An unlikely nation

Many predicted that the state of India would fail and that its races and religions would surely not

Speaking in Cambridge in 1880, a high official of the British Raj named Sir John Strachey said that the "first and most essential thing to learn about India" is that "there is not, and there never was an India". Strachey thought it "conceivable that national sympathies may arise in particular Indian countries", but "that they should ever extend to India generally, that men of the Punjab, Bengal, the Northwestern Provinces, and Madras, should ever feel that they belong to one Indian nation, is impossible".

One hundred and twenty-five years after Strachey issued this verdict, I was driving from Patiala to Amritsar, a day's journey during which I traversed almost the whole breadth of the Indian province of Punjab. Early on, my car was held up by a level crossing. A goods train passed by leisurely, and I read the signs on the wagons - SR, NR, SCR, SER, WR - the "R"standing always for "Railway", the other letters for the different regional branches of India's greatest and most genuinely public-service organisation. In the course of their wanderings over the years, the wagons had got all mixed up, so that one which rightfully belonged to the Northern Railway was placed next to one that was the property of the South Central Railway, and so on.

The train passed, and my car started up again. An hour later we came to the town of Khanna. I knew this to be a famous grain mandi, or market, so I sat up and looked at the signs. One especially struck me: "Indian Bank, Khanna Branch. Head Office: Rajaji Salai, Chennai". The Indian Bank was founded in Madras (now Chennai) in the early 20th century by a group of patriotic entrepreneurs. "Rajaji" was the honorific given to C Rajagopalachari, the great Tamil writer and nationalist who became the first Indian to hold the office of governor general.

These two encounters provided an emphatic repudiation of Strachey's verdict. It was typical that the wagons belonging to different regional branches of Indian Railways had got so messed up; but that there was an Indian Railways to which all those branches owed allegiance signalled a unity amidst the diversity. And that a burly, mutton-eating, whisky-guzzling Sikh farmer in the Punjab would bank his savings in a bank headquartered in Chennai, on a road named for an austere, vegetarian Tamil scholar, was charming beyond words.

The patriot in me warmed to these juxtapositions, but the historian recognised how contingent they were. For India was and is an unnatural nation, a nation that was not supposed to exist, a nation that was never expected to survive. Strachey was merely the first in a long line of British commentators who thought that a united and independent political entity could never successfully be imposed on a land so differentiated by caste, religion, language and region. Winston Churchill, for example, predicted that after the British left the subcontinent, "India will fall back quite rapidly through the centuries into the barbarism and privations of the Middle Ages". He also thought it likely that "an army of white janissaries, officered if necessary from Germany, will be hired to secure the armed ascendancy of the Hindu".

Sixty years after independence, India somehow survives, and the German janissaries are still awaited. But it remains an unnatural nation and, what's more, an unlikely democracy. When the first general election was held in 1952, some 85 per cent of the voters were illiterate. In the west, the vote had been granted in stages, first to men of property, then to men of education, then to all men. Women were able to vote only after a bitter and protracted struggle (in a supposedly advanced country such as Switzerland, the right to vote was withheld from women until as late as 1971). So when Jawaharlal Nehru's government chose to introduce the universal adult franchise, there were plenty of sceptics, some of them home-grown. A Madras editor termed the first elections "the biggest gamble in history". The weekly Organiser, the mouthpiece of the radical Hindu organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, warned against "this precipitate dose of democracy", explaining that Nehru "would live to confess the failure of universal adult franchise in India".

The first general election was followed by another in 1957, and then by a third five years later. Now it was claimed that it was only the will and whim of India's long-serving prime minister that kept India democratic. "When Nehru goes," wrote Aldous Huxley, "the government will become a military dictatorship - as in so many of the newly independent states, for the army seems to be the only highly organised centre of power." When Nehru died in May 1964, the army remained in the barracks while a successor, Lal Bahadur Shastri, was chosen democratically. On his death in January 1966, he, too, was followed by a democratically selected successor. This time it was a woman, Indira Gandhi. A year after assuming office, she led her party into a general election. On the eve of these polls, held in the first months of 1967, the Times of London ran a series of articles entitled "India's disintegrating democracy". The paper's Delhi correspondent, Neville Max well, was certain that "the great experiment of developing India within a democratic framework has failed". Indians, he told his readers, would soon vote in the "fourth - and surely last - general election".

Democracy for the poor

With hindsight it is easy to scoff at these predictions, but at least some of the scepticism was merited. Before India, most nations were constructed on the basis of a shared language, a single religion and a common enemy - or all of the above. This nation, however, had large populations of all the major faiths (it has, for instance, more Christians than Australia and more Muslims than Pakistan), while its citizens spoke many languages, written in different scripts. Also, before India, democracy had never been attempted in a poor and largely illiterate country.

To be sure, Indian unity is not complete. There have been, and still are, major secessionist movements in Kashmir and the north-east. Indian democracy is by no means flawless: while elections are regular, free and fair, there is a great deal of political corruption, and most parties are run like family firms. Deep divisions between rich and poor persist. Yet that it is as united and democratic as it is, is still a minor miracle. Why has it not gone the way of the former Yugoslavia? Or of its neighbour, Pakistan?

Why does a (mostly) united and (somewhat) democratic India survive? Let me offer five reasons, not necessarily in order of importance. The first is the game of cricket, described by the sociologist Ashis Nandy as "an Indian sport accidentally invented by the west". The second is the Hindi film industry, another great popular passion that unites Indians of different languages, faiths and social classes. A third is the territorial bonds imposed by the Himalayas and the oceans, which give the people of the Indian peninsula the sense that they are, on the whole, distinct from the rest of humanity. Fourth, there are some vital unifying legacies of the British, such as the civil service, the army and the English language, which allow goods and people to move more or less peaceably across India, and to traffic with one another.

The fifth, and in my view most crucial, reason why a united and democratic India survives is the constitution. Recognising the distinctiveness of the Indian experiment, this refused to base nationhood on a single religion or language. Nehru, in particular, was insistent that India would not become a "Hindu Pakistan". Likewise, despite the pressure exercised by Hindi zealots, he refused to impose that language on the regions of the south. In later decades, the Indian state has remained committed to secularism, substantially in theory if less surely in practice. The commitment to linguistic pluralism, however, remains substantial in theory as well as in practice.

That unity and pluralism are inseparable in India is graphically expressed in the Indian currency, which has a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi on one side of all banknotes, with the denomination of the note printed in bold in Hindi and English and, in smaller type, in 15 other scripts. Explaining why a single Indian nation was impossible to conceive, Strachey wrote that "you might with as much reason and probability look forward to a time when a single nation will have taken the place of the various nations of Europe". Well, he appears to have been wrong about that, too. For the Republic of India anticipated, by some 50 years, the creation of the European Union as a multilingual political unity with a single currency.

Ramachandra Guha's "India After Gandhi: the History of the World's Largest Democracy" is published by Macmillan (£25)

India timeline 1947-2007

1947 Partition by British into majority Muslim Pakistan and mainly Hindu India

1948 Mahatma Gandhi assassinated by Hindu extremist. First war with Pakistan over disputed territory of Kashmir

1951-52 First general elections won by Congress Party under leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru

1965 Second war over Kashmir

1966 Indira Gandhi becomes India’s first and only female PM

1984 Indira Gandhi assassinated by Sikh bodyguards

1996 Hindu nationalist BJP emerges as largest single party

1998 India carries out nuclear tests, to international condemnation

2003 Kashmir ceasefire

2006 US gives India access to civilian nuclear technology while India agrees to greater scrutiny

2007 Pratibha Patil becomes first woman elected president.

Research by Zain Sardar

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