Friday, January 27, 2006

KTWV 07 Issue 04: 75er Shashi Tharoor Speaks

With special permission from Shashi (via our common friend 75er Prof. Ajeet Mathur) I give below the 8700 word speech delivered by him at the beginning of the 125th year of St. Stephen's College.

Please visit Shashi's website to know more about this Stephanian who has done us all proud by his achievements in the international sphere.

I have taken the liberty to intersperse some photographs in the text. When doing so I found that my photographs from Stephania is not very briad. I am missing many important ones, such as photographs of Sukiya, David Baker, Amin-saheb, Ranjit Bhatia, Vinod Choudhary, amongst others.

Anyone who can fill my archives with photographs would receive eternal gratitude from the many hundreds of Stephanians who read this blog, plus me.

India: from Midnight to the Millennium and Beyond
The 125th Anniversary Jubilee Lecture
St. Stephen's College, Delhi
12 November 2005


Shashi Tharoor
By SHASHI THAROOR


Principal Anil Wilson, ladies and gentlemen, fellow Stephanians and friends:

Principal Anil Wilson, St. Stephen's College
Principal Anil Wilson, St. Stephen's College


It is, of course, customary for a speaker at such an occasion to say what an honour it is for him to be here, but on this occasion it really is an honour for me to be asked to deliver the Jubilee Lecture on the 125th Anniversary of St Stephen's College. When Principal Wilson wrote to me nearly a year ago to invite me to make this appearance, he was generous enough to say that of the various suggestions made by the Alumni Committee for possible Jubilee Lecturers, the one name that featured on everyone's list was mine. One of the last times I spoke from a Stephanian stage was to deliver a campaign speech for the Presidency of the College students' union, and I dare say that I am not used to my name attracting anything remotely like this kind of unanimity. So I am indeed truly honoured to be asked, and I can only hope that a comparable degree of unanimity will prevail after I have finished this lecture!

My topic today, as agreed with the organizers, is "India: from Midnight to the Millennium and Beyond".

India: from Midnight to the Millennium and Beyond

The title refers to one of my books, written on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Indian independence, in which I laid out my vision of the evolution of our country's politics, economics and society. Today, nine years after I finished writing that book, and five after the millennium which it anticipated, some of its themes strike me as appearing in even sharper relief today. At the same time, the occasion we are here to celebrate is a special one for us Stephanians, and it seems to me fitting that I explore my view of our country from the perspective that a Stephanian education has given me.

One caveat, however. It is a privilege for me to address you all today, both as a Stephanian and -- since you have mentioned it -- as a UN official. I should say, however, that I am speaking today entirely in the former capacity, that is as an Indian writer who graduated from this College, and not as a UN official. First of all, I am here on holiday. So I am not here to carry out any UN commissions while in Delhi, though alas the media here have done their best to make me forget that. I am often asked how I can reconcile my passionate faith in India with my internationalist work for the UN. I see no contradiction. Indeed I think both emerge from the same pluralist convictions. The Indian adventure is that of human beings of different ethnicities and religions, customs and costumes, languages and accents, working together under the same roof, sharing the same hopes, dreaming the same dreams. That is also exactly what the UN at its best seeks to achieve. But as an international civil servant speaking to you during a vacation, let me stress once again, especially for the benefit of any members of the Press who may be present here today, that I am doing so purely in a personal capacity.

So I stand before you today to interrogate, and celebrate, two ideas: the idea of India, to use Rabindranath Tagore's famous phrase, and the idea of Stephania. The two may have more in common than is easily recognized, especially across the road. Let's face it: to non-Stephanians, the very name "St Stephen's" conjures up three overlapping concepts, none of which is meant to be flattering -- elitism, Anglophilia and deracination. We may as well confront this stereotype head on before elaborating our theme.

St. Stephen's Church, Delhi
St. Stephen's Church, Delhi


Few in this audience would contest that there is a spirit that can be called Stephanian: after all, most of us spent three or five years living in and celebrating it. Stephania was both an ethos and a condition to which we aspired. Elitism was part of it, but by no means the whole. In any case Mission College's elitism was still elitism in an Indian context, albeit one shaped, like so many Indian insitutions, by a colonial legacy. There is no denying that the aim of the Cambridge Brotherhood in founding St Stephen's in 1881 was to produce more obedient subjects to serve Her Britannic Majesty; their idea of constructive missionary activity was to bring the intellectual and social atmosphere of Camside to the dry dustplains of Delhi. Improbably enough, they succeeded, and the resultant hybrid outlasted the Raj.

The St Stephen's I knew in the early 1970s was an institution whose students sustained a Shakespeare Society and a Criterion Club, and organized Union Debates on such subjects as "In the opinion of this House the opinion of this House does not matter". We staged plays and wrote poetry, ran India's only faculty-sanctioned Practical Joke Competition (in memory of P.G. Wodehouse's irrepressible Lord Ickenham), and invented the "Winter Festival" of collegiate cultural competition which was imitated at universities across the country. If that sounds deplorably effete, we invariably reached the annual inter-college cricket final, and turned up in large numbers to cheer the Stephanian cricketers on to their accustomed victory. (One of my few worthwhile innovations as President of the Union, aside from improving the mess food, was to supply throat lozenges free of charge to the more raucous of our cheerleaders at the cricket final. I am told this is one more Stephanian tradition that, along with our cricket team, has bitten the dust.) We maintained a careful distinction between the Junior Common Room and the Senior Combination Room, and allowed the world's only non-Cantabridgian "gyps" to serve our meals and make our beds. And if the punts never came to the Jamuna, the puns flowed on the pages of Kooler Talk and the cyclostyled Spice (whose typing mistakes were deliberate, and deliberately hilarious.)

Masthead of Kooler Talk, march 1961
Masthead of Kooler Talk, March 1961


This was the St Stephen's I knew, and none of us who lived and breathed the Stephanian air saw any alien affectation in it. For one thing, St Stephen's also embraced the Hindi movies at Kamla Nagar, the trips to Sukhiya's dhaba and the chowchow at TibMon (as the Tibetan Monastery was called); the nocturnal Informal Discussion Group saw articulate discussion of political issues, and the Social Service League actually went out and performed social service; and even for the "pseuds", the height of career aspiration was the IAS, not some firang multinational. The Stephanian could hardly be deracinated and still manage to bloom. It was against Indian targets that the Stephanian set his goals, and by Indian assumptions that he sought to attain them. (Feminists, please do not object to my pronouns: I only knew St Stephen's before its co- edification.)

At the same time St Stephen's was, astonishingly for a college in Delhi, insulated to a remarkable extent from the prejudices of middle-class Indian life. It mattered little where you were from, which Indian language you spoke at home, what version of religious faith you espoused. When I joined College in 1972 from Calcutta, the son of a Keralite newspaper executive, I did not have to worry about fitting in: we were all minorities at St Stephen's, and all part of one eclectic polychrome culture. Five of the preceding ten Union Presidents had been non-Delhiite non-Hindus (four Muslims and a Christian), and they had all been fairly elected against candidates from the "majority" community. But at St Stephen's religion and region were not the distinctions that mattered: what counted was whether you were "in residence" or a "dayski" (day-scholar), a "science type" or a "DramSoc type", a sportsman or a univ topper (or best of all, both). Caste and creed were no bar, but these other categories determined your share of the Stephanian experience.

This blurring of conventional distinctions was a crucial element of Stephania. "Sparing" with the more congenial of your comrades in residence -- though it could leave you with a near-fatal faith in coffee, conversation and crosswords as ends in themselves -- was manifestly more important than attending classes. And in any case, you learned as much from approachable faculty members like David Baker, Mohammed Amin, Ranjit Bhatia, Vinod Choudhury and others too numerous to mention who have done me the great honour of being present here today -- outside the classroom as inside it. It was at one of Amin-Sahib's Mediaeval History lectures that he memorably translated the words inscribed above the stage in the College Hall “Jesus said, ‘I am the Light of the World,’ as ‘Jesus ne kahan, main Noor Jehan hoon.’ “ Being ragged outside the back gate of Miranda House, having a late coffee in your block tutor's room, hearing outrageous (and largely apocryphal) tales about recent Stephanians who were no longer around to contradict them, seeing your name punned with in KT, were all integral parts of the Stephanian culture, and of the ways in which this culture was transmitted to each successive batch of Stephanians.

Three years is, of course, a small -- and decreasing -- proportion of my life, but my three years at St Stephen's marked me for all the years to follow. Partly this was because I joined College a few months after my sixteenth birthday and left it a few months after my nineteenth, so that I was at St Stephen's at an age when any experience would have had a lasting effect. But equally vital was the institution itself, its atmosphere and history, its student body and teaching staff, its sense of itself and how that sense was communicated to each individual character in the Stephanian story. Too many Indian colleges are places for lectures, rote- learning, memorizing, regurgitation; St Stephen's encouraged random reading, individual note-taking, personal tutorials, extra-curricular development. Elsewhere you learned to answer the questions, at College to question the answers. Some of us went further, and questioned the questions.

Nehru and Gandhi
Nehru and Gandhi


So this is an ethos whose 125th anniversary is well worth celebrating. But it is in India that Stephania has flourished, and it is fair to examine the ethos of India as well. A little over 58 years ago, when Stephania itself was 66 years old, at midnight on August 15th 1947, Independent India was born as our first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, proclaimed that phrase that we have all learned and heard at school, “a tryst with destiny”. "A moment, which comes but rarely in history, when we pass from the old to the new, when an age ends and when the soul of a nation long suppressed, finds utterance." With those famous words he launched India on a remarkable experiment with governance. Remarkable in some ways because it was happening at all. “ India”, Winston Churchill had once barked, “is merely a geographical expression.”"It is no more a single country”, he said, “than the equator.”

Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill


Well, Churchill was rarely right about India, but it is true that no other country in the world embraces the extraordinary mixture of ethnic groups, the profusion of mutually incomprehensible languages, the varieties of topography and climate, the diversity of religion and practices, and the range of levels of economic development that India does.

And yet India is more than the sum of its contradictions. It is a country, if I can quote Nehru again, “held together by strong but invisible threads.” “She is a myth and an idea” Nehru wrote -- he always feminized India -- “she is a dream and a vision, and yet very real and present and pervasive.”

Well, how can one approach this pluralist land of snow peaks and tropical jungles, with 18 major languages on our rupee notes and 22 thousand distinct dialects (and some of these dialects are spoken by more people than speak intenrationally-recognized languages like Danish or Norwegian), inhabited now, in the sixth year of the 21st century, by over a billion individuals of every ethnic extraction known to humanity? How does one come to terms with a country, in whose population 40% are still illiterate, but which has educated the world's second largest pool of trained scientists and engineers? A country whose teeming cities overflow while two out of three Indians scratch a living from the soil? What is the clue to understanding a country rife with despair and disrepair, which nonetheless moved a Moghal emperor to proclaim “If on earth there be paradise of bliss, it is this, it is this, it is this.” How does one gauge a nation which elevated non-violence to a moral principle, but whose freedom was born in blood and whose independence still soaks in it? How does one explain a land where peasant organizations and officials have attempted to close down Kentucky Fried Chicken as a threat to the nation; where a former Prime Minister bitterly criticizes the sale of Pepsi Cola in a country where villagers don’t have access to clean drinking water, and which yet invents a greater quantity of sophisticated software for US computer manufacturers than any other country in the world? How can one determine the identity of an ageless civilization that was the birthplace of 4 major religions, a dozen different traditions of classical dance, 85 major political parties and 300 ways of cooking the potato?

The short answer is that it can't be done. At least not to everyone’s satisfaction. Any truism about India can be immediately contradicted by another truism about India. It is often jokingly said, anything you can say about India, the opposite is also true. Our country's national motto emblazoned on the governmental crest is “satyameva jayate” -- truth alone triumphs. The question remains however, whose truth? It is a question to which there are at least a billion answers, if the last census hasn’t undercounted us again.

But that sort of answer is no answer at all. And so I think we will have to look at another answer, and this may lie in a simple insight. As I have written in "India: From Midnight to the Millenium", “the singular thing about India is that you can only speak of it in the plural.” There are many Indias. Everything exists in countless variants. There is no single standard, no fixed stereotype, no one way of doing things. This pluralism is acknowledged in the way India arranges its own affairs. All groups, faiths, ideologies, survive and contend for their place in the sun. At a time when most developing counties opted for authoritarian modes of government to promote nation building and direct development, India chose to be a multi-party democracy. And despite many stresses and strains, including 22 months of authoritarian rule during the state of emergency declared by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1975, a multi- party democracy -- freewheeling, corrupt, and ineffective perhaps, but nonetheless flourishing, India has remained.

Now one result of this is, India strikes many as maddening, chaotic and inefficient as it muddles its way through the first decade of the 21st century. Another though, is that India not just a country, it is an adventure, one where all avenues are open and everything is possible.

E. P. Thompson, British historian
E. P. Thompson,
British historian


The British historian E.P Thompson wrote that “India is perhaps the most important country for the future of the world. All the convergent influences of the world” Thompson wrote, “run through this society.” “There is not a thought in the world in the East or the West, that is not active in some Indian mind.” (I am glad a Brit wrote that and not an Indian).

This Indian mind has been shaped by remarkably diverse sources. Ancient Hindu myth, scripture, tradition, the impact of Islam and Christianity, and 2 centuries of British colonial rule...the result is unique. Many observers have been astonished by India’s survival as a pluralistic state. But India could hardly have survived as anything else. Pluralism is a reality that emerges from the very nature of the country. It is a choice made inevitable by India=s geography and reaffirmed by its history.

Now one of the few generalizations that can be safely made about this pluralistic land is indeed that you cannot generalize about India. Nothing can be taken for granted about this country. Not even its name...for the word India comes from the river Indus, which flows in Pakistan. Now that anomaly is easily explained, as we all know how the name came before partition. But each explanation breeds another anomaly. Pakistan was created as a homeland for India’s Muslims, but there are more Muslims in India than there are in Pakistan.

Now in “India: From Midnight to the Millenium”, to which the title of this lecture refers, I tried to see India as a country standing on the cusp of four of the more important debates facing the world at the beginning of the 21st century:

The Bread vs. Freedom debate -- whether democracy can deliver the goods in a country like ours.
The Centralization vs. Federalism debate -- does every question asked in Dharwar have to be answered in Delhi?
The Coca Colonization debate -- globalization vs. the mantra of self- reliance that has been chanted since independence.

And then the Pluralism vs. Fundamentalism debate. A debate I never thought I would see raising its ugly head in our country, but which did arise in the mid 80’s in a way that those of us who grew up in India in the mid 60’s and attended St Stephen's in the 1970s would not have thought possible. It arose asking the question -- should India, like so many other developing countries, and indeed like all our neighbors, disown the secularism it inherited from the national movement and instead find refuge in the assertion of a homegrown religious identity?

Now these are not merely academic debates. They are now being enacted upon the national and world stage, and the choices that we make will determine the kind of India our children will inherit in the 21st century. And since the century has begun with Indians accounting for a 6th of the world=s population, our choices will resonate throughout the globe.

On that midnight 58 years ago, the British Empire in India came to an end admidst the trauma of partition of India with Pakistan, and the sectarian violence that accompanied it. In these last five and a half decades of independence many thoughtful observers have seen the country more conscious than ever of what divides it -- politics, religion, caste, language, ethnicity. What makes India, then, a nation?

Massimo Taparelli D'Azeglio
Italian nationalist,
Massimo Taparelli D'Azeglio


To answer that question I am going to take an Italian example. No, not “that” Italian example! It is an example from the 19th century, because when the Italian nation was created in the second half of the 19th century out of a mosaic of principalities and statelets, one Italian nationalist [Massimo Taparelli d'Azeglio] wrote “We have created Italy. Now all we need to do is to create Italians.”

What is striking about that example is that no Indian nationalist succumbed to the temptation to express a similar thought. Nehru never said “we have created India, now we have to create Indians.” Because our nationalist leaders, Nehru above all, believed in the existence of India and Indians for millennia before they gave words to their longings, before they articulated the political aspirations of Indians in the 20th century.

Nonetheless the India that was born in 1947 was in a very real sense a new creation. A state that made fellow citizens of the Ladakhi and the Laccadivian for the first time. A state that divided Punjabi from Punjabi for the first time. A state that asked a Keralite peasant to feel allegiance to a Kashmiri Pundit ruling in Delhi also for the first time. Nehru would not have written about the challenge of creating Indians, but creating Indians was in fact what the national movement did.

HD Deva Gowda
Former Prime Minister,
HD Deva Gowda


Let me give you a local example of what this actually means. When we celebrated the 49th anniversary of our independence, nine years ago, our then Prime Minister, H. D. Deve Gowda, stood on the ramparts of the Red Fort and delivered the traditional Independence Day address to the nation in Hindi, India=s national language. Eight other Prime Ministers had done exactly the same thing 48 times before him. What was unusual was that this time Deve Gowda, a son of Karnataka, spoke to the country in a language of which he did not know a word. Tradition and politics required a speech in Hindi, and so he gave one. But the words had been written out for him in his Kannada script, in which of course they made no sense.

K. J. Yesudas
K. J. Yesudas,
Carnatic music singer


Now I mention this simply because such an episode is inconceivable anywhere else in the world. But it represents the best of the oddities that make India, India. Only in India could we have a country ruled by a man who does not understand the national language. Only in India for that matter is there a national language which half the population does not speak. And only in India could this particular solution have been found to enable the Prime Minister to address his people. One of India’s finest playback singers, the Keralite K. J. Yesudas, sang his way to the top of the Hindi film music charts with lyrics in that language written for him in the Malayalam script for him to sing. But to see the same practice elevated to the Prime Ministerial address on Independence Day was a startling affirmation of Indian pluralism.

For you see, as Stephanians instinctively understand, we are all minorities in India. A typical Indian stepping off the train, let us say a Hindi-speaking Hindu male from Uttar Pradesh, may cherish the illusion he represents the majority community, an expression much favored by the less industrious of our journalists. But he does not. As a Hindu, sure enough, he belongs to the faith adhered to by 82% of the population. But a majority of the country does not speak Hindi. A majority does not hail from Uttar Pradesh, though you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise when you go there. And, if he were visiting, say, my home state of Kerala, he would be surprised to realize a majority there is not even male.

Worse, this archetypal Hindu male has only to mingle with the polyglot, multi coloured crowds -- I am not referring to the colours of their clothes but to the colours of their skins -- thronging any of India=s major railway stations to realize how much of a minority he really is. Even his Hinduism is no guarantee of his majorityhood, because his caste automatically puts him in a minority. If he is a Brahmin, 90% of his fellow Indians are not. If he is a Yadav, or another “backward class”, 85% of his fellow Indians are not. And so on.

Or take language. The constitution of India recognizes 18 today. But, in fact there are 35 Indian languages spoken by more that one million people each. And these are languages, with their own scripts, grammatical structures, and cultural assumptions, not just dialects. And as I mentioned, if you count dialects you get to 22 thousand. Now each of the native speakers of these languages is in a linguistic minority, because no language enjoys true majority status in India. Thanks in part to the popularity of Bollywood cinema, Hindi is understood, though not very well spoken, pretty much across the country. But, it is in no sense the language of the majority, because its gender rules, grammatical conventions and even its script are unfamiliar to most Indians in the South or in the North East.

Or take ethnicity. Ethnicity further complicates the notion of a majority community. Most of the time, as we all know, an Indian’s name immediately reveals where he is from or what her mother tongue is. When we introduce ourselves, we are advertising our origins. Despite some intermarriages at the elite levels in our cities, Indians are still largely endogamous, and a Bengali is easily distinguished from a Punjabi. Now the difference this reflects is often more apparent than the elements of commonality. A Karnataka Brahmin shares his Hindu faith with a Bihari Kurmi, but they share little identity with each other in respect of their dress, customs, appearance, taste, language or even, these days, their political objectives. Now at the same time, a Tamil Hindu would feel he has much more in common with a Tamil Christian or a Tamil Muslim than with, say, a Haryanvi Jat than with whom he formally shares the Hindu religion.

Now, why do I harp on these differences? Not to stress division, but only to make the point that Indian nationalism is a rare animal indeed. Seeing so many distinguished scholars here reminds me of a story of two professors of law, probably at the Law Faculty of this university, arguing about a problem. One professor says “you know how we can solve this? We can do this and this and this and we can solve it.” And the other professor says “yes, yes, yes, that will work in practice -- but will it work in theory?”

And you know this is precisely the issue of Indian nationalism. It has worked very well in practice, but it doesn’t work too well in theory. It is not based on any of the classical political science theories of nationalism that apply elsewhere, for example to the nation-states of Europe. It is not based on language, for the reasons I have already given you. It is not based on geography, for the natural geography of the subcontinent (framed by the mountains and the seas) was hacked in the partition of 1947. It is not based on ethnicity, because we all accommodate a variety of racial types, and ethnically some Indians have more in common with foreigners than with other Indians (Punjabis and Bengalis, for example, have more in common ethnically with Pakistanis and Bangladeshis respectively, than with Poonawallahs or Bangaloreans). And it is not based on religion, because we are home to every faith known to mankind, with the possible exception of Shintoism. Hinduism, which is after all a faith with no national organization -- no established church or ecclesiastical hierarchy, no Hindu Pope -- exemplifies as much our diversity as it does our common cultural heritage.

So what does that leave us with? It leaves us with the rather Stephanian notion of Indian nationalism as the nationalism of an idea -- the idea of what one might call an ever-ever land. Emerging from an ancient civilization, united by a shared history and sustained by a pluralistic diversity. In our democracy, this land imposes no narrow conformities on its citizens. The whole point of Indian pluralism is you can be many things and one thing. You can be a good Muslim, a good Keralite and a good Indian all at once -- and a good Stephanian too, while you are about it. It is the opposite of what Freudians call “the narcissism of minor differences.” For example, in Yugoslavia, we saw during the horrendous civil war there, people with so much in common -- in fact all descended from the same Slavic tribes that populated the Balkans during the 7th and 8th centuries -- often bearing the same surnames and similar appearance, harping on the minor differences between them in order to justify their hatred and killing of each other. So, while in Yugoslavia we had this narcissism of minor differences, in India we celebrate the commonality of major differences. To stand Michael Ignatieff's phrase on its head, we are a land of belonging rather than of blood.

Two of India's Nobel Prize Winners, Rabindranath Tagore and Amartya Sen
Two of India's Nobel Prize Winners,
Rabindranath Tagore and Amartya Sen


So the idea of India, as Tagore and more recently Amartya Sen have insisted, is of one land embracing many. It is the idea that a nation may endure differences of caste, creed, colour, conviction, culture, cuisine, costume and custom, and still rally around a consensus. And that consensus is really around the simple idea that in a democracy you don=t really need to agree -- except on the ground rules of how you will disagree.

The reason why India has survived all the stresses and strains that have beset it for 58 years -- and that led so many journalists and political scientists of the west in the 1950=s to predict the imminent disintegration of the country -- the reason why it didn=t happen, the reason why we survived, is because India maintained a consensus on how to manage without consensus.

Now, I realize some of you will see this as an excessively rosy picture, and I will deal with their cynicism in a moment. But first I must acknowledge that India offers plenty of scope for misunderstanding. Having traveled here from America, I have to share with you -- I think the afternoon is sufficiently advanced to do this -- my favorite story of international misunderstanding.

It’s a story of this American agricultural expert, sent here before the Green Revolution to advise on Indian farming. He goes and visits an Indian farm in Punjab, and is welcomed by the very gregarious and hospitable Sikh farmer. The farm, thanks to all our land reforms and population pressures, is about the size of these Allnutt Lawns. And the farmer says very proudly “welcome to my farm.” And he says “you see this national highway?” and the American looks and sees a dirt road, “my land goes all the way upto there.” And he says “you see that irrigation canal?” And the American looks and sees a trickle of water, and the Indian says “my land goes upto there.” He is very proud of the farm he has. And then he asks the American “And what about you?” The American is actually a farmer from Kansas or some place where the wheatfields stretch on for miles on end, and so he sort of clears his throat and says “Well, early in the morning I get into my tractor and drive 4 hours south to the southern boundary of my land. And I drive another 3 hours to the western boundary of my land. And then I have a sandwich and drive 2- and-a-half hours north in my tractor to the northern boundary of my land. And at sundown I travel another 2 hours south to the ranch house.” So the Sikh farmer nods very sympathetically, and says “I know, I know, I too used to have a tractor like that.”

The point is: what you understand depends on what your assumptions are.

But having been frivolous for a minute, let me turn again to the confession that not all Indians agree with the vision of India I have presented this afternoon. There are many who would like to see this land become a Hindu rashtra, a land for and of the Hindus. They have made recent gains in elections in the politics of the street. Secularism is established in India’s constitution, but they ask why shouldn’t India, like so many of its neighbors, assert its own religious identity? Why shouldn't this be a country of the Hindu majority? And we have all seen many manifestations of this view, including most notably, the horrors that have cost more than two thousand lives in Gujarat three years ago.

If I may turn a bit personal here. I have twin sons. And though they first entered the world in Singapore and though the circumstances of my life have seen them grow up in Switzerland and then the US, it is India they have always identified with. Ask them what they are and that’s what they will tell you: they are Indians. Not Hindus, not Malayalis, not Calcuttans, though they could claim all these labels too. In fact their mother is half Kashmiri, half Bengali, which gives them further permutative possibilities. They desire none. They are just Indians. A rather Stephanian answer perhaps!

And yet in recent years they have come to see an India in which that answer no longer seems enough. Political contention has so often erupted in violence. We know of the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992 by howling, chanting mobs of Hindu fanatics. We have seen headlines speaking of riots and killings between Hindus and Muslims, of men being slaughtered because of a mark on the forehead, or the absence of a foreskin. Nuns have been assaulted, a missionary family burned alive. This is not the India I had hoped my sons would identify with.

My generation grew up in an India where our sense of nationhood lay in that cliched slogan “unity in diversity.” We were brought up to take pluralism for granted, and to reject the communalism that had partitioned the nation when the British left. In rejecting the case for Partition, Indian nationalism also rejected the idea that religion should be a determinant of nationhood. To accept the idea of India you had to spurn the very logic that had divided the country.

And that is what that much abused and perhaps inaccurate term secularism meant for us. In the west, secularism is defined as the absence of, or the prohibiton of, religion. But Indian secularism has really meant a profusion of religions, none of which was privileged by the state. Secularism in India cannot mean irreligiousness, because religion is far too deeply rooted in all the communities of this country. Even avowedly atheist parties like the DMK, and the communist parties, have found their atheism is unpopular. In fact I came to St Stephen's from high school in Calcutta, and during the Pujas there the youth wings of the communist parties compete with each other to put up the most lavish pandals for the goddess Durga. This is communist atheism today.

So rather than speak of secularism, let us instead speak of pluralism. Let us speak of multi-religiousness, which to me means again going back to the Calcutta neighborhood where I lived in my high school years just before I came to St Stephen's. The wail of the muezzin calling the Muslim faithful to prayer would blend with the chants of the mantras and the tinkle of bells at the Hindu Shiva temple, and the crackling loudspeakers outside the Sikh Gurudwara reciting verses from the Guru Granth Sahib. And St Paul's Cathedral was just around the corner.


Air Chief Marshal I H Latif, General (Field Marshal) Sam Manekshaw, Lt Gen Jagjit Singh Aurora, Maj. General Jack Frederick Ralph Jacob


Throughout the decades after independence, the political culture of the country has always reflected the so called secular assumptions and attitudes. Though partition had occurred, though what was left was a country which was 82% Hindu, 3 of India’s President’s have been Muslims. So were innumerable governors, cabinet ministers, chief ministers, ambassadors, generals, supreme court justices and chief justices. In fact it is interesting that during the war with Pakistan the Indian airforce in the northern sector was commanded by a Muslim [Air Marshal Lateef], the army commander was a Parsi [General Manekshaw], the general commanding the forces that marched into Bangladesh was a Sikh [General Aurora], and the general who was helicoptered in to Dhaka to negotiate the terms of surrender was a Jewish [Major-General Jacob]. That is India.

That is the Indian pluralism that makes sense to Stephanians. And the irony of all this is that India’s secular coexistence was made possible paradoxically because the overwhelming majority of Indians are Hindus.

It is odd to hear people speak of Hindu fundamentalism, because in my view, Hinduism is a religion without fundamentals. We have no organized church, there is no pope, no compulsory beliefs or rites of worship. Even the name “Hindu” suggests something more and something less than a set of theological beliefs. Because in many languages, in French and Persian today, the name for Indian is Hindu. It simply means the people beyond the river Sindhu. And the word Hindu did not exist in any of the Indian languages until its use by foreigners gave Indians a term for self-definition.

So “Hindu” is merely a name others applied for the indigenous religious practices of India. But none of these practices is obligatory for a Hindu. We have no compulsory dogmas. In our faith we are free from the dogmas of holy writ. Hinduism is a faith that has refused to be shackled by the limitations of any single holy book -- that has so many holy books, and so many ways of reaching out to the divine.

And as a Hindu I belong to one of the very few religions that does not claim to be the only true religion. I find it immensely congenial to face my fellow beings of other faiths without being burdened by the conviction I am embarked on the only true path they have somehow missed.

Hinduism asserts all ways of worship are equally valid. And Hindus readily venerate the saints of other faiths. Hinduism is a civilization, not a dogma. There is no such thing as a Hindu heresy.

How then can such a religion be captured by the fanatics? How then can anyone presume to reduce the soaring majesty of this faith into some narrow bigoted definition of what Hindutva is all about? That devotees of this essentially tolerant and pluralistic faith assaulted Muslims in its name -- and worse, that people claiming to be acting for Hindus have perpetrated the horrors of Gujarat -- that is a source of sorrow and shame to most believing Hindus.

India has survived the Aryans, the Moghals, the British. It has taken from each -- language, art, music, learning -- and grown with all of them. To be Indian is to be part of an elusive dream that we all share. A dream that fills our minds with sounds, flavors, words, from many sources that we cannot easily identify. The Hinduism I know understands faith is a matter of heart and minds, not of bricks and stone. >Build Ram in your heart= the Hindu is told, and if Ram is in your heart it little matters where else he is or is not.

It is our post-independence politics of deprivation that has eroded the culture's confidence. Hindu chauvinism has emerged from the competition for resources in a contentious democracy. Politicians all over India are trying to mobilize voters by appealing to narrow identities. By seeking votes on the basis of caste, region, religion, they have urged voters to define themselves on these lines. And as this has happened it has become more important for some to assert their identities as a Brahmin, as a Bodo, as a Yadav rather than as an Indian.

That is why the development of Hindu fundamentalism is so dangerous. The suggestion that only a Hindu, and that too a certain kind of Hindu, can be an authentic Indian is an affront to Indian nationalism. An India that denies itself to some, can end up being denied to all of us.

The Gujarat riots of 2002 remain a searing blot on the country’s conscience. The Hindu zealots who torched Muslim homes and businesses, and killed and raped innocents, are not yet behind bars, and some talk defiantly of reviving their cause. As the courts deliberate on a solution to the Ayodhya dispute, the cycle of violence goes on, spawning new hostages to history, ensuring that future generations will be taught new wrongs to set right. We live, Octavio Paz once wrote, between oblivion and memory. Memory and oblivion: how one leads to the other, and back again, has been the concern of much of my fiction. As I pointed out in the last words of my novel Riot, history is not a web woven with innocent hands.

And the reduction of non-Hindus into second class status in their own homeland is unthinkable. It would be a second partition -- this time of the soul, which will be far worse than the partition which has already occurred on the soil.

I spoke of my sons and their sense of Indianness. For them, the only possible idea of India is that of a nation greater than the sum of its parts. That is the only India that will allow them to call themselves Indians.

I have come to Delhi from a country which calls itself a melting pot. I like to tell Americans “If you are a melting pot, to me India is a thali.” It’s a selection of sumptuous dishes in different bowls. Each bowl tastes different. It does not necessarily mix with the next bowl. But, they all belong on the same steel plate, and they combine on your palate to make the meal a satisfying repast.

That to me is the pluralist India of which St Stephen’s is such a satisfying embodiment. India’s founding fathers wrote a constitution for their dreams. We have given passports to their ideals. Any narrower definition of Indianness will be an insult to Indian nationhood. An India that denies itself to some will not be the India that Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru fought to free.

I have already transgressed on the time available to me this evening. We are all like Egyptian mummies, pressed for time! But I do want to say I have great hope for the survival and success of Indian pluralism. I believe no one identity can triumph in India. Both our country’s diversity and the logic of the electoral marketplace make this impossible. And the sight last year, after the awe-inspiring experience of the world's largest exercise in democratic elections, of a Roman Catholic political leader, Sonia Gandhi, making way for a Sikh, Manmohan Singh, to be sworn in by a Muslim, President Abdul Kalam, as Prime Minister of India, has affirmed, as nothing else could have, the shining example of Indian pluralism.

In leading coalitions, all our political parties have learned that any party wishing to rule India will have to reach out to other groups, interests, minorities. There are too many diversities in our land for any one version of reality to be imposed on all of us.

Democracy is vital for India's future. There is no better way to cope with our pluralism than democracy. What is encouraging is that in India democracy is not an elite preoccupation. In the US, in the last presidential elections, the turnout of voters in a poor district like Harlem was 23%; politics in America is the preserve of the middle and upper- middle classes, as well as the very rich. Whereas in India it is not the privileged who spend 3 to 4 hours queuing up in the hot sun to vote. Their political participation is lower than the poor, who make the effort to exercise their suffrage, because they know their votes make a difference.

Biography of Nehru
Biography of Nehru by Shashi Tharoor


The faith of the poor is a merited reward for the democratic convictions of India’s founding fathers, especially Jawaharlal Nehru. When I wrote my biography of Nehru, I was struck by how deep his faith in democracy ran. At the peak of his political rise, just after leading the Congress to triumph in the 1937 elections, Nehru wrote an anonymous article attacking himself. He warned that Jawaharlal Nehru enjoyed the adulation of the masses rather too much and must be checked: “India wants no Caesars”. It was a telling piece, because Nehru was reminding himself, as much as the nation, that institutions were more important than individuals. When he came to power in 1947 Nehru had every excuse available to him to justify dispensing with democracy: the horrors of Partition and the communal violence that accompanied it, mass displacement of refugees, the chronic poverty of the people. With the deaths of Gandhi and Patel there was no credible challenger to his political authority; by the early 1950s he was being referred to as the “uncrowned king” of India, and the adjective “uncrowned” was remedied by a middle-aged lady who stepped up from the throng at a Congress session in 1955 and placed a golden crown on Nehru's balding pate. Nehru's reaction was typical: he promptly took the crown off and had it auctioned off for party funds. For all his power, he went out of his way to show deference to the Presidency, to subject himself to inquisition by Parliament, and to respect the independence of the judiciary (on one occasion when he made a disparaging remark about a judge, he wrote instantly to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, apologizing abjectly). His habit when crossed was not to impose himself, but to offer to resign: he usually got his way, but it was hardly the hallmark of a dictator. It is striking that our country's one experiment with autocracy, the Emergency, ended not in bloodshed but with the Prime Minister calling free and fair elections and losing them comprehensively.

In my view the experiment that began 58 years ago has worked. Though there have been caste conflicts, linguistic clashes, communal riots and threats to the nation from separatist groups, political democracy has helped to defuse each of these. Separatist movements in places as far-flung as Tamil Nadu and Mizoram have been defused in an unsung achievement of Indian democracy. The formula is simple: Yesterday’s secessionists become today’s chief ministers, and (thanks to the vagaries of politics) tomorrow's leaders of the opposition.

Even the explosive potential of caste division has been channelled through the ballot box. The power of electoral numbers has given real power to people who used to be the lowest of the low. Who could have imagined, for 3000 years, that a dalit woman would become chief minister of India=s most populous state? Yet Mayawati has done so, not once but twice. This week we are mourning the passing of a man who, for five years recently, held the highest office in the land. K.R Narayanan was not only a Dalit but a man born in a thatched hut with no running water, whose university refused to award him his degree at the same ceremony as his upper caste class mates. As President he led an India whose injustices he had keenly felt, but an India which offered, through its brave but flawed experiment in political democracy and affirmative action, the real prospect of change through the ballot box. His successor is as worthy a symbol of the aspirations of the Indian state: a Muslim who sold newspapers as a boy to make ends meet, and went on to become the father of the country's missile programme.

These are the aspects of India that I believe have taken our country to the millennium and beyond. I have spoken of the fear that people are focussing on narrower identities, and taking pride in being a Bodo or Yadav rather than being Indian. What they forget is they can only feel secure in these smaller identities because they also have the larger identity of being Indian. Perhaps it is time for us all to say, as Stephanians might -- “Garv se kahon ki hum Indian hain.”

In my annual visits home I find India is anything but that unchanging land of cliché. There is an extraordinary amount of change, and I don’t just mean the visible prosperity I have seen in Delhi, a glittering new city of flyovers and fast-food counters, shopping malls and suburban arcades. There are dramatic changes taking place beneath the billboards that amount to little short of a revolution -- in politics, economics, society and culture. In politics, we have gone from single party governance to a coalition era. In economics we have gone from protectionism to liberalization, even if is with the hesitancy of governments looking over their electoral shoulders. In caste and social relations, we have witnessed the convulsive changes I have just mentioned. And in a sense in cultural affairs, with the notion of Hindutva being proclaimed, and argued and debated from the rooftops and in the streets in recent years, we have had a profound re- examination of our national identity. Now, any of these transformations could have been enough to throw another country into a turbulent revolution. But we have had all four in India and yet we have absorbed them, and made all the changes work, because the Indian revolution is a democratic one, sustained by a larger idea of India, an India which safeguards the common space available to each identity, an India that remains safe for diversity.

Standing here on the 125th birthday of St Stephen's, I remember the values this college taught me, in the classroom and outside it. I ask you to join me in celebrating the secularism, the pan-Indian outlook, the well-rounded education, the eclectic social interests, the questioning spirit and the meritocratic culture that are the vital ingredients of the Stephanian ethos. These are what Stephania contributes to the idea of India I have described.

For many foreign observers, weary of the clamour of ethnic division and religious self-assertion, there is something to think about in this idea of India I have shared with you. It is a deceptively simple idea, of a land where it doesn’t matter what the colour of your skin is, the sounds you make when you speak, the kind of food you eat, the God you choose to worship (or not), so long as you want to play by the same rules as everybody else. If the majority of a population share the will for unity, if they wear the dust of a shared history on their foreheads and the mud of an uncertain future on their feet, and if they realize they are better off in Kozhikode or Kanpur dreaming the same dreams as those in Kohlapur or Kohima, a nation exists, celebrating diversity, pluralism -- and freedom. That is our India, and it is well worth defending.

So that is why India can face the new millennium with confidence. I have been accused of being an optimist. But I define optimism as regarding the future with uncertainty. Pessimists always say things will go wrong. An optimist believes things just may go right. I believe I have given you a few reasons today why things may indeed go right for India.

Riot by Shashi Tharoor
Riot by Shashi Tharoor



Let me end with an old story which In have used in my novel “Riot”. When we speak of pluralism, we are not speaking of something that came to us from the west. We are speaking of a reality entrenched in our traditions. So let me tell you a story from our Puranas.

It is an old Indian story about Truth. It seems that in ancient times a brash young warrior sought the hand of a beautiful princess. The king, her father, thought the warrior was a bit too cocksure and callow; he told him he could only marry the princess once he had found Truth. So the young warrior set out on a quest for Truth. He went to temples and to monasteries, to mountaintops where sages meditated and to forests where ascetics scourged themselves, but nowhere could he find Truth. Despairing one day and seeking refuge from a thunderstorm, he found himself in a dank, musty cave. There, in the darkness, was an old hag, with warts on her face and matted hair, her skin hanging in folds from her bony limbs, her teeth broken, her breath malodorous. She greeted him; she seemed to know what he was looking for. They talked all night, and with each word she spoke, the warrior realized he had come to the end of his quest. She was Truth. In the morning, when the storm broke, the warrior prepared to return to claim his bride. “Now that I have found Truth,” he said, “what shall I tell them at the palace about you?” The wizened old crone smiled. “Tell them,” she said, “tell them that I am young and beautiful.”

So Truth is not always true. Stephanians have always understood they have no monopoly on wisdom, no copyright on the truth. That might be the best Stephanian note on which to end a talk reflecting my truths about India. Satyameva Jayate....

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