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A Nation Flawed — Lessons from Indian History

Reviewed by Prof. Gurdarshan Singh Dhillon

by P.N. Chopra
Published by Vision Books, New Delhi
Pages: 188; Price: Rs. 280/-

The book, written on the eve of the fiftieth year of India’s independence, seeks to identify and examine the forces and factors due to which India has repeatedly faltered and stumbled in the past and highlights the need to learn from history. The author, Dr. P.N. Chopra, who has written and edited more than 40 books on Indian history and culture, attempts to analyse India’s shortcomings and weaknesses since the dawn of history, such as, a spirit of self-righteousness; blind belief in fate or destiny; gross negligence and self-imposed isolation from the outside world since the fourth century B.C. till the advent of the Europeans and particularly the British; inability to keep pace with the advancements made in other countries, especially in warfare; the general passivity of Indian people; lack of strategy in wars and conflicts; etc. All these factors, he believes, have tended to prevent India from emerging as a great nation. He feels anguished at India’s inability to learn from past history. “A nation is condemned if it forgets its past and does not learn lessons from it”, cautions the author. He also takes a dig at the Indian leaders who have, time and again, blundered and made compromises just to perpetuate their leadership at the cost of national interests.

“It is a sad fact that all through their history, Indians never developed a sense of nationhood”, laments the author. Indians have yet to develop a sense of shared pride in their civilisation. Secularism, as it operates in India, has come to mean the giving up of India’s spiritual values and heritage.

The book provides a juxtaposition of views on Indian history and culture of eminent historians, journalists, writers and distinguished personalities who represent an interesting cross-section of India. The author has no doubt quoted from a variety of sources, but he does not seem to be very clear in his mind about many aspects and phases of Indian culture and history. Terms like ‘cultural unity’ and ‘cultural uniformity’ seem to have been used synonymously in the book. The author lauds the attempts of Swami Dayanand and Mahatma Gandhi to integrate Indian society. He takes no congnizance of Dayanand’s denunciatory attitude towards other religions. Arya Samaj introduced proselytization into Hinduism and thus it tended to come into conflict with other religions. Its sectarian approach did more harm than good to the Hindu-Sikh communal relations in Punjab. Even Mahatma Gandhi tended to defend everything Hindu and could not act as a bridge between the two major communities, the Hindus and the Muslims. Unfortunately, India could not produce a secular leader who could play an integrating role and save the country from being divided on the basis of the two-nation theory.

The position in the post-independence period is no better. The author laments that the Indian polity has failed to generate genuine sentiments of nationalism. He believes that the seeds of disruption and discontent in the body-politic creating stresses and strains can be uprooted by establishing a strong centre. As a protagonist of centralisation, he rejects the strong historical evidence of “the prevalence of a strong democratic set-up in India from ancient times.” He believes that “this is a myth which should not be propagated, but discarded.” Historically speaking, the first centralised state in India was that of Chandragupta Maurya. But ancient India, like ancient Greece, was a collection of small states. There were many tribal republics, some of them covering large areas. There were also petty kingdoms and city states. The tradition of city or village autonomy was very strong and even when an overlordship was acknowledged, there was no interference with the internal working of the state. Jawahar Lal Nehru in his well-known book, Discovery of India (p. 101) also refers to “a kind of primitive democracy” in ancient India. The issue raised by the author is highly crucial and controversial. It has been an important area of research and the subject of an interesting academic debate for a very long time. The question of country’s unity and integrity can be tackled through a spirit of statesmanship and sincerity by acknowledging all diversity and variety, and not by destroying all dissent through a strong central authority. Unity should not be confused with uniformity. The slogan of ‘unity in diversity’ should be understood in its true perspective. A genuine federal structure based on a solid foundation of the people’s will can be the only effective device to preserve the country’s unity and integrity.

The book touches upon a great variety of topics ranging from democracy, secularism, culture, ethno-social questions, the present political scenario, India’s relations with other countries to the comparative study of religions. The author makes a balanced, fair and objective assessment of many events like the demolition of the Babri Masjid and Operation Blue Star. He believes that these horrendous events have hampered the growth of national unity. He shows a keen perception of the multifarious problems facing this vast country. The book is illuminating and interesting even though it does not rise above the journalistic level. It is not a serious academic exercise.

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