Monsoon and the idea of India

Sunil Tambe | Updated on January 20, 2018

Raining change There are signs of natually engendered political systems coming into play K Murali Kumar

The monsoon is a defining aspect of our nationhood – and, strangely enough, in the formation of new States as well

If there is one centripetal force that binds this diversity called India, it is the monsoon. Rejuvenating rivers and washing down mountain ranges, grasslands, plains, deserts, coastlines and other physical features that make up the Indian subcontinent, it has always played a critical role in shaping different dimensions such as economic activities, languages, religious beliefs and cultures.

At times, these dimensions of human evolution and development act as centrifugal forces, but the annual arrival and retreat of monsoon winds from the Indian Ocean have held them together to forge new nation-states even as erstwhile kingdoms and colonies vanished. Perhaps it is the monsoon, and not the polity, that has defined India.

Unaware of the criticality of the monsoon, or more particularly its human dimensions and impact, the pan-Indian political elite viewed the country (and its people) in the context of colonial exploitation to overcome contradictions such as religion, race, language, caste, region, and so on. And it did work during the freedom struggle.

Does the centre hold?

However, the idea of India, that is, of the Indian nation-state as enshrined in the Constitution, is anchored in the belief of a strong central government. This is nothing but the baggage of colonial rule or the influence of the European nation-state. The central government along with the other national parties was thus at the core of this nation-building project.

The European nation-state is the outcome of three connected processes of centralisation: first, the emergence of supra-local identities and cultures (the nation); second, the rise of powerful and authoritative institutions within the public domain (the state or government); and finally, the development of specific ways of organising production and consumption (the economy). Such a state is essentially secular. The renowned anthropologist Ernest Gellner connects these three processes and argues that modern industrial society depends on economic and cognitive growth, which in its turn, requires a homogeneous culture. In European countries, enfranchisement was a gradual process during which social divisions were also taking shape. National revolution leveraged on industrial revolution or vice versa and created political divisions that created a two-party system (in most countries of the West). There are various regions, languages and climatic zones in Europe and the US but there are no regional political parties of note.

State of the matter

In India, the nation-state project was kick-started after the industrial revolution in Europe. The railway, roads, ports, post and telegraph, etc, were introduced to facilitate the export of raw material to England and the import of finished products into the Indian subcontinent. At the turn of the 20th century, British India consisted of eight major provinces — Burma, Bengal, Madras, Bombay, United Provinces, Central Provinces and Berar, Punjab, and Assam. Besides, there were five minor provinces — North West Frontier Province, British Baluchistan, Coorg, Ajmer-Merwara, and the Andaman-Nicobar Islands. At that time, franchise was restricted. Following Independence and the adoption of universal adult franchise, in 1956 the Indian parliament adopted a resolution for the creation of linguistic states. Gradually, the process of democratisation of politics trickled down to the masses over seven decades.

Lately, new States are being formed not on the basis of language but the special characteristics of the region, culture or geography — Uttarakhand, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh are examples of this. Telangana is the latest to have successfully made it to this club, while Vidarbha and other regions aspiring to statehood are knocking on the door.

The formation of new States is on the lines of the sub-divisions created by the Indian Meteorological Department. IMD has divided India into 36 sub-divisions — Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Uttaranchal, Arunachal Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Haryana-Delhi, Assam-Meghalaya, Nagaland-Manipur-Mizoram-Tripura, East Rajasthan and West Rajasthan, East Uttar Pradesh and West Uttar Pradesh, East Madhya Pradesh and West Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Kutch-Saurashtra, Gangetic West Bengal and Sub-Himalayan Bengal and Sikkim, and Maharashtra, which has four sub-divisions (Konkan and Goa, Central Maharashtra, Marathwada and Vidarbha). These sub-divisions were created based on the amount of rainfall they receive during the monsoon and the geography of the region. It is these two factors that have a critical role in defining the identity of a region along with its geo-cultural values and culture. Climatically homogeneous zones also tend to be homogeneous in respect of agriculture, natural resources, culture, literature, wealth, demography, and ultimately political thought.

Not sustainable

After Independence, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru expedited the nation-building project with investments in basic and key industries. While there has been some progress on this front, nearly 60 per cent of our population is still dependent on agriculture for its livelihood. Since this population remains excluded from the centralised economic system, regional and ethnic (or geo-cultural) identities shaped by the monsoon are stronger. Even while economists were computing the resources and time required to assimilate this populace in the centralised economic system, this highly diverse electorate had started opting for regional parties. As a result, the supremacy of the strong central government was increasingly challenged by the emergence of regional or State powers that today are at the centre-stage of Indian politics. The recent trend set by Delhi (January 2015) and Bihar (December 2015) was confirmed by the latest Assembly elections in four States — West Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu, Kerala (and the Union Territory of Puducherry). Regional parties, it seems, have largely edged out the two major national parties — at least as far as the State elections are concerned. Besides having to forge alliances with regional parties, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had to virtually take over the leader and agenda of the regional party — Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) — to reach the victory-post in Assam. Similar was the case in Puducherry for the Congress.

The criticality of the centralised system is a forgone conclusion but it no longer seems a sustainable basis for the evolution of Indian polity. With the imminent return of a normal monsoon after two years of drought, there seem to be winds of change blowing across the parched political landscape too. It appears the Indian electorate is rediscovering the idea of India. Are we morphing from a nation-state into a nation of states?

The writer was Editor of Reuters Market Light. He is researching the phenomenon of the Indian monsoon

Published on June 27, 2016

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