Raja Mandala: Akhand Bharat and other stories

The idea of subcontinental unity has endured. Its definition continues to be problematic

Written by C. Raja Mohan | Published:January 5, 2016 12:12 am
RSS Suruchi Prakashan, a publishing house run by the RSS, has brought out a map called ‘Punyabhoomi Bharat’ in which Afghanistan is called “Upganathan”, Kabul “Kubha Nagar”, Peshawar “Purushpur”, Multan “Moolsthan”, Tibet “Trivishtap,” Sri Lanka “Singhaldweep” and Myanmar “Brahmadesh”, among others. A caption, in Sanskrit, below the map reads, “All that’s south of the Himalayas and north of the Indian Ocean is Bharat”.

Some ideas come with heavy political baggage. Others come with unacceptable authorship. “Akhand Bharat” seems doubly handicapped. It’s associated with the RSS and generates fears of Hindutva hegemony across the subcontinent.

But the essence of the idea — the unity of the subcontinent — is likely to endure. The problem is with different conceptions of that unity.

READ | Ram Madhav’s column: Akhand Bharat is misread as a political programme of party or government

The disagreements are also about the nature of the relationships between different political entities of the region. There’s also much quibbling over names. The BJP and RSS don’t like the word “India”, which they think is an invention of outsiders. Hence the insistence on “Bharat”.

READ | Mehdi Hasan’s column: Head to head with hate

On the flip side, many in Pakistan and elsewhere in the region accuse Jawaharlal Nehru of wrongfully appropriating the historic name of “India” when the subcontinent was partitioned.

New Delhi’s smaller neighbours complain that they have to cope with the tension between celebrating the shared “Indic civilisation” and the need to assert their separate identities vis-a-vis the largest territorial unit in the subcontinent that goes by the name of India.

READ | RSS and the idea of Akhand Bharat

The term of “Indian subcontinent”, unsurprisingly, is unacceptable, for it creates the same problem as “India”. The “subcontinent” (the preferred term for this column) draws fewer objections, but has strong competition from “South Asia”, which has gained much currency since the mid-1960s. Some want to put some passion into the integration project by fusing the two words into “Southasia”.

Whatever you may call the region, the idea of a “united subcontinent” refuses to go away. Days after Ram Madhav stepped on the “Akhand Bharat” landmine, two political leaders, Sharad Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan, reminded the nation of the enduring idea of a “confederation” among India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Yadav and Paswan are the political legatees of the socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia, who had opposed the partition of the subcontinent. “Confederation” is a far more subversive concept than the idea of cultural unity that Ram Madhav was espousing. Confederation, after all, involves some shedding of political sovereignty.

But the call for a confederation invokes fewer protests because of its presumed emphasis on voluntary and non-hegemonic association.

The concept of the “strategic unity” of the subcontinent is very much part of Nehruvian foreign policy. The idea that the security of the subcontinent was indivisible animated the first prime minister’s approach to neighbours — whether it was Nehru’s opposition to Pakistan’s Cold War alliances or the preservation of treaty-based special relationships with Nepal and Bhutan.

Sceptics would say the rhetoric about “Akhand Bharat”, or a “confederation” among India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, is just that. The subcontinent’s separate political identities have certainly congealed since the middle of the last century. The sovereignty of even the smallest of states in the region — Bhutan and Maldives — is now well-established.

Realists also point to the fact that smaller neighbours continue to mobilise outside powers to balance Delhi and India’s growing difficulties in preserving its much vaunted primacy in the region.

Would it be right, then, to conclude that the current state system in the subcontinent is cast in stone? Not so fast; there are many forces reshaping the subcontinent’s economic and political architecture.

One is regionalism. When Dhaka proposed the creation of a regional forum for South Asia in the late 1970s, both Delhi and Islamabad were wary. While India is now more supportive of regionalism under the banner of Saarc, Pakistan remains hesitant to embrace it, fearing as it does Delhi’s hegemony.

Three decades after the formation of the Saarc, there is much support for the idea of restoring the “historical unity of our common living space” as the journal Himal Southasian, founded in Kathmandu by Kanak Mani Dixit, affirms. Dixit and other regionalists lament the fact that the subcontinent is the least integrated region of the world. They are not, of course, seeking to undo the state system in the subcontinent but to promote greater cooperation through regional, sub-regional and transregional mechanisms.

The pressures to re-imagine the current order in the region are reinforced by the logic of globalisation. Beginning with Sri Lanka in the late 1970s, most countries in the region have shed inward oriented economic policies and are seeking to integrate with the global economy. But can you connect with the world while avoiding economic integration with your neighbours?

Meanwhile, the juggernaut of “red  capitalism” in China is chipping away at the many barriers within the subcontinent and between it and the world. Through  its many Silk Road initiatives — including the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor across the Karakoram and the Kunming-Kolkata corridor across the eastern Himalayas — Beijing is trying to physically reconnect the region that deliberately divided itself.

Economic factors are indeed driving the subcontinent towards greater unity.

But political reconciliation among warring groups within and across the region’s territorial boundaries remains hard as ever. The subcontinent’s story in the coming years could well be about irresistible economic forces meeting an immovable political object. The problem with “Akhand Bharat” is only one part of that story.


The writer is consulting editor on foreign affairs for ‘The Indian Express’ and a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi

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  1. K
    Jan 5, 2016 at 7:25 am
    South Asia has many things in common including a common culture through the centuries. Unfortunately they are divided by the influences of western powers. They should realise that they are being exploited by outside forces and strong unity among them is essential to ward off the per of their resources.
    1. A
      Jan 5, 2016 at 11:23 am
      Akhand Bharat is nothing but nonsense. RSS is crazy.
      1. R
        Jan 5, 2016 at 9:14 am
        I think the opponents of Akhnand Bharat (the ones who arents s) dont really understand what it means. No one is saying that stan should be merged with India and all s should become Indians citizens today itself. It is a general notion or idea, one that may take centuries. In a sense it can be compared to the idea of unification of Korea that some in South Korea have.
        1. K
          Jan 5, 2016 at 7:51 pm
          Nobody that I know believes one word coming out of dopey Jaitley. I would not trust him even if my life depended on it. If BJP loses the next Lok Sabha elections, you will know whose presence made it happen. Remember that he lost the elections! But he managed to get in. But now, if BJP loses the next Lok Sabha elections, you will know who to blame. India must get ready to welcome Mr Nitish Kumar as the next PM. Mr Nitish Kumar has cl and substance. The crouching, dokhla-eating Gujjubhai whose chin touches his chest, is only good to run after the goras for selfies, and provide photoshopped black to pink images of himself to the media.
          1. D
            Dillip Patnaik
            Jan 5, 2016 at 2:00 am
            Since Mahabharat judh India in decline path due to lack of strong leadership. Internal fighting , back stabbing is the national character of India. The dream of Akhand Bharat will never see light at the end of the tunnel.
            1. G
              Jan 5, 2016 at 2:35 pm
              Well Practically speaking idea of "Akhand Bharat " seems unrealistic especially in physical sense ; when we talk in India about creating smaller states in India , how can we talk about managing W subcontinent as single country . While economic integration is need of time which will need strong political wills of govt given unfriendly relations among nations in continents. we can look towards ASEAN for example. And about cultural unity there are some comman threads but there are lots of major differences in different culture even if we talk about only India ,leave alone other countries in region . So Countries in region should strive towards economic integration as it'll help in strong economic growth and lead to improvement in standard of living of people in area which hosts majority of poor potion of world.
              1. J
                Jan 5, 2016 at 5:50 am
                You have not mentioned emergence of EUROZONE after Europe fought two world wars in last century.While Europe was never one, it is trying to become one case of land from Afghanistan to Myanmar and from Sri Lanka to Nepal, India was one for millennia.It is divided in to so many states only since last 500 years.Time for people of all these states to come together as a single economic and military unit.Only deterence to this project is Jihad,Petro dollars and Christian plan to keep us divided.
                1. D
                  Devisahai Meena
                  Jan 4, 2016 at 11:44 pm
                  ORF , in which Sudheendhra Kulkarni works. Its guided by RSS-ideologies .
                  1. L
                    Jan 5, 2016 at 9:41 am
                    Didn't this author are many of the commentators read yesterday's blog in which a logical question was asked what if one expresses his dream of Akhand Bharat through total no-aggressive consensus. I don't go for it given how the neighbours are prospering themselvse and their nations. We have problems enough. It will be good if the left keep talking down Hindus, Hindu politicians and BJP for expressing an opinion,for at least for a period after the kind of dastardly act Indians have just faced in Afganistan and Pathankot. Where are such articles when separatists or even north/south, Hindi/Tamil hate-mongers freely express their opinions?
                    1. P
                      Jan 5, 2016 at 1:47 am
                      Well we can toy with all such ideas but eventually when people become wiser, the idea of India or Bharat will be one and same... The civilization of mahajanpads called itself aryavratta or Bharat... But Greeks called it indica/india and Arabs called it Hindustan... But in all cases the culture civilization is same what Germans called Indic culture based primarily on variety of Hindu sects and their traditions.... Truth doesn't care if you hate the word Hindu or India...
                      1. R
                        Rajendraprasada Reddy
                        Jan 5, 2016 at 2:24 pm
                        As journalist Swapan Dasgupta said any take over of BJP by RSS is dangerous for the country.
                        1. R
                          Jan 5, 2016 at 5:18 am
                          India has survived these last 67 years of independence as one country precisely because of the existence of Muslim stan and the mutual animosity based on religion. This provides a unifying factor to both India and stan, but more so to India because of sheer size. Hinduism is more a way of life rather than a religion and culture, ethnicity, race, and, above, all language provide idenies that are at any time much more potent than religious ideny. If Muslim Bangladesh could secede on the basis of language and culture from stan in just 26 years , we should be thankful for the existence of stan for keeping India united on the basis of Hindu religion. The idea of 'Akhand Bharat' is only a prop for the continued relevance of outfits like the RSS and through them for the continued social and political hegemony of the Hindu upper castes.
                          1. S
                            Jan 5, 2016 at 7:36 am
                            UK and US wanted and used stan as a Military outpost against Russia. That is the reason UK did referendum on provincial lines, if they had done it for the country as a w, unity would have been the vote.
                            1. S
                              Jan 5, 2016 at 7:34 am
                              We need to ensure all share the same values of seamless mega-nation and civilization. Then things like article 370, residency laws and attacks on Hindus in Bengal and Jihadi culture are blockers. A uniform civil code which liberates men and women from strangle-hold of their communities is a key prerequisite. Emphasizing unity over diversity is equally key.
                              1. P
                                Jan 5, 2016 at 9:24 am
                                India will break apart if they go Akhand Bharat. Be happy with what you have, those who wanted to leave have left - it is time you forget historical interpretations (the right wing interpretation is delusional btw) and move ahead and forward. If RSS is so great, every village will be cleaned up - every person will have access to clean water and everything will be well-planned at the gr roots - it is easy to yell like a Jihadi and demand the entire world, but running it is another matter altogether. How about the RSS first clean up the India that they have first!
                                1. P
                                  Jan 5, 2016 at 9:26 am
                                  Not Nepal - no Nepal please. It is too special to be a South Asian country, they are the Switzerland of Asia (that's what their leaders claim... with only India being that obstacle for them).
                                  1. V
                                    Vinod Vinayak
                                    Jan 5, 2016 at 3:40 am
                                    the idea of Akhand Bharat is problematic just because we Indians do not have the military might to fulfill it. we must improve our military might and improve our civil administration level , so that when we have the Akhand Bharat we can govern them.
                                    1. I
                                      Jan 5, 2016 at 2:02 pm
                                      How can there be Akhand Bharat when for RSS stan is Siberia. A place where beef eaters, anti nationals, sickularists and other sundry elements are to be exiled to. You cant talk hate one moment and then friendship the after another blink.
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