The Idea of India: Sunil Khilnani in Conversation

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In this guest edition of The Interview, Vikram Zutshi talks to Sunil Khilnani, author of Incarnations: A History of India in Fifty Lives.

Sunil Khilnani is a professor of politics and the director of the India Institute at King’s College London. He is a scholar of Indian history and politics who is best known as the author of The Idea of India. He was the presenter of a BBC Radio 4 series entitled Incarnations: India in 50 Lives, which was later published as a book in 2016.

The book profiles the lives of 50 Indians, some famous and some relatively unknown, across a span of 2,500 years and highlights some of the central conflicts and contradictions of India — many of which still persist today — revolving around caste, gender, race, religion, region and individual freedom.

In this guest edition of The Interview, Vikram Zutshi talks to Khilnani about contentious topics that are relevant to modern times: Hinduism versus Hindutva, the debate around an “idea of India,” Nehruvian thought in the context of contemporary politics, and 20th-century revivalism of Buddhism as an inspiration to India’s Dalits.

Vikram Zutshi: Describe the premise of Incarnations. How did the book come about, and how were the final 50 names decided? What was the basis for your choices?

Sunil Khilnani: India’s past is full of remarkable individuals, yet we know so little about their life stories — and most of what we know is filtered through myth and childhood bedtime stories. So in Incarnations, I want to return the human element to our sense of India’s history: to show how it was made by the actions of actual people, inspired by ideas or reacting against oppressive circumstances. Incarnations also shows how many of the people we are brought up to think of as elderly, venerable figures were in fact angry young men and women, out to change their worlds.

In my book, I draw on the most authoritative and up-to-date scholarship on Indian history, and use individual biographies to build a larger panorama of India’s history across 2,500 years, in a way that might speak to both specialists as well as readers relatively unfamiliar with Indian history.

In choosing my 50, I wanted lives that dramatized some of the central conflicts and contradictions of India, many of which still persist — which turn around caste, gender, race, religion, region and individual freedom. I also wanted lives that have had historical afterlives: which have been incarnated at different times for different purposes — for example, the revival of the Buddha in 20th-century India, as an inspiration to India’s Dalits. And the 50 I’ve chosen represent a mix of known and unknown figures. But of course no such selection can be definitive. And as I say in my book, I see my own choices as an open invitation to an argument about Indian history and its makers.

Zutshi: From the Buddha to Adi Sankara to Basava to Akbar, Aryabhatta and Dhirubhai Ambani, your choices are sweeping, diverse and eclectic. What does this array of personalities tell us about India, and how does that differ from the picture being forwarded by the current dispensation?

Khilnani: It tells us several things.

First, it shows India’s longstanding connections with the world at large: From Buddha and the spread of his ideas across Asia, to 21st-century billionaires surfing the waves of global capitalism, India has been an integral part of world history — not a quiescent backwater or a left-behind spectator only recently stepping onto the international stage. So, I hope my book helps to reclaim a space for the long arc of Indian history, in ways that enable it to be appreciated and considered as part of our universal story.

Second, I hope my choices show the astonishing variety of experiments in living — to use Gandhi’s brilliant phrase — that Indians have pursued. Often, these life experiments have been in direct conflict with the strictures of caste hierarchy, gender inequality, political oppression, and the social and cultural pressures to conform. In this respect, I hope Incarnations reminds Indians of the vigorous ferment of ideas which have inspired Indians: of the many possibilities contained in the Indian past, which far exceed the constraints of any narrow nationalism.

Zutshi: You mentioned in a recent interview that, “I was moved by how many of these lives pose challenges to the Indian present and remind us of future possibilities that are in danger of being closed off.” Can you elaborate on that a bit more?

Khilnani: I hope that having finished the 50 biographical essays in Incarnations, a reader will share my firm conviction that one of the India’s great strengths is its historical capacity to challenge its own dogmas — as well as those of the wider world. And the crucial point is that that capacity isn’t just a historical relic — it’s a living resource, which we need to draw upon more than ever, to question and subvert the dogmas of our contemporary world. My interest in this book isn’t just in recovering the Indian past. I hope also to nudge us into thinking differently about India’s future.

Zutshi: Tell us about your previous work, Idea of India. What makes it such a hotly disputed subject? What do you have to say to those who would accuse you of being a “Nehruvian Marxist” complicit in the depredations of the Congress [party]?

Khilnani: What I set out to do in The Idea of India was to reconstruct the foundations of the modern nation: to show how it was built on a political idea — which valued freedom and diversity — and not a narrow definition of culture and religion. I analyzed India’s democracy and its economic development, the history of its cities, and the debates around an Indian identity. And through my study, I was able to conclude that India’s success as a nation state depended on its capacity to recognize and sustain different types of diversity — religious, linguistic, ethnic — rather than to impose a homogenous idea of nationalism, religious belief or cultural practice. That was an invaluable legacy of our founders: An insistence that the idea of India was founded not on a singular idea of India, but on a commitment to let many diverse ideas of India flourish — within the framework of constitutional law and democratic liberties.

When I wrote the book, I could not have imagined that The Idea of India would become a touchstone for thinking about contemporary India, and would continue generate so much debate. I think, for many people, it showed the logic of the Indian political project. There are some who dispute that logic or don’t like that project in the first place. These include many on the left, not just on the right. I’d invite them to offer counterarguments and historical evidence for their views, rather than anoint me with labels.

Zutshi: How do you define “Hinduism”? How is it at odds with “Hindutva”?

Khilnani: There is no single text, historical moment or authority — priestly or divine — that can define the nature of Hindu belief. This differentiates it sharply from the religions of the book, like Christianity, Islam and Jewish belief. On the one hand, what we call Hinduism [encompasses] a philosophical stance of radical, free, individual inquiry about the world — about the relationship of the self to the universe, and to its own consciousness — as well as rich epics replete with moral drama and individual choice.

On the other hand, Hindu beliefs also undergird the collective oppressions of the caste order and prescribe mind-numbing rituals. So, like any complicated body of thought and practice, what we call Hinduism has multiple potentials. It has enabled extraordinary experiments in philosophical thought and moral life, while also encouraging domination and dogmatism.

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“Hindutva” is quite separate from the long, rich history of Hinduism. To understand “Hindutva,” you need to go back to the origins of this neologism, early in [the] 20th century. Back then, a number of high Brahmin intellectuals, dismayed by colonial denigration and interference in their religious orthodoxies and jealous of the status of Islam, began to reshape a version of Hinduism in the image of the religions of the book. If, they argued, Hindus were to stand up to their European masters, they would have to emulate Christianity and Islam. They wanted to define Hinduism in textual terms, to give it an organizational authority structure, and to lend it an aggressive, proselytizing character. Theirs was a strategy of opposition by emulation of their opponents — the colonial rulers and Muslim elites.

This upper-caste movement of Hindu revisionism was given further edge by V.D. Savarkar, a Maharashtrian Brahmin who wanted to oppose the British through violence, and who coined the term “Hindutva.” Gandhi, one should remember, developed his own ideas on non-violence in direct opposition to Savakar — the two men met in London in 1909, and Gandhi was shocked by Savarkar’s ideas about violence and religion.

In fact, it’s important to note that Savarkar was not much of a practicing Hindu, and cared little for the philosophical and moral experimentalism which has characterized Hinduism. Instead, he defined Hinduism in political terms: It was a way to unite people around a common identity, and to become a nation. Savarkar was a great admirer of 19th-century European nationalism — Mazzini and Garibaldi were among his heroes. He wanted to turn one of the world’s most individualist and free-spirited religious philosophies, which we call Hinduism, into a collectivist, nationalist dogma — and he did this through the contortions of “Hindutva.”

Sadly, many in India today prefer the consoling certitudes of “Hindutva” to the bracing skepticism of Hindu thought. And sadly, as well as dangerously, some conflate Hindutva with Hinduism. The two could not be more opposed to one another.

Zutshi: Which of the 50 personalities stood out from the rest and resonated with you the most? Who are your personal favorites?

Khilnani: Don’t get me started — so hard to choose! I was drawn to some of the poets and artists. Basava, the 12th-century Kannada poet and social critic, and the 18th-century Pahari painter Nainsukh, who brought an extraordinary human intimacy to the formalism of Indian miniature painting; and then there are struggles of women artists like M.S. Subbulakshmi and Amrita Sher-Gil, trying to establish their creative voices in a male-dominated world. I was also moved by the story of the forgotten Tamil freedom fighter who tried to defeat the British by starting his own shipping line, Chidambaram Pillai. Alongside many famous individuals, I’ve also included in Incarnations many rich human stories from Indian history who too often get neglected.

Zutshi: Name the books and authors which have had maximum impact on you growing up and influenced your life trajectory the most.

Khilnani: So many — hard to know where to start, since we are always a deficient sum of all we have read. However, one person and writer who has changed and influenced me beyond words is someone to whom I happen to be married: Katherine Boo, who wrote Behind the Beautiful Forevers, based on years of research in a poor Mumbai neighborhood.

Zutshi: What are you working on next? Please give us a glimpse of the work-in-progress.

Khilnani: I am trying to understand the history of democracy in India: How and why did India become a democracy, what kind of democracy is it, and what does this mean for our more general conception of political freedom and cultural diversity? As against the usual stories, which either see democracy as a gift of the British, or as an emanation of some special quality of Hindu tolerance, I am trying to study the deep history of practices of decision-making, consensus-building, the opportunities for collective action in precolonial India, and to look also at how historical strands were galvanized by the encounter with European and other ideas.

I want to be able to explain to myself this question: How did we get from Jawaharlal Nehru to Narendra Modi, and what does that mean both for India and the world?

*[Incarnations: A History of India in Fifty Lives by Sunil Khilnani was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The paperback edition will be released in September 2017. In November 2017, the 20th-anniversary edition of The Idea of India will be released. This article was updated on August 29, 2017.]

Photo Credit: Kriangkrai Thitimakorn / Shutterstock.com

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