Swadesh Singh: Despite suffering repeated invasions for more than a thousand years, and also suffering the brunt of partition, India has still retained its essential core unity and its civilisational heritage. What factors do you think have contributed to this outcome?
Krishna Gopal: When we look into the Indian history, despite the fact that there were numerous states which were ruled by different kings, yet the idea that each kingdom was a part of a larger Bharat was deeply ingrained in the consciousness of the rulers as well as the people. That is why India has remained united. It is an ideological, cultural and philosophical construct, which for thousands of years encompassed the land mass stretching from the Himalayas in the North to Kanya Kumari in the South and from the coastal areas of Gujarat and Pakistan in the West, to Parshuram Kund in Arunachal Pradesh in the East. This is a fundamental unity that goes far beyond political unity. That is why over 560 princely states merged with India, when Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel exhorted them to do so.
Swadesh Singh: In the above context, to promote unity, when slogans such as “Hindu-Muslim-Sikh-Christian are all brothers,” were propagated, was it done because there was an assumption that there was difference within which needed to be bridged?
Krishna Gopal: Linguistic and geographic diversity is visible to anyone who travels across the country. The food, the festivals, the very colours of India change as we travel. But these are outward differences; internally, there is a common and similar fundamental philosophy of oneness. Despite differences in language, each language, in its core, propounds the same fundamental philosophy. The values of life, be it in the sense of devotion, reverence for the earth, the concept of karma, birth and rebirth, Nirvana, the idea of salvation etc., all find resonance, whether spoken in Bengali, Oriya, or any other Indian language. This is because there is a unity of philosophy, which is propounded by all languages. The slogans you mentioned were brought in later. They are political slogans.
Swadesh Singh: How is this fundamental unity you speak of to be understood and brought to the masses in the context of present-day society?
Krishna Gopal: The fundamental unity is already existing. We simply have to look beneath the diversity that we see all around us. If people from Assam and West Bengal go to North India, they will observe the same devotion to Krishna as is practised by them. In Kerala, the language is Malayalam, but the poetry of devotion is the same. The plays and articles that have been written by the poets and writers of Assam and Bengal convey the same sentiment. This is the fundamental unity. We need people to travel more, study more and look beneath the superficiality. You see the similarity in the works of Thiruvalluvar in Tamil Nadu and of Guru Nanak Dev ji in Punjab. This is the fundamental unity.
Swadesh Singh: Over the centuries, we have had great seers who have propagated this spirit and unity of India such as the great scholar poet Sankaradev of Assam in the 15th century and Adi Shankara of Kerala who established the Shardapeeth in the eighth century. In the sixteenth century we had Raskhan, a Muslim who became a Krishna devotee as also Tajbibi, which showed an intermingling and an assimilation of culture. India was a great melting pot of culture, so why did the country have to bear the trauma of partition? What happened to that fundamental unity?
Krishna Gopal: When the invasion of Islam took place about 1000 years ago, it came to spread a particular ideology. The inhabitants of this land had never experienced in life a situation that the invaders after winning, to spread their ideology, would attack our original religion, destroy our temples, our ideology and our places of worship. However, despite the fact that India’s intellectual class was under the rule of Islam for seven to eight hundred years, even under the rule of Islam, they fought a long struggle to keep their ideas and their society safe. And they succeeded. In other parts of the world, subjected to Islamic conquest, the local population was subdued and consumed by the invading ideology. But India was the only exception. So, the first thing that has to be recognised is that the people of India fought continuously to save their religion, culture, thoughts and their society. But when the Britishers came, over a period of two hundred years, they cleverly attacked this fundamental unity of India. The cultural unity of India could not be broken by Islamic invasions because the basis of this unity was not political. Hindus were not kings, but pilgrimages continued. Hindus did not have an army and their temples were broken, but the people had the Bhagwad Gita and the Ramayana, and their faith could not be broken. So, the British created rifts within communities, which led to deep divisions and eventually to partition.
Swadesh Singh: Today, the need is about promoting communal harmony and unity within communities, which really means talking about Hindu-Muslim unity. If we consider the two communities to be separate, then will not unity also be very superficial, or are we looking at unity at the political level only?
Krishna Gopal: The Sanatan society that has been living in India has a big basis for its unity. There are hundreds of sects in India, of different types and having different rituals, worship practises and traditions, and yet everyone is united. The basis of this unity must first be understood. Its basis is that in the eternal thought of India, we have accepted some things which are all embracing such as the thought behind the words, ‘Sarve Bhavantu Sukhinah’. It is a prayer for happiness, not just for people who believe in our idea, but for all the people of the world, regardless of their belief system. This philosophy thus also seeks happiness for the people of Pakistan and China and all other parts of the globe. It is a philosophy for universal good. There is thus a pervasive unity in Sarve Bhavantu Sukhinah. We have to understand this. Secondly, India’s Sanatan Samaj has accepted another principle for thousands of years, from Vedic tradition till today. The underlying principle with this thought is that there will be people who say something other than what we believe, there will be people who believe in another idea. So, a theory was established from the tradition of Rigveda that the believers of a second idea can be nice people too. When the Vedic sage said Ekam Sadvipra Bahudha Vadanti, he gave a certificate of approval to an alternate viewpoint. Any idea, said the sage, can be good. It must not be rejected outright. This then is the mantra to unite infinite diversity—in other words, this is unity in diversity. Hence, we have two basic principles: One, a comprehensive imagination of happiness for all, and two, to have a big mind to accept any idea with respect. This is essentially the formula for harmony and unity which overcomes the diversity of languages, dialects, climate, food, clothing and ideologies.
Swadesh Singh: You have done a lot of work on Dara Shikoh as also on a number of Muslim saints who were trying to understand Indian philosophy and thought. But let us talk of the last two hundred years before independence where we see the emergence of a new kind of politics by the British. In 1905, the British government partitioned Bengal on the basis of religion and in 1906, the Muslim League was formed. In 1909, the Muslims were given a separate electorate, which paved the way for them to claim a separate identity and nationality. Now, all these people were also part of the Indian cultural tradition, and in the villages, they followed the customs and traditions of the other communities. Thereafter, it took just a few decades before the country was partitioned. Today, these issues keep cropping up and talks of majority and minority have separated the communities. How do we deal with this issue?
Krishna Gopal: The British understood one thing and that was that their reign would end quickly if India remained united. Thus started British attempts to create a cleavage between Hindus and Muslims. During the Muslim invasions, a lot of cross-cultural confluence had taken place in many spheres. Muslims got engrossed in Indian music, Muslim Qawwalis became popular, Muslims started worshiping the tombs, we see the emergence of the Tajiya procession and the like. We also see many Muslims translating Hindu sacred texts to Persian and Arabic. This continued for five to six hundred years. Britain realised that to continue ruling the country, it was essential to break this unity. Thus started the attempts to isolate the Muslim society and set it apart by giving various kinds of inducements. The Muslim League was formed by the British as was the conspiracy to divide Bengal into Muslim Bengal and Hindu Bengal. Gradually, the Muslim community in India distanced itself from its roots and the draft of the partition of the country was prepared. But with the partition of the country, the problem remained unsolved as a large number of Muslims remained in India. Earlier, Jinnah would say, how can minority Muslims be safe in a majority Hindu state. That fear still remains. So, to bring unity, it has to be done by a change of mind and heart and feelings. This is what needs to be fixed.
Swadesh Singh: Articles 25 to 30 of India’s Constitution guarantees that the rights of minorities will be protected. However, politics that developed in India over the last 75 years has veered from protecting the rights of minorities to the appeasement of minorities. Has this disrupted Indian unity?
Krishna Gopal: With independence, every citizen got the right to vote and the vote became an object of great value. Some political parties then started looking into collecting bulk votes and created new terminology to get such votes. One such terminology was the word minority. This word is a foreign construct, which came from Europe. It meant a small group that is not from that country, having migrated from somewhere, for some reason. It referred to a people who did not belong to that country or that race. But in India, Muslim society was a big society. Post-independence, it was about 12 to 13 percent of Indian society. On that basis alone, they should not have been referred to as a minority. Most of these Muslims were converts from here. How could they be called minorities, simply because they changed their religion? But once formed into a block to get their votes, they were given something or the other to ensure that they always remained separate. What should have ended with the British departure unfortunately did not happen, because the majority-minority concept was created. We are facing the consequences now.
Swadesh Singh: How much effort is required now to see that assimilation takes place?
Krishna Gopal: The Indian state gives citizenship, which confers all the rights to an individual as given in the Constitution. But to be a national you have to change your mindset. Citizenship gives you certain rights constitutionally. Nationality determines your duties. As soon as you become a national, you feel connected with the nation through the tradition of thousands of years. So, you feel the happiness and sorrow of the nation as yours. You feel the history and geography of the nation as yours. Nationality hence should be equal for all. The feelings of happiness and sorrow of the nation, the feelings of those who are enemies and friends for the nation are the same. All citizens must share this nationalist sentiment. As an example, our former President, Dr Abdul Kalam, who was a great scientist, developed various missiles for India. He named them Akash, Nag Trishul, etc. These names are symbols of the nationalist sentiment. Our Muslim brothers and sisters must associate themselves with the history of the country and not with the history of the invaders who destroyed the temples, tormented the people, levied the jizya tax and caused great pain and suffering. If they associate themselves with the invaders, then how will they be called national?
Swadesh Singh: The debate on communal harmony for the last 75 years in India, that is, has centred on secularism. Hindu society by its very nature is secular. But the practise of secularism has not been uniform, both within the polity as well as within certain communities. The Honourable Prime Minister in his Independence Day address spoke about a ‘nectar period’, where India has to move forward for the next 25 years. We imagine a prosperous Bharat – a ‘Samarth’ Bharat. How should we now debate the idea of communal harmony? What should be its form? And how should society take it forward?
Krishna Gopal: There are two things which need to be discussed. The first is providing financial and other assistance to minorities. It is done in the name of their welfare, but the results can never be good. For example, we give scholarships to the children of minority communities to study. It is okay, as it is given to poor children. But suppose, in a class of 40 children, there are five children from the minority communities who are poor and are being given a scholarship. But there are 10 other children in that class who are also poor, but they are not given a scholarship because they do not belong to the minority community. This creates discord, because in the minds of those ten children, the question arises: Why have we not been given help, when the condition of our house is even worse than theirs? Such one-sided assistance only creates greater differences in society instead of harmony. So, financial and other assistance must be uniformly given to all, rather than on a segregation basis. The recent example of the government providing toilets and cooking gas to all poor households regardless of their religion is the way forward. Help should be given to those who need it. If there is greater poverty in the minority community, then automatically they will get more. Banks should be opened where there is a need for a bank. Training should be given to those artisans who need them. This country is ours—we should not divide it in the name of minority-majority as has happened thus far. We need to look at all citizens with the same eye and not from a religious viewpoint. This was so stated in the Constituent Assembly but this could not happen. The people who were in the Constituent Assembly, the people who were our architects of the Constitution, had this vision. We need to realise this vision, which can be done by looking at the whole of society as one. To end poverty, we have to look at all the poor in the whole society and not at just one particular religious group.
Swadesh Singh: For the last 50 years, your work has focused on keeping the whole of society at centre-stage. Since Independence, a lot of work has also been done on equality too. I will now take up the issue of fraternity. How should India move in this direction, as a society?
Krishna Gopal: The Constitution has given equal rights, equal freedom to all. You can go anywhere in the country, live anywhere, get education, get justice, do a job, do business, buy land, vote, contest elections—this is the right of everyone. The Courts are the same for all as is the Constitution, but this, by itself, will not lead to fraternity. Constitution can give rights. But the Constitution is not capable of bringing about a change of mind. For that, something else has to be done. We must remember that the history of the last 700 to 900 years has also deeply ingrained certain memories in people’s minds. The invaders cannot be considered as role models, and so this is a mind-set change which is required. If some people continue to consider those that vandalised and destroyed our temples, imposed Jizya tax and tyrannised and brutalised the people as their leaders, then the rest of the society will associate these people with the invaders, and fraternity will not come about. The first thing then that needs to be done is that the people living in India should be separated from the people who wrote the history of the ruin of this country. Secondly, as I stated earlier, there can be any number of faiths, creeds, sects in the world; the feeling of respect for everyone is the ‘Sanatan‘ ideology of India. This is what it means to be an Indian—respecting every faith and creed of the world and imagining everyone’s happiness. These two attributes define being an Indian. We have to wait till these two conditions come about, but how this will happen is a difficult question to answer. In Indian tradition, it is a big condition to respect everyone’s views. And imagining everyone’s happiness is the second big condition. When an Indian goes abroad, he takes these two ideas with him and respects the views of the people in that land, whether it is the United States, Canada, UK, Germany or any other part of the globe. He imagines the happiness of the people there. In his prayer, he always says ‘Sarve Bhavantu Sukhin‘: If these two things will come to all people, then it will be easy to bring a sense of fraternity. Yes, we have had hundreds of years of turmoil, struggles, ups and downs and suffering, but today we are free. An Independent India means India remembering its ancient glorious form, keeping its philosophy in mind, moving forward in the light of that philosophy which portrays unity in diversity. Many a time, this diversity is understood in the form of a bundle of hundreds of different types of wood, tied with a rope. This is true, but it is only a half-truth. Let us understand it in terms of a tree, which has multiple branches that proliferate and extend all around. The root is however the same. The diversity that India envisions is vastly expanded from one branch of this tree to the other. The unity is in the root, diversity is seen only in the branches. Conflicts can arise in that diversity, but if fundamental unity is seen then these struggles and differences cease. This is the fundamental philosophy of India. To see ‘One’ in many. And this vision of ‘Oneness’ has the power to end all discrimination, jealousy and conflict. There is great power in unity. The vision of unity is capable of quelling all conflicts and disputes.
- Shri Krishna Gopal is Sah-Sarkaryawah, Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS).
- Dr. Swadesh Singh is an Assistant Professor at Delhi University and General Secretary of the Alumni Association of JNU (AAJ).