Book reading: “The Idea of India”

I’ve selected sections of Sunil Khilnani’s The Idea of India, particularly from his chapter four “Who is an Indian?” The purpose of this post is to summarise his ideas and then possibly reference them later.

The first part of the chapter Khilnani reminds his readers of Ayodha and goes on to say: “By the 199os, defintions of Indianness were in fierce contest once again: Hindu nationalists struggled to capture the state and to purge the nationalist imagination, leaving it homogenous, exclusive and Hindu; others fought to escape the Indian state altogether and to create their own smaller, homogenous and equally exclusive communities.” (152)

The second section in Khilnani’s chapter depicts the rise of ‘nationalism’ as a concept. Firstly he rejects the “sentimental” view that nationalism ideology began in Bengal in the nineteenth-century to culminate in the freedom-struggle and independence itself. He asserts rather a more complex rise of nationalism, depicting multiple points of view that go beyond Congress and political jargon to the recognition of regional identities visa vi national identity.

He says, “‘Indian nationalism’ is a somewhat misleading shorthand phrase to describe a remarkable era of intellectual and cultural ferment and experimentation inaugurated in the late nineteenth century. The various, often oblique, currents that constituted this phase extended well beyond the confines of a political movement such as the Congress, with its high political, bilingual discourse. The possible basis for a common community was argued with ingenuity and imagination in the vernacular languages, especially in regions like Bengal and Maharashtra that had been exposed longest to the British, where a sense of regional identity only came into being as people tried to define a larger ‘Indian’ community. The belief that Indian nationalism had subsequently to unite and subordinate these regional identities is thus a curious misreading of the relationship between nation and region in India. In face, a sense of region and nation emerged together, through parallel self-definitions – and this point is essential to any understanding of the distinctive, layered character of Indianness.” (153)

Furthermore, nationalist identity arose in opposition to colonial voices. For instance, “…if there was one intention threading together these project, it was to rebut the humiliation inflicted by colonial views, epitomized in John Strachey’s lofty declaration, ‘there is not, and never was an India, nor ever any country of India, possessing according to European ideas, any sort of unity, physical, political, social or religious; no nation, no ‘people of India’ of which we hear so much.’ By the 1920s, at least three distinct lines of reply to this goad had emerged. Nationalist Hindus asserted that Indian unity could be found in its common culture derived from religion; Gandhi, too settled on religion as a source of interconnection among Indians, but manufactured his own eclecic and pluralist morality from different religious traditions; others, for whom Nehru became the most effective spokesperson, turned away from religion and discovered a basis for unity both in a shared historical past of cultural mixing, and a future project of common development.” (154)

Of course Khilnani finds Nehru’s view too naive, but he also argues that the British (who rejected India) too were simplistic in failing to recognise a commonality, a unity, cultural sources both Brahminic and non-Brahminic, even a “civilisational bond”. (155) Importantly, “if India was weakly united it was also weakly divided: there were no politically significant regional identities that could either obstruct unification or direct it.” (157) And in the quest of national identity through recovering/creating Indian history, sometimes fantastical and usually ‘other-worldly’, was formed.

Khilnani continues, “In this search for an internal principle of unity to the past, religion was given a foundational position by both orthodox and reformist Brahmin intellectuals.” (159) These histories depicted classical Vedic period and early Gupta empires as golden eras and the Muslim Period as the decline, as “a dark age that corrupted the society from the eleventh century onwards and left it prey to British conquest.” (160). “But even appeals to Hindu religion” Khilnani goes on to comment, “failed to provide a simple and unambiguous principle of unity: the fact of caste, and the bewildering internal pluralism of Hindu beliefs, thwarted such ambitions.” (160)

Enter Vinaayak Damodar Savarkar… enter Hindutva…

(To be continued…)


10 Responses to “Book reading: “The Idea of India””

  1. 1 luke December 2, 2006 at 10:07 pm

    have read the book twice – the first time in 2000…
    Khilnani of course has the advantage of hindsight and Nehru did not… I guess that is why he’s such a fan of Nehru (so to say)

    i find it an excellent read – but very politically correct.
    another one on the same mould – and dare i say better – is ‘No Full Stops in India’ by Mark Tully

  2. 2 NAyK December 2, 2006 at 10:58 pm

    To Luke: yes. And have you tried Edward Luce’s In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India. I really liked it… especially the chapter on Religious Nationalism. It (like others I guess) give interesting perspectives of ‘known’ things/issues. Of course the ‘conclusion’ in that chapter is a little sedate… ie. pointing to the need to corporatise religion to move it forward like the new guru movements… hmm… hah… hmm.

  3. 3 luke December 4, 2006 at 9:59 pm

    i’m going to look for the book – the name’s compelling enough. that you recommend it only makes me want to get to it faster…

    and if i am not mistaken – isn’t that the fisherman’s net from the top ‘hawa ghar’ in the main building…

  4. 4 NAyK December 4, 2006 at 10:07 pm

    to luke: yes, yes… that’s the same fisherman’s net. What ‘sharp’ eyes you have!

  5. 5 charles September 1, 2007 at 11:01 am

    Hey NAyK,

    After long time, I thought to spare some time of Saturday morning surfing the net. I may continue the tradition of asking your help, and so may ask you sunil khilnani’s book. Alongside, i m also leaving my blog id., please check it out, when you find time.

  6. 6 AK September 29, 2008 at 4:24 pm


    Could you post more of ur ideas? I am reading the book….. too to understand India…..

  7. 7 Kunal February 1, 2009 at 7:24 pm

    I find that the book skips over some very important facts of Indian history which are important to gain a good understanding of the reasons behind certain policy decisions, the indian political structure and indian society. While it presents a good read for an Indian or someone intimately familiar with Indian history and culture, it is a difficult read for someone from the western world. I also find that he doesnt pointedly criticize Indira Gandhi for the state that Indian politics is in today and leaves no clear model with which to predict the future of Indian politics.

  8. 8 Astha Agarwal September 8, 2011 at 6:19 pm

    The article was very nice. Where would i get the complete article.

  9. 9 Astha Agarwal September 8, 2011 at 6:33 pm

    By any chance, do you have a review or summary of the book?

  10. 10 Kanchhedia Chamaar December 9, 2011 at 5:03 pm

    On page 153 of the Idea of India, Khilnani writes:
    “The possible basis for a common community was argued with ingenuity and imagination in the vernacular languages, especially in regions like Bengal and Maharashtra that had been exposed longest to the British, where a sense of regional identity only came into being as people tried to define a larger ‘Indian’ community.”
    I would be grateful if someone would please refer me to the specific writings in Bengali and Marathi where the possible basis for a common community was argued. Specifically, I would like to find out more about the common community that these vernacular writers may have had in mind.

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