Off-centre | India@75: A New Upanishad for a New India

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Student: Don’t you think the whole country, even the world, has just recently came out of a sort of enforced “home imprisonment” after the Covid-19 pandemic?

Teacher: Yes. But “prison,” especially for non-criminals, is also great place and time to learn. Think of our own freedom movement — or afterwards, during the Emergency of 1975-77.

Student: The pandemic “emergency” disrupted our academic schedule, curriculum, and even our degree programmes.

Teacher: We too missed our students and the in-person learning experience in the classroom.

Student: Some of us even have degrees without attending a single live lecture.

Teacher: Now that things have opened up, we are back in the classroom instead of the online or hybrid mode.

Student: But, in addition to regular classes, what we’ve missed most is talking about really important stuff, which is not included in our studies and syllabus. We would’ve had these conversations with our teachers and peers in a normal campus setting. Now, we’ve lost that chance.

Teacher: But the new possibilities of online and virtual learning are also very attractive.

Student: You mean a sort of ongoing classroom?

Teacher: Especially to cover what is excluded from the university curriculum.

Student: That is why I must thank you for agreeing to this extended conversation on issues that concern Bharatiya yuva — or Indian youth — today.

Teacher: You’re welcome. But the topics to be covered concern not just our youth, but our entire nation, even civilisation.

Student: In what way? Please explain.

Teacher: The youth, admittedly, are our future. But this dialogue series is really about “India, that is Bharat”—both the nation and the civilisation that go by that name.

Student: Isn’t that the title of a recent book?

Teacher: Indeed, it is. (India that is Bharat: Coloniality, Civilisation, Constitution, by J Sai Deepak; Bloomsbury, 2021.) But actually the phrase occurs in Part I of the Constitution of India: “1. Name and territory of the Union.—(1) India, that is Bharat, shall be a Union of States” (https://legislative.gov.in/sites/default/files/COI_English.pdf).

Student: Oh! I did not know that.

Teacher: Let that be our first lesson. Dig deeper; don’t be content with what appears on the surface. Go to the source. Deep cognition not superficial understanding is the basis of a great civilisation, such as we once were.

Student: Once were?

Teacher: Yes.

Student: And no longer are?

Teacher: We are standing on the rubble of a great civilisation. But the good news is that India is rising again from centuries of slavery and stagnation.

Student: How can we be great again? What is the way ahead? Isn’t that the fundamental purpose, the thrust of this dialogue?

Teacher: Precisely. But the way to the future lies through the past.

Student: How is that?

Teacher: We have to integrate the wisdom of our past with the promise of our future.

Student: And how shall we do that?

Teacher: By understanding who we are, who we were, and who we want to be.

Student: Sort of like the Discovery of India by Jawaharlal Nehru?

Teacher: Yes. Even though Nehru is unpopular today in a section of our society, his book is worth reading.

Student: Even if we disagree with it?

Teacher: Precisely because of that.

Student: Meaning?

Teacher: What we disagree with becomes our point of departure.

Student: In Nehru’s book, what do we disagree with?

Teacher: We might disagree with both his method and his conclusions, but we must undertake for ourselves the demanding task of rediscovering —and recovering India — 75 years after.

Student: When did Nehru write his book?

Teacher: Like most of Nehru’s other books, The Discovery of India was written in prison. He was imprisoned in Ahmednagar, from 1942 to 1944, during the Quit India movement. The book itself was published in 1946, on the eve of India’s independence.

Student: But the moment you praise Nehru today, someone or the other attacks you.

Teacher: For the sake of political correctness, or to please any particular interest group, we should not shy away from the topics or issues you wish to discuss.

Student: That’s so refreshing. It’s really great to be able to talk about things openly. Something we can rarely do even at home.

Teacher: Apart from openness, which is very important, it is also crucial to be able to talk without fear or hatred.

Student: We may not wish to give offence, yet some are bound to be offended.

Teacher: The problem, really, is politics, isn’t it? Politics is ubiquitous in India. You can’t wish it away. You can’t avoid it. Everything gets politicised. Even a well-intentioned remark can be misunderstood or deliberately twisted to attack you.

Student: But we’re not doing politics here, are we?

Teacher: No, not primarily or entirely. We would like, instead, to reflect deeply on matters that concern the state of the republic. We must keep politics away from deep cognition, which is the purpose of a university.

Student: But isn’t that the real problem? The republic seems divided and at odds with itself. Has the new nationalism put us in a state of perpetual strife?

Teacher: That is why I said this is a great opportunity to rediscover India. To Nehru, we shall return later, in this virtual classroom, as we shall to the major figures of modern India.

Student: To close our conversation today, would you agree that Nehru’s book is dated, and a new discovery of India is necessary?

Teacher: Absolutely. What is more, we need nothing short of a new Upanishad that will make India great once more.

(To be continued)

The author is a professor of English at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal.

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Off-centre | India@75: A New Upanishad for a New India
Off-centre | India@75: A New Upanishad for a New India
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