story was reported on 2 June with the headline “Bengal couple accused of being ‘Bangladeshi infiltrators’ freed from Bengaluru jail after 10 months.” The couple were Palash and Shukla Adhikari, who were accused of being foreigners. They spent an extra month in jail after getting bail because they could not produce local sureties.
Another story, somewhat related, was reported the same day with the headline “Political leaders in Nepal object to ‘Akhand Bharat’ mural in new Parliament.” The story explained that “Akhand Bharat is a concept espoused by Hindutva nationalists envisaging that neighbouring countries Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka would become part of India.” Lumbini – the birthplace of Buddha – is in Nepal but features on the map in the new Parliament.
Both of these are again in a way related to something else. I am writing a book whose title is “The case for Akhand Bharat” which is an attempt to figure out two things. First, if Indians especially Hindus of the BJP type want to unite South Asia, why are they not trying it except in paintings and murals? Second, what would it take to actually bring about an Akhand Bharat?
The answer to the first is easy. The BJP and Hindus who back it do not want a united South Asia. What they want is an empire with subjects. A party ruling India with no Muslim minister or MP or MLA is not going to be attractive to the woman in Chittagong or enthuse the child in Peshawar. What the BJP wants is land, it does not want the people. Look at Kashmir to understand.
Bigotry is boring but the second question is more interesting. What would it actually take to unite the people of the sub-continent? It cannot be the force of arms, because we do not have the capacity, though we do not admit it. This is a fact. Kashmir looks different in reality than it does on the map. It would actually horrify the average Indian, brainwashed by school maps, if they were to learn the actual position. The bits in the west are not in our control and we cannot take them back despite the brave words. Mind you, the opponent is only one-seventh our size. We cannot take them back not because of lack of intent but lack of capacity. The bits on the east are missing too but we do not talk about taking them back for fear of agitating the stronger power we cannot even name.
We can bully Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh up to a point but do not have the legitimacy to stake a real claim on them as opposed to pantomime ones in maps and speeches. And yet there is another way, which is not being considered (and that is what my book is about). What if India as the dominant power, the largest economy, the oldest democracy and the most populous nation reach out to its neighbours and tries to unite them? What would that look like and what would it entail?
Well, firstly, it would have to do with addressing things that were other than political. When the European Union began to form, it was not either through a unified currency or a unified parliament. It was through connecting their steel and coal industries. Why? Because these were the two materials needed to develop their economies and their militaries. First through coercion on Germany after the war and then through consensus, the European nations united themselves. Remember that though belonging to the same religion, they had murdered more of each other than any other part of the world in a mere three decades between 1914 and 1945. What are the things in South Asia that can be similarly connected without addressing issues like a common currency or a common prime minister?
They would have to be transport, meaning open roads and connectivity on rail and air; communications, meaning mobile telephony that can be used on both sides and free travel. That would mean being able to go from Calcutta to Dhaka without a visa for a holiday or from Lahore to Shimla. Is it difficult to do? No, it would take a stroke of a pen. The problem lies in the imagination of nations held hostage mentally to the idea that the neighbour is the enemy.
The next step would be, as the European Union did, easing the movement of goods and services. This would unite the economies eventually and benefit all nations, especially ones that produce and manufacture the things that the others cannot. India can produce and send cars, two wheelers, petrol, software, musical instruments, books, nurses, engineers and biochemists at a more efficient cost than can be produced in the other nations locally. To not do this is to deny Indians opportunity and deny India growth potential.
The final aspect of this softer Akhand Bharat would be some element of political integration as the EU has also done. We do not need to go there here. We do not need to even consider it till the other parts have matured. But we have to understand that this third element is absolutely impossible in the absence of the first two. To think otherwise, as is the case of that mural in Parliament that Nepal and others object to, is to think like a child.
It is a reality that the thinking of the Indian elite, as presented to the world in the new Parliament, is juvenile and unreal. But it is also a fact that needs to be acknowledged and engaged with. Akhand Bharat will not come about through crayons and murals.