‘Truth’ versus ‘Truth’?: Or what is India that is Bharat?

July 2, 2017

Rohit Dhankar

Most of my short articles on this blog are ‘Loud Thinking’ as the title of the blog admits. They are not necessarily settled beliefs but explorations into ideas to form a belief. However, even ‘explorations’ have to have some basis in the form of evidence and arguments to be seriously considered as basis of a possible belief. Therefore, they sound less tentative then they actually are. This piece is one such piece. Therefore, interested readers (if any!) and especially historians and political scientists among them are most welcome to enlighten men on the issues I am about here.

Now, let me come to the point after this preliminary statement. Sometime back there was a discussion with some colleagues in connection with some academic issue: what is to be taught to students in class, to be more precis. One colleague said something to the effect that ‘India is a modern nation that came into existence with the Constitution of India. Even the idea of India is hardly 150 years old. And it is constructed around the territories that defined British Raj then. Before that there was no such thing as unified India or Bharat, there were various kingdoms and empires in the history falling within and sometimes encompassing most of the territory of India as it exists today. Therefore, the current rightist nationalist propaganda of India as a very old or eternal and immutable idea should be countered with a more reasonable historical narrative in higher education classes.’

With some give and take this is the position taken by most of those who want to counter the jingoistic nationalism unleashes by the Sangh Parivar. On the other hand many people (not all belonging to or even sympathizers of Sangh Parivar) point out that terms “India” and “Bharatvarsha” were used indicating a political-cultural-geographical region encompassing what is today often called South Asia or India, Pakistan and Banglasesh combined[1]. Irfan Habib writes that “The first perception of the whole of India as a country comes with the Mauryan Empire. Those of you, who have studied Indian history would know that the inscriptions of the Mauryan emperor Ashoka range from Kandahar and north of Kabul to Karnataka and Andhra and they are in Prakrit, Greek and Aramaic. So it was with such political unity that the concept of India came, and its first name was Jambudvipa a name which Ashoka uses in his Minor Rock Edict-1, meaning ‘the land of the Jamun fruit.’ The term Bharata was also used in Prakrit in an inscription in Orissa, at Hathigumpha, of the Kalinga ruler, Kharavela in 1st century BC; that is the first instance of the use of Bharat, and Kharavela uses it for the whole of India. So, gradually the concept of India as a country began to arise and a cultural unity was also seen within it as religions like Buddhism, Brahmanism and Jainism spread to all parts of the country.[2]

The term indicates a geographical region with cultural affinity and political ambitions even if remained unrealized most of the times in the history. To them “rashtra” is not a modern nation state as most of our historians and political scientists use the term for; but indicating a ‘loose cultural unity’ and political boundaries that somehow indicate a belongingness and ownership. And from there emerges the desire for political unification as well defense against outside forces. More or less combined resistance to Alexander in northern part of India indicates such a loose idea of belongingness. Mauryan Empire is a concrete expression of the same aspiration partially realized. Moughal Empire again comes close to realizing this aspiration. Foreign sources, especially Greek, point in the same direction.

When they claim that “Bharat” is an age old idea these people are not talking of a modern nation state. They are using the term in a sense similar to “Greece” or “Hellas” when we talk of Greece in the ancient times. No one claims that Greece is a not an ancient idea, though it comprised many small city states often at war with each other. Still the idea of Greece as an age old idea is accepted universally without countering it by the modern nation state of Greece, which certainly is not the same thing as the ancient Greece. But when we talk of idea of India then suddenly the idea of nation state (Republic of India) is invoked to counter any clams of its historical unity and ancientness.

How justified are these two claims regarding the idea of India?

If we are talking of India only as a modern nation state them the first claim is fully justifies. The clear articulation of geographical boundaries, nature of the state, constitution to be followed, governance structures and rights and duties of citizens with emphasis on equality, justice, freedom and human dignity were never available in the ancient India. In other words ‘India as a democratic republic’ is a very recent idea indeed, no one can deny this. And therefore the claim is justified in the sense of a nation state.

But the other idea of India as cultural entity in a certain not so clearly defined geographical region and close political connections as well as aspirations of unity is a very ancient idea, is equally undeniable. When the advocates of this idea claim that India is an ancient nation with a certain culture, history and geography they are not wrong. They are using a concept of rashtra that is not the same thing as a nation state but still a well-defined idea that can generate as well as guide aspirations; even aspirations consistent with modern democracy with equality and justice being non-negotiable values; in spite of its history of inequality and oppression of large sections of its population. Thus, both claims are true in their different interpretations. And that can provide an opportunity for dialogue and possible consensus generation.

How is a dialogue possible?

At present both factions of the Indian population (or citizens) are shouting their own versions of the idea of India and not listening to each other. Rather are declaring each other’s ideas a completely false concoctions. No dialogue is possible unless both recognize that the real problem is that they are talking of two different concepts while believing that that are talking of the same thing.

Today we are interested in a democratic India which guarantees and safeguards equality, justice, freedom, and dignity to each one of its citizens without any consideration of caste, creed, race, gender and so on. Therefore, however glorious or true the ancient idea of India might seem to be to some people, it cannot be our aspirational ideal today. We cannot and we do not want to recreate that today. In fact most of the Indian population will oppose that tooth and nail if some mistaken elements try to re-create that India.

On the other hand modern democratic republic of India did not come from thin air at the stroke of midnight on 15th August 1947, nor is it entirely created by the British. It has been in making for at the least two and half-millennia. Denying that civilizational history and legacy is equally impossible and foolish. The democratic republic of India would not have been what it is without that history even if we do not like it. Therefore, a bland and arrogant declaration that idea of India is only 150 years old is completely unjustified and actually insulting to a very old civilization.

A dialogue can become possible only if first both the warring factions try to understand what each one of them means when they use the terms ‘rashtra’ and ‘nation’. They are, of course, using the same terms, but not the same concepts that are indicated by these terms.

The ancient rashra-vadis need to recognize that their cultural and social India is unacceptable today. And the advocates of the modern nation state need to realize the basis of their democratic India is very ancient indeed. It is not created yesterday by the British Raj, though that has contributed to it enormously.

The spirit of constitution, I believe, recognizes that. For a fuller justification of this claim one need to seriously study the debates of the constituent assembly and the constitution itself (which I have not done at this moment, but intent to do), but a very interesting indication is available in the pictures included in the first copy of the Constitution of India. They include line sketches of Gurukula, Rama, Krishna, Buddha, Mahavira, Ashok, Akbar, Gandhi, Rani Jhansi, Tantya Tope (? Or is it Tipu?), Subhash Bose and many more. Showing the awareness of civilizational and political history as well as inclusiveness. Democratic national are not built on exclusive theoretical ideas, every citizen has to be prepared to see the contribution of even those s/he does not like! Those who are interested can download a copy of the first print from here. This is a very heavy file, may be difficult to download. A lighter file containing only the pictures is here Pictures in the Constitution. I could identify some of these sketches but not all. Taking help from knowledgeable people. If you can help, please do.

Nation, as some of our liberals are justifiably fond of quoting, is a daily plebiscite, even if that is somewhat exaggerated. If that is their genuine belief the idea of a rastra (though not a Hindu rashtra) as rooted in the ancient Indian culture has to be allowed to be a contender in that ‘daily plebicite’. It cannot be banned from the contest; though has to be necessarily defeated if we want to remain a modern secular democracy. And that requires a public discourse in language that a common Indian citizen can understand. Of course it is a demand for a massive public education into democratic politics but unless that is undertaken in unrest we will continue to have CMs like Aditya Nath.


[1] उत्तरं यत्समुद्रस्य हिमाद्रेश्चैव दक्षिणम् । वर्षं तद् भारतं नाम भारती यत्र संततिः ।।

“The country(varṣam) that lies north of the ocean and south of the snowy mountains is called Bhāratam; there dwell the descendants of Bharata.” [This reference is taken from Wikipedia, I am not fully confident of its veracity, need to check.–Rohit]

[2] Habib, Irfan “Building the Idea of India”, http://awaam.net/building-the-idea-of-india-irfan-habib/