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Mainstream, VOL52, No. 22, May 24, 2014

The Idea of India again

Friday 23 May 2014, by Uttam Sen


While the erudite split hairs over the “idea of India”, one cannot help going back to the pages of some fairly common experience. As a middle-class teen Calcuttan, my deep affinity with a football club in the city’s First Division League was fairly representative in taste. So was the choice of a compeer from a different faith, his loyalties residing in a club which announced his religious persuasion, as much as mine did my place of origin across present-day borders. The players belonged to dissimilar communities and regions, their professional focus more on the game than personal antece-dents. A celebrated national star was rumoured to belong to my refugee stock but rendered a life-time’s service to the rival maroon and greens, archetypically local West Bengali. After all, that club had become an emblem of the nationalist struggle subsequent to bare-footed Indian boys vanquishing booted East York bilayatis in the 1911 IFA Shield final, much before the decisive Partition of 1947 (1905 having witnessed the abortive one, not long before the football happening).

But, as a person schooled in the “secular” tradition, (as was my friend), I was appalled to see some players who belonged to another creed sporting the temple “tilak” on their foreheads as they trooped out. (To put the record straight, they were not members of any of the aforementioned clubs, but took the field against one of them.) To add insult to injury, my salad-day accomplice in minor heresies, who was otherwise consistent in his religious beliefs, rather than welcoming my commiseration, virtually ticked me off. To his mind no believer would dishonour a temple blessing. He was a clear-headed person (and still is) but saw no contradiction between any particular allegiance and what he held was essentially unstated but widespread practice. Also unstated was the hope of reciprocity without which no human equation can endure.

Putting this anecdote down in print is in itself a breach of trust and would understan-dably be denied. Selective denial is unavoidable in a sensitive and diverse polity. But to play the devil’s advocate, the perceived disparity between some of the Titans who envisioned our guiding philosophy and gave us our Constitution, and us lesser mortals, could be thinning out. Their secu lar universalism provided the ends rather than the means of mass tranquility and sustenance. The common man’s ingenuity in redeeming the means through his own organic values, if any-thing, went one better. One’s conventional badge of identity or commitment is not necessarily an impediment to the realisation of a fundamental truth as long as that specification does not impede the purpose of those not included in the majority or any other group.

The Gandhian-Nehruvian idea of India may not be as much in peril as some imagine if its levelling aspirations are followed through. Yet so much has transpired since the days of those leaders that the casual observer is taken aback by the regularity with which the idea is recalled as a frame of reference, without ostensible adjustment. Secularism as equidistance from all religions, in the interests of communal harmony, is one of them. Yet a people who in the overall technical sense have not attained the material self-sufficiency of the West have to rely on continuity of thought and the belief in a super-human controlling agency. On a somewhat simplistic reckoning, because there are decidedly other important variables, these two appear to be the self-evident truths that defined the out-come of the 2014 elections. A calibrated ambi-valence conceivably extended the traditional idea without necessarily disturbing it, vital for a people who have had to endure a legacy of being divided at their own expense.

Yet if these dimensions of culture and religion occupy the grey area between the sacred and the profane, there is another which is unaba-shedly irreverent. That is the unconsecrated attitude of “GDP as God” which is really the point of departure from the earlier abstraction.

The author is a Bengaluru-based journalist.

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