A nation in conversation: A fresh outlook on India

Apr 29, 2023 08:44 PM IST

A nation is a people in conversation is Rajeev Bhargava’s answer to the question “What is a nation?”. It’s very different from what you would expect.

I am reading a book I regret I didn’t pick up earlier. Called Between Hope and Despair, it’s a collection of Rajeev Bhargava’s ethical reflections on contemporary India. Some, no doubt, are pedestrian. A few, possibly, pointless. But several are profound and thought-provoking. One, in particular, caught my attention because of its novelty and, I would add, its accurate understanding of our country.

Between Hope and Despair is a collection of Rajeev Bhargava’s ethical reflections on contemporary India. PREMIUM
Between Hope and Despair is a collection of Rajeev Bhargava’s ethical reflections on contemporary India.

Titled A nation is a people in conversation, it’s Bhargava’s answer to the question “What is a nation?”. It’s very different from what you would expect. It’s certainly not what we were taught at school.

We’ve understood nations to be a body of people bound together by ethnicity, language or religion, even history, geography or culture. Sometimes by a combination of all of these elements. Israel, Kurdistan, Palestine, Lichtenstein, the Zulus or the Berbers, even the Eskimos, Red Indians and Maoris are examples that spring to mind. They share one or more of these defining characteristics.

Bhargava sees a nation in very different terms. “Above all, it is a people self-consciously bound together by common or overlapping concerns about their past, present and future. This self-conscious awareness of commonality is not genetically encoded. Nor does it drop from the sky. It grows when people talk and listen to one another and through oral and written communication understand each other.” Hence, the title: A nation is a people in conversation.

That is, surely, the best description and understanding of India. If there’s one thing we do, it is to chatter, talk and interrupt, shout and scream, listen and ignore, and insist on being heard. Others might call us a Tower of Babel. Bhargava, however, identifies the core of our nationality in this ceaseless conversation.

Beyond the novelty of this definition lie important concerns about what’s happening to our country today. First, “without a public culture forged first by print and then an electronic media, there would be no conversation among the people, no development of common concerns and, therefore, no nation.” Bhargava’s point is simple. We don’t just talk to each other. We talk through the media. So, the health of our media — its transparency, objectivity and commitment to free speech — is critical to our nationhood. A question he doesn’t ask but clearly provokes is one that arises each time we pick up a newspaper or switch on a news channel: Is the Indian media undermining the Indian nation?

Bhargava’s essay raises another, possibly more disturbing, question. Again, he doesn’t ask but clearly points towards it. “If a nation is a people in conversation, then anyone stopping this conversation is damaging it.” I know where this finger is pointing. So do you. Indeed, so do the people at whom it’s pointed. This also means there’s no need to be more specific.

However, Bhargava goes further. Stopping the conversation is not the only danger to our nationhood. “At no point must the state hijack the conversation, dictate its agenda or control it. It is a part of the conversation, not its permanent leader. Indeed, it is the duty of the state to rein in those who disrupt or block the conversation. The nation expects it.”

I like that last sentence. It reminds me of what our television anchors say, although with different meanings. Bhargava has turned their words on their head.

The beauty of Bhargava’s definition of a nation is that it encompasses, but also knits together, people who differ in terms of ethnicity and language, religion and region, cuisine and culture, even history and geography. These differences are just details. What matters is that from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, from the Rann of Kutch to Agartala, we’re talking to each other. We may be quarrelling and interrupting or just listening to a monologue, erudite or boring, informed or ignorant. None of that matters. We are in conversation.

What matters a lot more is what would happen if this conversation is stopped. Bhargava says it would lead to “an unravelling of a nation”. The nation he has in mind is ours.

Karan Thapar is the author of Devil’s Advocate: The Untold Story

The views expressed are personal

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    Karan Thapar is a super-looking genius who’s young, friendly, chatty and great fun to be with. He’s also very enjoyable to read.

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