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Opinion Op Ed 12 Feb 2020 Cultural bonds to th ...
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in New Delhi

Cultural bonds to the soil: Who is an Indian and who is a foreigner?

Published Feb 12, 2020, 6:05 am IST
Updated Feb 12, 2020, 6:05 am IST
A feature of the pre-Westphalia nations and empires was their shifting borders, as with the Roman and Mauryan or Mughal rulers.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi
 Prime Minister Narendra Modi

The 1648 treaty of Westphalia created the modern template of nation-states out of collapsing empires and kingdoms in Europe. That prescription is still not fitting everyone’s need (or greed), giving rise to bloody eruptions in Palestine, Kashmir, the Falklands, Ireland and along the Durand and McMahon Lines, for example.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s idea of the Indian nation with frozen boundaries guarded by imported anti-missile systems borrows as much from medieval Europe as from the division of spoils in the aftermath of colonial conquest of Indian states and principalities. The revered woman embodying the Indian motherland and sometimes interpreted as goddess Durga was put in the popular consciousness as Mother India around 1905.


That was when the Bengali resistance to the Partition of their province by Lord Curzon created the fiery feminine image. European printing technology boosted the imagery far and wide, an early prototype of WhatsApp, since the job was to repeat messages regardless of their veracity.

When, however, a Malayali in Dubai says he is going to his “muluk” during the summer break, he means he is going to his village in Kerala. When the thumri singer pleads with the “pardesi” lover to not leave her alone that night, she is not referring to him as a foreigner, but to somebody from a neighbouring town or a distant village. In the popular context of Indian cinema, Shashi Kapoor plays a distraught boatman from the Dal Lake in Srinagar feeling let down by his ephemeral sweetheart Nanda from Bombay. And he describes her as a pardesi in a lilting song, a foreigner who was very much an Indian albeit from a higher class and therefore of a problematic echelon.


Distances took longer to traverse. The gopis in Mathura sorely missed Krishna who had gone only on a short trip to nearby Brij. But they were waiting and moping in his absence, creating a genre of alluring poetry and folk songs in Braj bhasha. In Persian, the term “beganeh” represents the loose definition of pardesi of Urdu or Hindi, and is often used in movie songs.

When a Pakistani uncle applied for an Indian visa, he was denied it because of his anti-British Communist past in Kanpur until the late national security adviser J.N. Dixit intervened. The gentleman had expressly wanted to kiss the earth of his ancestral village in Rae Bareli in the evening of his life, a longing for khaak-i-watan, an emotion not unique to Indians. Jawaharlal Nehru and Ram Manohar Lohia stoked the dreams of those Indians who wanted to see bonhomie between Indian and Pakistani people in a kind of a South Asian confederation.


In one of his last interviews in 1963, Nehru said his worry was that the Pakistani leaders mistook the idea of a confederation as an Indian ploy to annex their country. In a contemporary allegory, Pakistan preferred its religiously framed Brexit in 1947 for fear of getting swamped by an overtly Hindu culture or alternatively a secular bonding as later glimpsed in the European Union.

Most Indians see the colonially inspired, narrow Westphalian avatar of their country from the vantage point of their varied villages and provinces — the muluks. They love the maadar-i-watan, or motherland, from their diverse cultural and regional prisms. Some would understand (as they did the other day at Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh) the love of the country flowing from Carnatic vocalist T.N. Krishna’s multilingual experiment to sing Faiz Ahmed Faiz in Tamil, Telugu and Urdu, a near impossible feat for a north Indian.


Imagine Mehdi Hasan or Iqbal Bano singing the Thyagarajah kriti, Endaro Mahanubhavulu!

Some others would see their idea of a nation through the spontaneous bonding of Sikh peasants who brought food and succour from their distant villages for the mostly Muslim women protesters in Delhi, in the adulating company of men, women and children from every faith and region. A Christian choir presented the moving hymn Abide with me to make their stand against its deletion from the military band. It was only after their stand that the hymn was restored to the military’s musical repertoire. A Hindu priest broke into an ancient fire worship and Sufis sang qawwalis on harmoniums that Tagore first acquired from the Western orchestra.


On the political front, Bhagat Singh’s idea of India was internationalist, and may have been better reflected years later in John Lennon’s spiritual but religiously aloof composition, Imagine. Maulana Hasrat Mohani, an admirer of Tilak and a Muslim League bete noire for Jinnah, refused to sign the Constitution as a member of the Constituent Assembly because the new nation lacked the egalitarian sinews of the Soviet Union.

A feature of the pre-Westphalia nations and empires was their shifting borders, as with the Roman and Mauryan or Mughal rulers. It was a treat to hear octogenarian historian Romila Thapar on the subject some time ago. The other day though, the public intellectual expressed her love for her troubled country by taking the hand of a young activist in a hijab to walk to Shaheen Bagh, thus making her case for a stubborn fight against narrow nationalist bigotry.


Her hero, Nehru, also had a panoramic view of the world in which he situated India. A useful clue into a reason why Nehru is shunned and hated by the Hindutva clan can be found in his Discovery of India, where he saw as insightful medieval chronicler Al Beruni’s observations about Indians who, he said, “believe that there is no country but theirs … no religion like theirs, no science like theirs. They are haughty, foolishly vain, self-conceited, and stolid”. Nehru was extremely concerned by the mutation that came to afflict the Westphalian pact in the early 20th century. He saw Europe breaking into pockets of narrow, intolerant and hateful nationalism that would swamp Germany and Italy before heading to India dressed as Hindutva.


By arrangement with Dawn