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What is India?

MARKANDEY KATJU
India is a country of mostly immigrants who came to the country over the
past 10,000 years.
M. SATHYAMOORTHY

The original inhabitants of India, as it is believed now, were the pre-Dravidian tribal people
such as the Bhils, the Santhals, the Gonds and the Todas. Called Adivasis or Scheduled
Tribes, they form hardly 8 per cent of the population today. Here, Todas celebrating New
Year near Udhagamandalam, or Ooty, on January 1.
This article is based on a speech delivered
to non-resident Indians in California
in June 2011.
WE are all Indians, but do we know what India is? I am presenting five theses for consideration.
(i) India is broadly a country of immigrants, like North America. Over 92 per cent of people living in
India are not the original inhabitants of India. Their ancestors came from outside, mainly from the northwest.
(ii) Because India is a country of immigrants like North America, there is tremendous diversity in India
so many religions, castes, languages, ethnic groups, etc.
(iii) Despite the tremendous diversity in India, by the interaction and intermingling of these immigrants
who came into India a common culture emerged in India, which can broadly be called the Sanskrit-Urdu
culture.
(iv) Because of the tremendous diversity in India the only policy that can work and hold our country
together is secularism and giving equal respect to all communities.

(v) India is passing through a transitional period, from a feudal agricultural society to a modern industrial
society. This is a very painful and agonising period in history. If we read the history of Europe from the
17th to 19th centuries we find that this was a horrible period in Europe. Only after going through that fire,
in which there were wars, revolutions, turmoil, intellectual ferment, chaos, social churning, etc., modern
society emerged in Europe. India is at present going through that fire. We are going through a very painful
and agonising period in our history, which I think will last for around another 20 years. I may now briefly
discuss these theses.
(1) India is broadly a country of immigrants, like North America. The difference between North America
and India is that while North America is a country of new immigrants, where people came mainly from
Europe over the last 400 to 500 years, India is a country of old immigrants where people have been
coming in for 10,000 years or so.
Why have people been coming to India? Very few people left India, except on two occasions, namely, (i)
in the 19th century when under British rule poor Indian peasants were sent to Fiji, Mauritius, West Indies,
etc., as plantation labourers, and (ii) the diaspora in the last 30-40 years or so of highly qualified
engineers, scientists, doctors, etc. Apart from this, nobody left India, everybody came to India. Why?
The reason is obvious. People migrate from uncomfortable areas to comfortable areas, obviously because
everybody wants comfort. Before the Industrial Revolution which started in Western Europe from the
18th century and then spread all over the world, there were agricultural societies everywhere. Agriculture
requires level land, fertile soil, plenty of water for irrigation, etc. All this was in abundance in the Indian
subcontinent from Rawalpindi to Bangladesh and to the deep south up to Kanyakumari. Why will
anybody migrate from India to, say, Afghanistan which is cold, rocky and uncomfortable and covered
with snow for four to five months a year? For an agricultural society India was really paradise, hence
everybody kept rolling into India, mainly from the north-west and to a much lesser extent from the northeast.
Who were the original inhabitants of India? At one time it was believed that the Dravidians were the
original inhabitants, but now that theory has been disproved. Now, it is believed that even the Dravidians
came from outside. There is enough proof of that. For example, there is a Dravidian language called
Brahui which is spoken in western Pakistan even today by about three million people. The original
inhabitants of India, as it is believed now, were the pre-Dravidian tribal people, who are called Adivasis or
Scheduled Tribes in India. For example, the Bhils, the Santhals, the Gonds, the Todas, etc., that is, the
speakers of the Austric, pre-Dravidian languages, such as Munda and Gondvi. They form hardly 7 or 8
per cent of the Indian population today. They were pushed into the forests by the immigrants and treated
badly. Except for them all of us are descendants of immigrants who came mainly from the north-west of
India. (See in this connection the article Kalidas Ghalib Academy for Mutual Understanding' on the
website kgfindia.com.)
(2) Because India is a country of immigrants there is tremendous diversity in India, so many religions,
castes, languages, ethnic groups, etc. We may compare India with China. Our population is about 1,200
million while China has about 1,300 million and they have perhaps two and a half times our land area.
However, there is broad (though not absolute) homogeneity in China. All Chinese have Mongoloid
features, they have one common written script called Mandarin Chinese (although spoken dialects are
different), and 95 per cent Chinese belong to one ethnic group called the Han Chinese. So there is broad
homogeneity in China. In India, on the other hand, there is tremendous diversity, because whichever
group of immigrants came into India brought in its own culture, religion, language, etc.

(3) Is India a nation at all, or is it just a group of hundreds of kinds of immigrants? Is there anything
common in India? The answer is that the immigrants who came to India over the last 10,000 years or so,
by their interaction and intermingling, created a common culture which can broadly be called the
Sanskrit-Urdu culture, which is broadly the culture of India.
S. RAMBABU

THERE IS A mistaken notion that Sanskrit is a language of chanting mantras in temples or


in religious ceremonies. However, such material accounts for only 5 per cent of Sanskrit
literature, which deals with a whole range of subjects like philosophy, law, science
(including mathematics, medicine and astronomy), grammar and phonetics. Here, a rare
collection of 'copper plates' in Sanskrit, written in the Telugu script, at the Gowthami
Regional Library, Rajamundry, Andhra Pradesh.
Now this has to be explained. How Tamilians are part of Sanskrit-Urdu culture, what the people of
Nagaland have got to do with Sanskrit and Urdu, etc.
The answer is that we must first understand what Sanskrit is and what Urdu is. The reader may see in this
connection my articles on the website kgfindia.com under the titles What is Urdu, Great injustice to
Urdu in India, and Sanskrit as a Language of Science. Both these languages have been misunderstood.
People think that Sanskrit is a language for chanting mantras in temples or in religious ceremonies.
However, that is only 5 per cent of Sanskrit literature. Ninety-five per cent of Sanskrit literature has
nothing to do with religion. It deals with a whole range of subjects like philosophy, law, science
(including mathematics, medicine and astronomy), grammar, phonetics and literature. Sanskrit was the
language of people with an inquiring mind, who inquired about everything, and therefore there is a whole
range of subjects which have been discussed in Sanskrit. In the paper Sanskrit as a Language of
Science, all this has been discussed in detail. I may, however, just mention two things: one is the
contribution of Panini and the other is the contribution of the Nyaya Vaisheshik philosophy.
What we call Sanskrit today, and what is taught in schools and colleges, is Panini's Sanskrit, which is
called classical Sanskrit or Laukik Sanskrit. But there were earlier Sanskrits. The earliest Sanskrit book is
the Rig Veda, which was composed between 2000 and 1500 B.C. (it was subsequently passed on orally).
Now, language changes with the passage of time. For instance, if we pick up a play of Shakespeare we
will not be able to understand it without a good commentary because the English language has changed
over these four and a half centuries since the time of Shakespeare. Many of the words and expressions

which were in vogue in Shakespeare's time in English are not in vogue today. Similarly, the Sanskrit
language kept changing for about 1,500 years, from 2000 B.C. until Panini, who is perhaps the greatest
grammarian the world has seen, fixed the rules of Sanskrit in his book Ashtadhyayi' in the 5th century
B.C. Thereafter no further changes in Sanskrit were permitted, except some slight changes made by two
other grammarians Katyayana, who wrote his book Vartika' about 100-200 years after Panini, and
Patanjali, who wrote his book Mahabhashya' about 200 years after Katyayana. Except for these slight
changes, what is taught in schools and colleges is Panini's Sanskrit.
Panini rationalised the crude Sanskrit prevailing in his time and meticulously systemised it so as to make
it a powerful vehicle for profound and abstract ideas.
Science requires precision. Panini made Sanskrit a powerful language in which scientific ideas could be
expressed with great precision and clarity, and it was made uniform all over India so that thinkers in one
part of the subcontinent could interact easily with thinkers in another part. That was his great contribution.
Take, for example, the alphabet in the English language. The letters have been arranged in a haphazard
manner. Why is B followed by C? Why is D followed by E? There is no reason why F comes after E, P is
followed by Q, or Q is followed by R.
In Sanskrit, on the other hand, Panini arranged the alphabet in a scientific manner. For example, take the
consonants. There is a sequence ka, kha, ga, gha, na (called the ka varga'). All these sounds come from
the throat. Also, the second and the fourth consonants in this sequence are what are known as aspirants.
An aspirant means a consonant in which ha' is added. The second and fourth consonants in every
sequence (of five consonants) are aspirants.
The sounds in the second sequence of five consonants ('ca varga') ca, cha,ja,jha,ha, all come from the
middle of the tongue. The sounds in the ta varga', ta, tha, da, dha, na, come from the roof of the mouth;
the sounds in the sequence ta, tha, da,dha, na come from the tip of the tongue; the sounds in the
sequence pa, pha, ba, bha, ma come from the lips.
We can see how scientifically these consonants are arranged. Thus, even in such a simple thing as the
arrangement of letters in the alphabet a careful and scientific study was done.
The second contribution of Sanskrit to the development of rational and scientific thinking was the Nyaya
Vaisheshik philosophy. There are six classical systems of Indian philosophy, Nyaya, Vaisheshik, Sankya,
Yoga, Purva Mimansa and Uttara Mimansa, and three non-classical systems, Buddhist, Jainist and
Charvaka. Out of these nine systems eight are atheistic as there is no place for God in them. Only Uttara
Mimansa, which is also called Vedanta, has a place for God in it.
The Nyaya system says that nothing is acceptable unless it is in accordance with reason and experience,
which is precisely the scientific approach. Vaisheshik was the physics of ancient times (the atomic or
parmanu theory). Physics is a part of science, and hence at one time Vaisheshik was part of Nyaya
philosophy. However, since physics is the most fundamental of all sciences, Vaisheshik was separated
subsequently from Nyaya and made into a separate philosophy altogether.
It was the Nyaya Vaisheshik philosophy which provided the scientific background and gave great
encouragement to our scientists to propound scientific theories. People in our country were not persecuted
for being scientists, unlike in Europe where scientists were burnt at the stake, like Giordano Bruno, for
propounding their scientific theories. Galileo was almost burnt at the stake; he escaped narrowly by
recanting his views. As recently as in 1925, in America, a teacher, John Scopes, was criminally prosecuted

in the famous (or infamous) monkey trial for teaching Darwin's theory of evolution because it went
against the Bible. This never happened in our country because behind science was a scientific philosophy,
that is the Nyaya Vaisheshik philosophy, which says that nothing is acceptable unless it is in accordance
with reason and experience.