Githa Hariharan is a fairly well-known novelist who has won acclaim through her works and was the recipient of the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book in 1993. Hariharan was in Goa because she is currently the Visiting Research Professor at the Goa University’s rather interesting Visiting Research Professor Programme (VRPP). The VRPP seeks to bring eminent figures in the fields of the liberal arts, social and natural sciences, and other studies to the Goa University. Even while this augments the exposure that students at the University enjoy, this programme also takes the University itself outside of the confines of the campus to various parts of Goa. Such has been the case of the course in creating a graphic novel, held in the Government College of Arts in Sanquelim, and the very many lectures that Gita Hariharan delivered in various parts of our state. One of these, on 4th September 2015, was a lecture titled “Reading the Nation through Short Fiction" at the International Centre Goa.
I was somewhat stunned by the choice of the topic; ‘the nation’. Haven’t sixty-seven odd years of Indian independence indicated that the project at forging the nation has been an utter failure? Yes, there are people who would argue that the nation is doing well. However, it is likely that these are not the people who have had to pay for the fiction of the Indian nation, more often than not with their lives, their broken and tortured bodies, and with experiences of exclusion and grinding poverty. These six decades have been built over the protests of groups all across the sub-continent, ranging from nationalists in Kashmir, Nagaland and other locations, tribals in Central India, Sikhs in the Punjab. All of these groups have been met with bloody violence and an Indian state machinery that has often violated the law and notions of human rights to maintain the figment of the nation. Then there are the daily violences suffered by persons who are Dalit, Muslim, or more recently, but just as violently, Christian. Sixty seven years of exclusion is what marks the history of the attempt to create an Indian nation.
Hariharan’s choice made sense when it turned out that the fiction she chose for this particular lecture was that written by Saadat Hassan Manto. It made even more sense, when it became obvious that from among Manto’s many works, Hariharan chose those that dealt with the issue of partition of North India in 1947. It made sense because Hariharan’s choice indicated that North India is the locus of the imagination of the Indian nation. Any school student forced to read history will know that the Indian national imagination has a North Indian focus. The histories of peninsular India are awkwardly fitted into national narratives, very often almost as an afterthought. Similarly, the histories of locations beyond Bengal do not find space in these national histories. This focus and these exclusions make it quite clear that the Indian national project is a North Indian one. The nation is defined along North Indian lines, and the rest of us who have been tagged into this nation, are expected to meekly follow their leadership.
Hariharan’s choice of the violence of Partition clarified another fact about the Indian nation. The national project is not only about North India, it is also about the fratricidal politics of the North Indian elite. Independent India was imagined as a subcontinental empire ruled by brown sahibs. It was the fears of the upper-caste Muslim elites of North India that they would be excluded in this post-British India that gave rise to Pakistan. With the creation of Pakistan, the already incipient project of creating a Hindu India began, even under Nehruvian secularism, with renewed energy. The Indian national project has always been a Hindu project, and it creates space for those non Hindu upper castes who can snugly create Hindu histories for themselves.
While the choice of the nation was sufficiently strange, what was even more perplexing was that Hariharan chose to speak of the nation at exactly the time when the attempt to craft the Indian nation is being given particularly vicious attention under the premiership of Narendra Modi. To talk about the possibility of the Indian nation, especially at this point in time, is to in fact to mock the many minoritised groups within India. Rather than honestly recognise the exclusionary violence central to the project of the Indian national project, such discussions suggest that all that this project requires is a little tinkering to make it more palatable. Such suggestions ignore the fact that the problem lies not merely with the Modi government, but rather with the entire trajectory of Indian nationalism that has gotten us to these dangerous times.
It would have been more appropriate if, rather than speaking about the nation, Hariharan had chosen to speak about the construction of the Indian state. While these two terms are often clubbed together, there is a world of a difference between them. Nations do not naturally exist, they are imagined, often based on the imaginations of a dominant group, and then enforced on the rest of the population. Seeking to create a fraternal community national narratives almost never have space for the realities of exclusion. The state, on the other hand, is about power. There is no denial about this fact when talking about the construction of a state. However, the statal project is also is about the binding of that power by law, and recognising that there can be no ideal greater than the law when forging the state. The nation does not admit to this restraint. It is above law, and this fact can explain why with the horrifying growth of a shrill nationalism, the past few years has also seen the casual violations of legislations as well as natural law.
We would do well to recognise that the attempt to craft an Indian nation has failed and is an impossible project. Rather, we should turn our attentions towards seeing if from this mess of a nation, we can focus on crafting a just Indian state.
(A version of this post was first published on the O Heraldo on 2 Oct 2015)