Is India a nation?

Justice Markandey Katju-

Justice Markandey Katju

Justice Markandey Katju is a former Judge, Supreme Court of India, and former Chairman, Press Council of India. The views expressed are his own.

Is India a nation at all? Many people deny it, pointing to its tremendous diversity–numerous religions, castes, languages, races, etc, and assert it is only a political and administrative unit created by the Britishers.

The view of our British rulers was articulated by John Strachy, a high official in India who said in 1880, in his lectures given at Cambridge University (collectively published as a book under the title ‘India’), that India is only a label of convenience, a name given to a large geographical territory having several countries. He said, ” This is the first and foremost thing to learn about India, that there is not, and never was, an India, nor any country of India, possessing, according to European ideas, any sort of unity–physical, political, social or religious, no Indian nation, no ‘ people of India ‘, of which we hear so much.”

The same view was reiterated by Jinnah, the creator of Pakistan, who said ” India is not a nation, nor a country. It is a subcontinent of nationalities.”

What is the truth? I submit that the views of Strachy and Jinnah are wrong, and India is indeed a nation.

What makes a nation are certain common features which distinguishes it from other nations. Is there any such common feature which makes India a nation? I submit there is, and that is its composite Sanskrit-Urdu culture. It is this culture which unites us and makes India a nation.

Now when I say this, immediately objections will be raised. Many south Indians, people of the northeast (Nagas, Mizos, etc ) will ask what have they to do with Sanskrit or Urdu? Some Indians are even hostile to Sanskrit ( many Tamilians, who regard themselves Dravidians, call it the language of Aryan invaders and oppressors) and to Urdu ( many Hindus regard it as the language of Muslims).

I submit these objections are based on a lack of understanding. When I use the expression ‘ Sanskrit Urdu culture ‘ I am referring to the spirit of Sanskrit and the spirit of Urdu. To explain, I may refer to my articles ‘ Sanskrit as a language of science ‘ and ‘What is Urdu ‘ which can be seen online.

As regards Sanskrit, I have explained in my article on Sanskrit that there is a misconception that Sanskrit is only a language for chanting mantras in prayers and in Hindu temples. In fact only about 5% of Sanskrit literature is devoted to religion, while the rest deals with such diverse topics as philosophy, science, mathematics, art, law, linguistics, etc.

The emphasis in Sanskrit is on reason, and it was the language of free thinkers who questioned everything. The great Hindi writer Rahul Sanskritayan, who was in his early years an orthodox Brahmin, said that before he learned Sanskrit he believed in God, but after he learned it he became an atheist. And indeed much of Sanskrit literature is atheistic.

On the other hand, the emphasis in Urdu, which is wrongly regarded as a language of Muslims ( before 1947 it was a common language of all educated people, whether Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, etc in large parts of India ), is on emotion ( see my article ‘ What is Urdu ). Urdu poetry expresses the voice of the human heart and the afflictions of the common people with elegance and power as perhaps no other poetry does.

The two main attributes of humans are reason and emotion, and both are necessary for progress.

In Europe, the great French thinker Voltaire emphasized reason and combated religious bigotry and superstitions in his writings. On the other hand, the equally great French thinker Rousseau emphasized emotion and passion and said that mere reason makes one a cold, calculating, selfish being who never has the desire to help his fellow human beings, and never thinks of the suffering of others.

In my article ‘ What is India ‘ ( see on my blog Satyam Bruyat) I have pointed out that India is broadly a country of immigrants, like North America. About 92-93% of people living in India today are the descendants of immigrants, most of whom came from the northwest ( the original inhabitants are the pre-Dravidian tribals like Bhils, Gonds, Santhals, Todas etc who are only about 7-8% of India’s population ). These immigrants brought with them their own language, religion, practices, culture, etc. By the intermingling of these immigrants over thousands of years a common culture emerged, which can be broadly called the Sanskrit Urdu culture, which is the culture of India.

Sanskrit and Urdu complement each other. In fact, Sanskrit is one of the grandmothers of Urdu since 60-70% of the words in it are from Sanskrit (the other grandmother being Persian ). Though Sanskrit is a great language, by its overemphasis on reason (like Voltaire) it lacked compassion for fellow human beings who were suppressed e.g. Dalits, and this compassion was supplied by Urdu (like Rousseau, who empathized with the poor people).

Thus, what unites India and makes it a nation is the Sanskrit Urdu culture. To those who say they have nothing to do with Sanskrit or Urdu (in fact most Indians do not know these languages ) my reply is that when I use the expression ‘ Sanskrit Urdu culture ‘ I am not referring to Sanskrit or Urdu literally, but to the spirit of Sanskrit and the spirit of Urdu. Even Tamilians, Nagas, etc have reason and emotion, and in that sense, they belong to the Sanskrit Urdu culture.