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The National Territorial Tradition

The perspective of The Tragic Story of Partition by Shri H.V. Seshadri is set by what the learned author has written in his short but succinct Preface. He says: ‘In the [past] one thousand years many parts of our country had been ruled by the Muslims and then by the British, but the nation had never compromised, in principle, its sovereignty over any part of the motherland. As a result, our nation had never ceased to strive for throwing out the aggressors and liberate those parts. And history tells us that ultimately it did succeed in freeing the entire land from the clutches of foreign invaders. However, for the first time, Partition conceded the moral and legal right to them over certain parts of the country and declared an ignominious finale to the one thousand years old heroic struggle for freedom. Thus it was an act of humiliating surrender on the point of principle. The usual interpretation of Partition, however, does not utter a word about this aspect. Even while conceding Partition to be a tragedy, it is sought to be made out as the only practical way out then available - as the inevitable price for achieving freedom.’1

This is a very significant statement. Firstly, it carries within it a consciousness of the territorial and historical traditions cherished by the people of Bharatavarsha since ages past. Secondly, it brings out the point that the surrender of a national principle by a people is more suicidal than the surrender of national territory under unfavourable circumstances.

We shall take up the territorial tradition first. The vision of Bharatavarsha which had inspired our struggle against British imperialism has been described by Shri Seshadri in the very first chapter in the following words: ‘Indeed how many were the seers and sages, poets and prophets - right from the Vedic age upto the modern times - who had fostered in the nation’s breast the integrated and whole picture of Bharat as the Divine Mother. Bharat, in their eyes, was not a mere clod of clay. It was verily the Matrubhoomi, the Punyabhoomi, the Dharmabhoomi, the Devabhoomi, the Karmabhoomi - all sublimated into one single majestic figure of Bharat Mata. To Bankimchandra, She appeared as the triple manifestation of Saraswati, Lakshmi and Durga. Rabindranath Tagore visualised Her as Devi bhuvana-mana-mohini - the divine enchantress of the world. To Swami Vivekananda, She was the Mother of all the thirty-three crores of gods and goddesses - whose worship would gratify all those myriad deities. Guruji Golwalkar visualised Her as Trinity of Mata - the loving mother, Pita - the protecting father, and Guru - the elevating spiritual guide. The unity of Bharat is so basic to its nature, so sublime in its depths - in fact, an inseparable aspect of its national soul.’2

Bharatavarsha Becomes a ‘Multitude of Different Countries’

Shri Seshadri goes on to point out in the second chapter, Breaking the Hindu Morale, how Bharatavarsha ‘was newly painted by the British as a ‘continent’ or ‘sub-continent’, and not as a single country’. He cites John Strachey who had ‘held some of the highest offices in India’. In a series of lectures delivered in 1885 at the University of Cambridge, Strachey had said, ‘What is India? What does this name India really signify? The answer that I have sometimes given sounds paradoxical, but it is true. There is no such country and this is the first and most essential fact about India that can be learned. India is a name which we give to a great region including a multitude of different countries.’3 This great falsehood about our country was foisted upon generation after generation of Hindus by the British system of education till it passed into day-to-day political parlance. Rare is the scholar or politician who does not now refer to his country as the Indian or Indo-Pak subcontinent.

The very sound of ‘Indian sub-continent’ is shocking to the ears of those who have had the privilege of performing or participating in some Hindu saMskaras. The wording of every saMkalpa, starting with Jambudvipe BharatakhaNDe, invokes the opposite vision of a single, though vast and variegated land, inhabited by a people who are proud of being born and having lived in it. The territorial unity and integrity of Bharatavarsha - the land that lies south of the Himalayas, east of Sakadvipa (Seistan), south-east of Vahlika (Balkh), west of Burma and between the two seas - was never a political contrivance created by the sword of a conqueror. On the contrary, it was meant and manifested by Mother Nature herself as the cradle of an incomparable culture - the culture of Sanatana Dharma.

Cultural Unity Versus Political Unity

It is pointed out by superficial students of Indian history that the ‘Indian sub-continent’ has been more often a congeries of independent and warring states than a single and sovereign political entity. But if they look a little deeper, they will soon discover a type of unity which far surpasses mere political unity and which has proved more permanent. This is the cultural unity of Bharatavarsha. The seers and sages of India have always placed political unity at the lowest rung of the ladder. What they have prized above all is a more abiding unity based on the very sound principles of svabhava, svadharma and svarajya, nurtured by numerous regions and communities within a common framework of spiritual and moral values. To their perceptive eyes, political empires are passing phenomena which leave behind them nothing better than memories of bloodshed, coercion, and exploitation. Ashoka’s imperialist adventure into Kalinga and the anguish and remorse it entailed in a sensitive soul has all along been cited as a classical example in this context.

Where is the empire of ancient Iran to-day, or that of Alexander of Macedonia, or that of ancient Rome, or that of the medieval Arabs? The empires built by the Turks, the Spaniards, the Portuguese, the Dutch, the British, the Belgians, and the French were far-flung fabrics till our own times. Did these empires create or leave behind them any sense of unity among the lands or the peoples over which they presided for long? On the other hand, the cultural unity that was envisaged by Sanatana Dharma, and embodied in tried and tested traditions in its laboratory of Bharatavarsha, is still a living force. In the final analysis, this cultural unity is the only guarantee of a political unity in the face of so many fissiparous forces let loose by self-alienated scholars and secularist politicians.

The Mahabharata carries a complete picture of this cultural unity in its tirtha-yatra-parva, which is part of the larger Vana-parva. The Pandavas accompany their Purohita, Dhaumya, on a long pilgrimage to all parts of Bharatavarsha. They pay their homage to many mountains, rivers, saMgamas, lakes, tanks, forest groves and other sacred shrines which had become hallowed by association with Gods and Goddesses, rishis and munis, satees and sadhvees, heroes and heroines. And they feel fulfilled as they never did before or after in their long lives. The same Pandavas made an imperial conquest of the whole country, not once but twice and performed a rajasuya yajña at the end of each triumph. But the Pandava empire is a faint memory of the forgotten past. On the other hand, the sacred spots which the Pandavas visited during their one and only pilgrimage, draw millions of devotees in our own days as they did in the distant past, long before the Pandavas appeared on the scene.

The politicians have bartered away several precious parts of the motherland and betrayed the people who had lived in those parts for untold ages. The same brood is now busy beating up provincial passions on every petty pretext. But the common people still flock to all ancient pilgrimage places in the residue that is Hindustan. The common people still pay the homage of their hearts to those sacred shrines also which have been left in hostile hands, whenever they listen to recitations of the Bhagavata and the Mahabharata. Even the national anthem adopted by those who surrendered to Islamic imperialism, pays homage to Panjaba, Sindha and Banga which are now supposed to be foreign lands. Rabindranath who composed and sang this great song had the whole of Bharatavarsha imprinted on his mind and heart. He had never heard of the ‘Indian sub-continent’.

The Ramayana, the Puranas and the Dharmashastras paint the same portrait of an ancient land, every spot of which is sacred to some cultural memory or the other. The Jainagama and the Tripitaka speak again and again of sixteen Mahajanapadas, which spanned the spread of Bharatavarsha in the life-time of Bhagvan Mahavira and the Buddha. Even a dry compendium on grammar, the Ashtadhyayi of Panini, provides a near complete count of all the Janapadas in ancient India-Gandhara and Kamboja, Sindhu and Sauvira, Kashmir and Kekaya, Madra and Trigarta, Kuru and Panchala, Kaushala and Kashi, Magadha and Videha, Anga and Vanga, Kirata and Kamarupa, Suhma and Udra, Vatsa and Matsya, Abhira and Avanti, Nishadha and Vidarbha, Dandakaranya and Andhra, Karnataka and Kerala, Chola and Pandya. The epic poetry poured out by Kalidasa, Magha, Bharavi and Sriharsha continues the same tradition of talking endlessly about Bharatavarsha as a single and indivisible geographical entity, as a karmabhumi for Gods and Goddesses, Brahmarshis and Rajarshis, and as higher than heaven for all those who have had the good fortune of being born in it.

The names of places and provinces had changed considerably by the time the Buddhist pilgrims - Fa-hien, Hiuen-Tsang and It-sing - came to India in the 4th, 7th and 8th centuries. But the ancient contours of Bharatavarsha as a self-contained territorial unit had not undergone any change. The pilgrims from China found themselves on the sacred land which they had come to visit as soon as they stepped into what is now known as Afghanistan. Many other lands beyond this North-Western province of India worshipped the Buddha and were dotted with Buddhist temples and monasteries. But the Chinese pilgrims did not experience the same spiritual stir in those lands as they did on entering the holy land which had given birth to the Buddha.

The three Chinese travellers have left detailed accounts of stupas and temples, schools and colleges, Brahmins and Bhikshus, kings and courtiers, classes and masses, towns and villages, mores and manners, customs and traditions. These accounts also leave the same impression of a deep cultural unity in the midst of many apparent diversities. They testify to the fundamental fact that no inhabitant of Bharatavarsha, no matter what province or region he came from and no matter what language or dialect he spoke, felt like a foreigner in any other province or region.

It was this feeling of being at home everywhere in the country which took the Adi Shankaracharya from the southernmost tip to the farthest corners of Bharatavarsha in North and East and West and helped him found (or revive) the four foremost dhamas at Badrinath, Dvaraka, Rameshvaram and Puri. There is no count of sadhus and sannyasins and house-holders who have travelled ever since on the trail blazed by that great acharya. Six and a half centuries later, Guru Nanak Dev followed in the footsteps of the Pandavas and the Shankaracharya in search of spiritual company. Chaitanyadeva who lived in the 16th century and Swami Vivekananda who came towards the end of the 19th, roamed over the same route, feeling similarly at home everywhere.

The Character of Political Unity

It is not that the authors of this deeper and firmer unity had no conception of political unity. Only they did not give primacy to political unity, nor promote it at the cost of cultural unity. That was why they did not sanction the destruction or eclipse of local dynasties, or the socio-political autonomies of various regions and provinces, or the local cultural traditions, by any empire-builder. Nor did they sanction imperialist adventures outside the bounds of Bharatavarsha for subjugating people who did not belong to the national family.

The image of the whole of Bharatavarsha being a chakravartikshetra is as old as the oldest Vedic literature. The Itihasa-Purana provide glorious accounts of many chakravartins-Ikshvaku, Puru, Prithu Vainya, Sivi Ausinara, Mandhata, Raghu and so on-who accompanied the ašvamedha horse demanding submission from all kingdoms and republics, big and small, spread all over the country. The rajasuya yajña which was performed at the end of this campaign was more in the nature of a meeting of equals than a durbar held by a despot in order to humble or humiliate subordinate princes and patriarchs. Sri Krishna had demanded death for Jarasandha because the latter had violated this dharmic tradition of empire-building, and kept a hundred kings captive in his castle. The Nandas had won notoriety as an ignoble dynasty because they had also violated the standard code of conduct laid down by the rajadharma for righteous emperors, destroyed many local dynasties, and reduced other princes to provincial satraps.

And we have no record of an Indian empire-builder crossing over to foreign lands in search of conquests. Chandragupta Maurya (or Chandragupta I of the Gupta Dynasty according to an alternate chronology) could have easily overrun the Macedonian empire in West Asia after defeating Seleucus Nikator. But he stopped at the borders of Bharatavarsha after throwing out the foreign invader. So did Samudragupta after rounding off his victorious march in the Uttarapatha, however rich and inviting the lands beyond the borders might have been. This traditional taboo on going out and destroying the dasyu (aggressor) in the latter’s own homeland was to prove quite costly in subsequent periods. It even degenerated into what is known as the Panipat mentality of waiting for the invader till he reached a particular field of battle. But what we wish to emphasize here is that there was a well-defined tradition of empire-building in India and thus providing political unity to the whole country.

Defence of the North-Western Frontier

Before the British invader entered from the South and the East, it was the North-Western border of Bharatavarsha which was battered and breached again and again by a series of foreign invaders. That border, therefore, became an abiding part of national consciousness. This awareness is writ large in many a battle fought in defence of that border. Skandagupta had stormed towards that border in his fight to the finish against the Huna (or Saka) hordes. Later on, when Bharatavarsha was threatened by an Islamic invasion under the Arabs, some of the bravest battles were fought, and fought very successfully, in defence of Kabul and Zabul and Sindh. Still later, many Indian princes rallied round the Hindu Shahiya Dynasty of Udbhandapur, first in order to recover Kabul which had been overrun by the Islamicized Turks under Subuktigin, and then to contain the invasion by the same Turks after Indian forces had suffered a setback in the first endeavour.4

In more recent times, after the stranglehold of Islamic imperialism had been broken, the Marathas marched towards the same border impelled by the same national instinct and aspiration for freeing the motherland from all traces of foreign rule. The Sikhs under Maharaja Ranjit Singh fought some of their fiercest battles in the North-West to recover national territory from the Pathans who had meanwhile become alienated from the national mainstream after several centuries of subjugation to Islamic terror. The success achieved by the Marathas and the Sikhs was spectacular and was applauded by our people as a whole. On the other hand, the defeat of the Marathas in the Third Battle of Panipat was regarded as a national disaster and mourned far and wide. The Jats of Bharatpur who had plundered and harassed many imperial armies of the Mughals opened their doors as well as their purse-strings to provide succour and shelter to the worm-out Maratha veterans returning from Panipat.

Neither Chandragupta nor Samudragupta felt for a moment that he was intruding into foreign territory when he subdued the smaller principalities in the areas which have come to be known as Afghanistan and Pakistan in our own times. Nor did Skandagupta or Jayapala Shahiya or the Marathas or the Sikhs suffer from such an uncomfortable feeling when they set out to repel the Huna (or Saka) and Islamic invaders. Conversely, the Macedonian invader had proclaimed that he had entered India only after he had crossed what is now known as the Hindukush mountain. Greek historians leave no doubt that the army of Alexander which retreated by the land route through Baluchistan regarded itself as still inside India, and not free from the danger of Indian counter-attacks, till it had crossed over into the desert of Makran. The Arab chroniclers recorded again and again that the armies sent by successive Caliphs against Kabul and Zabul and Sindh had gone out for the conquest of Hind.

Surrender of a Vital Principle

Shri Seshadri has, therefore, rightly pointed out that the national leadership surrendered a very vital principle and betrayed a very old and cherished territorial tradition when it conceded a permanent alienation of people and territory on both sides of the borders, and accepted the British definition of Bharatavarsha as a sub-continent constituted of many countries and communities. He observes with great anguish in his very first chapter, Crucial Hour of Freedom Struggle, that ‘Millions of devoted and loving children of Bharatavarsha had been overnight turned into subjects of a fanatically anti-Hindu State. River Sindhu became alien to crores of her progeny and the birth-place of the Vedas was turned over to their inveterate foes. Crores upon crores of brothers and sisters on either side of the dividing line became foreigners to each other. Lakhs perished in the ensuing genocide. Unspeakable atrocities were let loose on men, women and children. Temples, pilgrimage centres and all holy places were razed to the ground.’5

It would have been one thing to concede Partition because it could not be prevented at that time due to a combination of powerful and hostile forces brought into play by the British game to divide-and-rule, by the parasitic Islamic imperialism, and by the failure of the national leadership to evolve an appropriate strategy for a total liberation of the motherland from every vestige of foreign rule. But it was quite another thing to concede that the lands grabbed by the rearguard action of a retreating Islamic imperialism had become foreign lands for ever, and that the people alienated and subjugated by an Islamic state had become foreign nationals till the end of time. The former concession could have been forgiven as a state of helplessness in a particular situation. The latter concession was, without doubt, a cowardly surrender by a leadership which had lost its moorings in the national tradition of India’s territorial integrity.

This loss of the national territorial tradition was the direct result of a loss of proper vision pertaining to national history. Shri Seshadri refers to this latter loss also before he sets out on his main theme.


  1. The Tragic Story of Partition, p. 12. 

  2. Ibid., p. 9. 

  3. Ibid., p. 12 

  4. See Sita Ram Goel, History of Heroic Hindu Resistance to Muslim Invaders (636 A.D. to 1206 A.D.), Voice of India, 1984 reprinted in 1994. 

  5. The Tragic Story of Partition, p. 10.