Swachh Bharat needs better governance, civic infrastructure

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[With all of Narendra Modi’s good intentions, broom-wielding politicians are not going to create a swachh bharat. Instead, we need massive investment in solid and liquid waste management in India.]

For the success of Prime Minister Modi’s Swachh Bharat campaign it is important to focus on the issue of civic infrastructure for waste management rather than that elusive “civic sense.” It is a failure of the Government apparatus. Otherwise, we will be beating ourselves up when we find that, a few years hence, Indian public areas are as dirty as when we started off despite our exemplar PM with a broom.

With all the noise and fuss about civic responsibility and people wielding brooms the unsightly garbage on India roads is not primarily a behavioral problem, it is a problem of lack of accountability and effectiveness of local Government institutions to build an infrastructure for solid waste management. Here is a recent tweet.

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Let us take a good look at this garbage. Actually look at it. You will notice that most of the garbage on our roads is the garbage of modernity—of packaging, paper and plastic.             You will also find that garbage cans and disposal units are insufficient in number and overflowing. Handling this garbage needs a newer system than one that existed a thousand or even a hundred years ago. Why is that we are unable to come up or even adopt the system needed to deal with disposal?

The fundamental reason for this is that we have a local Government that simply does not work responsively to people’s needs. While in the private space, we have imported the technology for modernity that produces this paper and plastic on a massive scale, the Government systems have simply not adapted at the same speed. When we import modernity’s garbage-producing capacity, we also need to import modern waste disposal at the same time. We have not put in place an end-to-end system that looks at the life cycle of waste production, collection and recycling or disposal. In the US, disposal has often meant large landfills. Modernity is producing garbage at the rate that we will fill up the earth with garbage so we also need to look at curbing garbage at the source by strongly discouraging non-biodegradable packaging.

It is a misconception when people attribute India’s dirt to a “lack of civic sense” or the uncleanliness of its people. On the contrary, Indians are fastidious about cleaning their homes. You will find even the poorest Indians being particular about keeping even mud huts clean. While the dumping of garbage on the street is taken to be lack of civic sense, it is in reality, a lack of civic infrastructure. With properly planned garbage collection, disposal, street cleaning (that discards brooms for modern cleaning equipment) and amply available public garbage bins, the need to litter will decline considerably. An example is that our gated communities which are privately managed are often likely to be much cleaner than the city. It is not that within gated communities, the citizens suddenly acquire civic sense. It is that outside them, public infrastructure is notoriously bad.

Many people Tweeted wondering why Jamshedpur, which is privately maintained, is so clean.

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The answer again, is that it is privately maintained. If privately maintained India is clean and publically maintained India dirty, the problem cannot be Indian culture; it is the Indian state. The Indian state, a continuance of the colonial state, has repeatedly failed us. It is time to dismantle it and come up with one that works for the people.

It is worth remembering that every country has gone through this process of dealing with modern waste.  In the 19th and 20th centuries, the Western world has gone from abjectly dirty public environments to relative cleanliness. If you go to Paris today you may be impressed by its wide roads and stately buildings. But in the middle of the 19th century, Paris was “overcrowded, dark, dangerous and unhealthy.” In 1854, Victor Considerant wrote:

“Paris is an immense workshop of putrefaction, where misery, pestilence and sickness work in concert, where sunlight and air rarely penetrate. Paris is a terrible place where plants shrivel and perish, and where, of seven small infants, four die during the course of the year.”

How did this get fixed? It didn’t get fixed by holding civic science lessons for Parisians and ranting about Parisian culture. It was fixed by a massive investment in the infrastructure of the city, particularly its water and sewage works in the form of the Haussmann renovation of Paris, commissioned by Napolean III, which continued till 1927.

With all of Narendra Modi’s good intentions, broom-wielding politicians are not going to create a swachh bharat. Instead, we need massive investment in solid and liquid waste management in India. I am a stockholder in a US company — Waste Management. The necessity of managing waste makes it a good investment. This company is also the one that picks up garbage from my curb, sorted by recyclable, compost and landfill.

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India needs to invite and learn from these kinds of companies. It also needs to fix local governance to make it more effective and responsive. Finally, if we want our sweepers to set aside brooms for modern cleaning equipment, we need to invest in the linguistic infrastructure that brings them modern technology in their own languages, as I recommend at bhashaneeti.org. The problem with our garbage is also a problem of our inability to deal with modernity in our own terms and our own languages.

I grew up in Chandigarh, which as Indian cities go, had a decent civic infrastructure. Public spaces were dotted with garbage cans. Growing up there, using a garbage can, as opposed to littering was natural. I remember going to Gurgaon some years later, trying to find where to throw a plastic packaging bag. I could find no garbage cans. I was advised to throw it on the sidewalk, as “this is what we do here.”

Civic sense will follow the widespread availability civic infrastructure and it is the latter that should be our clear priority. Every city needs to have proper, modern solid and liquid waste infrastructure. It is only then we can realize the dream of Swachh Bharat.

This article was original published at NitiCentral.com

The Crisis of Governance: What India can learn from America

We have been busy learning many a thing in adopting a Western lifestyle—among these consumerism, new means of environmental destruction and a fragmenting social structure—yet we haven’t emulated the American systems that are far more effective than those in India today—the systems of local governance. These systems of governance reflect a fundamental difference in the relationship between the people and the state between America and India, a difference that gets papered over in the talk about the “two great democracies.” In actual practice, these democratic systems have very little in common in terms of the accountability of the state to provide services to the people at large.

A few years ago, when I was living in Redmond in America, I misplaced my Indian passport. I queried the Indian embassy about issuing a replacement. They needed a police report documenting my missing passport. Having grown up in India, I was in a tizzy. From what I remembered getting a police report about anything at all was no easy feat even in the most pressing of matters—a process that required supplicating the sentries of the law, if not outright bribing them—let alone in a case where I was quite sure that my passport wasn’t even stolen but possibly just misplaced somewhere so that I was unable to find it.

With some trepidation I rang up the Redmond police department. What would I need to do to get a police report regarding a lost misplaced passport? Not a problem, they replied on the phone, an officer would be there right away. True to their word, within 15 minutes there was a police car at my door. The officer was polite and quickly wrote up the required report. “Is there anything else I can do to help” he asked after giving me instructions on how to obtain an official copy the report that he had written down. All I could do was to stare in amazement, so different was this experience from my expectations from India in dealing with the khaki agents of the state in India.

In April 2006, overzealous Haryana police lathi-charged people waiting to get inside for a cricket match between India and England outside the stadium in Faridabad, leaving a nine-year old girl and her mother, both holding valid tickets to the match, seriously injured. When questioned, the police chief declared that “the people needed to be taught discipline.” What exactly makes the police chief think that their job is to “teach lessons” using lathis to the general populace rather than be in the service of the people? The answer to this fundamental question of governance is not hard to find.

The Indian state remains a colonial state. The relationship of the officials of the government to the governed remains a colonial relationship. The colonial state, of course, was never designed for jan seva. It was designed for a singular purpose—the purpose of extortion—or how effectively to extract tax revenue from the people while keeping them under control with the power of force. After all, the official state representative at the district is still called the “collector.” Even though, after independence, there was an elected government at the very top, there have been few fundamental changes in the overall apparatus of the state that we inherited. The power of the viceroy was replaced by the power of the elected parliament and the cabinet of ministers at the very top. But the mechanism and attitude of administration and governance did not fundamentally change.

The American model was also, ironically, created by people migrating from Britain. However, the difference is that the American system was created by these British as a new model for governing themselves, while the Indian system was created by them for governing the “natives” who needed to be controlled and civilized. This difference is apparent in how local government operates in the United States and in India. In the United States civic power is far more decentralized and far more locally accountable. The Redmond police, in my example, report to the Redmond Mayor, who is elected by the people of the city. The Redmond police is not part of a huge state bureaucracy, as in India, where the police force is centralized at the state level, and everything reports up all the way to the Chief Minister. The reporting of the Redmond police ends at the Redmond Mayor, which creates far greater accountability to the local populace. There is also no overarching bureaucracy, such as the centralized Indian Administrative Service. The role of state-level administration is limited as are its powers and perks. The top administrative positions are filled by people who have risen from the ranks rather than from the civil services based class-structure perpetuated in the Indian administrative system.

Incidentally traditional systems of governance in India were also radically decentralized and local. Power devolved upwards from the village level. Villages or clusters of villages had their own systems for education, for managing public utilities such as water works—ponds, canals and catchments and other civic amenities and even for the management of land records and resolving disputes. The role of the king was relatively limited. This is why the boundaries of kingdoms could often changes without the general life of the people being affected. This local basis of power ensured that governance remained responsive to the people—unlike the case in modern-day India where a senior IAS officer lamented to me recently—“Even the transfer of a chaprassi gets pushed down from the Chief Minister.”

The other remarkable success of the American system is in public education. Growing up in the Indian middle class, it was an automatic assumption that parents would try to send their children to the best private schools they could afford or get into. No one would even want to visit a government school to consider it. When searching for schools for my children in the US I was surprised to find that government schools were at par or even better than many private schools. Again, the education system in the US is radically decentralized compared to India. Schools are governed by school districts that are at the level of cities or of a few cities. These school districts are governed by representatives directly elected to the school boards by the local residents. There is no overarching education hierarchy at the state level unlike in India, where such a hierarchy has essentially no direct accountability to the parents who would be paying taxes to run these schools and colleges and sending their children there.

There are far better lessons to learn from the United States than how to grow fat on pizza and put up billboards of under-dressed models. Understanding effective models of local governance is one of these lessons. Unless we are able to dismantle the colonial state very little will change for the ordinary people. It will be worthwhile for us in India to study these models so we can proceed towards dismantling the colonial state.

A version of this article was published in the Hindustan Times.


Copyright© 2008. Sankrant Sanu.

Are Indians Corrupt?

In his recent Republic Day address, Indian president Abdul Kalam spoke about what has become a hot topic in India today. He said:

“…There are only three members of the society who can remove corruption… They are father, mother and elementary school teacher.”

The implication of his remarks is that widespread problem of corruption in India is ultimately a problem of moral character. President Kalam is not alone in these views in India: in fact, it is a common assumption.

It cannot be denied that the average citizen encounters more petty corruption in India than in the United States. If this corruption is a factor of relative moral character, then this must imply that Americans possess a higher moral character than Indians, which results in the United States having a lower degree of corruption than India. Examining data like the Corruption Perception Index published by Transparency International[1], we find that a number of countries ravaged by European colonization show up as some of the most corrupt. It must then be concluded that the people in all these countries are moral imbeciles, who can’t distinguish right from wrong and haven’t been taught so by their parents and teachers.

While President Kalam is right that parents and teachers play a key role in building the values of a child, we argue here that widespread corruption in society is not simply a function of morality. The phenomena of what is seen as widespread corruption is a failure of the systemrather than simply of individuals, and it is in the transformation of the system that we must seek primary remedies.

Are Indians Immoral Or Is It The System?

Firstly, let us examine the question of morality. If it is indeed the case that corruption is a result of character flaws of Indians rather than problems with the system, then this character flaw must be widely seen even when Indians are removed from the Indian system. However, we don’t find that Indians in America, for instance, are perceived to be especially corrupt. They are generally regarded as honest, hard-working entrepreneurs, employees and citizens. How is it that the same mothers, fathers and teachers, who have presumably failed in India, appear to have not done a terribly bad job when their children land in the US? Are our friends and neighbors in India really so much less moral than the people we meet in the US? Is high morality the prerogative of a particular race or religion?

That is, if individuals with similar backgrounds appear to act differently within two different systems, understanding the difference in the two systems is likely to provide clues to understanding the difference in perceived corruption in India and the United States.

A Moral Issue Or A Legal Issue?

Let us take a classic example in India of petty corruption. I have applied for a phone but the telephone linesman is demanding a payment to install it. (Recent changes have made this example somewhat dated, but that will allow useful insight.) This bribe demanded by the linesman appears to be a clear instance of corruption. Yet, one may argue – isn’t this a straightforward business transaction? [6]I’m paying for a service to the lineman and he is installing the phone. On giving the payment, I am certain that the line will be installed, it would be very unusual for the fellow to run away with my money. So, on one level, this business transaction has a high level of integrity – and in that sense, the linesman doesn’t appear to be fundamentally dishonest. On the other hand, one can argue that this is clearly corruption because he is already getting paid by the government to perform this service and he is not doing his job.

But, what if we legalized that? What if the government made a regulation that the linesman could collect a fee of five hundred rupees per line that he installs? The same transaction is taking place but we have now privatized it and we would no longer call it corruption. Has the integrity of the person changed or have we merely changed the rules? Are we defining corruption simply within the bounds of legality or can we determine right and wrong beyond those bounds?

Let us take another example. Top public accounting firms in America have come under a cloud for taking consulting assignments from the companies that they were auditing. There was no law to prevent this, but after Enron broke out, this became a major scandal. It was clear that the paid consulting assignments to the auditor were a legal tactic to “grease the wheels” of the audit and this was a practice that was widely being done in corporate America. Even though this was legal, can we deny that this is a form of corruption? If we examine the moral basis, public auditors were obligated to report on corporate accounts to the shareholders and the public. Accepting paid consulting assignments from the companies one is supposed to monitor to possibly give a more favorable picture of the accounts can only be seen as a clear instance of high-level bribery.

Similarly, many of the major financial services firms in the US are being accused of inflating the stock ratings of companies that they were doing business with to the detriment of their retail clients. Internal communications in the brokerage firms showed that analysts put out buy recommendations on stocks that they did not think would perform well, simply because those companies were giving them investment banking business[2]. Aren’t the payments that the corporate clients make to the analyst firms a form of bribery for illegitimate ratings? If we were considering the moral rather than simply the legal implications of the fact that this was done by nearly all the top financial services firms, would we then be forced to admit that there is widespread corruption in corporate America?

Certainly, this becomes even more apparent in the political space. Cronyism and handing out large defense contracts to companies that have been campaign contributors has been part of the course in Washington. Money readily changes hands in Washington at the instance of special interest groups and multi-million dollar lobbying firms to buy influence. Legislative outcomes cater to the influence of big money. While this might not have the on-camera impact of a Bangaru Laxman accepting money for “the party” from the fictitious defense firm in the Tehelka setup; yet the difference might well be attributed to a lack of sophistication in comparison to the Washington counterparts rather than to any fundamental difference in morality.

Yet, even if we accept that the perceived difference in corruption between India and the US is not a question of relative morality, it is an undeniable fact that petty corruption does exist at a much higher level for the common citizen in India than in the US. If Indians are fundamentally no more “corrupt”, as a character flaw, than the people in America, why is the actual experience of the common man in India in getting basic government services like obtaining a telephone line or getting a police report filed so significantly different than the experience in America? Understanding this is a key to solving the problem of corruption that engages so many commentators in India.

Examining the System

The first major difference between the US and India is in the systems of governance. Traveling extensively in rural India, I find that the relationship and attitude of the people to the government is still that of a colonizing power, not something that either belongs to them or is in touch with their aspirations. After living in the US for many years, it is clear that there is a far higher degree of ownership and accountability of the local government to the local communities. Furthermore, the common citizen, for most of his or her needs, interfaces with the government in the local city or township rather than at the state or the national level. Power and accountability are devolved to a much greater level to the local administration. Also, American enterprise is far more privatized than is the case with India and there is less involvement of the government in daily life.

By contrast, in the Indian system, power is centralized to a much greater degree at the level of the national and state governments. Further, the centralized colonial state apparatus, right from its inception, was never designed to serve the people. As an example, the government official at the district level was called a collector, his primary role in the system was extortion, not service. Similarly, the power of the police apparatus devolved downwards as a means of control of the local population for the benefit of the rulers, not as an arm of the community for its own protection and service. The laws themselves were created and imposed in a top-down manner – and these laws were both alien to the people (the Indian penal code today is still based on the penal code created by the British in 1860, with a basis in the British system) and were created and directed for the benefit of the ruler, not the ruled. This included laws that outlawed many of the traditional sources of livelihood of the people, including textile manufacturing and metallurgy, as well as forms of traditional medicine to further the economic interests of the British.

Furthermore, even in the administrative structure, there was a clear class system. To implement the system on behalf of the rulers was the Indian Civil Service (later the Indian Administrative Service) that was originally only open to whites. Later on, the ICS also included an elite section of Indians who had been “made white” – i.e., who had gone through the colonial system of education and been indoctrinated to identify themselves with the rulers rather than the ruled. The layer of native Indian clerks and “sepoys” at the bottom were often enforcing rules and laws that they did not believe in on people who did not understand them. These natives could, of course, never rise up to the ranks of the officers or aspire to join their class.

At the top of this system was the Viceroy, drawing his authority from the Queen of England. It was a centralized and alien power structure, sprawling like a gigantic bear on the aspirations of the people. An understanding of this system and its origins is very relevant to understanding India today. This is because, despite independence and democracy, the administrative system of India remains completely continuous with colonial India (and completely discontinuous with pre-colonial India). While at the top layer the authority of the Viceroy was replaced by the authority of the elected cabinet and the Parliament, the entire structure of the government administration essentially remains colonial in its origin and attitudes.

The system in America was, ironically, also started by people who were originally English. The dramatic difference comes from the fact that America was a colony of settlement, while India was a colony of exploitation. In America, the natives were largely exterminated since the wealth of the land lay mainly in its natural resources and not in the produce of the natives and the systems of governance that evolved were what the settlers chose for themselves. In India, the wealth lay mainly in the output of the locals. The system was designed not for the settlement of the English, but for the most efficient exploitation and control of the Indians for obtaining the local produce via extortive taxation to be carted away to England

Thus, in America, the police force, for instance, evolved from the need of local communities forself-policing. Thus, as in the settlement of the West, a sheriff would be appointed by the community from within the local populace to maintain order. Thus the sheriff was a member of the community, not an imposed elite, enforcing the laws of the central rulers. In some ways, the American experience allowed for an even greater community involvement and accountability than England since it was difficult to have centralized authoritarian control in a far-flung land with different groups of settlers, even though the overall Anglican system rested on a strong belief in a centralized “rule of law” enforced and created by the authority of the Church and the Sovereign Ruler.

While coming back to the problems in the contemporary Indian system, it is worth examining briefly the system that existed in pre-colonial India. It appears that this system was far more community-based in terms of village and jati laws than the colonial system. Even during the Mughal rule, though there were some centralized laws, the law-making and enforcement authority of the local communities were largely left undisturbed. Further, a large percentage of the local revenue remained with the local community by which local civil services – such as water resource management, education and order — could be maintained. The local community, in many respects, devolved power upwards, to greater aggregates, rather than having a centralized power structure devolve power downwards[3]. In colonial times, this equation was reversed with much of the local produce being taken away by extortive British taxation, causing local institutions to decay. Furthermore, a centralized system was steadily imposed that took away the power from local communities and concentrated it into the hands of government officials.

As we mention below, this system remained largely unchanged post independence, though people like Mahatma Gandhi realized the harm that the destruction of the local community had caused. While there have been some reforms in the system, in the form of the Panchayati Rajact, yet more progress remains stymied by the fact that the panchayats have very little relative authority and control over the sources of revenue, which remain in the hands of bureaucrats.

From Colonization to Socialism

The post-independence socialist system further strengthened the approach of an essential patriarchic system – where the state knew best and private enterprise was something to be controlled by spools and spools of red tape.

Along with the politicians, the popular media projected the image of the corrupt, greedy, rapacious businessman, colluding with the corrupt politician and cruelly suppressing the people. The difficulties faced by an honest businessman in the legitimate and necessary enterprise of creating wealth for himself and for the nation were rarely appreciated. In the book, `India Unbounded’, Gurcharan Das, former CEO of Proctor and Gamble India, documents the insanity of the license raj that sought to reduce business to the same level of low-performance as the government. You could actually be penalized for producing efficiently or more than the allotted quota.

Even now, despite some liberalization with respect to business, there is a dramatic contrast between the ease by which one can set up a new business in the United States as compared to India. In the former case, the state is geared to assist you. In the latter case, it is often standing in the way.

Finally, both the colonial period with its widespread poverty and the breakdown of job security in traditional occupations, as well as the controlled economy of the socialist period led to the creation of a culture of scarcity. This culture of scarcity itself led to a desperation, an attitude of every man for himself, a need to break the symbolic and literal queue and get in front, since it was doubtful whether staying in the queue would get one served at all.

Thus, to the inherited colonial system was added the license raj with its opposition to private enterprise, where the rules were not designed to serve the people and encouraged a culture of scarcity where one had to circumvent the rules to succeed – and we were headed into the inevitability of what we call corruption.

The Creation Of A Parallel System

So, what does all this tell us about corruption? The first and foremost idea we must realize is that the people and the state, for well over a century, have been antagonistic to each other. The colonial government apparatus has been designed to control the people, not to support them. For the common people, the business community and even the lower-level government functionaries, the system has been both incomprehensible as well as an obstacle to their needs and desires. In this situation, the system is something that needs to be overcome and avoided rather than something to be abided by. A huge amount of creativity and energy of the people is thus expended in finding ways to circumvent the system rather than support it.

Furthermore, there is little or no performance accountability within the administrative system. It is very difficult to fire corrupt or non-performing employees, and very few rewards for honest and conscientious employees within the system. As a result, corruption is a form of subverting the system, both by the employees as well as by their customers, the general public – by creating an unofficial, but functioning system of private transactions in lieu of the dysfunctional and often antagonistic official one from the perspective of the people. This is one aspect of understanding why a large number of countries that show up at the bottom of Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index are former colonies.

Why is the unofficial system functioning? Going back to the telephone example, making a payment to the linesman will ensure that the work is done. The linesman will probably himself have a system of “revenue-sharing” with other officials and employees, as a result of which a parallel system and economy is created. What are the characteristics of this economy? That one’s job will get done relatively efficiently, that the bribe-receiver will be accountable to the bribe-giver, and the people who are more productive in this system will make more money than the people who are less productive. In other words, this system partly restores the very characteristics of accountability, efficiency and recognition of performance that should be part of any well-functioning system and which is largely missing in the official system.

This does not imply that all is well. There are plenty of problems with the parallel system, including the fact that there is a high degree of overall inefficiency in having two systems — and this ultimately is debilitating and costly for the nation. Over times, it erodes the very foundations on which the institutions of the state rest. But before we can talk of eliminating or minimizing this parallel system of bribe taking and giving, it is critical to understand the real problems with it.

One of the biggest problems with the colonial apparatus of government is that it is a corruptingsystem. That is, it is a system that is more challenging for an honest individual than for a dishonest one. How is that?

Let us take the example of an honest telephone linesman. He goes about his job installing a telephone line without demanding a bribe. The problem is that he now becomes a threat to the revenue of the unofficial system. This means that he will be targeted by his peers who are operating within the unofficial system and in the likely case of his boss being part of the “cut”, he will get transferred to some other, less privileged location, so that the unofficial system can continue unhindered. Obviously, he will also be making less money than his peers. All in all, the system will make it both harder and much less attractive for him to remain honest – that he does so will be as a result of the sheer force of his will.

Similarly, for the ambitious businessman interested in growing (and thus creating jobs), the system has stood as an obstacle. He had to succeed despite the system, not because of it. Are Indian business people fundamentally dishonest? I would say not. In fact, business in India has traditionally relied on a very high degree of trust – with word of mouth agreements often standing in lieu of signed contracts. It is this high degree of mutual integrity that has enabled Indian traders to control a majority of the world diamond trade today, for instance. Yet, like the government employee, the successful businessman has been penalized by the system, making him complicit in its corruption.

Thus, rather than fundamentally corrupt individuals, we have a corrupting system – a system in which it is more difficult and less rewarding for someone to be honest than to be corrupt. A well-functioning system is one in which exactly the opposite is true – the cost of being dishonest is far greater than the rewards of being honest. A corrupting system is corrosive to all that encounter it – it literally breeds corruption and transforms honest people into corrupt people over time. Ultimately, this corrosive system completely dissolves the integrity of the official system – to survive at all, one needs to start playing by the unofficial rules. Of course, the unofficial rules soon need their own enforcement mechanisms and the money power starts combining with muscle power. This raises the importance of non-state enforcers and the spiral into criminality begins. One can see a higher degree of such breakdown in places such as Bihar, for instance, where parallel “senas” and private justice have replaced even these non-functional state institutions.

Why then have we tended to study corruption largely as a symptom of social morality and culture? We need to remember that the larger system also consists of the institutions of education and media, all of which relate very differently to the people in the Indian context than in the United States. There is a noticeable difference between social science programs in India and the United States in how they study their own societies. The Indian elite intelligentsia tends to study their own society largely through colonially inspired categories and lenses. As such, it is programmed to construct cultural blame for criminal acts in a way that academics in the United States are not[4]. This creation of culture blame (and culture shame) is a phenomenon found in most colonial societies. It was an original construction of the colonizing powers that set up and controlled the institutions to make the natives easier to rule by having them accept the cultural superiority of their masters (and the relative inferiority of their own). Social science studies in India thus show continuity from colonial times and institutions and a disjunction from the people at large.

A Culture Of Entrepreneurship?

If there were a cultural generalization that can be drawn about the Indian response to a non-functioning and antagonistic system, one would hazard the generalization of Indian entrepreneurship.

Even in a repressive state-controlled economy, entrepreneurs like Dhirubhai Ambani managed to circumvent the system and succeed. People such as JRD Tata, stymied by government control at home, established industrial enterprises throughout South-East Asia. Indians that migrated throughout the world demonstrated a talent for entrepreneurship – from low-tech hotels and restaurants to the high-tech software revolution.

We needn’t look only at large entrepreneurs, but at small ones as well. The unorganized sector – small businessman, traders and others — remains a very large part of the Indian economy and employment base. From the vendors boarding buses at strategic stops selling knick-knacks to the mushrooming STD operators, people found creative ways to innovate.

In fact, large hierarchical institutions have rarely been part of the Indian ethos, whether in religion, government, or even private enterprise. Our religious ideas themselves were entrepreneurial and not controlled by large centralized hierarchical institutions, unlike Western Christianity. Our pre-colonial laws themselves were highly diverse, localized and community-based rather than all of them being handed down and enforced by a single central authority. Even functions such as the maintenance of land-records were not state-run, but managed by private individuals – the dependence of their livelihood on their reputation for honesty assured the integrity of the system. A network of specialist contractors rather than monolithic institutions managed even large projects, such as the construction of fabulous buildings or the manufacture of ships. In contemporary times, the now famous Mumbai tiffinwalas, profiled in Forbes, distribute 175,000 tiffins a day exceeding Six Sigma quality of delivery, based solely on a network of private operators[5].

So, we are no strangers to either free enterprise or small government. Corruption can then be regarded as forced, perverse manifestation of this spirit or even a form of dissent in the context of an alien and antagonistic system. If the system were changed to support and harness this entrepreneurial spirit rather than stymie it, the sky is the limit to what we can achieve.

Towards Change

How then do we create change in the system so that it is more responsive to the people, more fulfilling to the employees and more effective for the nation? The following steps should be considered, in order of importance:

    • 1. Reducing the size of the government and privatizing non-essential functions.
    • 2. De-centralizing government functions away from large hierarchical bureaucracies and creating greater local accountability.
    • 3. Simplifying laws, rules and procedures, taking into account the actual needs and practices of the people and creating a greater focus on customer service in public institutions
    • 4. Simplifying taxation, reducing duties on property taxes and property transfers and creating greater transparency and “buy-in” for the use of tax-proceeds by devolving more taxation and spending to local administration from the center and states
    • 5. Tackling campaign finance reform – realizing that elections today involve large expenditures and creating rules for legal campaign contributions that take this into account while reducing the influence of criminal/black money
    • 6. Creating a clear performance-based reward system within the government to create greater incentive for honesty and performance
    • 7. More effective enforcement and prosecution of the remaining corrupt personnel to increase the cost for the corrupt

The first fact to realize is that the answer is not more rules and larger bureaucracies, but a more transparent, accountable and responsive system. One option there is simply greater privatization where market demand and competition will drive accountability. The telephone example is again a good one. If we are fundamentally corrupt, why is it that we do not have to pay a bribe in India to get a mobile phone? How would the situation have been different if mobile phones were to be a government monopoly instead? The answer is simple – in the case of competitive private enterprise, it is in the interests of the private operator to provide greater customer service – it is only in a monopoly where these interests are divergent. Some of these aligning of interests can also happen in semi-private models. In a recent journey on a local bus in Delhi, I was pleased to find courteous service and the conductor making sure that I got a ticket. Later I was told that the driver and conductor now get a percentage of the proceeds and both the quality of service and the revenue that is collected by the government has gone up as a result.

Secondly, a restructuring of government function needs to happen so that there is far greater local accountability. Let us take the example of education. Currently, appointments and administration of teachers for schools are centralized at the level of the entire state. This means that accountability flows into the state level bureaucracy that is itself only accountable to the ministers. Since the ministers are elected, it turns out that the loop of accountability to the consumers is closed only at the highest level. This is inefficient and frustrating at all levels. The teachers find that they are subject to arbitrary transfers by bureaucrats, the end consumers are not in the loop at all of teacher accountability or performance, the ministers find themselves deluged with personal requests for low-level appointments and the bureaucrats find themselves at the mercy of politicians. I recently met one of the senior-most bureaucrats in the state of Rajasthan with a reputation for honesty. A visit to his house showed that he had a very simple lifestyle. However, he was despondent about his lack of ability to make change. “Everything in this system is delegated upwards,” he said. “Even the transfer of a chapprassiwill come as an order from the minister.” Clearly, the system serves no one well.

In contrast, the accountability in the US in areas of day-to-day contact of citizens, such as education or the police force, is usually far more local. School boards operate at a city or school district level. The boards are elected and accountable to the parents. Similarly, the mayor of the city and the local police chief are the highest level of authority that concern the citizens in most local matters – not state level police chiefs, secretaries or governors.

The importance of having a more performance oriented government system can also not be over-emphasized. A job that is satisfying and rewarding is itself an incentive not to look for other avenues of gratification. I was recently talking with a government executive engineer who had been posted at the Bhakra-Nangal Dam for many years. I was surprised to learn that he was a civil engineer. When I asked what work was there for a civil engineer on a dam that was constructed several decades ago, he replied laconically, “There is no work.” This is a sad commentary on the affairs of the government – what kind of performance will such a system monitor?

Taxation is another area of reform. Land and property transactions as well as local retail sales remain areas of high black money generation. There was a time when capital gains on sales of property were as high as 66%. No one in their right mind, after holding property for twenty years, would pay 66% of it in tax to the government – especially when the government appeared as a black hole of antagonistic incompetence, serving very little useful purpose. While this has been reduced, property transfers still remain expensive transaction with high stamp duties. Devolving more taxes down to the local community level, where the benefits of the government expenditures are both more visible and more accountable, will also help in this regard.

It is also worth noting that greater prosecution of corrupt officials has been placed last in this list even though it often receives the greatest emphasis from anti-corruption crusaders. This is because enforcement, while necessary, will remain ineffective in tackling the magnitude of the problem in the absence of systematic reform. At the present time, community activism can yield better long-term results when directed towards crafting a more responsive system than simply pursuing a few high-profile enforcement cases.

Similarly, continuing to harp on corruption as simply a moral problem without addressing first the issues of systemic reform exacerbates the problem of corruption rather than helping it. This is because if the problem is that we are corrupt, it becomes very difficult to change anything, since it is obviously very difficult to change who we are as people. It is no surprise that in the light of this belief, very few people in India believe that we can fix the problem of corruption. Realizing that much of it is a problem of the system can be an empowering and actionable idea, even while the road may be long.

It is worth remembering that, even with all the problems in the Indian system, it still survives and functions because there remain a remarkable number of honest people trying to do their jobs, despite all the difficulties and disincentives. It is this honesty that we must build on and nourish as we create a blueprint for deep, systematic changes.

Beyond Systematic Corruption: Re-Examining Individual Morality

While in this article we have discussed the systematic origins of petty corruption, this is not meant to imply that values are not important. It also does not imply that fixing the system will create some kind of utopia, where no corruption or criminality will occur. However well functioning the system, there will always remain criminals and outliers – no society is free from that. A dysfunctional system, however, makes it easier for criminal tendencies to come to the fore. Also, the survival of the parallel system, profitable to vested interests, is always in conflict with those that seek to uphold the primary system and not play by the rules of the secondary one. Thus the parallel system creates its own forms of extra-legal enforcement, where criminal elements readily find room, to ensure its survival.

Reforming the system can go a long way towards a different relationship between the people and the state, where it makes sense for most people to play by the rules. However, as we mentioned earlier, even societies like the US where rules are generally not set up in opposition to the people, the problem of corruption remains. Also, in any situation, there are always criminal elements that will tend towards making the quick buck irrespective of the system. Reform of the system is unlikely to change these people, but it changes the tolerance of the system towards these elements.

To tackle these kinds of corruption, which goes beyond systematic reform, we would need to return to the question of values that president Kalam spoke about, literally what a society learns to value. If excessive, unbalanced materialism becomes the over-arching value, with all means considered legitimate to get it and no training in self-control, then it is inevitable that there will be corruption in society. But tackling this is a question of inner transformation, where it is recognized that the legitimate human strivings for artha and kama need to be guided bydharma.

Certainly in the traditional Indian context, the teachers and the parents transmitted values. The teacher was interestingly called acharya, a word that is based on the root achar, or conduct. Thus the transmission of values was by personal example and conduct of the teacher, not by “moral science” lessons. Values were embedded in the role models of daily life.

The other form of transmittal of values is via stories and exemplars. Stories that were told by grandparents and parents during childhood also have a positive role in the creation of values. Finally, the example set by parents as well as those portrayed as “successful” role models to emulate is certainly also important. In the contemporary world, mass media is a very powerful force in the creation of samskara. In a responsible society, mass media would recognize this role rather than view its role solely as “anything goes” entertainment, blindly aping western mores or measuring its success in purely materialistic terms. But this is ultimately a matter of awakening to responsibility, not ham-handed government censorship.

So, once the systematic problems are tackled, we will be at the level of the “developed” world in terms of corruption. As we mentioned earlier, the developed world is certainly no exemplar as far as morality goes. To go beyond this, one comes back to the messages of the rishis on inner transformation. This inner transformation is ultimately what can enable us to go beyond greed, avarice and a consumerism that obsessively seeks satisfaction outside oneself to move towards “santosh”, a santosh that is ultimately the basis for the elimination of all corruption.



[2]Wall Street faces prospect of criminal charges, http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/story/0,3604,689537,00.html

[3]For a picture of Indian society in pre-colonial and early British times, the mult-volume Collected Works of Shri Dharampal are highly recommended.

[4]An interesting example is the fact that prevalent spousal killing for insurance money in the United States is not dissimilar with spousal killing for “dowry” in India. The former is not tracked or studied as a crime attributed to “culture” in the US while the latter is studied solely in that category in India. Similarly, “abortion” is treated in liberal discourse in the US as a matter of “a woman’s right to choose”, while in Indian liberal discourse it is labeled as “foeticide”, to emphasize its relation to murder, and studied as a culture-attributed crime. Similarly, marriages under 18 are studied as the phenomenon of “child marriage” in India and labeled as “evil” in scholarly writing. A similar phenomenon is studied as “teenage marriage” in the US. Interestingly, even in the case of “child marriage” in India, the consummation of the marriage almost invariably happens post-puberty in India so the phenomena are not dissimilar. Interestingly, states such as Massachusetts have a legal age of marriage as low as 12, and nearly 15% of marriages in the US took place in the 15-17 age group (1970 figures).


[6]This example was first given to me by Prof. S. N. Balagangadhara in a discussion. His inspirational insight into this topic is gratefully acknowledged.

© Sankrant Sanu., all rights reserved.

Why India Is A Nation


One of the oft-repeated urban myths that sometimes pops-up in conversation even among many educated, well meaning Indians is that India as a nation is a British creation. The argument goes roughly as follows – India is an artificial entity. There are only a few periods in history when it was unified under the same political entity. It was only the British that created the idea of India as a single nation and unified it into a political state. A related assumption, in our minds, is that the developed Western countries have a comparatively far greater continuity of nationhood, and legitimacy as states, than India.

This urban myth is not accidental. It was deliberately taught in the British established system of education. John Strachey, writing in `India: Its Administration and Progress’ in 1888, said “This is the first and most essential thing to remember about India – that there is not and never was an India, possessing … any sort of unity, physical, political, social or religious; no Indian nation.

To teach this self-serving colonial narrative obviously suited the British policy of divide and rule. That it still inanely survives means that it is worth setting to rest.


In this essay, we establish that Strachey’s colonial narrative is demonstrably false. Not only is India a coherent nation but, in fact, there are few countries on the planet that are more legitimate nation-states than India. That some of us don’t see this clearly only reflects how we have accepted the colonial myths as well as failed to study the history of the rest of the world.

The Modern States and Their Origins

The concept of nation-states, i.e. that the aspirations of the people that constitute a nation are best served by a common political entity is considered a relatively recent idea in Europe from the 18th century. Nationalism led to the formation of nation-states and modern countries. This development was followed up with a gradual hardening of state boundaries with the passport and visa regime that followed it.

Note that the concept of nationhood is based on the idea shared by a set of people that they constitute a nation. This idea or feeling may be based on common ties of a people based on their culture, common descent, language, religion or other such attributes. The state constitutes a group of people inhabiting a specific territory and living according to a common legal and political authority.

The modern nation-state, as it exists today, is a new development for the entire world, and not just for India. Mediaeval Europe, for instance, was divided politically into many small principalities, the boundaries and sovereignties of which changed frequently[2]. Many of the countries as we know them today got established in the 19th and 20th century, and the boundaries of these changed throughout the 20th century – in the two World Wars, border disputes and the turmoil in Eastern Europe.

The United Kingdom was not really united till the act of Union in 1702 when England (including Wales) and Scotland came together. Even then they retained different laws and (even more crucially in European nationhood) retained separate national Churches. In 1801, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was formed. In 1922, Ireland broke off as an independent country resulting in the present political formation – the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Thus the UK in its present political state, if that is the criteria to be used, is not even a hundred years old.

Across the Atlantic, the picture is even more stark. In 1700, the British colonies were spread barely over the area that comprises the few North Eastern States, less than 10% of the current geographical areas. The diverse Native American tribes that inhabited the area of the present day United States could not be said to have comprised a nation, and even if they did, the current United States neither considers itself as a continuity of the native culture, nor are its people primarily descendents of the natives. Even in 1776, when America declared itself a separate state from the British, its area was a small fraction of the area it has today, mainly constituting the states on the East Coast. Only in 1845 did Texas and California, among its largest states, become part of it as a result of a war with Mexico. Washington State gained statehood in 1889, Hawaii in 1900. Thus the United States in its present political and geographic conception is barely 100 years old as a state and, at the maximum limit, as a political entity is about 250 years, with many annexations and a civil war in between. No state or kingdom existed on its boundaries before that in history.

If you take Mexico, the story is better, but not much. While it has greater continuity from pre-colonial times than the United States because of the Aztec Empire that existed for about a hundred years before the Spanish Conquest, the Aztec never controlled all of present day Mexico. No other conception of nation-hood, such as shared religious beliefs, united the other areas of Mexico with the Aztec ones. Furthermore, while present day Mexicans take pride in their Aztec heritage and use symbols from the Aztec nation on their flag, they have largely lost any direct cultural continuity of either language or religious beliefs from pre-colonial times. Spanish has very nearly wiped out the native languages and 95% of Mexicans are now Christians and described as `Hispanic’. i.e. of the Spanish culture.

Similarly, Africa and South America mostly constitute of state boundaries carved up by colonial rule. The present boundaries of the African states were largely carved out by treaties among the European nations between 1884 and 1899 in meetings held in Europe with no African representation into the process! While there had been some kingdoms like Ghana and Mali in earlier times that were politically united, the boundaries of current African countries rarely map to the territories of historical kingdoms.

In short, if we take the legitimacy of current nation-states on the basis of centuries of common continuous political rule over the same geographical boundary and inhabited by the same people, then practically no country on the planet meets this criteria. Simply put, shifting nature of political kingdoms and their boundaries over the centuries legitimize virtually no country in its present form.

To understand nationhood then as it is supports the modern nation-state, we thus must search the roots of nationhood first and foremost in the conception of nationhood, i.e. did a particular set of people, within a particular geography, imagine of themselves a common socio-cultural geographical heritage that comprised them as a nation?

Understanding Indian Nationhood

The first element of Indian nationhood draws from its unique geography. India is one of the few countries that can be located on a physical map of the world, even when no political boundaries are drawn. It is worth taking a deep breath and looking at the map below, reflecting on the significance of this geography before we go further.


Fig 1: India’s geographical unity

The Indian peninsula and vast plains are bounded by the ocean on three sides and the land stretches to the highest peaks of the Himalayas in the north. The vast sweep of the land ends in the East with the mountainous border with Burma. In the West, just past the Indus, the mountains come downwards towards the ocean again forming a natural boundary.

Early civilizations all developed on the banks of great river systems – Egypt on the Nile, Mesopotamia on the Tigris and Euphrates, the Chinese on the Yangste Kiang. Thus civilization developed on the great river systems of the Indus and the Gangetic plain – one of the richest river-soil-climate systems in the world; and on the Narmada and Cauvery. And because of the ease of access in this land throughout the ages, there was an enormous interchange of thought and ideas, people and customs, and there developed a culture that is distinctly Indian, and at the same time incredibly diverse.

The culture’s distinctive nature evolved precisely because the unique geography facilitated it. The large mountains and bodies of water separated it from surrounding cultures to give it its distinctiveness. The low barriers to movement within this land mass ensured an ease of access to build a coherent whole. This ensured that the exchanges that took place within this large separated petri dish were much deeper and longer lasting than those that took place with those from without. Hence was created a unique and diverse civilization.

Political Unity

Among the earliest political consolidations, even by the dates of present colonial scholarship, was under the Mauryas from the 6th century BC to the 3rd century BC, when most of India was under their rule.

After the Mauryas, there was repeated political consolidation of large parts of India, even when all of it was not under a single rule. The Kanishkas consolidated the north from the Hindu Kush Mountains to Bihar and south to Gujarat and Central India. The Satavahana Empire, considered to be founded by high officials of the Mauryas, consolidated the south and central parts.

The Gupta Empire again politically consolidated the area from Afghanistan to Assam and south to the Narmada, possibly exerting political control even further down south. Samudragupta led an expedition all the way down to Kanchipuram in present Tamil Nadu. While the southern areas were not formally part of the Empire, they were quite likely de-facto vassal states, paying tribute to the Emperor. The only other major comparable empires in the world of this size at the time were the Chinese and the Roman.

Note that it would be a thousand years after the Mauryan Empire was established and even much after the Gupta Empire that the Anglo-Saxons in the 5th century AD would first move into the region that would later be called England. It would be nearly five hundred more years before the territory of England would be consolidated as an independent political entity. Only much later would there be attempts at unity of `Great Britain’. The `United Kingdom’ that includes Scotland, Wales and Ireland, as we mentioned earlier, is only a recent political artifact.

After the Gupta Empire, the Chalukya-Chola dynasty consolidated most of India in the south, leading expeditions even up to the north of the Ganges river.

Later on, much of India would be consolidated again under the Mughals, and after the Mughal empire disintegrated, by the British.

So while the British were the last power, before the current state of India, to administratively consolidate its territory (as well as to divide it up as they left), they were by no means the first ones to do so.

Even when multiple kingdoms existed, these kingdoms were not like the countries of today with a passport and visa regime needed to cross and all kinds of regulations on movement of goods and people. A continued exchange of ideas, people, goods and scholarship took place throughout the sub-continent, largely unmindful of the boundaries of kingdoms.

Furthermore, the territorial boundaries of India were largely maintained. There were few, if any, times before the British came when large parts of India were consolidated into kingdoms that were centered outside it. There were no significant long-lasting kingdoms, for instance, that ruled from Persia to the Ganges plain, or from Burma to Bengal, or from China or Tibet to Delhi. There was a separateness and integrity to this land, unlike European countries or even Europe as a whole. For centuries, the Romans consolidated north Africa and southern Europe into one contiguous centrally ruled empire, as did the Ottomans after them. Central Asia became part of one external empire or another.

Even in the case of the British, when all of India became part of a larger empire centered outside it for the first time, it was clear that it was distinct from Burma, for instance, even though they were contiguous land areas ruled by the British. And thus the freedom movements in Burma and India were separate. Burma and India did not become one after their respective independence, nor was there any call by Indian or Burmese nationalists to do so.

Thus there was an idea of India that made it be regarded as a separate and whole, even through political change and shifting boundaries of internal kingdoms.

The Idea of India

This then becomes our second question – is the idea of India as a unit a new idea brought by the British or did it exist long before the British came? Did the people of this vast land recognize that they were linked together? Did they share a common story of their civilization, of their Indian-ness, their Bharatiyata? Remarkably, the idea of India, as Bharatavarsha orAryavrata, appears to have been alive for thousands of years in our stories, thousands of years before there was an America or a Great Britain or a Mexico or France.

From the Manusmriti, we learn of the land of Aryavrata stretching from the Himalayas and Vindhyas all the way to the eastern and western oceans. Without the idea of Bharata, there could have been no epic called the Maha-Bharata that engaged kings throughout this land of Bharata. The story of Mahabharata shows a remarkable degree of pan-Indian context and inter-relationships, from Gandhari, the wife of Drithrashtra who came from Gandhara, (spelled as Kandahar in present-day Afghanistan), Draupadi from Panchala (present day Jammu and Kashmir), all the way to Arjun meeting and marrying the Naga princess Uloopi on a visit to Manipur in the east (from where he gets the `Mani‘ or Gem). Interestingly, Arjuna is said to have gone on a pilgrimage to the holy places of the east when this happens, showing the current North-East was very much linked in this. Finally, Krishna himself is from Mathura and Vrindavana (in UP) though his kingdom itself is in Dwarka (Gujarat).

Similarly, the story of Ramayana draws the north-south linkage from Ayodhya all the way down to Rameshwaram, at the tip of which is finally the land of Lanka. Note that it is not, for this particular thesis, important that the stories are historically accurate. What we are interested in rather is whether the idea of India or Bharatavarsha or Aryavrata as a culturally linked entity existed in the minds of the story-tellers and ultimately in the minds of the people to whom these stories were sacred. And these stories were then taken and told and retold in all the languages of the people of this great civilization, till the stories themselves established a linkage among us and to the sacred geography they celebrated. This sacred geography is what makes northerners flock to Tirupati and southerners to the Kumbha Mela.

And the diffusion of these common ideas was certainly not only from the north to south. The great Bhakti movement started in the 6th and 7th centuries AD had its roots in the south in the Tamil and Kannada languages. Even while the boundaries of kingdoms changed, enormous cultural and religious unity continued to take place across India. It started off with the Alvars and the Nayanars (Tamil, 7th to 10th century AD), Kamban (Tamil, 11th century), Basava (Kannada, 12th century) and moved on to Chaitanya Mahaprabu (Bengali, 15th century), Ramananda (15th century, born in Allahabad of south India parentage, guru of Kabir, 15th century), Raskhan (16th century), Surdas (Braj, 16th century), Mirabia (Rajasthan, 16th century), Tulsidas (Avadhi, 16th century), Nanak (Punjabi, 16th century) and Tukaram (Marathi, 17th century), among the many. All these together weaved a garland across the land that spoke again of our common truths, our common cultural heritage.

The Bhakti movement retold our ancient stories in the language of the common people, in Marathi and Bengali, in Avadhi (present day UP) and Bhojpuri (present day Bihar), in Gujarati and Punjabi and in Rajasthani. We can marvel at the cultural unity in India, where while theBhakti poets initiated the great movement for devotion to Shiva in the south, the erudite philosophy of Kashmir Shaivism was being developed coevally in the north. Or that Kamban in the south was the first poet to take the story of Rama to the major regional languages, and Tulsidas, much closer to Ayodhya, came centuries later. Or that the great Krishna bhaktaChaitanya was celebrating his devotion to the King of Dwarka in Bengal while Tukaram sang praises of Lord Vithal in the west. An immense body of pan-Indian worship revolved around the triad of Vishnu, Shiva and Shakti in their various forms – whether as Rama, Krishna, Sri Venkateshwara, Sri Dakshinamurti, Jagdamba, Durga Mata or Kali. These common stories were told and retold without the mandate of any central church and seeped through the pores of the land of Bharata, forging a shared bond, unlike any other seen on the planet.

It was this idea of civilizational unity and sacred geography of India that inspired Shankaracharya to not only enunciate the mysteries of the Vedanta but to go around setting upmathas circumscribing the land of India in a large diamond shape. While sage Agasthya crossed the Vindhya and came down south, Shankracharya was born in the village of Kalady in Kerala and traveled in the opposite direction for the establishment of dharma. If this land was not linked in philosophical and cultural exchanges, and there was no notion of a unified nation, why then did Shankracharya embark on his countrywide digvijay yatra? What prompted him to establish centers spreading light for the four quadrants of this land – Dwarka in the west (in Gujarat), Puri in the east (in Orissa), Shringeri in the south (Karnataka) and Badrinath (Uttaranchal) in the north? He is then said to have gone to Srinagar (the abode of `Sri’ or the Shakti) in Kashmir, which still celebrates this in the name of Shankaracharya Hill. What better demonstration that the idea of the cultural unity of the land was alive more than a thousand years ago?

And yet, these stories are not taught to us in our schools in India. We learn instead, in our colonial schools, that the British created India and gave us a link language, as if we were not talking to each other for thousands of years, traveling, telling and retelling stories before the British came. How else did these ideas travel so rapidly through the landmass of India, and how did Shankracharya circumscribe India, debating, talking and setting up institutions all within his short lifespan of 32 years?


Fig 2: Ideas of India: Shankaracharya and Shakti

These ideas of our unity have permeated all our diverse darshanas. We have talked aboutBhakti and Vedanta and the epics of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. But this idea of unity was not limited to particular schools. They were equally present in the tantric schools that exerted a tremendous influence on popular worship. Thus we have the legend of Shakti, whose body was carried by Shiva and cut up by Vishnu, landing in 51 places throughout the landmass of India that are now the site of the Shakti Peetham temples. The body of Shakti, or so the story goes, fell all the way from Neelayadakshi Kovil in Tamil Nadu to Vaishno Devi in Jammu, from Pavagadh in Gujarat to the Kamakshi temple in Assam and 47 other places.

Why would the story conceive of these pieces of Shakti sanctifying and falling precisely all over the landmass of India, rather than all of them falling in Tamil Nadu or Assam or Himachal (or alternately, Yunan (Greece) or China, or some supposed `Aryan homeland’ in Central Asia) unless someone had a conception of the unity of the land and civilization of Bharatavarsha? Whether these stories are actual or symbolic, represent real events or myths, it is clear from them that the idea of India existed in the minds of those that told these stories and those that listened. Together, all these stories wove and bound us together, along with migration, marriages and exchange of ideas into a culture unique in the story of mankind. A nation that was uniquely bound together in myriads of ways, yet not cast into a mono-conceptual homogeneity of language, worship, belief or practice by the diktat of a centralized church, intolerant of diversity.

And this unity as nation has been with us far before the idea of America existed. Far before the Franks had moved into northern France and the Visigoths into Spain, before the Christian Church was established and Islam was born. They have been there before Great Britain existed, before the Saxons had moved into Britannia. They have been there while empires have fallen, from when Rome was a tiny village to when it ruled an empire that rose and collapsed.

Thus the Arabs and Persians already had a conception of Hind far before the Mughal Empire was established. If we suggest that their conception of Hind was derived only from their contact with Sindh in western India, why would the British, when they landed in Bengal, form the EastIndia Company, unless the conception of the land of India (a term derived from the original Hind) was shared by the natives and the British? They used this name much before they had managed to politically hold sway over much of India, and before they educated us that no India existed before their arrival. Why would the Portuguese celebrate the discovery of a sea-route to India when Vasco de Gama had landed in Calicut in the south, if India was a creation of the British Empire?

The answer is obvious. Because the conception of India, a civilization based in the Indian sub-continent, predates the rise and fall of these empires. True, that large parts of India were under unified political rule only during certain periods of time (though these several hundreds of years are still enormous by the scale of existence of most other countries throughout the globe) such as under the Mauryas or the Mughals. But those facts serve to hide rather than reveal the truth till we understand the history of the rest of the world and realize the historic social, political and religious unity of this land. We are not merely a country; we are a civilizational country, among very few other countries on the planet.

Some Other Civilizational Countries

While we occupy the rarefied space of countries that have as much legitimacy and continuity as civilizations, it is worth examining a few others civilizations that have lasted. The country of Greece is one such country. However, Greece as a contemporary state was established in the 19th century, coughed up by the Ottoman Empire as it was breathing its last. Over the centuries, Greece has not existed as an independent political entity, having been absorbed by the Roman Empire and assimilated into the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. Ironically, the rise of contemporary Greek nationalism can be traced to the late 18th century, when Greek students studying in Europe came to realize that their civilization was actually highly regarded in western Europe. This resurgent pride about the ancient Greek civilization formed the basis of the movement to establish the modern Greek state even though there was no political continuity between the two entities.

If the continuity of political unification is the criteria that is used to define the legitimacy of a country, then Greece is far less legitimate than India, and other countries around the globe are even less so. The boundaries of the contemporary Greek state do not match with the original Greek Empire. Furthermore, even ancient Greece constituted of politically independent city-states, united more by the feeling that they belonged to the same culture, rather than having political unity. So clearly the measure of political unification, even when it did hold true for large parts of India over the ages, is not the relevant criteria, but the idea of a shared culture and civilization.

The only other continuous civilizations that come close to India as legitimate nations are nation-civilizations like Egypt, Iran and China. But Egypt, though old, having been assimilated in various empires and conquered first by Christianity and then by Islam, hardly retains much contact with its ancient traditions, languages or indigenous religion. Similarly Iran, the inheritor of the Persian empire which reached its peak in the 6th century BC, was assimilated into other empires and finally conquered by Islamic Arabs – it retains little of its Zoroastrian roots, though it retains its pre-Islamic language, albeit in Arab script. China is the other civilizational nation that can claim to have a legitimacy and continuity similar to India. However, for most of its history, Chinese civilization developed and concentrated in the Eastern plains. Consolidated rule, either political, social or religious/ideological over the entire vast area that present-day China occupies is relatively recent. Indian Buddhism obviously had a huge influence on China. Interestingly, despite communism and the Cultural Revolution, Chinese intellectuals have sought to link the roots of present day communist ideology with the teachings of Confucius.

So there we have it. India is one of the few nations of the world with a continuity of civilization and an ancient conception of nationhood. In its religious, civilizational, cultural and linguistic continuity, it truly stands alone. This continuity was fostered by its unique geography and its resilient religious traditions. Unlike any other country on the planet, it retained these traditions despite both Islamic and Christian conquest, when most countries lost theirs and were completely converted when losing to even one of these crusading systems. The Persians fell, the civilizations of Mesopotamia and Babylon were lost, the Celtic religion largely vanished, and the mighty Aztecs were vanquished, destroyed and completely Christianized. Yet Bharata stands. It stands in our stories, our languages, our pluralism and our unity. And as long as we remember these stories, keep our languages and worship the sacred land of our ancestors, Bharata will stand. It is only if we forget these truths that Bharata will cease to be. That is precisely why the British tried to hard to make us forget them.

Purva-paksha: the opposing side

Indian scholarly traditions often presented opposing viewpoints with the thesis. Here are some objections that may arise.

Objection #1


What you are calling the Indian civilization is actually the Sanskritic civilization of the Aryans who were invaders.

There are many theories about migrations of people into the Indian sub-continent. Some contend that a tribe of people called the Aryans migrated from somewhere in the Middle East or Central Asia. Others contend that no such migration took place and the Aryans were original inhabitants of the Sindhu (or Sindhu-Sarswati) region. Still others hold that `Aryan’ was never an ethnic term but the word `Arya’ in Sanskrit basically means a noble person.

In any case, practically all countries that exist today were settled by migrants. The Saxons, the Franks and the Visigoths were all migrants to western European countries such as present day England, France and Spain. North America was recently settled (or more accurately, usurped) by migrants. Even the Native Americans in North and South America are considered to have migrated from Asia 30,000 years ago. At some point in history, it may be that all people came from Africa. Clearly, using this criterion, all nations of today are illegitimate.

So the validity or lack thereof of a particular Aryan migration theory, even assuming such a migration ever actually took place, does not concern us. Suffice to say, that even those that subscribe to the theory of an invasion or migration place the date no later than 1500 BC. By contrast, the Saxon reached present-day England in only the 5th or 6th century AD, about 2000 years after the hypothetical Aryan migration — yet England is considered an Anglo-Saxon country and no one wastes a whole lot of energy arguing otherwise or creating political factions representing the `pre-Saxon’ people. That a hypothetical Aryan invasion 3500 years ago is still relevant to our politics shows the absurd divisions created in our minds by colonial theories, intended to keep us fighting amongst ourselves on artificial boundaries.

So, regardless of whether there were such a people as Aryans or whether they came from the outside, our interest is in the fact that the people who have inhabited India over the last 3000 or more years formed both a conception of Indian nationhood and a distinct civilizational continuity.

Our hymns sing glories of the Himalayas, not of the Caucuses. Our stories talk of the Vindhyachal not a mountain in the Central Asia. We sing of the Ganga and the Cauvery, not the Amu Darya. Thus for thousands of years the people who have lived in India have celebrated its sacred geography. Regardless of their origins in pre-history, our ancestral people made the land of India their home and wove stories around its features.

Objection #2


Isn’t India simply like all of Europe, sharing some common history and religious ideas but no more?

Parts of Europe came under the rule of the Roman Empire and later the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. None of these Empires held sway over all of what is the territory of Europe today. Rather, their areas of control were largely around the Mediterranean Sea – parts of southern Europe, northern Africa and the Middle East. There has also been some uniformity of religion in Europe imposed by the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. But, there has been no empire of Europe. Eastern, western and Scandinavian Europe have had substantially different histories and cultural, linguistic and ethnic origins.

There is a more significant difference. The land of India has been thought of and considered a sacred whole by the people of India in a way that is simply not true of Europe.

As the Shankracharya of Kanchi said recently, for thousands of years, Indians throughout the land have woken up in the morning and sang a hymn celebrating the holy rivers of Ganga, Yamuna, Narmada, Godavari, Sindu, Saraswati and Cauvery as part of nitya kriya, or daily worship.

gange ca yamune caiva, godAvari sarasvati
narmade sindho kAveri, jale’sminn sannidhiM kuru

Thus our hymns and religious stories not only share common themes, heroes and deities, they also uniquely link us to this particular land in a way Christian stories do not link to the land of Europe. There are no hymns that Europeans sang that spoke of the land from the Urals to Scandinavia or from the Arctic Ocean to the Mediterranean as one. No one sang devotional songs listing all the major rivers of Europe, east to west. The idea of Europe is like another continent, like Africa or Americas – with some shared geography and history but no historic conception of the integrated whole as a unity that was recognized among all the common people.

Thus there have been no religious stories of Europe linked to its particular boundaries and capturing the common fealty of the people, unlike the story of Shakti being dispersed over the land of India in peethams that millions of people visit, or the sage who set up mathas in the four quadrants of the land, or who wrote the Mahabharata, or who wrote of the land of Bharatvarshaand Aryavrata. So there is a unity to India, an Indian nationhood that is far greater than any shared similarities between Europe.

Objection #3


If the British hadn’t been here, wouldn’t we be a bunch of fighting kingdoms?

The British certainly contributed to the political re-unification of the land, just as the Mughals had done before that. But they re-unified politically an existing civilization entity. This entity had existed long before they came, had been politically re-united in the past and will exist long after they have gone.

The British experience is part of who we are today, so they certainly added to our civilization. But the British also divided and partitioned us, not only physically but also mentally. They also impoverished us and planted many seeds of divisive scholarship that cut us from our roots and our sense of nationhood.

There are many entities today who would see us become a bunch of fighting states, all the easier for political, religious and economic conquest. But a division of India is like cutting a human body. We are already bleeding from the cuts inflicted 50 years ago. Eternal vigilance is the price of our freedom. Telling our common stories, the core of our nationhood.

Objection #4


You are excluding Islamic contributions and Indian Muslims from your definition

This essay is about finding the historic roots of the Indian civilization and defining who we are as people and as a nation. We have had many migrants and invaders. While Islam has contributed to the Indian civilization, our roots are much older than when Prophet Mohammad first appeared in Arabia in the 6th century AD, so our civilization cannot be defined by Islam. Alexander the Greek came to our shores, so did the Kushans and Mongols and Persians and Turks. All of them added their contributions to our civilization as we did to theirs. The Mughal Empire helped in our political re-unification. But none of them define who we are.

We had the great Chinese civilization towards the north and the Persian civilization towards our west. Each of them influenced us as we influenced them. But because the Chinese came under Buddhist influence from India does not mean that they cease to be the Chinese civilization, an entity with a distinct cultural flavor and history from India.

Similarly, the Persians and the Turks came in many waves and contributed to Indian culture, even as we did to theirs. This does not mean that our civilization suddenly became Persian or Turkish. Some of these people settled in India, some of them brought a new religion called Islam and converted some of the existing people. All those who ultimately accept India as their homeland are accepted as Indians, for we have been a welcoming land. It would be a strange case indeed if conversion to Islam led people to deny the roots of their civilization. Do the Persians cease to be Persians, now that they are Muslims?

Islam does not define nationhood. If it did, the entire region from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan would be one country. Iran and Iraq would be one large Islamic country, rather than separate entities based on Persian and Babylonian civilizational roots. Indonesia and Malaysia would be one country.

Thus the civilizational roots of India belong to all Indians, Hindus, Muslims and Christians. Indonesian Muslims don’t trace their civilizational roots from Arabia, but from the Indonesian culture developed over the centuries. As Saeed Naqvi writes, the Ramayana ballet is performed in Indonesia by “150 namaz-saying Muslims under the shadow of Yog Jakarta’s magnificent temples for the past 27 years without a break” — Indonesians can apparently celebrate their civilizational roots without conflict of their being Muslims. There is no reason that Muslim Indians feel any differently unless led by the creation of fear or sustained demagoguery to believe otherwise.

Objection #5


Indian Muslims are Arabs, Persians and Turks, not originally Indian

Some Indian Muslims are descendents of Persian, Turks and others. Many more are descendents of people who have been in India for thousands of years. In the Indian Muslim caste system, the invaders were considered higher castes than the natives and tracing one’s `foreign’ status often yielded greater prestige, leading more people to identify themselves thus[3]. As late as the early 20th century, some Indian Muslims continued to identify themselves as `Hindu Mussalmans’ (as they might have been called) to census takers marking the civilizational, rather than religious (in a separative sense) meaning of the term Hindu[4].

In either case, it is somewhat irrelevant. Even the Persians and Turks who settled here in numbers came here far before America, for instance, existed as a country. The Indian civilization has assimilated many people into its bosom and there is no reason that the descendents of the Persians or Turks who migrated to India can be considered any less Indian as result.

Objection #6


You say that Islam is not the basis of nationhood, yet Pakistan is founded on the very premise. Your geographical conception of India includes present-day Pakistan and Bangladesh. Do you want to create an ‘Akhand Bharat’ and re-unite India by force?

Pakistan is an entity with no civilization basis. In an attempt to create one, Pakistani history textbooks teach that Pakistan was established by Babur as `Mughlistan'[5]. However, Babur was a Turk of Mongol descent and the majority of people that live in Pakistan today are certainly not descendents of Turks or Mongols nor is their civilisation Turkic. Pakistan’s crisis of identity emerges primarily from the rejection of their ancient civilizational roots in the name of `religion’. Till they can reconcile to their roots, they will remain a rootless nation, preserved per force by the state apparatus as long as it lasts.

The idea of Bharata certainly goes from Kashmir to Kanyakumari and from Sindh to Manipur. However, the idea of re-uniting Pakistan or Bangladesh to India is unviable at this point in history. The best one can hope for is that the people of Pakistan and Bangladesh themselves become aware at some point of their deep civilization roots that have been taken away from them in the name of religion.

Objection #7


India is not a `Hindu rashtra‘, you are trying to make India into a Hindu rashtra.

The interest of this essay is in establishing what is true, not in any political flavor of the day. In the multi-century big picture, particular political movements or systems of government will come and go, but the history of our civilizational roots still needs to be understood and articulated.

Our reading of history certainly does not support Hindu rashtra as a religious concept that means it is only for those people who are currently called `Hindus’ as a religious term. Classically, Hindu has been a civilizational, not a religious term, nor is it exclusive. `Hinduism’ is different from Abrahmic religion in this regard.

Surprising enough, even the article in Encarta on nationhood recognizes that:

“India is a nation in which the Hindu religion served as the cohesive traditional element in uniting peoples of various races, religions and languages.”

Has Encarta been saffronized? Or is it merely stating the obvious, albeit in a westernized framework? That there is no India without what has been called `Hinduism’. This by no mean implies that all the people have to `convert to a religion’ called Hinduism to be Indians. It also doesn’t imply that those who worship Allah or Christ as a religious idea are inherently lesser citizens or disloyal. Rather, it is simply recognition of the civilizational heritage that links us together as a nation.

In contemporary times, the civilizational term Hindu has been replaced by the term Indians. The roots of the Indian civilization, when the concept of the land of Bharata or Aryavrata was articulated and absorbed by the people of this land, are thousands of years old. Even though much of what constitutes these roots is now classified as `Hinduism’, which is unfortunate and limiting, the wide diversity of our civilizational beliefs and quest for knowledge and understanding cannot be confined to a religious dogma or belief system — it belongs to all Indians. Furthermore, pluralism is a basic principle of Hindu thought, which leaves plenty of room for other beliefs in the framework of mutual respect – as long as these beliefs are not directed at destroying the roots of the very civilization that holds them.

Certainly, those that are called `Jains’ today have stories that refer to Krishna, the `Sikh’ Guru Granth Sahib has hundreds of mentions of `Rama’ and many Muslims are quite happy to acknowledge their roots in the Indian civilization. Hundreds of Indian Muslim poets have celebrated their civilizational roots – Abdul Rahim Khan-e-khan wrote poems in praise of Rama, in Sanskrit; Justice Ismail of Chennai was the leading authority on Kamban Ramayana; Kazi Nazrul Islam wrote powerful revolutionary poetry in Bengali replete with references to Kali. In recent times, the script for the entire Mahabharta epic was written by Masoom Raza Rahi; and who can ignore the inspiration that our Gita-reading president Abdul Kalam from Rameswaram is providing to the nation.

Similarly, Indian Christians can be both Indian and Christian without denying their cultural roots. Says Fr Michael Rosario, who teaches Indology at St Pius: “As an Indian priest, Indian spirituality is my heritage and culture.” Fr Michael Gonsalves goes a step further: “We must substitute the Old Testament of the Bible with Indian history, scriptures and arts. For us, the Holy Land should be India; the sacred river the Ganges; the sacred mountain the Himalayas, the heroes of the past not Moses, or David, but Sri Ram or Krishna.”

All these people have had no trouble in reconciling their reverence to Allah or Jesus without denying the civilizational heritage that binds us together.

The converse of this is also true – that the way to break us apart is to systematically deny and denigrate our civilizational roots. This is exactly the tactic the British used.

Thus the evangelical Baptists preaching in the North East have over the last few decades told the Nagas that they don’t really belong with the Indian civilization – despite the fact that they have a place in our stories as far back as the Mahabharata, when Arjun goes on a pilgrimage to the holy places of the east and marries the Naga princess Uloopi. Similarly do Manipur, Tripura, Meghalaya, Assam and the other states in the North East.

The situation in Kashmir, spurred on by Pakistan, is a surviving artifact of the two-nation theory even while Kashmir has always been a significant part of the Indian story, its religion and philosophy. The Khalistani separatist movement is also the outcome of decades of colonial scholarship that continues till today to prove that Sikhs are completely different from the `caste-ridden’ Hindus and emphasizes the separateness rather than the common roots. While the Khalsa panth was clearly established as a separate path, the teachings of Guru Nanak can be placed very precisely in the Bhakti tradition while keeping to the idea of a Nirguna Brahma.Guru Granth Sahib is liberally saturated in the philosophical and religious streams of Indiandharma, yet contemporary scholars continuing the colonial tradition often fail to educate people about this. The root of all movements to break India are ultimately found in denying the religious and cultural unity of the Indian people – whether it be found in movements inspired by colonial scholarship, communism, pan-Islamism or evangelical Christianity.

Objection #8


I am not religious, but am a patriotic secular Indian. Why is all this relevant today? I am uncomfortable with the idea of religion defining our nation – we are a secular country.

The idea of being `religious’ is ultimately a western idea. In the Indian tradition, there were atheistic and materialistic schools of thought, like Charvaka, all of which get lumped under `Hinduism’. Obviously, if we take the Abrahmic idea of religion, atheistic religion is absurd – you can’t really be a ‘Christian atheist’ or a `Muslim atheist’ – not so long ago you would be hung for heresy. Hinduism is a colonial term for the rich banquet of the dharmic traditions that cannot be combined under the framework of religion. Indian civilization is a much broader concept than narrow restrictive dogmas that define religions.

A secular state is a system of government. We have embraced secularism precisely because of our long civilizational history of accepting plurality of thought and worship. This is how it must remain. However, secularism does not define nationhood in any way. There are plenty of secular states. What is unique about us is that we are Indians with a history of civilization rooted in our religious and cultural ideas. That is why we are a nation today, not because of secularism. If false notions of secularism prevent us from understanding the roots of our nationhood, we will all be the lesser for it.

But to get back to the question, nations are born, but are also made. If we fail to understand our common civilization, we will ultimately fall prey to those that seek to destroy us – by convincing us that we have none, that India is a British construction and so on. The effect of this will not only be a separation from the Indian state, but from the Indian tradition. To see the devastating effects of this, consider that we are still paying the price of our first partition based on accepting colonial ideas and still struggling with its wounds.

If India gets split up into different countries, we will all lose – there will be more wars, more armies, and all the lines we draw will be artificial and straight across our hearts.

Every child in America in a public school recites an oath of allegiance every morning in front of the American flag. They obviously take their nationhood seriously, even as they are a young nation. While we are old as a civilization, we are young as a country. Our education is based on colonial scholarship. Nationhood is ultimately a feeling of being one people. To strengthen this feeling and being resilient to divisive propaganda, we need to see that every child in India is educated about why we are a nation, lest we forget why we are together.

© Sankrant Sanu 2002-2010. All rights reserved.