The Idea of India

Recently, I read William Dalrymple’s Age of Kali, and one particular section caught my attention.

The railways are now so much part of the everyday life of the subcontinent that it is difficult today to take in the revolution they brought about, or the degree to which they both created and destroyed the India of the Raj. Before the arrival of the railways in 1850, travel in India meant months of struggle over primitive dirt roads. Just fifty years later, tracks had been laid from the beaches south of Madras to the Afghan border, more than twenty-three thousand miles of railway in all. It was the biggest, and most costly, construction project undertaken by any colonial power in any colony anywhere in the world. It was also the largest single investment of British capital in the whole of the nineteenth century.

By 1863 some three million tons of rails, sleepers and locomotives had been shipped to India from Britain, in around three and a half thousand ships. Engineers had looped tracks over the steepest mountains in the world, sunk foundations hundreds of feet in to the billowing deserts, bridged rivers as wide and as turbulent as the Ganges and the Indus. It was an epic undertaking, even by the standards of an age inured to industrial heroics.

The railways also brought about a social revolution. There could be no caste barriers in a railway carriage: you bought your ticket and you took your place. For the first time in Indian history a Maulvi who spent his days contemplating the glorious Koran might find himself sitting next to an Untouchable who skinned dead cows. Moreover, as journey times shrank, India became aware of itself for the first time as a single unified nation. As the bullock cart gave way to the locomotive, a subcontinent disjointed by vast distances and primeval communications suddenly, for the first time, became aware of itself as a single geographical unit. It was the railways that made India a nation.

This sounds really interesting since, given the current political climate, the right-wingers hold claim on everything that came out of this region as something “Indian.” And then, there is a whole dream about “akhand bharath.”

Another insight I have had from here is the self-identity of the Indian mind is governed more by the external than an internal “self.” Let me explain what I mean. As we can infer from the above excerpt there was no idea about “India” to anyone living during the pre-british period within the South Asian region. However, the western part of Asia and Europe referred to the region beyond the hindukush mountains (mainly the Indus valley region) as “Hind” which comes from “Sindh”. (More on that here). Thereby, the identity of India is not a self-identity obtained from an internal awakening/realization that lends to this, but rather from the perception of external parties.

Ofcourse, the above observation is from a macro perspective. From a micro perspective things are very different. There is a very clear identity within the different regions of India. For example, each state(if we treat the borders as fuzzy rather than hard) in India enjoys a certain common language that binds everyone and that inturn lends to the production of literature and culture creating a sense of cohesion.