All Gandhi's Children

All Gandhi's Children

Mini Teaser: With the most diverse society in the world, India can serve as a model to the West in its struggles to reconcile liberal democracy with Islam.

by Author(s): Ramachandra Guha

In North America and Western Europe, where Muslims are now likewise a large, insecure and inward-looking minority, Dalwai’s warnings were also forward-looking. So, perhaps, were Jawaharlal Nehru’s. Thus, where the Muslim liberal urges his fellows to modernize, the leader of the government must insist that, whatever the provocation, the state should never be identified with the biases or interests of the non-Muslim majority.

The same struggles between minority and majority—and the ways to overcome a tendency toward repression and/or homogeneity which is sure to later backfire—are clear in India’s balance of its own linguistic diversity, which is both mandated by law and affirmed by social practice. Again, this should inform the current dilemma of the West and its struggle to reconcile its now-multicultural nature; India can perhaps serve by example.

It was once believed that a single, shared language was constitutive of national identity. Writing in the 1950s, British historian D. W. Brogan remarked that “it is not accidental that nearly all modern nationalist revivals have begun by defending the claims of a linguistic culture.” In nineteenth-century Europe, “it was in the submerged nations, in partitioned Poland, in Bohemia, in Finland that the linguistic revival became the embodiment of the national spirit.” Moreover:

States which were not linguistically united faced a real, political problem. For . . . there were obvious administrative advantages in linguistic unity and obvious political advantages in securing the kind of spiritual unity that linguistic unity makes possible.

Two influential South Asian politicians drew the same lesson from European history. These were Mohammed Ali Jinnah of Pakistan and S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike of Ceylon (later Sri Lanka). Each tried to impose a single language on the citizens of his nation. In contrast, the leaders of independent India permitted different languages and scripts to flourish, allowing people to be educated and governed in the language of their choice and their region. In Pakistan, the bid to impose Urdu on the Bengali speakers of the east led to the secession of that part of the nation, which emerged in 1971 as the sovereign state of Bangladesh. In Sri Lanka, the suppression of Tamil and the promotion of Sinhala provoked a civil war that lasted thirty years and cost more than a hundred thousand lives. In India, on the other hand, the protection and promotion of different languages has deepened the sense of national unity.

Sixty years of Indian history have decisively refuted the European idea—or conceit—that a nation must be defined by a single language alone. It has already had a salutary effect on South Africa, which, after the demise of apartheid, officially constituted itself as a multilingual nation-state. And this stance can still promote a more sympathetic attitude to minority languages in nations whose laws and customs privilege one language alone.

The United States has given the world some noble social and political ideals. So have France and the United Kingdom, and perhaps also India. India can give the world the idea of a state and constitution that protects far greater religious and linguistic diversity than is found in any other nation. We have shown other young nations how to nurture multiparty democracy based on universal adult franchise—mass poverty and illiteracy notwithstanding. But even older nations may learn from our model of nationalism, which is inclusive within and outside its borders, and open to ideas and influences from even the powers that once colonized it. We have demonstrated that nationalism can be made consistent with internationalism. Finally, despite our own past history of hierarchy and inegalitarianism, we have designed and implemented the most far-reaching programs of affirmative action on behalf of the discriminated against and underprivileged.


ADMITTEDLY, IN recent years there has been a belated recognition of the Indian experiment. As other ex-colonies have succumbed to military dictators or one-party rule, the fact that this poor, large and diverse nation has a robust multiparty system based on free and fair elections increasingly has come to the world’s attention. Yet though the freedom of expression and the freedom to choose one’s leaders in India is now widely appreciated, how India survives as a single nation despite its staggering diversity is still imperfectly understood. For more than scholarly reasons, the institutional and ideational origins of Indian democracy and nationhood need more careful attention than they have perhaps received.

But the sharing of information and lessons learned must be reciprocal. In the past, the Indian political tradition innovatively adapted Western ideals and values. The early reformer Rammohun Roy read, with interest and profit, the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Jeremy Bentham. The Pune liberal Gopal Krishna Gokhale—whom Gandhi referred to as his “political guru”—even rendered into Marathi a book on compromise by John Morley, the follower and biographer of British statesman William Ewart Gladstone. Gandhi himself was deeply influenced by Western thinkers such as Leo Tolstoy and John Ruskin. Ambedkar was influenced by the pragmatism of John Dewey, who was one of his teachers at Columbia University. Nehru was greatly influenced by European traditions of social democracy, so much so that one unnamed wit once remarked that in every Indian cabinet meeting of the 1950s there was a chair reserved for the ghost of Professor Harold Laski, the British political theorist.

In the present, too, India has much to learn from the world. Even with its absolutism, the Chinese state has been far more focused on creating equality of opportunity through the provision of decent education and health care. Western political parties, unlike their Indian counterparts, are not run as family firms. In the West, public institutions, the bureaucracies of government and the judiciary function with greater efficiency and honesty.

Certainly, despite the lofty aspirations enunciated by India’s founders and embodied in the country’s constitution, this remains a less-than-united nation, a less-than-perfect democracy, a less-than-equal economy and a less-than-peaceful society. The idea of India is being challenged by secessionist movements in Kashmir and the northeast. The borderlands are disturbed; and so too are the countries in India’s neighborhood. The plural, multiparty political system is threatened by the rise of a Maoist insurgency that now extends over a wide swath of the country. This insurgency, which aims to construct a single-party state using the Chinese model, has its roots in the deprivation and dispossession of tribal people. The workings of Indian democracy too are undermined by the growing inefficiency and corruption of the political class, the civil service, the police and the judiciary.

To understand these (and other) problems, we may turn to those Indians who have seriously thought through these issues in the (comparatively recent) past. A deeper engagement with those thinkers and ideas may perhaps make India a better, or at least a less discontented, place. But it is perhaps not Indians alone who need to acquaint themselves with a tradition of argument and debate whose landmarks and contours have helped create an adaptive, inclusive democracy that has found ways to integrate—albeit with flaws—the minorities of their nation that could so easily threaten the sanctity of the state. As once-homogeneous Western nations grapple with mass immigration of peoples speaking different tongues and practicing different faiths, it may be time to look eastward for an answer.


Ramachandra Guha is the author of India After Gandhi (Ecco, 2007). His new book, Makers of Modern India, will be published in the United States in spring 2011 by the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.


(Image by Rahul Guhathakurta


Image: Pullquote: As once-homogeneous Western nations grapple with mass immigration of peoples speaking different tongues and practicing different faiths, it may be time to look eastward for an answer.Essay Types: Essay