Romila Thapar: What do we mean by the idea of India? Being a historian, I would turn it around a little bit and ask: When did the idea of India come into existence? One can’t date it, of course, because one can seldom date ideas with precision. Ideas have a way of wandering about – you can’t pinpoint their origins. The idea of India, I think, is a modern idea, a concept which emerged in colonial times.

We often hear people saying: Oh yes, the idea of India existed in the Vedic period, it existed in the Gupta period, it existed in the Mughal period, and so on. I would beg to differ with that. We don’t really know how people saw themselves in the context of states, nations, and countries. We don’t even know what names each took.

We know, for example, that the Sumerians – now I’m going really back, far back – of the third millennium BCE referred to countries to their east, one in particular with whom they had trade relations, and the items they traded were items that came from the Indus plain. So we assume it’s a reference to the Indus civilisation, which they seem to have called Meluhha, which we think might be a Sumerian version of the Prakrit Melukhkha / Milakkha / Milakkhu.

But in the Vedic period, we begin to get textual evidence, references to something called Aryavarta. Now Aryavarta is a very interesting term because the place it refers to keeps shifting. In the Vedic texts, it extends from the Doab to just about the middle of the Ganges valley. In the Buddhist texts, the location moves a little eastwards. In the Jaina texts, it moves still further east. By the time you get to Manu and his Manava-Dharmashastra, he’s talking about Aryavarta being the land between the Himalayas and the Vindhyas, and north of the land between the two seas. That is not quite the India that we speak of today.

Similarly with Jambudvipa, Ashoka refers to it in his inscriptions. We do not know where it was nor what its boundaries were. Bharatvarsha is also vague and changeable. Al-Hind, which comes into use from about the 12th century CE onwards, refers to all the land across the Indus when looked at from West Asia. Then came the British, and they started referring to this part of the country as India, from the Greek Indós, referring to the Indus. (The Vedic texts also mention the Sapta-Sindhu, referred to by the ancient Iranians as the Hapta-Hendu, the s and the h being interchangeable.)

Now, what did the British mean? They talk about India when they’ve conquered certain parts of Eastern India, and have gone on to conquer other parts of the peninsula and then moved north. With each conquest, the boundaries changed until, finally at the end of the 19th century, the entire subcontinent was painted red – that is the India of the British Empire.

Is this when the concept of India, the idea of India, comes into being? Possibly, but it’s a territorial concept. The idea of India is, of course, much more than territory – it’s culture, language, religion . . . all that is assumed. When does that begin? My guess is – although I’m not a historian of modern India, and I may be completely wrong here – that one of the most interesting decades of our times was the 1920s.

What happened in the 1920s? You had, first of all, the Indian National Congress, with Gandhi trying to convert the movement into a mass movement, which he successfully did. I’m not going to quibble with the subaltern-studies perspective and others on how far it truly was as a mass movement but, technically, yes, it certainly included a very large number of people, and the idea of India began to take hold because the end, the purpose of it, was the independence of the nation that was being created.

But the 1920s also saw the development of two other notions linked to the idea of India. There was the Muslim League that asked for Pakistan, which was a negation of the idea of India since it is a truncated version of British India. Countering this was the establishment of the Hindu Mahasabha, in the 1920s again, which gave way to the RSS wherein the idea of India is very clearly enunciated as the Hindu Rashtra.

Now you’ve already got three ideas – not one but three. The Communist Party of India, founded in the 1920s, retained the untruncated India but defined it as a socialist state. So I think the 1920s is really where the discussion should start in terms of not a single idea but the opening out of possible ways of looking at these ideas – why they happened, and what the consequences were. We know about the creation of the two nations, and then, later, Pakistan splitting into two with the emergence of Bangladesh. Associated with these was the notion of Independence, and what was being sought at the time of Independence. What was this idea of India as conceived by the anticolonial national movement, the biggest movement at that time? How were those people visualising the idea of India, how were they thinking of where Independence begins?

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: Well that’s a big one. Now I’m going to respond a little to what you said, which was the question I asked you at your house in November. First of all, of course, I am deeply suspicious of ideas. We cannot proceed without ideas – they’re a convenience – but they’re also very dangerous, they’re like a lid you put on a boiling pot under which they begin to – your word is crystallised, right? – take control of an entire seething, boiling mass of all kinds of thoughts. Having spent a life trying to learn from the literary, I’m a little afraid of ideas.

I also feel, in some ways – and again, I’m really only speaking as an Indian – that “I’m not an Indian”. It’s true, you can scream at me, you have screamed at me, remember when you said, “Why are you teaching South Asia at all, you produce are these students who don’t know anything?” And I stopped. There are very few people in the world from whom I would take that kind of suggestion.

Another thing you told me, when I said, after Edward [Said]’s death, that I would do a biography, was: “Don’t try to research everything historically. If you think something is true and correct because of the way you’ve lived, put it down,” and so it’s the second suggestion that I’m taking up now. It seems to me that there was in the sense of India that we got – I was born in 1942, I was a precocious child, so I remember quite a bit of stuff. Of course, mostly famine, riots and so on.

But what we got later – thinking about it, I felt more and more, with my friend Edward Said, that it was a kind of an orientalist discovery of India, a discovery which allowed what Vladimir Ilyich would call the progressive bourgeoisie to think about India in this way, however much they wanted to bring in the masses. Which is why it slowly began to fade away.

This is just an Indian person’s opinion, an Indian person who knows nothing about India from book learning. This is my sense of things. And this is why I wanted to ask you the question, and I wrote it down, the question about what you said to me in a conversation at your house last November: “When we were active in the Independence struggle as young people, we did not expect the grave problems that would arise as the post-Independence years progressed,” or something to that effect. I’m interested in hearing from you a more detailed explanation of this, including whatever you want to say about the first Independence and the specific hopes that seem not to have fulfilled themselves.

I’m thinking now about the Bangladesh War, of which of course I have a good deal of experience. Both my dear friends, Zafrullah Chowdhury and Sandhya Ray, who was very involved – she gave up her education, at 15 she joined Zafrullah – said: “We thought that when Independence came in – I could go back to school . . . We didn’t realise that that would mean nothing.” And finally, behind it all is Frederick Douglass at Emancipation, saying, “Now the problems begin.” You have obviously been troubled by this. I really wanted you to say something more about it – I think it’s crucial to hear from you what it was that moved you to say it on your own.

Excerpted with permission from he Idea of India: A Dialogue, Romila Thapar and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Seagull Books.