Faith in India’s destiny


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INDIA today is passing through ‘a period of ill-fortunes’, to borrow a Nehruvian phrase, and needs to discover herself again. ‘All of us, to whatever religion we may belong,’ Jawaharlal Nehru had proclaimed at the midnight hour of 14-15 August, 1947, ‘are equally the children of India with equal rights, privileges and obligations.’ That pledge, far from being redeemed, is in the process of being betrayed.

Nehru’s famous ‘tryst with destiny’ speech began with a confession. The pledge of freedom was being redeemed ‘not wholly or in full measure’. The claim that it was being realized ‘very substantially’ was questionable if one reflected for a moment on the hefty human toll being taken by the tragedy of Partition. Nehru made moving references to ‘the architect’ of India’s freedom. ‘We have often been unworthy followers of his,’ he acknowledged, ‘and have strayed from his message.’ The Mahatma’s silence spoke louder than Nehru’s eloquence. Far away from the celebrations in New Delhi, Gandhi chose to spend Independence Day in a Muslim home in Calcutta. The information and broadcasting department of the government of India asked him for a message. The Father of the Nation, never at a loss for words, simply said that ‘he had run dry’.

As a wave of unreason and inhumanity sweeps across our land, the 70th anniversary of independence calls for soul-searching introspection rather than chest-thumping celebration. Nehru had described the moment of freedom as a rare one when ‘the soul of a nation’, long suppressed found utterance. Should we be enticed today by his poetic evocation of destiny? In the subtitle of his book Identity and Violence, Amartya Sen speaks of ‘the illusion of destiny’. Belief in destiny might entail a rejection of reason and a negation of choice. There is the added risk of ascribing misfortunes in the life of the nation to malign destiny. On closer reading of Sen’s book it becomes clear that his critique is directed more towards the illusion of singular identity than the concept of destiny as such. It is the ethical imperative of accommodating and embracing multiple identities that must engage us today. The emotive force of religious majoritarianism cannot be combated by pure intellect alone. That is where the politics of affect expressing faith in India’s destiny matters in today’s battle for the soul of India.


It was the Mahatma’s moral force that ensured peace prevailed in Calcutta on 15 August 1947. Gandhi published an editorial titled ‘Miracle or Accident’ on 16 August, the first anniversary of the Great Calcutta Killing, in which he narrated how Hindus and Muslims chanted ‘Jai Hind’ in unison. It was neither miracle, nor accident, but the willingness of human beings to dance to God’s tune. ‘We have drunk the poison of mutual hatred,’ Gandhi wrote, ‘and so this nectar of fraternization tastes all the sweeter, and the sweetness should never wear out.’

When Calcutta relapsed into violence at the end of August, Gandhi undertook another fast from September 1 to 4, 1947. ‘Can you fast against the goondas?’ Rajagopalachari asked. ‘It is we who make the goondas,’ replied Gandhi.


The final five and a half months of Gandhi’s life constitute a message for the predicament we face in India today. While Nehru tended to blame religion for fomenting social and political conflict, Gandhi had a keener insight when he commented: ‘Irreligion masquerades as religion.’ When the first AICC session in post-Independence India convened from November 15 to 17, Gandhi spoke with absolute clarity about the responsibility of the ruling party and government. ‘No Muslim in the Indian Union,’ he told them, ‘should feel his life unsafe.’ His final fast launched on 12 January 1948, was designed to assert that no one had a right to say India belonged to only the majority community and ‘the minority community can only remain there as the underdog’.

On 23 January 1948 – just a week before his tragic assassination – Gandhi was ‘very glad’ to take note of Subhas Chandra Bose’s birthday, even though he ‘generally did not remember such dates’ and ‘the deceased patriot believed in violence’, while he was wedded to non-violence. Subhas, according to the Mahatma, ‘knew no provincialism nor communal differences’ and ‘had in his brave army men and women drawn from all over India without distinction and evoked affection and loyalty, which very few have been able to evoke’. ‘In memory of that great patriot’, he called upon his countrymen to ‘cleanse their hearts of all communal bitterness’.

The spectre of a great communal divide has often obscured the other key dynamic – the interplay of centre and region – that influenced the expedient decision to partition India and the provinces of Punjab and Bengal. Paying the price of Partition enabled the Indian National Congress to inherit the centralized structure of the British Raj along with its accompanying ideology of unitary sovereignty. Centralism initially donned the cloak of secularism (and socialism) before changing in recent decades to its saffron garb. The stirrings of the nation’s soul had occurred not at the midnight hour of 14-15 August 1947, as suggested by Nehru’s rhetorical flourish, but through the decades of struggle that preceded the moment of arrival. Bharata, from whom the name Bharatavarsha is derived, had been described in ancient texts as Rajchakrawarti. The Swadeshi leader Bipin Chandra Pal explained in his book The Soul of India that the ‘literal meaning of the term is not emperor, but only a king established at the centre of a circle of kings. King Bharata was a great prince of this order.’ His position was ‘not that of the administrative head of any large and centralized government, but only that of the recognized and respected centre’ which was the ‘general character’ of all great princes in ancient times. Under Muslim rule, according to Pal, Indian unity, ‘always more or less of a federal type,’ became ‘still more pronouncedly so’.


Pal’s compatriot Aurobindo analysed the ideal type of the dharmarajya described in the epics as ‘not an autocratic despotism but a universal monarchy supported by a free assembly of the city and provinces and of all the classes’. The ancient ideal recognized that ‘unification... ought not to be secured at the expense of the free life of the regional peoples or of the communal liberties and not therefore by a centralized monarchy or a rigidly Unitarian imperial State’. Aurobindo suggested that ‘a new life’ that ‘seemed about to rise in the regional peoples’ in the eighteenth century was ‘cut short by the intrusion of the European nations’. The ‘lifeless attempt’ to ‘reproduce with a servile fidelity the ideals and forms of the West’ was ‘no true indication of the political mind and genius of the Indian people’. In an era of modern democracy the union government needs to see itself as a government at the centre of a circle of state governments.


The theme of the federal unity of India that respectfully accommodated the myriad internal differences of language, region and religion was a general characteristic of the most sophisticated political thought in India during the early decades of the twentieth century. In a major speech to the Maharashtra Political Conference in 1928, Subhas Chandra Bose envisioned India of the future as ‘an independent federal republic’ even as he called for ‘cultural intimacy’ among India’s different communities. Sidelined in 1947, the federal idea has acquired renewed urgency in 2017 as an alternative to religious majoritarianism.

The federalist strand of thought permeated ideas about economic reconstruction as well. Now that the current government has made a travesty of the historic midnight session of 1947 by imitating it to ring in the Goods and Services Tax on 30 June 2017, it is worth recalling that even a figure like Madan Mohan Malaviya subscribed to a notion of fiscal federalism. He told the Decentralization Commission of 1908: ‘The unitary form of Government which prevails at present should be converted into a federal system. The Provincial Governments should cease to be mere delegates of the Supreme Government, but should be made semi-independent Governments.’ As President of the Congress at its 1909 session in Lahore, he declared: ‘What is needed is that the Government of India should require a reasonable amount of contribution to be made [for Imperial purposes] and should leave the rest of the revenues to be spent for Provincial purposes.’

‘Nevertheless,’ Nehru proclaimed at the stroke of the famous midnight, ‘the past is over and it is the future that beckons to us now.’ Yet he also recognized that ‘the past clings on to us still in some measure and we have to do much before we redeem the pledges we have so often taken’. The 70th anniversary of freedom may be an apt occasion to ponder the relationship between the past and the future, the old and the new. In 2017, the man who now occupies Nehru’s chair has taken to talking rather vacuously about ‘a new India’. ‘Let New India arise,’ Swami Vivekananda had proclaimed, ‘arise out of the peasants’ cottage, grasping the plough; out of the huts of the fisherman, the cobbler, and the sweeper.’ His message of equality went beyond class to encompass gender and caste as well. ‘In India there are two great evils,’ in his view, ‘trampling on the women and grinding the poor through caste restrictions.’


Vivekananda’s vision was fundamentally one of religious harmony. He wrote with acute insight: ‘Nothing has made more for peace and love than religion; nothing has engendered fiercer hatred than religion. Nothing has made the brotherhood of man more tangible than religion; nothing has bred more bitter enmity between man and man than religion. Nothing has built more charitable institutions, more hospitals for men, and even for animals, than religion; nothing has deluged the world with more blood than religion.’ It was this profound understanding that led him to proclaim in Chicago: ‘We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true.’

Vivekananda was opposed to religious bigotry and religious fanaticism, but he always upheld the true essence of religion. So far as India is concerned, we need to understand that most people in our country are God-fearing. They have deep religious faith and sensibility, but do not harbour feelings of bias towards other communities. Vivekananda knew this basic characteristic of our people and instructed us: ‘Keep the motto before you – "Elevation of the masses without injuring their religion".’ He taught his followers to have pride in their own religion without exhibiting the slightest prejudice against the religion of others. Vivekananda had his own intellectual vision of synthesis in the Indian context. ‘I am firmly persuaded,’ he wrote, ‘that without the help of practical Islam, theories of Vedantism, however fine and wonderful they may be, are entirely valueless to the vast mass of mankind.’ This was because, as he put it, ‘if ever any religion approached to this equality in any appreciable manner, it is Islam and Islam alone.’ He suggested the possibility of ‘harmonizing the Vedas, the Bible and the Koran’.


Vivekananda was a prophet of patriotism, but he was not inward looking. In my view, he was not a Swadeshi nationalist, but the pioneer among Swadeshi internationalists or Swadeshi universalists who went out to preach India’s message to the wide world. Vivekananda taught us to mix with all the races of the earth. ‘And every Hindu that goes out to travel in foreign parts,’ he believed, ‘renders more benefit to his country than hundreds of men who are bundles of superstition and selfishness. India’s doom was sealed the very day they invented the word mlechha and stopped from communion with others.’ The sage held a balanced view of ancient India which contemporary champions of India’s past would do well to heed. ‘There were many good things in the ancient times,’ according to Vivekananda, ‘but there were bad things too. The good things are to be retained, but the India that is to be, the future India, must be much greater than ancient India.’


It is not easy to be rid of bad things from the past. The 2010s are witnessing a recrudescence of the hatred that marked the cow protection movements of the 1890s and the shuddhi and sangathan movements of the late 1920s. Rabindranath Tagore’s book Nationalism, published exactly a hundred years ago in 1917, has a passage that sounds like an uncanny foretelling of the social and political crisis besetting India in 2017. ‘The social habit of mind,’ he wrote, ‘which impels us to make the life of our fellow beings a burden to them where they differ from us even in such a thing as their choice of food is sure to persist in our political organization and result in creating engines of coercion to crush every rational difference which is the sign of life. And tyranny will only add to the inevitable lies and hypocrisy in our political life.’

Destiny rescues us from debilitating pessimism in the face of ferocious assaults on the expression of rational difference. The song composed by Tagore that we have adopted as our national anthem offers thanks to ‘Bharata Bhagya Bidhata’ for the divine benediction showered so generously on our country and our people. It had pleased Providence to guide India’s destiny and to give succor to its suffering populace. The poet’s lyrics sang a paean to the expression of this divine glory that had many attributes – the ‘Jana gana mangal dayak’, the Giver of grace, was at the same time the ‘Jana gana-aikya-bidhayak’ – the One who crafted unity out of India’s myriad religious and regional diversity. The eternal charioteer was also the ‘Jana gana path parichayak’ – navigating for his followers a most difficult path.

Patan-abhyudaya-bandhurpontha, jug-jug dhabitajatri

He Chirasarathi taba rathachakre mukharita path dinratri

Darun biplab-majhe taba shankha-dhwani baje

Sankat dukhhatrata.

The gender of this divinity is uncertain. The ‘janaganadukhatrayak appears in feminine form.

Ghortimirghana nibir nishithe peerita murchhita deshe

Jagrata chhilo taba abichala mangala natanayane animeshe

Duhswapne atanke raksha korile anke

Snehamayee tumi Mata.


The maker of India’s destiny gives solace in the darkest of times and offers hope that the terror of a nightmare will pass. ‘The appointed day has come,’ Nehru said of the tryst, ‘the day appointed by destiny – and India stands forth again, after long slumber and struggle, awake, vital, free and independent.’ Was 15 August 1947 the day appointed by destiny? A rational view will suggest it was not. Was it not a date chosen by the hustling last Viceroy as he speeded up the process of disengagement in order to quit India with the least possible harm to British interests? Yet, exactly two years before independence on 15 August 1945, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose had issued a poignant last Order of the Day to those who fought under his leadership for India’s freedom: ‘Never for a moment falter in your faith in India’s destiny. India shall be free and before long.’

And who would not wish to recite with Nehru his midnight pledge: ‘And to India, our much-loved motherland, the ancient, the eternal and the ever-new, we pay our reverent homage and we bind ourselves afresh to her service. Jai Hind. Jai Hind.’


* Sugata Bose is the author of, among others, His Majesty’s Opponent: Subhas Chandra Bose and India's Struggle against Empire (2011) and A Hundred Horizons: The Indian Ocean in the Age of Global Empire (2006).