India - An Unnatural Nation

Aug 2017
208
USA
To the moderators: I opted to place this thread here as it concerns Indian history as a whole. However, if it is believed this thread is more appropriately placed under the Philosophy/Sociology section, I invite the moderators to move it there.

Why does India survive?

The title of this thread mirrors that of the prologue of Ramachandra Guha's acclaimed book, India after Gandhi. Before I delve into the reason for the title or even this thread, a bit of a preamble is needed following along the same lines as Guha in his prologue.

After the British crushed the 1857 Rebellion, the Crown took over control of the Indian colonies. A sophisticated bureaucracy replaced the shoddy administrative structures of the East India Company. The state machinery was run by the elite of the Indian Civil Service. The construction of a railroad system throughout India greatly aided their political and economic integration of India. “By 1888, the British were so solidly established in India that they could look forward to, if not a thousand-year Raj, at least a rule that extended well beyond their own lifetimes.”

In that year, Sir John Strachey, who played a critical role in the establishment of the British Raj, gave a series of lectures at Cambridge entitled “India”. These lectures were later organized into a book, which not only dealt with the minutiae of the Raj’s administrative structures, economic policies, the princely states, etc but larger theoretical concepts concerning the nature of “India” as a cohesive entity in its own right. In Strachey’s view:

The differences between the countries of Europe were much smaller than those between the ‘countries’ of India. ‘Scotland is more like Spain than Bengal is like the Punjab.’ In India the diversities of race, language and religion were far greater. Unlike in Europe, these ‘countries’ were not nations; they did not have a distinct political or social identity. This, Strachey told his Cambridge audience, ‘is the first and most essential thing to learn about India – that there is not, and never was an India, or even any country of India possessing, according to any European ideas, any sort of unity, physical, political, social or religious’. There was no Indian nation or country in the past; nor would there be one in the future. Strachey thought it "conceivable that national sympathies may arise in particular Indian countries", but "that they should ever extend to India generally, that men of the Punjab, Bengal, the North-western Provinces, and Madras, should ever feel that they belong to one Indian nation, is impossible. You might with as much reason and probability look forward to a time when a single nation will have taken the place of the various nations of Europe."
The view expressed above was hardly unique among Westerners, and even many Indians, of the day. It was obvious to them that unlike in places such as France, Germany, Italy, etc “India” as a whole had no national “essence”, no unifying features that would permit it to emerge as a single nation state let alone a long-lived one. Coupled with this belief was a paternalism, perhaps justified, that without the rule of the British and its institutions, India would descend into anarchy. Consider the following quotes:

In November 1891 Kipling visited Australia, where a journalist asked him about the ‘possibility of self-government in India’. ‘Oh no!’ he answered: ‘They are 4,000 years old out there, much too old to learn that business. Law and order is what they want and we are there to give it to them and we give it them straight.’
Chaos would prevail in India if we were ever so foolish to leave the natives to run their own show. Ye gods! What a salad of confusion, of bungle, of mismanagement, and far worse, would be the instant result. These grand people will go anywhere and do anything if led by us. Themselves they are still infants as regards governing or statesmanship. And their so-called leaders are the worst of the lot. - E. H. D Sewell, An Outdoor Wallah, p. 110
The disappearance of the British Raj in India is at present, and must for along time be, simply inconceivable. That it should be replaced by a native Government or Governments is the wildest of wild dreams . . . As soon as the last British soldier sailed from Bombay or Karachi, India would become the battlefield of antagonistic racial and religious forces . . . [and] the peaceful and progressive civilisation, which Great Britain has slowly but surely brought into India, would shrivel up in a night. - J. E. Welldon, former Bishop of Calcutta, 1915
Undoubtedly one of the more notable individuals to have such views was Winston Churchill. In 1930-1931, Churchill gave a series of speeches designed to garner support for his opposition to independence for India. In them, he expressed the view that were the British to leave India, “an army of white janissaries, officered if necessary from Germany, will be hired to secure the armed ascendancy of the Hindu”. Three months later at Albert Hall on “Our Duty to India”, he argued that

to abandon India to the rule of the Brahmins would be an act of cruel and wicked negligence’. If the British left, he predicted, then the entire gamut of public services created by them – the judicial, medical, railway and public works departments – would perish, and ‘India will fall back quite rapidly through the centuries into the barbarism and privations of the Middle Ages
The British left eventually and while in its wake there were not one but two nations, and while for a time of “barbarism” did prevail, India has known relative stability since its inception. Throughout the decades, with every general election, insurgency, mass protest, crop failure, and so on scores of individuals from academics at the most prestigious institutions to even the common Indian have predicted doom and dissolution for the Indian nation. Here are a few excerpts that illustrate the point:

That India ‘could sustain democratic institutions seems, on the face of it, highly improbable’, wrote the distinguished political scientist Robert Dahl, adding: ‘It lacks all the favourable conditions.’
The Sikhs may try to set up a separate regime. I think they probably will and that will be only a start of a general decentralization and break-up of the idea that India is a country, whereas it is a subcontinent as varied as Europe. The Punjabi is as different from a Madrassi as a Scot is from an Italian. The British tried to consolidate it but achieved nothing permanent. No one can make a nation out of a continent of many nations. - General Sir Claude Auchinleck, 1948
Unless Russia first collapses, India – Hindustan, if you will – is in grave danger of becoming communist in the not distant future. - Sir Francis Tucker, ex Indian army General, 1950
A more sympathetic assessment in 1969 by British journalist Don Taylor was the following:

The key question remains: can India remain in one piece – or will it fragment?...When one looks at this vast country and its 524 million people, the 15 major languages in use, the conflicting religions, the many races, it seems incredible that one nation could ever emerge. It is difficult to even encompass this country in the mind – the great Himalaya, the wide Indo-Gangetic plain burnt by the sun and savaged by the fierce monsoon rains, the green flooded delta of the east, the great cities like Calcutta, Bombay and Madras. It does not, often, seem like one country. And yet there is a resilience about India which seems an assurance of survival. There is something which can only be described as an Indian spirit. I believe it is no exaggeration to say that the fate of Asia hangs on its survival.
This brings me to my final question which I now pose to all: why does India survive? Given that it is widely agreed to be an “unnatural nation” with an almost unrivaled heterogeneity that is often viewed as anathema to successful nation building, why has it continued to persist?
 
Last edited:
Aug 2017
208
USA
My own view hinges on a couple of factors. For one, India by the time of its independence developed a political class that believed in secularism, democracy, and interreligious harmony as opposed to many other nations where their intelligentsia were often drawn to more radical ideologies or methods. In this respect, the influence of Mahatma Gandhi cannot be overestimated. Consider the assessment of civil disobedience movements in this talk. After an empirical study of civil resistance movements throughout history, one of the conclusions reached was that non-violent movements were far more likely to succeed than violent ones and countries with such movements were much more likely to emerge as democracies rather than as authoritarian regimes (watch the video for statistics and other information, it's quite fascinating).

Mahatma Gandhi, through his leadership role in the Congress Party, his mentorship of major Indian politicians like Sardar Patel and Nehru who possessed high personal integrity and a fundamental belief in India as a secular, democratic country (as opposed to a “Hindu-Pakistan”) where minorities and majorities could and should coexist peacefully, his mobilization of popular forces in a non-violent struggle, all undoubtedly contributed to India emerging as a stable democracy. Outside of Gandhi, the nationalist struggle for independence itself did not emphasize that one religion predominate (though obviously people like Jinnah were, at best, suspicious of this). For an example of this, consider the following two quotes from leading Muslim politicians of the day:

It was India’s historic destiny that many human races and cultures should flow to her, finding a home in her hospitable soil, and that many a caravan should find rest here...Eleven hundred years of common history [of Islam and Hinduism] have enriched India with our common achievements. Our languages, our poetry, our literature, our culture, our art, our dress, our manners and customs, the innumerable happenings of our daily life, everything bears the stamp of our joint endeavour...These thousand years of our joint life have moulded us into a common nationality...Whether we like it or not, we have now become an Indian nation, united and indivisible. No fantasy or artificial scheming to separate and divide can break this unity.

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad,

Congress Presidential Address, 1940
The problem in India is not of an intercommunal but manifestly of an international character, and must be treated as such...It is a dream that Hindus and Muslims can evolve a common nationality, and this misconception of one Indian nation has gone far beyond the limits, and is the cause of most of our troubles, and will lead India to destruction, if we fail to revise our actions in time. The Hindus and Muslims belong to two different religious philosophies, social customs, and literature. They neither intermarry, nor interdine together, and indeed they belong to two different civilizations which are based mainly on conflicting ideas and conceptions. Their aspects on and of life are different.

M. A. JINNAH,

Muslim League Presidential Address, 1940
In essence, the nationalist movement led by the Congress party was predominantly represented by people who believed in and embodied the ideas reflected in Maulana Azad’s quote (one of interreligious harmony) as opposed to those expressed in Jinnah’s quote, which emphasized the irreconcilable differences between Hindus and Muslims.

Another factor, mentioned by Guha, is the confluence of several intelligent people who survived long enough to successfully establish their vision of India, such as Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel, and Ambedkar. Patel (with V. P. Menon) was critical not only in the ascension and integration of the 500+ Indian princely states left behind by the British but in the framing of the Indian Constitution. In the latter respect, Ambedkar played an even more critical role as Chairman of the Drafting Committee for the Indian constitution and, with Nehru, the progenitor of the Hindu Code Bill. Although both Patel and Ambedkar were outlived by Nehru, the fact remains that few other young nations have had the luxury of scrupulous, intelligent, and principled personalities working in concert for the (successful) construction of a new nation.

A related factor is the administrative structures of the British and that such people, particularly Patel and Gandhi, rather than advocating for the dismantling of such structures in a fit of anti-colonial fervor for homebrewed ones chose to retain those features that would be useful for the governing of a nation. The Indian Civil Service is one notable example of this. While many nationalists around the time of Independence argued for the removal or even the jailing of ICS members for the assistance they rendered onto the colonial government, Patel understood the importance of retaining intelligent and capable people in the Indian government and went so far as to personally vouch for their integrity and establish the descendant Indian Administrative Service. While Patel was the driving force behind the integration of the princely states, it was an ICS man, V. P. Menon, who did much of the legwork, traveling by all available forms of transportation to coax, coerce, or simply wear down the ministers of the various princely states and obtain their instruments of ascension to the Indian union. Another ICS man, Sukumar Sen, headed India’s first Electoral Commision and organized the (incredible) logistics for India’s first two general elections, such as registration of 176 million of India’s eligible voters at the time (most of whom could not read or write), the construction of polling stations and their distribution across a large swath of terrain (some of it remote and difficult to access), the education of the Indian populace of their voting rights, the hiring of honest polling officers, and so on. Yet another colonial institution was the Indian army, which has remained subordinate to the Indian government and, due to the norms established by Nehru, remains largely apolitical.

Of course, while many of these factors may explain the stability of the Indian nation at its inception, it may not fully explain why it has so far largely resisted various debilitating influences in the intervening decades and not balkanized.
 

Aupmanyav

Ad Honorem
Jun 2014
5,786
New Delhi, India
This brings me to my final question which I now pose to all: why does India survive? Given that it is widely agreed to be an “unnatural nation” with an almost unrivaled heterogeneity that is often viewed as anathema to successful nation building, why has it continued to persist?
Third largest economy, a strong and disciplined army, fourth to reach moon two days from now (Inshallah), democracy, but basically because of Hindu culture. :)
 
Mar 2013
1,038
Breakdancing on the Moon.
This is an interesting question. I think there are two main points

1) How 'natural' nation states are, whether that matters at all, and
2) Does unity ever come from diversity?

As for 1) let's take England as an example. England is a genuinely ancient nation state whether you take its founding from Alfred, Athelstan or even the Norman invasion (who were well aware of the antiquity of their possession). I mean in terms of contiguity of governments, laws, practices, language and culture. This is often imputed to the essential homogeneity of the people. But the state only came together under extreme external duress (Norse raids) and was the result of several, admittedly closely related, peoples converging.

The early English were a mix of tribes (Angles, Saxons, Jutes, etc) who even spoke slightly different dialects (you can see this in the conjugation of the verb 'to be'). Nor did the early English state map precisely onto these ethno-dialectical lines. The English spoken in Scotland (Scots) is divergent from the Southern and Midland standard even and much more closely related to the language spoken in Northern England.

France is another great example. In that case France became a nation state by essentially breaking away from the larger Carolingian empire. The French king was, at first, only the first and most powerful of the barons. For much of her history, France's king could barely act like one: The English crown often held more land (!!), he was not the only minter of coins etc. His writ seldom ran for much outside the capital and its surrounds. When the state did expand it had to takeover peoples (especially in the south) of dramatically divergent language. To this day France's language policy is considered draconian by the standards of its neighbours.

So what is a natural nation? Is Belgium natural? Spain with its Basques? India is multi ethnic, multilingual etc, but there's clearly been intermarriage, trade, and religion across different places for a long time. I don't see that that is inherently less stable than the other examples. On the other hand, there has to be an Indian state is basically a British invention.

2) Does unity ever come from diversity?

I feel the best study here would be the former Yugoslavia but I am hardly an expert. Once again, you have peoples of fairly close affiliation in terms of ethnicity, language, and (sort of) religion. Famously the project ended pretty badly and with genocide all around. How much of this was the re-assertion of age old divisions? how much opportunism? how much was the result of recent nationalisms?

Ok, instead let's turn to the Roman Empire where I am, I guess, qualified. Rome tells an interesting story if you take it from the early days of formal empire (post Acitum, 31bc) to the final fall of the state (1453ad). 'Romans' originally designated a Latin speaking Italian elite and their descendants from colonies (Hadrian, Trajan etc were all fromt his background). Citizenship outside of Italia proper was given out sparingly at first, then granted to every free born male by Caracella. What's amazing is that by the 5th century 'Roman' stops being just a political designation but an ethnolinguistic one. Indeed, one that will survive until the 1900s. This is an example of a monoculture, or unity, coming from diversity. The opposite, perhaps, of what happened in the Yugoslav.

So these are case studies in precis. There are definitely parallels for a singular state with a strong identity to arise from diverse beginnings, but it probably doesn't look good for minorities. There are also cases of even very homogeneous states fragmenting.
 
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Naomasa298

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Apr 2010
35,367
T'Republic of Yorkshire
Moved to the Chamber.

Chamber rules apply. There will be NO tolerance - any violation of the rules will be met by instant bans, minimum a month.
 
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Aug 2017
208
USA
So what is a natural nation? Is Belgium natural? Spain with its Basques? India is multi ethnic, multilingual etc, but there's clearly been intermarriage, trade, and religion across different places for a long time. I don't see that that is inherently less stable than the other examples. On the other hand, there has to be an Indian state is basically a British invention.
I'll play devil's advocate here to an extent.

The difference here is that India is multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-racial, etc to a degree that is found in few nations on Earth. On linguistic grounds alone, many of the languages spoken in India today have been diverging for millennia and there's even a major non-IE language family with almost 230 million speakers. Obviously there's complications with how distinct languages are considered to be by their speakers compared to the more objective standards used by linguists, but many of these regional languages have persisted long enough for powerful regional linguistic traditions and identities to have developed, buttressed by forms of political organization which emphasized said identities. Soon after the nation of India was born, several groups of people demanded their own states on the basis of language and in some of those cases, the protesters united across class, caste, religious, ethnic, etc divisions and the resulting violence was acute enough for the national government to cave into those demands.

I can address other categories at length but my overall point is that rather than comparing India to any one European nation, it should be compared to Europe as a whole. Even when Europe and India are compared, I'd still argue the diversity within the latter entity is greater.

Another difference is that while there was indeed trade across diverse regions, intermarriage was highly restricted through norms that enforced endogamy not just among different castes but eventually among different groups as well (especially between Hindus and Muslims). This isn't to say that intermarriages didn't happen at all, but that they were the exception rather than the rule and more frequently among the higher echelons of Indian society.

Religion within India is rather complicated given that Hinduism (itself a word that was coined in the 18-19th centuries) is a collection of regional cults, traditions, and philosophies. There are obviously certain philosophical commonalities but the emergence of a cohesive and unified Hindu identity is a relatively recent phenomenon. Throughout much of Indian history, it was far more likely for any two Indians to be divided on the basis of caste, language, polity, gender, and class than united on the basis of a broadly similar theological commitments.

2) Does unity ever come from diversity?

I feel the best study here would be the former Yugoslavia but I am hardly an expert. Once again, you have peoples of fairly close affiliation in terms of ethnicity, language, and (sort of) religion. Famously the project ended pretty badly and with genocide all around. How much of this was the re-assertion of age old divisions? how much opportunism? how much was the result of recent nationalisms?

Ok, instead let's turn to the Roman Empire where I am, I guess, qualified. Rome tells an interesting story if you take it from the early days of formal empire (post Acitum, 31bc) to the final fall of the state (1453ad). 'Romans' originally designated a Latin speaking Italian elite and their descendants from colonies (Hadrian, Trajan etc were all fromt his background). Citizenship outside of Italia proper was given out sparingly at first, then granted to every free born male by Caracella. What's amazing is that by the 5th century 'Roman' stops being just a political designation but an ethnolinguistic one. Indeed, one that will survive until the 1900s. This is an example of a monoculture, or unity, coming from diversity. The opposite, perhaps, of what happened in the Yugoslav.

So these are case studies in precis. There are definitely parallels for a singular state with a strong identity to arise from diverse beginnings, but it probably doesn't look good for minorities. There are also cases of even very homogeneous states fragmenting.
The curious thing about India is that in the case of linguistic or even ethnic identities, the allocation of individual states on the aforementioned bases has actually increased the overall integrity and unity of India. Most Indians are more than happy to assert their regional identities within the confines of their geopolitical (sub)entity while simultaneously identifying as Indian in matters concerning India as a whole.

The best that can be said about India is that its an anomaly in many respects. But that makes it all the more interesting a case study.
 

Dan Howard

Ad Honorem
Aug 2014
4,900
Australia
Germany had exactly the same issues and is now reasonably united. Before the Modern Era it consisted of 300 independent nations. India wasn't united until a century later so is simply further behind in the integration process.
 

Naomasa298

Forum Staff
Apr 2010
35,367
T'Republic of Yorkshire
Germany had exactly the same issues and is now reasonably united. Before the Modern Era it consisted of 300 independent nations. India wasn't united until a century later so is simply further behind in the integration process.
I don't know how uniform Germany was in terms of culture and language, but India has a vast array of languages and significant cultural differences, particularly between north and south India.
 

Dan Howard

Ad Honorem
Aug 2014
4,900
Australia
There are still around 35 dialects spoken in Germany today. In the Middle Ages there were hundreds of languages and dialects.
 
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