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E-Mail this address to a friend Who is an Indian?

Shashi Tharoor finds out

    Thank you very much Nandi (Nandita Krishna) for that generous introduction. I was getting a bit nervous actually when she started dredging up the personal details of our old acquaintances and old childhood friends, particularly because when I come and speak to groups in the company of somebody who has known me as long as she has, I worry far more about the introduction than I do about the actual speech.

In particular, she went back to my writings when I was eleven. There are introducers who have the inconvenient habit of referring, in the good Indian tradition, to fathers, uncles, aunts and acts of omission and commission up the family tree. In fact in America, where of course the family tradition is not that comparable to ours, there is the new complication of the Internet where people can look you up and find all sorts of things which you may or may not have done, but which are ascribed to you out there.

In one particular case somebody I know who likes to introduce speakers by dredging up their past, discovered that a speaker he was about to introduce had an uncle who had been electrocuted at Sing-Sing prison for kidnapping and armed robbery or something equally horrible. For having taken the trouble to look this up, he felt he had to use it. So he said, 'And our distinguished speaker had an uncle who occupied the chair of applied electricity in one of the nation's leading institutions.'

This is just by way of saying that these introductions should always be taken with a pinch or two of salt and to thank Nandi for having mercifully stopped at the age of eleven. What she might have said of me at age five, I shudder to think!

In any case, it is a great pleasure for me to be with you all today and thank you for coming out in such good numbers to hear about something that perhaps many of you in the audience are more qualified than I am to address, the question of who is an Indian. And I say that specifically because I have been out of India for so long even though I keep coming back.

Some may very well question my credentials to address this topic at all. But you see, in addressing the topic, I felt emboldened by a conversation I had with Nandita Krishna when I first arrived in Madras, in her home, yesterday evening. We found ourselves inevitably discussing politics. What happens when two Indians who haven't seen each other in years get together? Sure enough within half an hour the topic got to politics! And Nandita started talking about, I'm not sure if I'm embarrassing you unduly here, the qualifications of a certain Italian to be the prime minister of India.

Of course I immediately reminded both of us of what happened earlier in 1999, when Sharad Pawar, Sangma and Tariq Anwar -- a classic Congress secularism of a Hindu, Christian and Muslim -- leaked that famous letter of theirs to the press in which they articulated precisely the notion that Sonia Gandhi was unfit to be the prime minister of India because, to their eyes and despite her Indian passport, she was not Indian.

They went on to say that an Indian could only be somebody born of Indian soil and, as they put it, somebody whose heart and soul had been shaped by Indian soil. And I was struck by this at the time itself and those of you who read my fortnightly column in the Indian Express know that I reacted with some curiosity to this interesting notion of Indianness coming out of three Congress leaders, particularly since they seem to represent a party which was founded in 1885 under the presidency of a liberal Scotsman Hume and whose elected presidency in the decades of the Nationalist Movement included the English-born Annie Besant and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad who was born in Mecca.

So since when was birth on the sacred soil of India such a vital consideration, I was curious. What is more, of course, was that they went on talking about this territorial notion of Indianness to acknowledge Mahatma Gandhi's famous notion of India being this eclectic land, indeed a land through which all the winds of the world would blow. But they went on to say that nonetheless, though they were devotees of this Gandhian principle, as far as they were concerned Sonia Gandhi didn't fit the bill. We could borrow everything from everywhere across the world but we wouldn't place our borrowings at the helm of national affairs.

That is an interesting issue and I think it may well be something to bear at the back of our minds as we look at this larger question. But I thought as an Indian amongst Indians it would be interesting for us to explore, this evening, the notion 'Who is an Indian'?

You'll be relieved to know that I don't quite know what the traditional practice of lectures here is but I'm a devotee of the Elizabeth Taylor school of public speaking. As Elizabeth Taylor says to her husbands, "I shall not keep you long." What I'd like to do is to address these issues, to try and focus directly on the larger principles that, according to me, would help outline my feelings about this question and then perhaps to engage in a direct discussion with all of you about your comments and reactions to what I have said or not said that might perhaps give us a more stimulating viewpoint.

But before we get into the question as to who an Indian is, perhaps it is, in all fairness, necessary for us to also look at the notion of India. Winston Churchill actually said that India is only a geographical expression, he said that it's no more a single country than the Equator. Now Churchill was never right about India but it is true that India is a particularly unusual country and there is probably no other country in the world that embodies this extraordinary set of diversities and contradictions that our country does -- geographical diversity, topographical diversity, climatic diversity, diversities in language, cuisine and cultures -- all embodied in one Nation State. And yet, our nationalist movement did speak very confidently of a notion of India as greater than the sum of its contradictions.

We had the illustrious son of Indian nationalism who wrote perhaps the most eloquent and moving prose about the idea of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, our first prime minister. Speaking of India as a myth and an idea, he talked about of India as a nation that was held together by a common dream and vision.

Now we accept the contradictions and we have to acknowledge that we are a land of snow peaks and tropical jungles, a land of 17 different languages that are printed on each of our rupee notes and at the same time a land of 22,000 dialects. I don't think there is any country that can embody comparable figures such as these.

We have 35 languages spoken by more than a million people each. We have, in our country, a population of which 80 per cent still subsist on the farms, eke out a living from the soil and yet we have some of the world's most congested cities teeming with disrepair and despair. We have misery and poverty and at the same time we have a land that inspired a Moghul emperor to declaim, 'If on earth there be a paradise of bliss, it is this, it is this.' We have country in which we are still 51 per cent illiterate.

I know the new figures suggest a slightly higher percentage, I'm personally somewhat sceptical because I think the threshold for establishing literacy is alarmingly low. But nonetheless, whatever the percentage is, it is shamefully low for a country that is at 52 years of independent existence.

And yet having acknowledged that illiteracy, we are still a country that has produced the world's second largest pool of trained scientists and engineers, many of whom are running the computer businesses of the United States. We have indeed a country, which for all its poverty, backwardness and difficulties, produces a greater quantity of sophisticated software for US computer manufacturers than any other country in the world.

Of course, how can one even attempt to summarise the notion of a country that was the birthplace of four major religions, at least three major systems of classical dance, 85 major political parties and 300 ways of cooking the potato?! So the truth is it is impossible to summarise a notion of India in any one simple sentence. In fact, there is an old cliche which I'm going to trot out for you which is that anything you can say about India, the opposite is also true. For every truism you advance, you can find a truism that is equally valid which asserts the opposite and that's particularly striking about a country whose national motto is Satyamev Jayate, 'truth alone triumphs.'

The question we could well ask is, whose truth? It's a question to which there are perhaps one billion answers and that is if the last census hasn't undercounted us again. But I realise that that too is too simplistic an approach.

And so in looking at the idea of India, it seems to me, that the answer lies in a very simple insight which is as I've written in my last book India from Midnight to the Millennium, that the singular thing about India is that you can only speak of it in the plural. Lets face it, there are many Indias, many Indias in various ways, many Indias across the length and breadth of our land, many Indias living perhaps in the eleventh and twelfth centuries just as there are Indias living in the twenty-first century. We have a land in which there are no stereotypes possible, no fixed ideas of how the country is, no one way of doing things.

This perhaps, in many ways, is the simplest key to appreciating the nature of our country. We are a land of indescribable diversity and yet we are a land emerging from an ancient civilisation, sustained by a common geography, united by a shared history and ultimately working because of a common political democracy. I will return to this somewhat later in my remarks but I wanted to lay this out before we get into the question 'Who is an Indian'?

In speaking about 'Who is an Indian', I'm going to startle you and Sharad Pawar by making one more allusion to that Mediterranean country that we mentioned earlier in these remarks because when Italy was created in the nineteenth century out of the merger of a wide variety of principalities and statelets, one Italian nationalist memorably wrote: 'We have created Italy, now all we need to do is to create Italians.'

Now I mention this because what is striking is no Indian nationalist leader ever found it necessary to say: 'We have created India, now all we need to do is to create Indians', because every one of them assumed the existence of India and Indians for millennia before their political movement, the nationalist struggle, gave a modern twentieth century shape to the aspirations on Indians.

And it is striking if you read a book like Nehru's Discovery of India, you have a very clear sense of a people whose identity was in the minds of the nationalist leaders, which is beyond doubt, and yet the India that was created in 1947 was in a very real sense, a new creation. After all it was a state that united the Ladakhi and the Lakhadivian for the first time. A state that divided Punjabi from Punjabi for the first time. A state that expected the Kerala peasant to owe allegiance to a Kashmiri Pandit ruling in Delhi. So Nehru and the nationalists would never have spoken of creating Indians but creating a new India is what indeed the nationalist movement did.

But what is striking about this India they created? If I can again risk being anecdotal, way back in 1996 I think it was, our then prime minister, H K Deve Gowda, stood up on the ramparts of our wonderful sixteenth century Red Fort and delivered the Independence Day address to the nation in Hindi, India's official national language. Now eight other prime ministers have done this 48 times before him, so what was so special about this?

What was special was that Deve Gowda, as you all know is a Kannadiga, spoke to the nation in a language of which he did not know a word. Traditional politics required a speech in Hindi 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. Now, such a phenomenon is inconceivable in any other country. It is only in India that we have a country that is ruled by a man who doesn't understand its official national language.

For that matter we are the only country with an official national language that more than half the population does not understand or cannot speak fluently. And, of course, India is the only country where this kind of solution could have been found to this particular dilemma because after all, my family friend, the great Keralite playback singer, Yesudas, sang his way to the top of the Hindi film music charts with lyrics in that language written in his song book in Malayalam for him to sing. But to see that playback practice elevated to the prime ministerial address on Independence Day is a startling affirmation of Indian pluralism.

Ultimately, what is India?

Shashi Tharoor, a senior United Nations official, commentator and novelist, delivered this address in Madras a few weeks ago.

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