The Indic civilisation

By Ishtiaq Ahmed 

Today’s article coincides with India’s declaration as a republic in 1950. The civilisational roots of modern India are always worth discussing, because despite all the odds against it — the caste system, poverty and hunger, illiteracy and other such debilitating factors — it became a democracy and has remained so.

Civilisation denotes a complex society with distinct cultural and ideational features that takes shape in the long, historical process through the division of labour and a concomitant social hierarchy. Therefore, civilisations cannot be understood only in contemporaneous terms; historical antecedents and legacy weigh heavily in forming the present. On the other hand, civilisations are also dynamic and change, adjust and transform, while retaining links with the past.

Studying civilisations is a daunting task. I admire the courage of the veteran journalist and writer, Reginald Massey, born in Lahore to a Punjabi Christian family of Sikh Jatt origin, educated at the St. Anthony’s High School in Lahore and later in India, and who now lives in an idyllic village in Wales. He has taken up the challenge and acquitted himself admirably.

His book, India: Definitions and Clarification (Hertford: Hansib, 2007) is a tour de force of truly encyclopaedic proportions. The book, however, is not exclusively about the current geographical entity called the Republic of India; it is about the historical, cultural and civilisational entity: the Indic civilisation. It includes not only India but also Pakistan and other states in this region. The Indic civilisation bears influence of not only Hinduism but also Buddhism, Jainism, Islam, Sikhism, Christianity and indeed the modern period of secular rationalism and scepticism. It is pluralistic in its deepest ethos.

The author makes the interesting observation that the Aryans called the main river they confronted when they entered the plains of the subcontinent, Sindhu, which is known as River Sindh and is the lifeblood of today’s Pakistan. However, in Persian and Greek usage it began to be pronounced without the “s” at the beginning and over time the people who lived in the valley of the Indus River and east of it began to be called Hindus.

The Aryans crossed into the Indo-Gangetic Plain where they established their stronghold, but the whole region from Afghanistan to the lower Ganges was named by them as Aryavarta. That name, however, did not get established. Rather this region became famous as Hindustan.

The central thesis Massey sets forth is that the caste system has been the ultimate organising principle of the social, political and economic life in the subcontinent. The author condemns it in the strongest terms as it compartmentalised, society and established strict hierarchy. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, himself a Kashmiri Brahmin and thus belonging to the highest place in the caste hierarchy, made no secret of his abhorrence for the caste system.

Therefore, Nehru saw to it that Dr Ambedkar, the leader of the so-called Untouchables, who prefer to be called Dalits, was made chairperson of the committee that prepared the Indian Constitution. The constitution gives equal rights to all citizens, irrespective of caste. That has been the basis for India becoming a democracy, though in the wider society prejudices against the Dalits and lower castes still abound. The author narrates many anecdotes that highlight the continuing humiliation faced by the Dalits in contemporary India.

He observes that the caste system continued to fashion social hierarchy even among the followers of Islam and Christianity. Thus, among Muslims the distinction between the ashraf (superior) and the ajlaf (low-born) meant that they existed as two separate communities, while Christians who converted from Brahmin or other superior castes avoided contact with low-caste Christians.

The author examines northern and southern Indian societies over the historical period. We learn about important dynasties that came to power and what legacy they have left behind. Some Hindu dynasties were founded by men of humble origin who had themselves promoted to the second highest caste of the Kshatriyas through bribery and coercion.

The book compares the three leading personalities of the freedom struggle — Mahatma Gandhi, Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Jawaharlal Nehru. Each is treated with fairness. The author thinks that Jinnah was a brilliant leader, without whom Pakistan would most probably never have come into being, and it is Nehruvian secularism which he believes has helped India remain a democratic polity.

He reserves scathing criticism for the ruling classes of both India and Pakistan. He writes: “The corrupt ruling classes of both India and Pakistan have done an excellent job in that they have succeeded in fooling the masses of their respective countries. Their success in this enterprise was, of course, assured since the majority of the people on both sides of the border are poor, superstitious, gullible, illiterate and an easy prey to state propaganda and the poisonous rantings of religious bigots”

Reginald Massey is currently writing a follow-up volume, in which he wants to probe the directions the South Asian region could take in the future. He is optimistic about the youths of this region, which he believes want to move on, rather than remain hostage to past conflicts and rivalries.

In this regard, it would be interesting to examine more closely if the Laws of Manu or the Constitution of Ambedkar is winning. Also, I hope he visits Lahore where he was born and about which he is so very proud. It would be interesting to know what he thinks happened to Jinnah’s Pakistan.

The writer is a professor of political science and a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), National University of Singapore. Email:

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