Culture is the root of Indian nationhood

The reverberations of former President Pranab Mukherjee’s address at the valedictory session of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s Tritiya Varsh Varg (Third Year Course) at Nagpur will doubtless resonate for a long time. Whatever one’s ideological persuasion, there is no denying that Pranabda has made a significant intervention in our political discourse.


After running around like headless chickens in the run-up to the function, Congress leaders heaved a sigh of relief at the largely bland presentation and skirted the potentially explosive bits. The former President had ruffled feathers the previous day by writing in the visitor’s book at Dr. K.B. Hedgewar’s birthplace, ‘Today I came here to pay my respect and homage to a great son of Mother India’. ‘Respect’ is a formal term, ‘homage’ goes deeper; the words are broadly synonymous, the devil is in the context.


Pranabda nixed decades of calumny heaped upon the RSS and subtly included it among the venerable national institutions. This could, but need not, hamper efforts to forge opposition unity against the Bharatiya Janata Party in the run-up to the Parliamentary elections. But Pranabda, reputedly in the thick of the exercise, will now be excused. It would be unfair to say he has “positioned” himself as a possible candidate for Prime Ministership if BJP’s tally falls below 200, as some suggest. But he has gently stirred the political cauldron and we can only wait to see the broth.


Mukherjee said India was always an open and globally connected society; he mentioned the Silk and Spice Routes. Scholars now increasingly talk of the Cotton/Linen Route and the Manuscript Route by which Buddhist pilgrims took scriptures back to their own lands. Indian merchants and sages took Indian goods and knowledge abroad; goods were in high demand in West Asia and Europe; culture, knowledge and faith in Central Asia, China and Southeast Asia. Alexander’s ambitions created some of the earliest foreign accounts of ancient India; later Fa Hien and Hiuen Tsang wrote about the efficient administrative systems, planned settlements, good infrastructure, and famed universities. Mukherjee’s reference to Arthashastra could be a hint to look at native wisdom and traditions of governance.


Pranabda punched a hole in the Westphalian model of nationhood, asserting that India was a state long before the European Nation State rose after 1648, based on the notion of a defined territory, single language, shared religion and a common enemy. Indian nationhood rests on the universal philosophy of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (world is family) and Sarve Bhavantu Sukhinah, Sarve Santu Niramayah (may all be healthy and happy). We may highlight here the difference between Indian and Western notions of ‘universal’. The Hindu meaning is that which is applicable or can be adopted voluntarily by all (e.g. Yoga, mutual coexistence without strife, etc.). The monotheist concept is that which should be imposed upon all (religion, culture, thinking, et al). 


Simply put, Hindus celebrate multiplicity in culture, faith, language, everything. In fact, contrary to the popular slogan, we do not believe in ‘unity in diversity’ as that intrinsically suggests potential strife. We believe in ‘Diversity in Unity’, because everything emerges from Oneness. Indian pluralism, or ‘sarv dharma sambhav’ (all faiths are harmonious) and ‘ekam sat, vipra bahuda vadanti’ (truth is one, the wise call it by many names) is rooted in this awareness. Mukherjee cited Vincent Smith, “India beyond all doubt possesses a deep underlying fundamental unity, far more profound than that produced either by geographical isolation or by political superiority. That unity transcends the innumerable diversities of blood, colour, language, dress, manners, and sect”.


It must have riled the Marxists and secular fundamentalists that the former president observed that large parts of India fell to Muslim invaders from the twelfth century onwards, till the East India Company won the Battle of Plassey in 1757 and quickly brought large tracts under its control; the British Crown took charge in 1858. Throughout this political and cultural upheaval, however, India’s “civilisational continuity remained unbroken”. To Indians of my generation, this is probably the first time such an exalted public figure has openly stated that Delhi was captured by Muslim invaders. It could pave the way for a more honest articulation of historical facts and their cultural impact, in future.


British rule compelled Indian nationalists to articulate the concept of the Modern Indian State; all Congress Presidents upheld a Nation comprising the territorial areas of British India and the territories of 565 princely states. When Bal Gangadhar Tilak said “Swaraj is my Birthright and I shall have it”, he meant the Indian People, encompassing various castes, creeds, and religions, across British India and the Princely States. Pranabda made special mention of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s statesmanship in securing the merger of the Princely States and thus ensuring the consolidation of India. Is there an unstated admonition regarding the continuing problems in Jammu and Kashmir? 


Mani Shankar Aiyar has lamented that Pranabda had lent respectability to the RSS, which represents the anti-thesis of the Indian tradition of “welcoming to new ideas and thoughts, absorbing, assimilating and synthesizing what comes our way, whatever its provenance and however associated in historical memory with assault, invasion and political turbulence” (italics mine). This is preposterous. It bears stating that Mukherjee did not exonerate any ‘assault’ related with ‘invasion’; he would be aware of contemporary realities in Assam, West Bengal, and many other Indian States. Nor did he touch upon “Islam and evangelical Christianity”. Readers may note that Aiyar emphasised ‘evangelical Christianity’, indicating overt support for the conversion agenda. Obviously, he regards Hindus who resent or resist as intolerant. 


Critics have rightly concluded that the former President’s presence (and the rage of the all-India Lutyens Brigade) catapulted a routine function into “a national event and the message of the Sangh reached all corners of India thanks to our curiosity over what India’s former president was going to do there”. Some have noted the Sarsanghachalak’s assertion that the RSS works for the whole society (often first responder during natural calamities), but resented his contention that “Hindus are answerable to questions about India’s fortunes” (uttardayi). This is a fundamental truth, underlined by Mukherjee’s reference to foreign invasions. Non-Hindus should explain why they cannot accept the nation’s civilisational and foundational ethos. A political party and an intelligentsia that do not blink when a former Vice President of India attends a function of the terror-linked Popular Front of India cannot baulk at Hindus who are comfortable in their own skins.


The author is a senior journalist and founder of


The article was first published


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