The political scientist, Sunil Khilnani, has argued that independent India constitutes the “third moment in the great democratic experiment launched at the end of the eighteenth century by the American and French revolutions”. The Indian experiment is much younger than the others, but, as Khilnani points out, “its outcome may well turn out to be the most significant of them all, partly because of its sheer human scale, and partly because of its location, a substantial bridgehead of effervescent liberty on the Asian continent”.

This column picks up four key moments in the career of this experiment. Two date to a time when India was still a colony, two others to after the attainment of political independence. With these episodes are associated four makers of modern India; Gandhi, Tagore, Ambedkar and Nehru.

My first illustration comes from the week preceding the Nagpur Congress in December, 1920. At this congress, Gandhi was to launch a countrywide movement of non-cooperation with the raj. In preparation, the Mahatma asked all patriots to overcome the barriers that divided them from one another. As he wrote in his journal, Navjivan, "unless we co-operate among ourselves, we shall not acquire the strength to employ non-co-operation against the Government. We shall not succeed while we look down upon six crores of Antyajas (Untouchables)…and despise them. An Empire which has set the Hindus and the Muslims against each other will not hesitate to create enmity between the Antyajas and the rest of the Hindus".

This theme was amplified in a public speech in Nagpur the day before the congress began. Here, Gandhi insisted that “the Hindus owe it as a duty to make a determined effort to purify Hinduism and eradicate this practice of untouchability. I have said to the Hindus, and say it again today, that till Hindu society is purged of this sin, swaraj is an impossibility”.

By the time the Indian Constitution came into being, both Tagore and Gandhi were dead. But behind its making one can see the manifest influence of both men.
 •  Bhimrao Ambedkar
 •  Rabindranath Tagore
 •  Earlier: Appropriating Nehru
 •  Also see: An august dispute
Non-cooperation was launched, and soon gathered force. All across India, peasants stopped paying taxes, workers went on strike, students boycotted schools. Intellectuals everywhere were carried along in the stream. There was however one exception: Rabindranath Tagore. He too wanted freedom from foreign rule, harmony between Hindus and Muslims, eradication of untouchability. But he worried that the rhetoric of non-cooperation contained within it the seeds of a self-destroying isolationism, and in setting India above also set it apart from the rest of the world. Tagore had seen that European nationalism could so easily slide into jingoism. He worried that the same might happen now in India. As he wrote in a remarkable essay entitled The Call of Truth: "Today, at this critical moment of the world’s history, cannot India rise above her limitations and offer the great ideal to the world that will work towards harmony in co-operation between the different people of the earth? ... The idea of India is against the intense consciousness of the separateness of one's own people from others, and which inevitably leads to ceaseless conflicts ... Let us be rid of all false pride and rejoice at any lamp being lit at any corner of the world, knowing that it is a part of the common illumination of our house"

Tagore’s principal target was, of course, the leader of non-cooperation himself. To his credit, Gandhi recognized the force of the warning. He answered that he numbered white men and women among his closest friends. And he accepted that India must be open to creative influences from outside. “I hope I am as great a believer in free air as the great Poet,” wrote the Mahatma, “I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.”

It was not only Gandhi who took heed of the poet’s warning. So did most other nationalists. Thus, free India chose to base its Constitution not on indigenous ideas — as for example, those contained in the Laws of Manu — but on modern, even Western, ideals of democracy and secularism. By the time the Indian Constitution came into being, both Tagore and Gandhi were dead. But behind its making one can see the manifest influence of both men.

The third moment I wish to foreground comes from the last days of the Constituent Assembly of India. On November 25, 1949, the chairman of the drafting committee made a moving speech summing up their work. Here he paid tribute to the ecumenism of the Congress — which had chosen him, their erstwhile (and future) political opponent, for this elevated post; and warned that whatever its merits as a means of resisting colonialism, in a constitutional democracy, the practice of satyagraha constituted a “grammar of anarchy”. And then B.R. Ambedkar issued a graver warning still. Indians, he said, must never be content with what he called “mere political democracy”. We had got rid of alien rule, but we were still riven by inequality and hierarchy. Thus, once the country formally became a republic on January 26, 1950, it was “going to enter a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognizing the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril.”

My final illustration comes from the first general elections mandated by this Constitution. The key figure here is Jawaharlal Nehru, acting both as prime minister and as the leader of the Congress. Nehru centred his election speeches around one core message: that, so long as he was around, India would not become a Hindu Pakistan. In his first speech, delivered at Ludhiana on September 30, 1951, he declared “an all-out war against communalism”. He “condemned the communal bodies which in the name of Hindu and Sikh culture were spreading the virus of communalism as the Muslim League once did”. These “sinister communal elements” would, if they came to power, “bring ruin and death to the country”. He asked his audience of half-a-million to instead “keep the windows of our mind open and let in fresh breeze from all corners of the world”.

Read this series in full

 •  Freeing our heroes
 •  Believers in free air
 •  Why India survives
The sentiment was Tagore-like, and Gandhi-like too. Indeed Nehru’s next major speech was delivered in Delhi on the afternoon of October 2, the Mahatma’s birthday. To a mammoth crowd he spoke in Hindustani about the Government’s determination to abolish both untouchability and landlordism. Once more, he identified communalists as the chief enemies, who “will be shown no quarter” and be “overpowered with all our strength”. His 95-minute speech was punctuated with loud cheers, not least when he made this ringing declaration: “if any person raises his hand to strike down another on the ground of religion, I shall fight him till the last breath of my life, both at the head of the Government and from outside”.

All histories are selective, histories attempted in the confines of a single newspaper column brutally so. Still, I hope that the illustrations offered here do give some clues to the kind of nationalism developed by Gandhi, Tagore, Ambedkar and Nehru. This was a nationalism that was inclusive, not exclusive, a nationalism that sought not just political liberty for the nation, but equal rights for all its citizens. Where other nationalisms insisted on a homogeneity of attitudes and worldviews, this one respected and even celebrated the linguistic, cultural and religious diversity of its peoples.

Such was the Gandhi-Tagore-Ambedkar-Nehru idea of India; whether we, who came after them, have honoured them or their idea is another matter altogether.