What is left now of the idea of India? The expansive cultural sensibility, the persistent sense of wonder and curiosity, the delight in open discourse and debate with no point of view discarded, and above all the embrace of humanity with all its quirks and eccentricities - these have been the hallmark of a civilisation which has mostly seen itself as a journey not a destination. Its innate mental construct has refused to divide humanity into the sterile categories of We and They. Departures from this template have mercifully been brief - even if, on occasion, violent and destructive. There have always been, through our tumultuous history, wise and sagacious Indians who have reminded us of the virtues of tolerance and sharing, of compassion and humanity, which is the unique legacy of this land. That is the greatness of Gandhi, whose birth anniversary we have just celebrated. Through all our failings and infirmities he put the humblest among us in touch with what is most noble in our collective consciousness. But, except for a brief period after independence when the idea of an inclusive India - a haven for liberal and plural values and a democracy built on the rights and obligations of citizenship, thrived and seemed to take root - it has mostly been a relentless slide towards what may become a tragic parody of what we wanted to become as a nation and society. The Constitution of India provided a framework to construct a society based on the inalienable right of the individual to choose his or her own destiny and live life the way he or she wanted. To conform to the claim of community is a choice he should make. The institutions of the state must safeguard this right, whether threatened by another individual or group or community - or even the state itself. Liberal democracy can only be sustained on the basis of respect for individual rights and not on the basis of community-based entitlements. However, steadily and relentlessly, such entitlements have become the norm not the exception they were meant to be - so much so that the very concept of individual choice now appears almost illegitimate. One cannot eat what one wants because this offends some community's religious sensibilities. One must not marry outside one's religion or caste group because this will offend members of one's community.
One may not opt out of the religion one is born into purely by accident, because this is considered a betrayal of one's own faith. Art and culture must be circumscribed in order not to hurt the sentiments of some community or group. Once boundaries are set to define what is permissible and what is not; once every prejudice of the most bigoted in each community must be pandered to for keeping the peace, would it be possible to maintain the creative ambience which made our land the repository of the most sublime music, the most incredible sculpture, the most profound literature in a variety of languages and a highly developed and subtle understanding of aesthetics? There are exhortations to instil in us pride in our ancient culture - but there is little understanding of the openness of mind which has made the culture great and allowed it to flourish over centuries, recreating and regenerating itself after every phase when the lights became dim and feeble. We must not allow ourselves to be reduced to a mere agglomeration of narrowly conceived communities with closed minds hostile to the "other" and stifling to our own. Do we wish to end up as a society of ghettoes, physical as well as mental? The framers of the Indian Constitution articulated a future of India as an enlightened society of free citizens, where diversity among our people was celebrated, where no monochromatic ideology could reign and where the creative impulses of a people living in a shared space would take India to the front ranks of the modern world. That vision lies blurred and inchoate even as the world, at once densely interconnected but deeply conflicted, gropes for an example of successful management of the multiplicities which rapid technological change is forcing humanity to confront. The Indian spirit in its most refined articulations, has been an outstanding example of a comfortable coexistence and sharing of diverse cultures and traditions, ways of thinking and living. But we are in danger of losing our USP even though much of the world still comes to our shores to seek the wisdom which could restore humanity amidst a rising tide of extremism, cruelty and barbaric violence. When one reads of what happened to a fellow citizen Mohammad Akhlaq, brutally lynched to death in a village not far from the nation's capital; when one hears of churches being burnt or Dalits being hacked to death; when one sees our country's profound ancient wisdom being vulgarised into political slogans, when one witnesses fanaticism drowning out the songs of love and compassion which is our precious Sufi heritage, there is deep fear for the future. But then there are also our young men and women, full of creative imagination and explosive energy, scaling the heights in every field of human endeavour, keeping the ancient arts alive with contemporary embellishments, finding answers to the age-old infirmities that plague the poorest among our people, then one feels less concerned. This is still a country of mostly decent people, who see their own in a neighbour's child and who reject the intolerance and bigotry of some of their fellow citizens. We must not let them down. We must regain the space for liberal values and common humanity that has been encroached upon by those whose idea of India is no idea at all. We must not lose India to those who would drive one of its greatest painters, M F Husain into exile and those who demand an apology from A R Rahman for doing what he does best, make beautiful music. If we value the idea of India we must not only Make in India but defend the idea of India too.
The writer is a former foreign secretary, current chairman, RIS, and senior fellow, CPR.