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E Pluribus, India: Is Indian Modernity Working?

In This Review

The Idea of India

By Sunil Khilnani
Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1997
263 pp. $22.00
Purchase

Amid the popular ferment that forged an Italian nation out of a congeries of principalities and statelets in the nineteenth century, the novelist Massimo Taparelli d'Azeglio memorably wrote, "We have created Italy. Now all we need to do is to create Italians." Oddly enough, when the British pulled down the Union Jack in 1947, no Indian nationalist succumbed to the temptation to express the same thought-"we have created India. Now all we need to do is to create Indians."

Such a sentiment would not have occurred to the preeminent voice of Indian nationalism, Jawaharlal Nehru. India's first prime minister would never have spoken of "creating" India or Indians, merely of being the agent for the reassertion of what had always existed but had been long suppressed. Nonetheless, the India that was born in 1947 was in a very real sense a new creation: a state that made fellow citizens of the Ladakhi and the Laccadivian for the first time, that separated Punjabi from Punjabi for the first time, that asked the Keralite peasant to feel allegiance to a Kashmiri Pandit ruling in Delhi, also for the first time. Creating Indians was, in fact, what the nationalist movement did.

After all, this was the India that Winston Churchill had once dismissed as "a geographical expression"-a land that was "no more a single country than the Equator." Churchill was rarely right about India, but it is true that no other country in the world embraces the extraordinary mixture of ethnic groups, the profusion of mutually incomprehensible languages, the varieties of topography and climate, the diversity of religions and cultural practices, and the range of levels of economic development that India does. The Indian nation is not united by a shared ethnicity (it incorporates almost every conceivable racial type), a common language (it has at least 17, according to the constitution, or 35, if one counts all languages spoken by more than a million people), or a single religion (India is home to every faith known

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