High Commissioner's speech at Dinner hosted by The Sri Lanka - India Society on August 27, 2016 at TajSamudra, Colombo to commemorate India's Independence Day 2016

High Commissioner's speech at Dinner hosted by The Sri Lanka - India Society on August 27, 2016 at TajSamudra, Colombo to commemorate India's Independence Day 2016

Hon’ble KaruJayasuriya, Speaker of the Parliament and Chief Guest of today’s function;

Mr. T.S. Prakash, President, Sri Lanka-India Society; 

Past Presidents and Vice Patrons of the Sri Lanka-India Society;

Office bearers and Members of the Executive Committee of the Sri Lanka-India Society;

Members of what is the oldest friendship society of Sri Lanka;

Distinguished guests; 

Ladies and Gentlemen 

My wife and I are very happy to participate in the Indian Independence Day celebration organized by the Sri Lanka-India Society. This is an annual event that I have had the privilege of participating in for the fourth and perhaps the last time as High Commissioner of India to Sri Lanka. I would like to commend the Sri Lanka-India Society for organizing such events regularly to remind the people of both countries of the close umbilical cords that bind us. 

I am delighted that Hon’bleKaruJayasuriya, Speaker of Parliament, is the Chief Guest tonight. He has a vast knowledge about India, and is a great friend of our country. I look forward to listening to him tonight.

But before that, I would like to seek your indulgence about what I am going to say, as it may sound esoteric and could tax your patience. Recently there has been a malicious and motivated attempt to ridicule and denigrate the very idea of India. There was also a preposterous claim made that ArahatMahinda came from Jambudvipawhich is not India! Hence, I can think of no other suitable occasion to dwell at some length on a subject that is close to my heart and indeed to those of 1.25 billion people that reside across the Palk Strait in a land called India that is ‘Bharat’. This great land has been called by various names since antiquity. The name India may have been derived from the river Indus or Sindhu, and may have been a Greek distortion of the original Sanskrit word, but that does not detract from the concept of India or ‘Bharatvarsh’, that has existed since time immemorial. While a modern nation state, based on Westphalian precepts, may have been superimposed on this great land, to claim that India is an invention of British colonialists is absurd. 

Geographically, India as an intelligible entity

It is evident that India has a geographical unity.The bulwark of mountains from Baluchistan to the Patkoi chain and the Arakanmountains or ArakanYoma of the eastern frontier clearly wall off the subcontinent from the rest of Asia. At the base of these mountains are the alluvial plains - the Indus delta, the Gangetic plains and delta,and the Brahmaputra basin.Beyond this is an old inner plateau with thin coastlines on both sides. It is this girdle of mountains and seas which gives India a geographical identity. Climatically, the mountains have ensured that the subcontinent has a practically self-contained monsoon system of its own. While the subcontinent has great diversity of geology, altitudes and rainfall, but this cannot take away from the unity. OHK Spate, the great geographer of the Indian subcontinent, remarked that “India remains valid as a geographical expression for the lands between KanyaKumari (Cape Comorin) and the towering peak K2…”.

Unity as seen through religious texts and practices

The unity of India is also evident in our religious texts. For instance, Vishnu Puranaof 4th century mentions that descendants of the sage Bharata lived between the Himalayas and the sea, and defines the physical boundaries and features of Bharatavarsha. It also lists rivers and their sources, such as Satadru (Sutlej), Chandrabhaga (Chenab), Godavari, Narmada, Krishnaveni (Krishna), Bimarathi (Bhima), etc., which help us understand the geography of Bharatavarsha. 

Cave inscriptions from the 2nd century refer to the existence of a larger land, by using names like ‘Uttarapatha’ for northern India and ‘Dakshinapatha’ for the Deccan. The so-called northern and southern parts undoubtedly presume a larger whole. 

Interestingly, in his 1913 seminal book ‘The Fundamental Unity of India’, noted Indian historian RadhaKumudMookerjistates that “Bharatavarsha is not a mere geographical expression like the term India,having only a physical reference. It has a deep, historical significance symbolizing a fundamental unity which was certainly perceived and understood by those who invented the name….Bharatavarsha is derived from Bharata as Rome is derived from Romulus. Bharata is a great hero of Indian history and tradition, just as Romulus is of Roman. The Rig Veda  mentions him as the leader of a powerful Aryan tribe that played its full part in the struggles and conflicts by which Aryan polity and culture were being shaped into proper form in the dawn of history…Bharatavarsha is therefore another name for Aryanised India, the congenial fertile soil where Aryan culture planted itself and attained fruition.”

The concept of the distribution of the fifty one ShaktaPithas all across the subcontinent is another manifestation of India’s unity. This unity is also seen in the Siva Purana, where there is a mention of the Sapta Ganga or Seven Gangas – Ganga, Godavari, Kaveri, Tamraparni, Sindhu, Sarayu and Reva[interestingly, all major rivers in Sri Lanka are also called Gangas].

Ideas about India in Antiquity

Historically, there has always been this sense that this sub-continental entity has a character beyond geography. Different parts of India are already known within the Vedic corpus. In later Vedic texts - like the Atharvaveda, the YajurSamhitas, Brahmanas and Upanisad, there is a wide range of geographical data which reveals knowledge of large parts of India. We find mention of places like Kamboja and Gandhara in the northwest, KuruPanchala, Anga, Madra, Vanga, Magadha, Kalinga in the north and east, and Vidarbhaand Andhra beyond the Vindhyas.

Ashoka’s Jambudvipa

However, the idea that large parts made up a political realm is seen for the first time in the edicts of Emperor Ashoka, when he used the term Jambudvipa/dipa. Later, Jambudvipa is sometimes used for an island, and at other times for the territory extending from the Himalayas in the north to the sea in the south. But in Ashoka’s epigraphs, Jambudvipa meant the vast land that the emperor ruled. These also provided a sense of the territorial length and breadth of the empire, and the borders beyond. For example, wherever his major rock edicts, were put up, the names of polities that existed on the borderlandswere recited to people there along with the message of the edicts. Thus, for instance, those at Erragudi in modern day Andhra Pradesh were likely to have known about the political entities beyond their borders in the south, such as the Cholas and the Keralaputras, but through the edicts they also came to know about rulers far away to the north and northwest. This would have made people there feel that they belonged to an empire spread across an enormous territory, and is clearly an attempt by Ashoka to speak in one voice across India, from Pakistan to Andhra and from Orissa to Gujarat. Thus, Ashoka’s edicts clearly refer to the idea of India as a political state that straddles the subcontinent. We should also note the persistent reference in ancient political texts to the domain of a universal emperor.

Arthashastra

The rulership of the earth contemplated in the Arthashastrais understood as not the conquest of the whole world but for the operations of the vijigishu or would be conquerorit is the region lying between the Himalayas and the sea. Roughly translated, it reads: Place means earth. In that, the region of the sovereign ruler extends northwards between the Himavata and the sea, one thousand yojanas in extent across. There are various types of land: forest land, village land, mountainous land, marshy land, dry land, level land and uneven land. In them, he should start work that would augment his own strength. 

It is, thus, a total sub-continental land mass that constitutes this ideal domain. So, the ideal of political unity was present. 

Idea of India in the medieval period

If the Arthasashtraand Ashoka articulate an idea of Indiain ancient times, there are three other Asthat do so in the medieval period. 

Alberuni

In his 11th century Kitab-ul Hind, Alberunitalks about India's inhabitants having institutions and features different from where he was from. He gives a fairly comprehensive account of the people of Hind, their religion, sciences, philosophy, etc. He also talks about Indians' sense of themselves. 

Amir Khusrau

Amir Khusrauin 1318 speaks of India (Hind) as containing people who speak different languages which include Telegu (Telangi) and Kannada (Dhaur-Samanduri), and he terms these languages as 'Hindwi' (or Indian) languages. He also mentions Sanskrit and Persian too, as languages of India, drawing a picture of Indian people with their various languages constituting a single whole. Khusrau lauds their 'love of country', and speaks of the ‘superiority of its products and fruits, its animals, the beauty of its women, the learning and piety of the Brahmans, and India's numerous cultural achievements such as the invention of numerals and chess...’.He also saw India as open, innovative and tolerant.

Abu-l Fazl

In the 1595 Ain-i Akbari, Abu-l Fazl gives an account of religious schools, learning, arts, and myths of India, clearly highlighting the conception of India and its distinct composite culture, product of many streams. Akbar’s reign also saw the writing of the first full-scale history of India, the Tabaqat-I Akbariby Nizamuddin Ahmad in 1592, which was followed by others. The accuracy of these works is not important. Instead they clearly demonstrate that our land had its own history - that idea of India is important.

Ideas of India in Modern Times

In more recent times, Sunil Khilnani, in his ‘The Idea of India’, through a series of arguments, shows that India as a nation, with a sense of nationhood, was created in the last century and a half. He sees the arrival of the modern state on the Indian landscape in that time period. 

Some have argued that India was made possible by the self-invention of a national community as a consequence of alien conquest and colonial subjection. This is too simplistic and not true - there was something before this. The storehouse of shared narrative structures embodied in epics, myths, folk stories, and the family resemblances in styles of art, architecture and religious motifs – if not ritual practices – testify to a civilizational bond. These characteristics did bestow a certain unified coherence on lives in the subcontinent. Equally significant was India’s archive of images of political community, which related culture to polity. As I mentioned before, Puranic literature expresses a sense of the subcontinent’s natural geographical frontiers, reflected in a sacred geography mapped out by tirthas - pilgrimage points - scattered along the idea, and encompassed by the idea, of Bharatavarsha. 

Ladies and Gentlemen, it is thus clear that the idea of India far predates the evolution of a modern Westphalian nation state. Even the Mauryanempire at its zenith stretched from parts of Khorasaninwhat is modern day Iran to encompass Afghanistan, Pakistan and most of India, barring the North East and parts of the South. There exist accounts of Chandragupta Maurya, the founder of the Mauryanempire and grandfather of Emperor Ashoka and great grandfather of ArahatMahinda, passing away in the Jain tradition by fasting unto death near Mysore, which is in present day Karnataka. The great Ashoka’s propagation of Buddhism spread far and wide across the then known world.However, the rise and fall of kingdoms and empires in India predate the Mauryas, though they were perhaps not as large. To conclude that India did not exist as an entity since it was not politically unified during long periods of its historyis disingenuous. 

In conclusion, I would like to underline the strong and vibrant relations between our two countries that received a boost with the advent of a new government in Sri Lanka in January 2015. There have been close contacts at the highest levels and frequent visits to each other’s countries by our leaders. While our political, religious and cultural relations continue to thrive, we remain committed to taking our economic and commercial engagement to the next level for the mutual benefit of our people. As members of the Sri Lanka-India Society you play an important role as Ambassadors and votaries of strengthening this relationship. I am confident that you will continue to do so in the future and would like to extend my best wishes to all of you in this noble endeavaour. 

Thank you. 

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