithy and provocative book, The Idea of India, Sunil Khilnani suggests one can look at this rather alarming phenomenon as a sign of the vitality of India's democracy and its citizens' eagerness to participate in politics. But, as he also makes clear, unchecked majority rule in a country filled with diverse religions, languages, classes, and cultures can trample the rights of those in the minority.

One of the crucial flaws that Khilnani sees in the conception of Indian democracy is that, from the outset of the Indian independence movement, "Liberty was understood not as an individual right but as a nation's right to self-determination."

Later, the fledgling democracy instituted a program of affirmative action for groups who had suffered from discrimination: "The Constitution thus established a language of community rights in a society where the liberal language of individual rights and equality was little used. Rights were anchored in collectivities, now recognized as particular interests within the nation. The effect was to weaken the pressure to accord universal rights and to encourage demand for special dispensations for selected groups."

India's attempt to redress social inequities among the castes "thus reinforced community identities rather than sustaining a sense of common citizenship based on individual rights."

Meanwhile, as Khilnani shows in his chapter on India's economy, relatively little was done in the way of land reform or otherwise attempting to redistribute the country's wealth. Although Nehru favored large-scale socialist undertakings, such as promoting state-sponsored heavy industries and building giant dams, his party seldom risked alienating the wealthy landowners.

As the Congress Party lost its support among the voters, Indians of various castes, religions, and regions transferred their allegiance to parties that claimed to serve their narrower interests, like the Hindu nationalist party, dedicated to forging "one nation, one people, one culture" - which of course would not include India's Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, or Jains.

Khilnani discusses how various Indian thinkers and statesmen have responded to the challenge of describing what it means to be Indian. He believes that Nehru came up with the most viable vision of India as a land of continual cultural mixing and accommodation: "an ancient palimpsest on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed, and yet no succeeding layer had completely hidden or erased what had been written previously."

Nehru added to this anti-purist multicultural ideal the modern concept of the state. Although the culturally diverse citizens of today's India, like so many other people all over the world, have been turning back to seek out their communal "roots," Khilnani deems it hopeful that they still look to the modern, democratic state to provide solutions to their problems.

While Khilnani does not go so far as to credit the British Raj with instilling ideals of democracy in Indian hearts and minds, he does consider the modern idea of the state a legacy of India's British rulers. Among the continuing flood of books on this subject is Trevor Royle's The Last Days of the Raj, a rather more personal, reminiscent look at some of the people - the more ordinary and obscure as well as the more famous - who participated in the winding down of British rule in India.

Combining historical narrative, personal recollections, and interviews with old India hands, Royle's book offers a leisurely trip into a past still vivid in many minds even after 50 years.

* Merle Rubin regularly reviews books for the Monitor.

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