Saturday, January 6, 2018

India & the U.S.: Shared Experiences at the Founding

One of the many enjoyable aspects of our two years living in India was the opportunity it provided me to learn more about Indian history. Like all history, Indian history is endlessly fascinating and puzzling, both obscured and revealed by time, and it's the subject of endless debate and more than occasional attempts of kidnapping. History is the neverending story (unless we really muck things up).

Of special interest to me was the movement for Indian independence. I first read a biography of Gandhi in high school after seeing the end of a film about him (no, not the Ben Kinsley-Richard Attenborough bio-pic--I way older than that). Moving to Jaipur that first year allowed me to learn more about Gandhi, Nehru, and the less well-known but quite important Dr. Ambedkar. All three of these leaders were lawyers, and all were educated and trained in Great Britain. Nehru received his education at Harrow, Cambridge, and the Inner Temple; Gandhi trained as a barrister in London; and Ambedkar received Ph.D. degrees from Columbia University in New York (I hear it's a good school) and the London School of Economics, and he trained as a barrister at Gray's Inn. In short, all received extensive educations abroad.

Does this make them somehow less Indian? I think not. In fact, if anything it makes them more Indian, for India is an amazing agglomeration of religions, cultures, languages, and traditions that developed through centuries of intercourse with the wider world, both influencing and being influenced through its long history. As an American, I'm keenly aware of the model that Gandhi's non-violent resistance movement provided to Dr. Martin Luther King's civil rights movement, which was marked by non-violent resistance. Both men drew on a variety of influences: Gandhi on his native Hindu tradition as well as a deep knowledge of Islam and Christianity, the common law tradition, Ruskin, and Tolstoy; King on his native Christian tradition, Gandhi's movement, Thoreau, and the American Constitution.

Indeed, I can't help but note similarities between the founders of democratic, independent India and the founders of the American republic. Both groups were amazingly cosmopolitan in their learning and outlook. While the Americans received less of their education in Britain than their Indian counterparts (travel then was much more arduous), they were unquestionably educated in the British tradition and held significant cultural ties to Britain. Indeed, during the early period of unrest, their desire was for their rights as Englishmen. Both groups turned the highest ideals of the British back upon themselves. Of course, neither group was without fault. Certainly, the legacies of slavery in the U.S. and caste in India create problems yet today. The Indian founders (especially Ambedkar) attempted to deal with issues of caste more forthrightly than the American leaders did with slavery, but the residuals of these evils still create a distorting force field within their respective polities that each nation must continue to work to overcome.

Finally, in addition to their cosmopolitan outlooks and education, the founders of both nations were patriots. Their learning and cosmopolitan outlooks made them aspire to the highest standards for their respective nations. Their love of country--the defining aspect of patriotism--was without parallel. Compare this to the tawdry nationalism--the antithesis of patriotism--that plagues both nations today. Article author Aatish Taseer aptly quotes Nehru: " “Nationalism . . . is essentially an anti-feeling, and it feeds and fattens on hatred against other national groups, and especially against the foreign rulers of a subject country.” Neither nation is now in the grips of a foreign power, at least not a foreign state, but each of our nations is plagued by those who would deny their many varied citizens their rightful share in their highest ideals that these nations have embodied. Whatever the faults and shortcomings of our respective founders, each set has provided us, Indians and Americans, with models of probity, decency, freedom, and justice that we ignore at the risk of our lasting loss.
Bravo @AatishTaseer for a long overdue reassessment of #Nehru, a figure educated by Theosophists & someone who could be viewed as India's Obama: a complex intellectual who fit in nowhere, and a man we desperately need today. His portrait hangs in our home.

I used to think India’s first prime minister was embarrassingly westernized. Now I see that he was one of our great thinkers.

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