An artistic rendition of the Indian flag

Today, as we celebrate our 66th Independence Day, it’s important to note that India is an unlikely country, a nation that should not have existed!

India is the oldest continuous human civilization in the history of this world. Our history dates back to ~4000 years BCE and some of the traditions established in Harappa and Mohenjo Daro (eg: Lord Pashupati who is now Lord Shiva) are still being followed 6000 years hence. On the other hand, other civilizations (excluding the Chinese) such as the Egyptian, Mayan, Incan, Roman, Greek civilizations collapsed, only to remain alive in buried artwork and erected monuments. The other great historical civilization – the Chinese – despite having to experience frequent wars, has enjoyed a relatively high level of stability over the past six thousand years. Most of the fighting in China has been internal and very few external conquerors like Genghis Khan tried to claim China. On the other hand, the Indian civilization has sustained despite centuries of warfare and attacks.  the history of India is peppered with foreign invasions – from Alexander, the Great to the British.

And India hasn’t needed foreigners to attack the country…we have been fighting a lot amongst ourselves for the past six thousand years. Here’s a list of some of the major kingdoms who have ruled different parts of India over the past six thousand years. The following information has been gleaned from the Wikipedia entry on History of India:

  • ~1000 BCE: The 16 Mahajanapadas of the Vedic period -  KasiKosalaAngaMagadhaVajjiMallaChediVatsaKuruPanchalaMatsyaSurasenaAssakaAvantiGandhara, and Kamboja
  • ~500 BCE: Consolidated 4 kingdoms around the time of Gautam Buddha - Vatsa, Avanti, Kosala, and Magadha
  • 322-185 BCE: The largest empire in the history of India – The Maurya Empire
  • 230 BCE – 300 CE: The Middle Kingdoms of India – Sunga, Satvahana, Kharavela, Kushan, Chola, Pandyan, Gupta, Chalukya
  • 700 CE – 1200 CE: The late Middle Kingdoms – Vijaynagara, Chalukya, Rashtrakita, Sena, Pratihara, Hoysala
  • 1200 CE – 1800 CE: The Islamic Sultanate – Khilji, Sultan, Thuglaq, Mughal, Tipu Sultan, Nizam, Shahi (Islamic), Maratha, Rajput, Sikh (non-Islamic)
  • 1800 CE – 1961 CE: The Western rulers – British, Portuguese, French

 

And despite all this infighting we continue to thrive as a nation. And it’s not just infighting between kingdoms. India has 30 officially recognized languages and 1652 dialects. We have people from three human races – Caucasian, Dravidian, Mongol – living in our country. We have people from almost all major religion living in India. Indians are also divided by an intricate caste system – we have several dozen castes and sub-castes in India. Each state, each linguistic group, each caste, each region has its own cuisine. Some people argue that the human diversity in India is only comparable to the continent of Africa!

Different colors, same feeling

We fight a lot and there is no reason India should have existed given such diversity and infighting, but still we have managed to stick together for the past 6000 years. Why? What makes us special than all the other empires that could not withstand the test of time, despite a large homogeneity? I think the following may be some of the reasons:

1) Common cultural experience

There are 1.6 billion Indians today, some of them far away from their lands, like me. However, all of us – whether we are from South India or North-East India or North India – are bound by a common cultural experience. India has been overwhelmingly Hindu. Today, 85% of Indians are Hindu who share deities, mythological stories, customs and traditions. We have all been told of the principle of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam – the whole world is a family! Hinduism believes in multiplicity of gods and beliefs and thus has offered refuge to any and every religious belief that entered its land. Even Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains had Hindu ancestors at some point or their religions are closely associated with Hinduism. This creates an unparalleled cultural history, an experience which no other nation on this planet can boast of!

2) Caste system

From its establishment in the early post-Christ years, Islam has grown to become the second largest religion in the world! It has spread from all over the Middle East to Northern Africa to Central Asia to Southeast Asia. However, despite being ruled for 600 years, India couldnt become an Islamic state. Why? People might find some explanations in having large-hearted Mughal rulers like Akbar, whose Sufi leanings helped patch up relations between Hindus and Muslims, or resistance in the form of local Hindu rulers like the Rana Pratap and Shivaji Maharaj. However, an important factor that may have contributed here is the caste system. Members of the lower castes may have been predisposed to convert to Islam in the medieval ages, just like Buddhism. However, the caste relations among communities were so strong that once a religion was associated with a particular strata, the other castes wouldn’t want to embrace it. Even now, there are castes among Muslims and Christians. Despite it being an overall bane for India, the caste system may have unwittingly contributed to keeping India Hindu over the middle ages, thus keeping our cultural memory intact.

Times of India front page on 15 August, 1947

3) Partition

I really think the partition of India was one of the best things that happened to this country. The extremist Muslims of the Muslim League, who couldnt bear to live in a multi-cultural society, who were filled with hatred and were prepared to go to any lengths to split Pakistan from India went to Pakistan, while the moderate Muslims, who realized the fallacy in the Muslim League approach, decided to stay and contribute to India. When the Indian National Congress approved the partition plan, Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan (the Frontier Gandhi), an opponent of the partition, famously told the INC, “You have thrown us to the wolves!”. Moderate Muslims like Zakir Hussain, Rafi Ahmad Kidwai and Abul Kalam Azad chose to stay in India. Since the foundation of Pakistan was based on extremism and hate, no wonder the nation had had to suffer such a tumultuous, unstable leadership.

4) Language-based states

For the first time since the Maurya empire 2000 years ago, India in 1947 extended from the Indus river to Myanmar. Some 450 million souls in the 1950s were looking forward with hope. Most of the newly created countries in the past 50 years have suffered extremism and anarchy post Independence – take a look at our conjoint twin Pakistan! India thrived, and one of the primary reasons was a stroke of genius by our founding fathers, especially Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar! The Constitution of India was a remarkable document, which allowed each linguistic group to have its own identity and its own kingdom. The states were allowed to thrive as semi-independent entities – each given a charge of their own fortunes and fates. This remarkable division may have stopped several more decades of infighting between linguistic groups.

The chaotic democracy in India offers voice to thousands of ethnic and community interest groups in the country.

5) Democracy

The Emergency of 1975 as well as the mini-uprising post Anna Hazare’s unceremonious arrest in 2011demonstrated the enormous importance Indians place in democracy. Despite the pitfalls of the system, despite corruption, democracy is a thread that binds every Indian together now. The value we place in democracy has increased many folds over since the advent of the Internet, with government’s efforts to curb Internet freedom and the ease of propagation of information and ease of organizing over the web. The four pillars of our democracy – Legislative, Executive, Judiciary and Press – have severe endemic problems, but there are enough good people at every level in the system to keep it running efficiently. The role of NGOs – the 5th pillar of our democracy – has been crucial in this regard. Representation of the common man wouldn’t have been possible in absence of a democratic society.

 

Today, as we celebrate the 66th Independence Day, India is fraught with problems. The problems are compounded by an ever-burgeoning population, limited resources, climate change and destruction of our natural heritage. We cannot rest on the laurels of our past successes. Today, we are proud of our country because our ancestors strove to leave a country fit for their future generations to live. The challenges of this generation are enormous, but we must also strive to leave our children and our grandchildren a better India.

 

Happy Independence Day!