Friday, 22 August 2014

"Akhand Bharat" - More Plaintive Wail Than Battle Cry

After the victory of the Hindu right-wing party (the BJP) in India's May 2014 national elections, a lot of right-wing Hindu sentiment has found expression and gained visibility on social media. I came across this graphic on someone's Facebook status the other day. It's a map of India and its neighbourhood, but it's not something one would find in the pages of an everyday atlas.

The map of "Akhand Bhaarat" ("Undivided India"), one of the core ideological tenets of the Hindu right, annotated in English by me for the benefit of non-Hindi speakers

It shows Mother India as a goddess with a lion as her mount. And it shows not just India but a number of neighbouring countries shaded saffron, a colour traditionally associated with Hindu asceticism and by extension, with Hinduism itself. This picture would be amusing if its implications weren't so scary. In the imagination of the Hindu right, this is what constitutes the original, "undivided" India. It questions the independent identity of India's neighbours, somewhat akin to how China treats Taiwan as a "renegade province". While the BJP itself has made no public foreign policy pronouncements based on this ideology (that would really set the cat among the pigeons!), the unstated idea is that Mother India is not complete until all her territories are restored to her. That is the ideology behind "Akhand Bhaarat" (undivided India).

In my view, Akhand Bhaarat is a jingoistic fantasy with little basis in fact, but it has the power to fire up the cadres and ignite the passions of the culturally insecure. It is likely to cause more mischief and harm within India than between India and her neighbours, because a frustrated cadre of right-wing stormtroopers would find it easier to terrorise religious minorities and "cultural enemies" within India than to attack foreign countries.

As with most ideologies, there is a grain of truth behind the map (Pakistan and Bangladesh were part of India until 1947, and there are some shared cultural elements between India and all its depicted neighbours), but this grain of truth is not sufficient to legitimise the idea of a Greater India as a political entity.

First, India was never a single political entity at any time in its history. India has always been a sprawling collection of kingdoms, some large, some small, locked for centuries, if not for millennia, in internecine rivalry and war. There have been some common cultural elements that bound them together loosely, but a united nation of the kind portrayed has never existed in fact. Even at the height of its geographical reach as one entity (under the British), there were over 400 semi-independent kingdoms within its boundaries. There never was an Akhand Bhaarat! Today's India is the most cohesive it has ever been (And one might add, this is under a secular constitution that treats all its citizens as equals.)

Second, cultural influences have flowed in more than one direction. If Indian thought migrated outwards to neighbouring countries, so too did external influences enter India! This fact is acknowledged by the Hindu right, but it is also one of their major sore points. The fact that Muslim and British invaders ruled India for a combined total of about 600 years, and influenced its original Hindu-Buddhist-Jain ethos by bringing in "alien" ideas and ways of thinking is anathema to them. Indian influence on neighbouring regions and countries is "good", but India being influenced by external cultures is "bad". Like many other right-wing movements, Hindutva seeks a return to a purer past shorn of its external cultural "impurities". Islam is the most obvious enemy, but Westernisation and the English language are no less reviled.

Third, the map shows a parochial bias even within the Indian context. It is quite obviously the product of a North Indian mind, with its focus on regions bordering northern India and the use of the Hindi language. If there was ever a historical basis for Indian triumphalism, it would be in the military conquests of the Cholas, a dynasty of South India. And beyond military conquest, the Cholas presided over the most active regional trade seen in ancient times across the Indian Ocean and even up to the Pacific rim (See Lynda Shaffer's paper on "Southernisation"). The Chola influence extended from East Africa to Cambodia and the Philippines. The Angkor Vat temple in Cambodia is a Vishnu temple. If Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia have places with Sanskrit names (such as Putrajaya, Aranyaprathet (a corruption of Aranyapradesh) and Yogyakarta), that's largely thanks to the Cholas. The concept of Akhand Bhaarat as propagandised by the North Indian-dominated Hindu right is ignorant of this mother lode of potential nationalist pride!

This might be a more accurate picture of India's cultural influence in Asia:

The influence of Indian culture - there are definite zones, and the influence fades with distance

In sum, it's true that India has had cultural influence beyond the political borders of the kingdoms that could legitimately be called Indian, but that's a lot more nuanced than claiming those regions as part of an "undivided India".

I believe the desire to hark back to a mythical golden age of cultural supremacy stems from deep cultural insecurity. The other such example is the Muslim dream of a global Islamic caliphate that will restore the glories of the Muslim world at the height of its power. The Muslim world is in a shambles, and the rest of the world is passing them by at an ever-increasing rate. When the oil runs out, so will the clock. The frustration is understandable, but the answer is not the Khilafah (caliphate). It's modern education, smart economic strategies and lots of hard work. But such a prosaic formula can't fire up the troops like a call to jihad can.

Note that Southern Spain, Greece, parts of China and India form part of the global Islamic caliphate

Islam has this notion of a "high water mark", where any territory conquered by Muslims, even transitorily, belongs to Muslims thereafter, and any subsequent recapture of that territory by others is illegitimate and is an attack on Islam. In the eyes of Islamists, India belongs to Islam because it was once ruled by Muslims. That's why getting India "back" features in their fantasies (Ghazwa e Hind).

Obviously, Indians (except for a section of Indian Muslims) reject this view. The mere fact of past conquest by an entity does not confer legitimacy. So the notion that some country "belongs to" another simply because of a past cultural influence is even more tenuous, and also dangerous.

A civilisation typically grows and extends outwards until stopped by natural barriers. Beyond those barriers, any links with other regions is typically through conquest (hard power projection) or cultural influence (soft power projection). In India's case, natural barriers are the Hindukush mountains to the West, the Himalayas to the north, the Arakan (Rakhine) mountains and forests to the east, and the Bay of Bengal/Indian Ocean/Arabian Sea elsewhere. Those are the outer boundaries that contained the Indian civilisation.

There are of course regions that fall outside of these boundaries that were influenced by India, either through conquest (as the Cholas did in Southeast Asia) or through the spread of ideas (such as through the export of Buddhism). These regions, which are independent nation-states today, can be called India's cultural penumbra. Taken together, they are also loosely referred to as the Indic civilisation, because they have something in common that is different to the Sinic, Arabic, or Western civilisations.

However, if there are people today who think other countries "belong" to India because at some stage, Buddhism may have gone from India to these countries, then they are guilty of Islamist thinking.

(Even with countries that were indisputably part of India in the recent past, such as Pakistan and Bangladesh, the best policy is continued separation and containment. It would be a disaster, not a triumph, if 300 million people of these countries suddenly turned into Indian citizens because of 'Akhand Bhaarat'. I for one would not want that.)

Jingoistic visions spring from a cultural inferiority complex. Indians should accept the best ideas, both from their own culture and from other cultures, and aim to progress both materially and socially. This sick longing for a mythical, non-existent ideal state is neither achievable nor conducive to harmonious progress in the present.

Akhand Bhaarat is not a battle cry. It is a plaintive wail.
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