Why Sunil Khilnani?
Author and historian Sunil Khilanani is director of the India Institute at King’s College, London. Best known for his book The Idea of India, Khilnani’s latest book, Incarnations: India in 50 Lives, accompanies his 50-part podcast and radio series broadcast on BBC Radio4. The book traces 2,500 years of Indian history through 50 historical figures. Khilnani has often insisted on the need for academics to make past knowledge and ideas more accessible to the younger generation.
VANDITA MISHRA: When your book The Idea of India came out in 1997, you said the question for you was what was the idea of India that Indians were taking with them into the 21st century. In an introduction to a subsequent edition you spoke of a troubling image — of Hindu nationalists tramping the Rajasthan desert in search of radioactive sand after India’s nuclear test. You have called your new book an effort to fill a gap, an attempt to remind people of the diversity of their past at a time when there is again an attempt to reduce their Indian-ness to, what you call, a singular religious concoction. Are we at the same place as 1997?
We are in a different world in India today… That book was concerned really with what was the foundational principle on which the idea of India was constructed… One of the arguments I made was that the foundational principle was a concept which allows a continuous discussion about what India is. So for me the idea of India is not a singular idea but one that acknowledges that there are many ideas of India, that there has to be always a constant, open conversation.
In the times since then, and indeed later, I have written several different introductions to different editions and, in the most recent one, I think, I pointed out that in addition to this question of diversity and homogeneity, the other big issue that has come up is the issue of inequality. That has become much larger and pressing today than it was before.
Is the situation similar? In some sense, yes. I think that book came out also at a time when things looked different and, for many of us, it was quite troubling (as to) how we thought about our nation, our culture, where we were going. So there is an echo of that, but at the same time, what I also wanted to show in the new book was that we have been through many such moments as well. One of the things I wanted to show was that we have been through some of these crises before, and actually it is at these crisis points that some of the most interesting and challenging ideas have emerged.
The other thing that I wanted to (take away) from this account of our history was (that it was) some easy linear progressive story, where it all began as bad and now it’s getting better, that there was a golden age and then dark, and now it is all getting better.
Millions of conflicts that we saw in the past are still conflicts, and actually that should trouble us.
VANDITA MISHRA: In the ‘50 lives’ you have chosen for your book, there are only six women. Also, there is no Nehru, but to readers it seems Nehru is very much there throughout the book. What was the reason you did not include Nehru, and why only six women? And why 50?
About the women… it is symptomatic of the way in which our historical sources for our past are so biased towards men. One of the things I was determined to do in this book was to use archives, documents, archaeological evidence and other kinds of sources. But the sad thing is, if you look beyond 200 years or so, there are not very many sources for women, particularly for women who are not queens or empresses. The first real woman’s voice I could hear was that of Mirabai’s, and even there, using fragmentary evidences. To me one of the great lost treasures in Indian history is the voice of women… There are only six women in the book but the idea that one can raise issues about women only through essays on women is to me mistaken. Questions of gender run right through the book, in the essay on Buddha, (Jyotirao) Phule, Tagore, Ram Mohan Roy.
VANDITA MISHRA: Why no Nehru?
That doesn’t bother me so much. I had other opportunities to talk about Nehru, there are plenty of books about Nehru. We know quite a lot about Nehru. In a personal sense, I was using this book as a way of self-education. I wanted to learn about things I didn’t know so much about.
As for why 50 lives, I wanted to tell the story of 2,500 years, the arc of our history. So I wanted lives that would allow me to sketch that arc, not just lives that were interesting in themselves, cameo lives that had interesting vignettes, but lives that could have some kind of additive sequence. Second, I wanted some lives that would allow me to explore some of the fundamental conflicts or zones of tensions in Indian history. So caste, patriarchy, religion, regional issues, or the ability to be an individual and the constraints on that. I was interested in lives that would allow me to tell all those… Another criterion was lives that we sometimes forget, because in forgetting, we reveal as much about who we are today. The final criterion was just lives that interested me.
Why 50? Well maybe half-century is as good a number as any. But this 50 is not meant to be a pantheon. The book is not called the Makers of Modern India or Builders of Modern India. It is just 50 lives.
SHAILAJA BAJPAI: In The Idea of India, you talked about what India has made of democracy and what democracy has made of India. If you had to answer that now, in today’s context, what would you say?
…In general, globally today, we are at a very interesting time in the history of democracy. In many ways, it still has a certain ideological confidence but practical anxiety about it.
The interesting thing for us also is that we have such an amazing internal laboratory. We have 29 different examples of how democracy is different in different forms. We can do a lot more internal comparison to understand why, in some cases, democracy is translating into some policy outcomes, and in other states, it is not.
VANDITA MISHRA: In a recent interview, you said India has a sliver of time, a matter of years, in which to seize its chances. In your updated Idea of India edition, you have also said that the faster history moves, the more likely one is to get left behind. Why do you say that India only has a few years, or it could get left behind?
I do think that there is a pace at which history is accelerating. There is greater volatility to our opinion today. So, there is a greater acceleration of what used to be more sedate rhythms sometimes in the formation of opinions. Positive opinion can change very quickly and you see that in markets today. That is a result of the increase in density of concentration and diffusion of opinion… Today, it is a kind of republic of opinion. Fifteen years ago, we might have thought that opinion was running in India’s favour, the world wanted to embrace India’s success. That is not really true. The whole world looks today to more protectionist economies, more nationalist and chauvinist politics. This is going to have a huge effect on our prospects… Given that global constraint and given also the enormous internal pressure, the demographic dividend, I think the time horizon is really small. So, we are acting under immense short-term pressure while we have to take really important long-term decisions.
SUSHANT SINGH: Is the idea of India under threat? What is the sense you get, because you don’t stay in India but you are close to India?
As I said, the idea of India is a space, it is not an achievement. The idea of India is not the top of Everest. It is a space of engagement, it is a zone of argument. And, in that sense, we have a particularly intense moment in that argument today. There is a lot to fight for because there is a lot at stake… After all the idea of India… there’s nothing god-given about it, there’s nothing natural about it. It’s rooted in our history, but at the end of the day, it’s only if we know our history and value our history and want to defend what’s valuable about it, that it survives… So that’s what I would say about the threat issue — how it looks like from elsewhere. Many parts of the world are not particularly interested or engaged in the particularities of India, they see it more as an investment destination… But I think what’s happening now is beginning to trouble even the hard-headed investors because this doesn’t look like the country that they’ve been told India is… In the end, that will be a constraint on us… I think there is the beginning of real anxieties about where things might be going, and whether the words match the practical reality.
AMRITA DUTTA: History is very contested right now. Because there’s a lot of misinformation, there’s a lot of photoshopping and a lot of rewriting of history in schools. Shouldn’t historians be contesting this on social media?
I can only speak in my own capacity, but I do think that there is a kind of responsibility on those of us who’ve been lucky enough to be able to spend a lot of time studying — whether it’s the past or ideas — to bring that knowledge and thought to a wider audience, to engage that with the public discourse and argument. Could one use a different kind of technology, which is more approachable for a younger generation, to try and do something that still had integrity and complexity to it, but was in some ways more accessible?
On your point about photoshopping and misinformation, yes, there’s a great deal of that, but what’s the answer to that? The answer to that is to be better informed, and to be more engaged and interested. To me, history and the understanding of history are the lifeblood of any democracy. The reason I say that is this: if you live in a religious society or a theological society like, let’s say Iran, you don’t have to worry about the future because God tells you, the religious texts tell you what the future is going to be. If you live in an ideological State, let’s say a Communist State or a Socialist State, you don’t have to worry about the future because it’s all written in the Communist manifesto or the text which tells you where the great future is. If you live in a democracy, nothing tells you what the future is going to be. The future is what you, as a citizen body, decide any moment it’s going to be. What do you have to draw on to make those decisions? You only really have the past. History really is the schooling ground of democratic politics.
LIZ MATHEW: We’re living in a situation where everybody is expected to embrace a very extreme position. Do you think the plurality Indians used to have still remains? Also, are the new conflicts because of economic changes, which have triggered aspirations among youth?
This urge to polarise is there in politics. Of course, you do it within certain rules. But also, politics in a democracy has to be about persuasion, where you can convince an enemy to see your point of view. That’s why I emphasise this idea of a space for argument, a zone for critical engagement where we’re open to being persuaded on the basis of evidence or on the basis of a more logical or better argument.
As for your other question, I think there is some connection between the increasing urgency of the inequality issue and some of the politics that is emerging today. Why I think homogeneity just doesn’t work is because of what it does to the aspiration of individuals. It just cannot recognise that, and what we see in Indian history is this extraordinary urge for individuality. The colonialists said Indians are not individuals; they’re above all members of castes or religious groups. How untrue that is. This kind of dream of homogeneity denies that.
VANDITA MISHRA: A recurring theme in Idea of India and now in Incarnations is the importance of the individual. You say that the individual is not in our history-telling, it has always been the community over the individual. Do you think that is what we are seeing today, in the whole debate on JNU, because nowhere is any party formulating a defence of those students as a matter of the individual’s freedom of expression?
Yes, I think this does point to one of the faultlines and tensions in our history… A lot of what is going on today is an attempt to affirm individual expression, individual rights and individual freedom in the context of a society, which isn’t very often accommodating of that or recognising of that… We have had now almost seven decades of being an open society. We have had these two-and-a-half decades of extraordinary growth. You put those two together, of course individual expression is going to be really important. And then, when you add the third fact, that we have a young society… what else do they want to be but an individual? And why the hell shouldn’t they be able to be individuals?
VANDITA MISHRA: How do you look at what has happened at JNU, the arrests of the students and the controversy that followed?
Universities have to be sanctuaries, the republic of ideas. They have to be places where you can think the unthinkable, where you can say the unsayable. You have to be able to be wrong in order to find out what’s right and what’s true, and if we don’t recognise that fundamental principle of a university, our ability to be a knowledge-producing, knowledge-generating society will be seriously damaged… The idea that a political authority or the State can interfere in and try to control what is said and thought in a university, for me, is intellectual disaster for a democracy. Ultimately, it will undermine and poison the lifeblood of a democracy, if I can use that metaphor… .
SHEELA BHATT: Is there a common thread running through the 50 characters in your book?
One of the things I wanted to show with the book was that we should be pleased that we are so different and diverse. We should be puzzled about what is the common thread. If you look at our Indian past, it’s a rabble. These are people speaking in different voices, different languages, about different things. Also, it’s not a platoon led by staid, venerable, pious or mainly gentlemen into the wonderful world of nationalism. It’s a rabble of angry men and women. All these figures were angry men and women.
Take a figure like Guru Nanak. We think of him as pious and good. You read about his life. He was completely eccentric. I mean the way he dressed, his ideas about food and women. You take Mahavira, you take Buddha, you take Basava, you take Kabir or Phule. All these figures were eccentric, in a sense, rebellious, angry young people. And that’s one of the common threads to many of them. And linked to that is that they were in some sense dissidents. They were going against the flow of society. Some failed, some did not succeed in their lifetime, but they are a resource for us today. So that would be what draws them together in my view.
UDIT MISRA: In the last two years or so, there is a notion that discussion, debate, argumentation are chaos, and this will hold India back. Do you sense that kind of disdain in the popular narrative?
If you look at democracy at any particular point, there are plenty of things you will find bad about it at that moment. But if you look at democracy in the long run, it is the most resilient system because it is a learning mechanism.
What is described, of course, is a dream, a fantasy or, in my view, ultimately a nightmare of the well-ordered — ‘Let’s get on with it, get the trains running on time, get the streets cleaned up!’. Let’s just look at where it has taken the places that have gone that way. Let’s look in the long run, not just that you turn up in China and it looks all gleaming and shiny. We’ve got to get beyond the veneer to what are the fundamental aspects of the society that we value. And it seems to me that the idea that discussion and argument are luxuries is a deep mistaking of what the idea of freedom is. Why did we fight for freedom? Not to be run by someone who is telling us, this is what we should be doing… Whoever believes in freedom has to really push back and not concede the idea that discussion, argument and the right to express what you want to do is a luxury. It’s why we exist as a society. That’s the purpose. It’s not to get the trains running on time.
Transcribed by ENS, Delhi