Shashi Tharoor: The Battle of Belonging

Shashi Tharoor: The Battle of Belonging

Here is a passionate plea for an ideal of India, an India taken for granted by generations and now seemingly endangered by overt and covert ideas and ideologies that seek to segment it on imagined criteria of ‘us’ and ‘them’.

In a set of over three dozen erudite essays Dr. Shashi Tharoor has dilated on the essential ingredients of ‘Indianness’ as understood in the Freedom Struggle and in the subsequent seven decades of the Republic of India. He concludes by urging the youth to revert to the core values of the Constitution and to its diversity.

I found the essays on Identity and Patriotism particularly enlightening, as also the last section of the book on reclaiming India’s soul. His conclusion that ‘ a Hindu rashtra will end up dividing India’ is disturbing; his preference for a liberal, democratic India, rooted in inclusive civic nationalism is clearly preferable.

The focus of the book is on the core values of the Indian polity and on their systematic subversion in recent years at the hands of a political ideology that has gained ascendency through the political process.

Hitherto, our core values were summed up as an existential reality of a plural society, a democratic polity and a secular state structure. These were accepted in the Freedom Movement, incorporated in the Constitution, and encapsulated in its Preamble. The plurality of our society is evident from the sociological evidence of 4,635 communities 78 percent of whom are not only linguistic and cultural but also social categories. Every fifth Indian belongs to a recognized religious minority. The human diversities are both spatial and hierarchical and seek recognition.

It is this diverse mass that a new ideology is seeking to homogenize supposedly on the basis of a faith premised on an imagined history. As an ancient land, the diversity and complexity of India and of its historical process was well reflected in Raghupati Rai Firaq’s Urdu couplet:


Sar zamin-e-Hind par aqwam-e-alam kei firaq
Karwan aate gae Hindustan bunta gaya

We do not know who the original inhabitants of this vast landscape were who could claim primacy over others. Golwalkar ji has depicted Iran as Aryabhumi to describe the land of the origin of the Aryans; the roots of subsequent arrivals can be similarly traced. None were original; all became ingredients. The pretensions of a common origin and of an original faith have no basis in facts.

Yet, in a short space of four years, India has made a very long journey. It has travelled from its founding vision of civic nationalism to a new political imaginary of cultural nationalism that appears to be firmly embedded in the public realm.
• Why has this happened?
• Why has a plural society, with a long tradition of accommodation of diversity reflected in its Constitution, decided to abandon it in favour of a unilateral and distorted reading of its own past?
• Why is it attempting to rewrite the history of its own freedom struggle and of the values enshrined in it?
Observers have attributed the changes underway to populism, authoritarianism, nationalism and Majoritarianism. The four together create an intoxicating mix, together with a slanted reading of the religio-philosophical legacy of the Indian civilization that depicts us as a dharmic people. Does this lead us to practice intolerance towards fellow citizens and abandon fraternity and social cohesion?
Covid-19 as a pandemic is bad enough but before it our society became a victim of two other pandemics: religiosity and strident nationalism.
Religiosity is defined as extreme religious ardour denoting exaggerated embodiment, involvement or zeal for certain aspects of religious activity enforced through social even governmental pressure.
The founders of faiths and religious systems themselves did not exhibit religiosity nor did they place any right or duty above the basis moral precepts. Dilution or corruption of their teachings came later.


Much has been written and witnessed about the perils of strident nationalism. It is an ‘ideological poison’ that has no hesitation in transcending and transgressing individual rights. Record the world over shows that it at times takes the form of hatred as a tonic that inspires vengeance as mass ideology.

Decades earlier Rabindranath Tagore had called nationalism ‘a great menace’, described it as ‘one of the most powerful anaesthetics that man has invented.’ He had expressed himself against ‘the idolatry of the nation.’ Albert Einstein considered it ‘as infantile disease.’

Patriotism, on the other hand, is defensive both militarily and culturally. It inspires nobler sentiments but must not be allowed to run amuck since in that condition it ‘will trample the very values that the country seeks to defend.’
To overcome this conceptual distortion, we are in urgent need to proclaim a new triad: (a) religion is not politics (b) religiosity is not religion and (c) peace, harmony and happiness can emanate only from adherence to principles of justice in human dealings with each other at the individual and group levels – local, national and international.
The book’s analysis is comprehensive. Yet, it stops short of suggesting a doable recipe of correcting the shortfalls. We are instead confronted with the vision of a “republic of fear” where civic nationalism will be replaced by ethno-nationalism where the new instrumentalities of surveillance and control that have surfaced in the post-Covid 19 will be misused. Evidence of this in all aspects of governance is visible.
Dr. Tharoor rightly says that ‘if India is to reclaim its soul, the urgent national challenge is restore, empower and renew the very institutions of civic nationalism that the BJP has commandeered and weakened.’
The corrective however lies in the political process, the very instrumentality that is in dire need of rejuvenation. Is this being done in word and deed?