Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Why Pawan K. Verma's argument doesn't work

Pawan K. Verma writes beautiful weekly columns about Indian culture and the arts. I enjoy his insights.

A few days ago he wrote this op-ed, leveraging his expertise on Indian culture to suggest Shashi Tharoor's frequent assertions on Indian diversity are wrong.

First, he writes, "We are a part of a civilisation that goes back to the dawn of time. The British were, for understandable reasons, unwilling to concede this". Then, he calls our diversity a "colonial argument... to argue that India was at best a collection of disparate diversities, and became some kind of a nation only because of the uniting benevolence of foreign rule".

I disagree with these statements on two counts.


At the outset, let me say I don't intend to suggest India is a fractured state. I only intend to show that the examples and techniques Mr Verma used are inherently flawed.

In his piece he says Sanskrit was the proto-language for all other Indian languages - proof, therefore, of an underlying Indian unity. This theory works if you stop at a certain point in history. Let me use his same technique to prove that it's flawed. If you take the Proto-Indo-European language, one could just as easily argue that Eurasia should be one nation.


Similarly, he points to India's 33 crore gods and goddesses and says they all "ultimately represent the Trinity - Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh". Vishnu plays an important role in the story of Manu & the Great Flood. No less than 35 independent civilisations - that's right, 35 - have similar flood legends. Are we one nation with the Cree, the Babylonians and the Malay? 

Mr Verma's use of history/mythology segues nicely into my second disagreement on his description of our inherent diversity a "colonial argument". Well, it wasn't the British who divided modern Indian states on linguistic lines. And it wasn't the British who established the kingdoms of the Marathas or the Sikhs or the hundreds of other kingdoms and principalities across the country. The Empire's divide-and-rule policy worked because of the pre-existing distrust among kings and princes; something the British shrewdly manipulated. These divisions were not British creations, although I am willing to concede they were perhaps amplified by them.

Either way, the argument doesn't hold water. Nor does Mr Verma's attempt to find a unifying factor by retreating to history.

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