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The Rediff Interview/Sunil Khilnani

January 19, 2005

Sunil Khilnani was one among the 11 persons given the Bharatiya Pravasi Samman award by President A P J Abdul Kalam on January 9, for his outstanding work in political science.

Khilnani, currently professor and director for South Asian Studies at Johns Hopkins University, Washington, DC, is best remembered for his book, The Idea of India, which was hugely popular in India and abroad.

After receiving the award, he took a few questions from Deputy Managing Editor Amberish K Diwanji even as passers-by interrupted to congratulate him on his achievement.

When you write, who is your primary audience?

I write regularly for Indians as much as for those abroad; I publish as much here as I do for those abroad, in fact Indians are my primary audience and I am writing because I am concerned about our political future.

The Indian Diaspora, as this Pravasi Bharatiya Divas has shown exists all over the world; now the two very large populations of the Diaspora are in the US and in the UK and these are the two countries that I have been most familiar with.

I have lived in the UK for many years and now I live in the US, teaching and writing there. These two are the very heart of the Indian Diaspora and in a sense that is who I am writing for, appealing to them as well.

What does the award mean to you?

The award means is that the kind of argument that I have been trying to make about what India is and what kind of politics and ideas it should stand for has achieved some kind of recognition. One of the things we worried about was that the Diaspora has been the source of much of the extremism that we had witnessed in the last few years. But what we see is that there are different views and this kind of an award recognises the original founding idea of India, rather than that idea being hijacked.

The Pravasi Bharatiya Divas 2005

Do you realise that you are among the youngest to win this award?

(Laughs) It's nice to be among the youngest though I have to say that I don't feel so young! But one thing about the Diaspora is that it is the young people who are setting the pace whether it is in IT, or medicine, or even ideas as well and the recognition of that is visible.

Are you currently working on any book?

I have been working for some years on a major book on Nehru, who for some years has taken a lot of attack, in some ways has slipped from agenda, but who I believe is the most important figure in our modern history.

What, according to you, is the basis for India's nationhood?

I don't think mere territory is enough to create a nation, you see many nations fall apart over territorial disputes; I think we have a very strong description of the principles that hold together India; if you see the dialogue during the nationalist movement and what was established in our Constitution, these are very strong affirmation in a set of beliefs in political ideas -- political ideas and principles, not a kind of cultural romanticism, not a kind of religious nostalgia, not a historical atavism. It is belief in what makes India, (it) is a commitment to a set of principles to diversity.

But what brings Indians together to share these principles?

It is not just the principles; the principles are a recognition and articulation of a practical reality. The reality is that Indians are of different languages, of different ethnic background, and different religious beliefs who historically have lived together and worked together. They may not always totally mix, they have different eating habits, they may have lived separately; but they traded together, they made things together.

And even today when we see coalition governments, they come from different parts of India; but they find a way of working together, of bringing different uses to the table. And so it is a practical compulsion, which demanded a principle.

What do you attribute to the rise of religious extremism?

There are no simple answers. They are many people in this country who feel excluded: they feel linguistically excluded, economically excluded and they feel culturally excluded. I feel the whole rise of religious militant extremism in this country in the last decade is an appeal to these people who felt culturally excluded. I think the task now before our leaders is to recognise that there are these excluded people and to find different ways to integrate them. I think the old secular position is dead to a lot of people who feel angry about their inclusion.

Many people -- our intellectuals and politicians -- believed that the argument for secularism was won. They abandoned the argument for secularism and pluralism believing it was won but it is never won. It is a constant argument.

Now one of the tasks is to show how pluralism works to the benefit of everyone; not just for the masses but for individuals. If we allow that space to each other, we can be more creative, more competitive, more active.

Certainly we cannot assume that religious nationalism is gone, it is not; it is a powerful force in our politics. We have to redirect that force.

Photograph: Jewella C Miranda

Image: Uday Kuckian

The Rediff Interviews

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