What is a nation?: A global perspective

Talk delivered at National Institute of Pharmaceutical Education and Research, Mohali,  24 Oct 2021

What is a nation?: A global perspective

Rajesh Kochhar

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It is a matter of great pleasure for me to be returning to NIPER. I wish to thank the Director, Prof Gulal Panda, and Prof Inder Pal Singh for providing me with this opportunity.


I would like to share with you some thoughts on the concept of a nation from a global and historical perspective.


Let me begin with asking you a Kaun Banega Crorepati type of question: Who is the first person to descrine Mahatma Gandhi as Father of the Nation? Answer is  Netaji Subhash Bose, wo described Gandhi thus in an Azad Hind Radio Broadcast made from Rangoon. The anecdote is historically significant, because it  summed up a widely-held belief. It was obvious at the time that India’s independence was imminent and merely a matter of time. Gandhi’s philosophy of a non-confrontational, harmonious, inclusive nation became the guiding principle for India and was enshrined in the Constitution.


Some 20 years ago I visited an Australian University, where the head of the Asia Institute was a German. His wife was an Indonesian of Chinese heritage. She made a very important point which I had not thought before.


Everyone believed that India would not last as a nation and would collapse under the weight of internal contradictions. While imperialists like Winston Churchill and others were hoping India would fail, minorities in South East Asia were praying that India should succeed. India’s success story gave hope and encouragement to ethnic and linguistic minorities in countries like Malaysia and Indonesia and came to serve as a role model. How significant India’s achievement has been can be seen from the fact that a small country like Sri Lanka faced ethnic violence for a prolonged period of time.


In a small isolated island country like Japan, it is easy to maintain homogeneity and define nationalism. But in the case of a large landmass like India which has been an active part of a bigger world, concepts like nation are not easy to develop.


Nationhood is an important part of political science studies. Learned people have carried out case studies and published scholarly books. These works provide valuable insights. But it is not possible to integrate all such studies and arrive at a universal formulation.


Each nation has its own characteristic features. As you all know, it is difficult to define but easy to describe. All we can hope to achieve is to identify core issues, and  obtain some understanding of the phenomenon. Of courses the more detailed studies we carry out, the more cases we look at, the more specific situations we examine, the wiser we will be and our understanding will be deepened.

An assemblage, group, or community of people can be said to constitute a Nation, if there is perception of sharedness along with consciousness that we belong to this nation. A sense of nation and nation building is not obvious or intrinsic. It must be suitably constructed, created and imagined. What are the factors that can be utilized for creating a sense of commonality or shared-ness. Geographical demarcation and perception of territory can be an important factor along with a desire for self-rule, domination and control can be determining factors in defining a Nation.


Note the term Red Indian. It arose in the following manner. When Columbus first reached America, he believed he had reached India; hence the people he encountered were called Indians. Even when it was realized that this was a new land, the term was retained. By calling the natives Indian, they were dispossessed of their own land.


The term Red Indian has since been discarded in favour of the term Native American.  There are other hyphenated terms: Afro-American, Asian-American, Latin American. But there are no Euro-Americans. They are simply called Americans, giving them right over geography which is not given to other migrants.


In general, there are four factors that play an important role in defining a nation: Language, religion, history, and race.




I have already mentioned that concept of a  nation needs to be developed and propagated. Mahatma Gandhi launched a mass movement in which many persons who were leaders in their own right participated. He and others reached people through spoken word . In addition, Gandhi very effectively used the print media: books, journals, newspapers, and letters. Now of course electric media has entered the scene.


Language in fact has played a very important factor in nation building as also in efforts in the reverse direction.


European missionaries and British administrators came across Sanskrit and Persian which are are learned languages in that they have grammars and dictionaries. After a preliminary instruction from a teacher, one can  learn, even master, these languages. Now recall how we learn our mother tongue. Nobody teaches it to us. We pick it up by hearing it and conversing with others in our social group. The British needed to convert vernaculars into classroom languages.  When the British raised armies in North India, European officers needed to be able to talk to the soldiers. Language was learnt from moonshees, and grammar rules extracted from actual usage. Mischief came in when bilingual dictionaries were compiled. People spoke a common language which in North India they called Hindustani. At level of dictionaries, Hindi was declared to be a Hindu language and Sanskritized. Urdu was declared to be a Muslim language and Persianized. Thus the same spoken language was broken up to separate the two communities.


In Germany, I had a neighbor who was from Pakistan. I used to borrow music cassettes from him. He had a category labeled Punjabi. The other category was called Urdu. This consisted of  what we call Hindi films. Of course strictly speaking, films like Mughal-e-Azam and Pakeezah are Urdu films. Also, ghazal, very popular in film music, is an Urdu poetry form.


Script and categorization are  intrinsically divisive. Synthesis takes place naturally when there is no script, eg, in architecture, cuisine, music, folk songs, films. Whenever script is introduced, boundaries are drawn.


Some years ago I attended Delhi book fair. At the closing time, there was a short nice announcement: Thanks for your visit. We are closing now. We hope to see you again. The English announcement was preceded by Hindi. Here the language was so ornate and artificial that it was difficult to follow it. It occurred to me that if the same formula had been followed in the case of English, the announcement would have been in Latin!!


Language issues arose in Punjab when it passed into British hands. People in Punjab spoke Punjabi and carried out cultural and administrative work in Persian. Nobody in what is now Pakistan ever knew Urdu.Post- Delhi and Lucknow,  Lahore was made into a centre for Urdu which was described as a Muslim language. For various reasons, Hindi came to be associated with Hindus and  Punjabi with Sikhs.


What I have said so far is well known. You can read it in books or on the Intternet. But I have noticed a phenomenon which at the moment is nebulous. How it evolves only time will tell. There are groups on social media which in the case of West Punjab and East Punjab would like to see Punjabi transcend religious divide between Muslims and Sikhs and serve as a unifying force.


In Pakistan there is another phenomenon at work. Since Persian was the court language as also the language of culture and polite conversation, there are a large number of Persian words in Urdu. At present, Pakistan is heavily funded by Saudi Arabia which in return wants to see Urdu de-Persianized and be infused with Arabic vocabulary.


East Bengal represents a different picture. Here, religion has been subordinated to language and culture. East Bengal nationalism was born when West Pakistan tried to impose Urdu on East Pakistan. Bangla Desh has an official encyclopedia valled Banglapedia. It is a very authentic source on West Bengal also. In fact, when I need to know anything about Bengal developments and personalities, my starting point is Banglapedia.  East Bengal owns up personalities like Rammohun Roy and Isvar Chandra Vidyasagar. Similarly, Rabindra Nath Tagore ans Qazi Nasrul Islam are accepted as part of joint heritage of East Bengal and West Bengal .




Immediately after WW2, there was liberalism in the air. European countries accepted immigrants from their formal colonies and showed consideration for cultural and racial diversity. But, not any more. Ever increasing number of people in Europe and America are using their race and language as the parameters to define their nation.




History is an extremely important ingredient in the development of the concept of a nation and the exercise of nation building. Past has no independent existence. The Present decides the priorities and prepares the trajectory for the future. It then calls in the Past for help. History transforms the Past into a bridge between the perceived Present and the proposed Future. History is important because it is invoked to bestow legitimacy on the current agenda.


History is a tricky subject, because historical events do not have any intrinsic significance. History is not a mere collection of historical facts. The facts need to be placed in an interpretative framework. However if we collect a large number of facts, synthesizing them will rule out many wild conclusions. Facts should be considered sancrosanct. When they are quoted, supporting evidence should be adduced just as one does while submitting an affidavit in a court of law or preparing a research paper for publication.


Let me draw your attention to mischievous use of  history. The British wished to establish that they were a superior people because of their authorship of the powerful knowledge system of modern science, and therefore entitled to rule over others.  They took the roots of their science back to the Greeks who were European people. But Greek science itself has roots going back to Egypt and Iraq. They were never mentioned. Indians were told their astronomy was merely an extension of Greek inputs. But when European attention was drawn to original contributions, no notice was taken. When Europe was told about  advancements  in medical  made by the Buddhists, it was recorded with a straight face that by Buddhists probably Arabs were meant. Were Arabs told about their contribution? No. They were told their role had been to merely

preserve Greek science till Europe was in a position to take back its heritage.


Since England’s aim was to present itself as a superior nation with respect to the Third World, it adopted a pick-and-choose policy towards history of science to mention only those truths and half-truths which would serve its purpose. This stratagem has been often employed by others also.


A very substantial part of Egypt’s GDP comes from tourists for whom Arab is a scar word. Egypt therefore does not use the term Arab in relation to itself. We are not Arabs; we are Egyptians. Our language is not Arabic; it is Egyptian. They play down their Muslim past and its architecture and focus on pyramids, etc,.


I have noticed an interesting movement in Persian circles. Since I am interested in ancient history and archaeology, I have joined some Persia-related social groups. Through their posts, they emphasize their pre-Islamic past. In their enthusiasm they often use terms like world’s first, world’s largest, which are not backed by any known evidence.


History will always be controversial. But, the controversy should be at the level of interpretation and not facts. Surely, it should be possible to construct a nation with rigorous history as its basis.


Returning to India, I have pointed out that the nation model India chose for itself has served it well and acted as an inspiration for other nations with complexities and diversities. 25 years from now, India will be celebrating 100 years of its Independence.  Most of our young friends who are sitting in the audience today will be speaking from various forums. I have no doubt that the stories you narrate will be of hope, optimism, achievements, and accomplishments.


Thank you.






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