Anticipating the Unintended #62: Speaking for the Dead

This newsletter is really a weekly public policy thought-letter. While excellent newsletters on specific themes within public policy already exist, this thought-letter is about frameworks, mental models, and key ideas that will hopefully help you think about any public policy problem in imaginative ways. It seeks to answer just one question: how do I think about a particular public policy problem/solution?

India Policy Watch #1: Re-imagination Of India?

Insights on burning policy issues in India

— Raghu Sanjaylal Jaitley

A nation is built upon its memory. What we choose to forget, the myths we imagine as truths and the markers of our past we memorialise and celebrate shape our imagination of the nation. Nation-building is myth-making at its finest. There is invention and adoption of new traditions that advance the construct of the nation while maintaining a narrative integrity that establishes a linear progression from the past.

Benedict Anderson defined the nation as a social community that’s imagined by people who believe they belong to it while being different from other such communities. Every newly formed nation has to define this imagination. And at that stage, it faces a choice. Or, as Anderson puts it, a paradox:

“The objective modernity of nations to the historians’ eyes vs. their subjective antiquity in the eyes of nationalists.”

This is a tough ask especially for nations that are formed after a period of struggle. There’s a strong desire to start from a clean constitutional slate while paying homage to ‘subjective antiquity’ in areas outside the bounds of law and statecraft. Anderson refers to this in his book Imagined Communities while writing about the Declaration of American Independence, 1776:

It is difficult today to recreate in the imagination a condition of life in which the nation was felt to be something utterly new. But so it was in that epoch. The Declaration of Independence of 1776 makes absolutely no reference to Christopher Columbus, Roanoke, or the Pilgrim Fathers, nor are the grounds put forward to justify independence in any way ‘historical,’ (emphasis ours) in the sense of highlighting the antiquity of the American people. Indeed, marvellously, the American nation is not even mentioned. A profound feeling that a radical break with the past was occurring — a ‘blasting open of the continuum of history’? — spread rapidly.

This departure from the past or ‘blasting open of the continuum of history’ became a norm thereafter for a new nation in defining its imagination. For states that had a longer and often hallowed history (like those in Europe), this was positioned differently. Instead of a departure from past, this was seen as a reawakening. To quote Anderson:

In Europe, the new nationalisms almost immediately began to imagine themselves as ‘awakening from sleep,’ a trope wholly foreign to the Americas. (contd.)

Read as late awakening, even if an awakening stimulated from afar, it opened up an immense antiquity behind the epochal sleep.

But like I mentioned earlier, there is still a need to show this break from the posterity as a linear descent to make it palatable for the society. To simultaneously be a rupture and a continuity from the past agitated the minds of the founding fathers of every newly independent state. The answer to this conundrum was found in history. Rather, in rewriting of it.

Anderson writes of Michelet, the French historian during the time of revolution:

Of the five, it is perhaps natural that Michelet, self-appointed historian of the Revolution, most clearly exemplifies the national imagining being born, for he was the first self-consciously to write on behalf of the dead. (contd.)

… Michelet made it clear that those whom he was exhuming were by no means a random assemblage of forgotten, anonymous dead. They were those whose sacrifices, throughout History, made possible the rupture of 1789 and the self-conscious appearance of the French nation, even when these sacrifices were not understood as such by the victims.

This formulation is probably unprecedented. Michelet not only claimed to speak on behalf of large numbers of anonymous dead people, but insisted, with poignant authority, that he could say what they ‘really’ meant and ‘really’ wanted, since they themselves ‘did not understand.’ From then on, the silence of the dead was no obstacle to the exhumation of their deepest desires.

Let’s pause here for a moment to reflect on the three arguments Anderson makes:

  1. Newly independent nations like to make a new start that represents a break from the continuum of their history.
  2. Nations or communities that have a long history which can’t be wished away so easily use the trope of slumber and reawakening to represent the departure from the past.
  3. Historians are pressed into service to reframe history that shows the past events to be serving the nation-building or myth-making objectives of the present.

The Imagination Of India

Now let’s come to our founding moment and see the choices we made using this lens. India had to present independence as a break from its long history. This was necessary to build a new ‘imagination’ of India in the minds of its people. Why was this necessary?

  • India was the very definition of diversity – over 600 princely states, 14 provinces, dozens of major languages, scores of castes and six large religious groups. It was impossible for such diverse people to have an imagination of its past that’s common and uncontested. It made sense to start afresh with a new narrative.
  • There was also the question of what phase of our history should be considered an aberration that this founding moment needed to correct. Should it be restricted only to the period of British rule or should we go back to the founding of the Sultanate in Delhi in the 11th century? We made a choice (British rule) that we felt would have the broadest consensus in the society.
  • The partition as a human tragedy was unfolding at that moment and any contentious definition of the imagination of our past would have made things worse.

Two other coincidences helped. One, in Ambedkar and Nehru, we had two towering personalities involved in the drafting of our constitution who viewed our society with suspicion while privileging the state as an agent of change. Two, the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi at the hands of right-wing Hindu zealot obliterated any opportunity for an alternative imagination to emerge from the society in the immediate term.

Once this break from the past was agreed upon, it was a question of making it palatable to a traditional society. Nehru who had a deep understanding of Indian history took it upon himself to position this not as a departure from the past but as a waking up from slumber. It is remarkable how closely Nehru follows the Anderson template. His Tryst With Destiny speech is a delicate balancing act between setting aside our history for a fresh start while playing up the continuity of the current moment with the past:

At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance. (contd)

At the dawn of history India started on her unending quest, and trackless centuries which are filled with her striving and the grandeur of her success and her failures. Through good and ill fortune alike she has never lost sight of that quest or forgotten the ideals which gave her strength. We end today a period of ill fortune and India discovers herself again.

This project of a new imagination and the waking up from the slumber was then passed on to historians. The historians went about ‘speaking for the dead’ since ‘the silence of the dead was no obstacle to the exhumation of their deepest desires.’ In India this meant a disproportionate attribution of our woes to the British rule, labelling provincial wars against British armies as freedom struggle, airbrushing contentious parts of our history that would muddy this imagination and amplifying elements that further the chosen narrative.

The specific positioning of events that are familiar to us today followed from here – the Anglo-Mysore wars led by Tipu Sultan, the papering over of the destruction of our cultural heritage by a few invaders in the name of Islam, the playing down of the Hindu kingdoms and the deification of Sufism and Gunga-Jamuni Tehzeeb are all part of this.

I pass no judgment on this project by those who were at the helm then. As Anderson argued, once you have chosen, in good faith, your narrative that’s a break from the past, you will need to rework history. This was neither a unique attempt nor in any way insidious. This what every nation-state did. In our case, it was logical, constructive and forward-looking.

What Now?

The critical question though is this – how deep did this imagination seep into the consciousness of the society? 73 years later the evidence suggests not a lot. The alternative imagination of India as a nation that was suppressed by foreign invaders for over a millennium didn’t transmute itself into the official narrative. Neither did it die out. It remained subdued, biding its time.

The imagination that we adopted for ourselves at independence weakened in the decades of 70s and 80s. The undermining of institutions by Indira Gandhi, the political rehabilitation of Jan Sangh during the emergency, the stifled economy, and the naked pandering to vote banks led to rapid disillusionment with it. The Ram Janmabhoomi movement strengthened the alternative and the last six years have made it mainstream. The alternative imagination has the political mandate now to unseat the original. It believes the lack of real reckoning with our past, the choice of an imagination that wasn’t true to the belief of our society and the constant peddling of this fake narrative has not allowed us to move ahead with conviction. Once free of this burden, we will flower to our real potential. This is a deeply held belief among the proponents of the alternative. The question now is of the political will to make a change and the extent of opposition to such a move by the adherents of the old imagination.

A concerted effort to formalise the change in the imagination will see a repeat of the series of steps that played out during our independence. There will be constitutional amendments that will signal a departure from the original imagination. The last 73 years will be seen a period of slumber from which we must awake. And there will be a reworking of the history to fit past events into this imagination. This is already in progress. That it will gather pace shouldn’t surprise anyone.

There’s only one question that remains. What price will this change in imagination extract from us as a society? We don’t know yet.

It won’t be small.


— Pranay Kotasthane

Narratives are important. They have the power to make the unreal real. One such powerful narrative is the story that defines the largest body of “us”— the nation. A corollary is that since its a mental construct, nations can be and are reimagined. This is an illustration I use to teach the concept of a nation:

At the time of independence struggle, the modern Indian nation was imagined in the backdrop of a shared historical experience — the British colonial rule. That reimagination conceptualised all Indians traumatised by the colonial rule as one people, one nation. That narrative seems to be changing over the last few years. Whether it’s due to a generational shift, changing state vs society dynamics or global influences, we don’t know for sure.

Read the full edition here.

Disclaimer: Views expressed on Anticipating the Unintended are those of the authors’ and do not represent Takshashila Institution’s recommendations.