India: a land of contradictions

Professor Sunil Khilnani's 50-part biographical history of India, Incarnations: India in 50 Lives, has been one of the radio highlights of the past year. In his series on BBC Radio 4, the director of the King's College London India Institute has not only shed new light on familiar figures but also introduced us to characters unknown outside India. In an extended version of an interview with Jonathan Wright published in the February 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine, Professor Khilnani discusses Gandhi, a cricketing hero and how he'd go about putting together a similar series on Britain for Indian listeners.

Portrait of Mahatma Gandhi

 Jonathan Wright: In your introduction to Incarnations, you talk about India’s ‘contradictions’. Has making the series helped you understand these better?
Sunil Khilnani: The contradictions, which often sound abstract when you read them, whether they’re about caste or religion or development and tradition, really for me became dramatised in the individual lives in a way that made them much more real and concrete.
For example, look at a life like that of the writer and poet Rabindranath Tagore, who was born in 1861 and died in 1941. This was a man who was committed to the idea of freedom, individual freedom and free relationships, and yet his own life was completely constrained in many ways. He couldn’t follow the love he wanted, he conformed to a lot of the social constraints of his time. You could really feel the tensions and contradictions in his own life.
Is India more contradictory than other nations?
I think in many ways it is more contradictory, simply because it contains within a single nation state more diversities than any other country, whether it’s diversities of religion, caste, craft or language. All the main lines of conflict other societies have, India has in multiple numbers.
How tough was it to come up with an initial list?
The first list I made had a hundred names. That had the BBC – and me as well – reaching for the door. I soon realised this was in no way going to be encyclopedic or exhaustive. It was going to be my selection from a vast span of history. This freed me up to take on characters I was interested in.
Who was the figure you most regretted missing from the final cut?
If I could include a 51st, it would be a sportsperson, the great Indian cricketer Vinoo Mankad who died in 1978. He’s a forgotten figure now but he was one of the greatest all-rounders India has ever produced. He scored double centuries, he took wickets. He played in the 1950s and he was a rather dour player, but had this presence.
Tell us more about who’s featured in the second tranche of 25 episodes. Are there common threads that link them?
The second series is focused on the 20th and 21st centuries. One theme that does connect a number of figures – such as Mahatma Gandhi, Muhammad Ali Jinnah (the founder of Pakistan) and political leader Subhas Chandra Bose – is the struggle for freedom. I’ve also chosen some figures from the freedom struggle who have been forgotten. There’s also a series of strong, achieving women featured, beginning with activist Annie Besant who lived from 1847 to 1933 and ending with Indira Ghandi who was born in 1917 and was assassinated in 1984. In each case, you really see women fighting against the social and patriarchal worlds they’re brought up in.
How does one go about finding something new to say about Mahatma Gandhi? 
What strikes me today is how, even as he’s venerated as the father of the nation, he’s also a figure who, as he did in his lifetime, still provokes really deep animosity amongst many Indians – and indeed among many Hindus who see him as a betrayer of the Hindu religion. The episode actually starts with that depth of feeling against Gandhi, and about a particular personal moment where I witnessed that firsthand.
For me, Gandhi is a deeply original and radical thinker because he doesn’t see politics as simply tied to the state. He sees politics all around us. In that sense, he’s not primarily a religious thinker but a really profound political thinker. When he says freedom is in the palm of our hands, it’s a kind of enigmatic statement, what does he mean? What he means is – and he’s talking about spinning or picking up salt or whatever – it’s these small actions in which we can be free.
How would you go about compiling a list of 50 Britons for an Indian audience? 
I guess, starting more or less from the present day, you’d start with someone like Thatcher and work back to Churchill, Gladstone, and so on. Does King Arthur count as a real historical figure? Or would it be Hadrian, King Alfred, Caesar? It would be an interesting task.
Sunil Khilnani was interviewed by Jonathan Wright.
The second series of Incarnations: India in 50 Lives concludes on 22 March. All episodes are available on BBC iPlayer Radio.