Muqeet ul Iftikhar Drabu | Idea of India and Limits of Utopian Imagination

 By Muqeet ul Iftikhar Drabu

These tarnished rays, this night-smudged light

This is not that Dawn for which, ravished with freedom,

We had set out in sheer longing,

So sure that somewhere in its desert the sky harbored

A final haven for the stars, and we would find it.


Our eyes remained fixed on that beckoning Dawn, Forever vivid in her muslins of transparent light. Our blood was young-what could hold us back?

Now listen to the terrible rampant lie:

Light has forever been severed from the Dark;


Did the morning breeze ever come? Where has it gone?

Night weighs us down, it still weighs us down.

Friends, come away from this false light. 

Come, we must search for That promised Dawn.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Dawn of Freedom

(Translated from the Urdu by Agha Shahid Ali)

In 2019, I was watching a documentary made by the British Broadcasting Corporation in 1996 on nationalism and the life of activist intellectual Eqbal Ahmad[1] as he retraced his journey along the Grand Trunk Road[2] around the time of the partition of India[3]. In the documentary, Eqbal Ahmad and historian Romila Thapar address the rise of religious fundamentalism in South Asia: its fascistic elements and how they rely on a glorified imagined tradition to refigure nationalism as “fascistic nationalism”.[4] Scenes of violence and destruction against spaces of worship for minority communities: the destruction of Barbri mosque[5], defilement of the Golden Temple[6], and assault at Charar-i-Sharif[7], in each case caused either by the state (in this case, India) or religious fundamentalist (with the sanction of the state) are adduced as evidence of tyrannies of the imagined pasts arising from the disenchantment arising from modernization, invasion of (neoliberal) market economics, and constrained public spaces. The documentary contrasts these images with the voice of Jawaharlal Nehru’s[8] speaking about India’s soul, long suppressed, finding utterance[9] which bleeds into children singing the national anthem[10] in the raga Alhaiya Bilawal.

As the anthem played, I found myself tearing up. It felt like I was witnessing the painful passing of a friend; a friend that gave you hope and told you rich layered stories. It was the betrayal of the trust, the butchering of an emancipatory idea, and the heartbreaking realization of all the dire premonitions of such treachery. It was the loss of the utopic ‘idea of India’ or the myth of India, a land of multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and multi-lingual people coming together to make a rich layered tapestry of humanity.

But it was more than just the death of the myth of India that led to such a reaction. My relationship with the ‘idea of India’ is further complicated by my identity as a Kashmiri and as a Muslim. Kashmir and Kashmiris, as a land and people respectively, are held hostage by the very idea of India that I found so compelling. The Indian idea of syncretism is premised on the myth of the Kashmir choosing India in the fracas after the partition, as a way of legitimizing its claim over its own secularity.[11] However, Kashmir is also the most militarized zone in the world[12], a site of ongoing settler colonialism by the Indian state[13], and a space of resistance agitating for its freedom. The India that is being spoken about has allowed for pogroms against minorities and has put the Kashmiri under constant surveillance (tangible and intangible). Violence pervades every element of the interaction between state and Kashmiris, with enforced disappearances, custodial killings and torture, regular usage of laws of exception, state violence, among other grave injustices being the norm.

Kendall Thomas explains the dissonance felt by a person believing in the promise of a myth while acknowledging its hideous reality by relying on the idea of ‘contrafactum’ from music theory.[14] While reflecting upon the promise and betrayal of the ‘American Dream’, he illustrates the contradiction through an acoustic disorientation: it is the cognitive and corporeal dissonance one feels when one text is substituted for another without substantial change to the music. It is in equal part alienation and attraction. The dissonance explains my relationship with the idea of India: a patent falsehood that is actively harmful towards some, while providing the space for something uniquely special and beautiful.

It is this myth that I seek to explore using the framework of ‘concrete utopia’. The utopic vision of India is an idealized vision of a people which possesses within it the possibilities of a present and can be the animating idea, and ideal, behind utopic praxis. I therefore argue that ‘the idea of India’ is a manifestation of a concrete utopia that can help uncover and bring together the theorizing we have been undertaking, provide an avenue for orienting our praxis and provide a vision for the future.

Concrete utopias, as Bernard Harcourt’s introduction to the series of seminars[15] states, are “really-existing, functioning, already-working practices, institutions, models and exemplars of a just society” which possess the ability to “burst open the possibilities of the present…” The universe of concrete utopia that we have uncovered as part of the praxis of theorizing and investigating the ‘lines of escape’ has been to seek and assert hope in our lives. It is a search for meaning that allows us to investigate ideas and practices that allow us to “retrieve and replace the lost community”[16] and imagine worlds different from our own, but still very much within the framework and confines of the possible.

In coming to an understanding of concrete utopias, we have stretched the definitional ambit of the expression, by seeking to displace assumptions and pre-conceived notions around what utopic thinking and praxis looks like. Starting with series of provocations from Etienne Balibar[17], we have considered the solidarity economy of Cooperation Jackson[18], understood the intimacies and practice of union organizing[19], learnt the value of dis-alienation, conscious engagement, and non-reformist reforms[20], emphasized on engagement with community and dependencies[21], engaged with anarcho-syndicalism as common good[22], confronted the role of language[23] in re-orienting our ways of thought, evaluated the role, position and responsibility of radical lawyers within oppressive structures[24], registered the complexity and complicity of spaces and architectural production[25], and engaged in critical theory on the dimensions of utopic thought[26], displaced utopias from their future orientation to the present[27], and explored the domains of cosmopolitanism and utopias[28]. The range of engagement across disciplines and fields showcases the necessarily heterogenous nature of a concrete utopia, and the possibility of such a conception transcending the limited nature of their purported ‘localism’.

It is with the charge of expanding the conception of concrete utopia that I suggest that we consider the ‘idea of India’ as having utopic dimensions. When speaking of the idea or the myth, I must acknowledge that there is a dissonance and distinction between the Republic of India and the myth being proffered here for investigation. The country has been constituted by and responds to the idea, and the idea refigures itself based on the developments of country; to that extent, there is a contradiction in terms which makes this idea rich for exploration.

Winston Churchill once remarked that “India is an abstraction . . . It is no more a united nation than the Equator.”[29] The idea of India can be understood as being a ‘museum of identity.’[30] Taking the provocation from Sneja Gunew that museum of identities are ‘nations’[31], India is a palimpsest of cultures, concepts, religions, and practices, that rests more on negations than it does on creations. Benjamin Disraeli contended that India could not be considered a nation, as it lacked the vital components he believed were necessary for nationhood: a unified language, a shared religion, a common cultural heritage, a collective historical background, a cohesive majority, and a clearly delineated territory.[32] Salman Rushdie, in the first series of his collected essays Imaginary Homelands, poses the question: ‘Does India exist?’[33]

The answer to this existential question, and series of provocations, was attempted by ‘nation makers’ of independent India, including its first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. They imagined India as a multifaceted nation encompassing a vast array of people, reflecting a complex sense of “Indian-ness” stemming from the subcontinent’s extensive history of engaging with outsiders, including some as rulers.[34] Despite the 1947 partition and the establishment of Pakistan as a Muslim homeland, they maintained a vision of national identity built on diversity, tolerance, and its unique brand of secularism.[35] The Indian project was theoretically not exclusionary[36], and defined itself in militant opposition to the Muslim Zion[37] of Pakistan. At the crucial moment of transition and literal rupture[38], India chose to orient itself against the other competing idea of a “Hindu India”, which had no space for the other.[39] This new notion of national community, accommodative of differences, was also a means to ‘mend the social fabric’ torn by the existence of Pakistan. Sunil Khilnani, in his 1998 book Idea of India, terms the effort as a project to: “to resuscitate and embody the ancient ideal of democracy under vastly different conditions, where community is no longer held together by a moral ideal or conception of virtue but must rely on more fitful, volatile solidarities…”[40]

A significant point to note is that the construction that was asserted of India was one that did not deal in the vision of the future; it weaved in notions of syncretism and acceptance as part of the legacy of the national liberation movement along side centuries of cultural and economic exchange with people from all over the world who made their home within its accepting embrace. Contrasting this vision from the notion of the ‘American Dream’, it does not deal in futurity as its foundational core. It is thoroughly embraced in the present, while drawing on history and presenting a vision for a continuing and thriving future.

While the narrative rendered above is simplistic, and subject to challenge[41]: the assertion at this juncture is to situate the myth in the framework of concrete utopias. The seeds for the mutability of the myth and its reinterpretation and allowance of seeds of its destruction lie within it. Having said that, to place the myth of India into the framework of concrete utopia, we first need to consider Laëtita Riss’ essay To Utopize The Present.[42] The essay discusses the relationship between history, utopia, and politics. It suggests that utopias have the power to challenge the present and offer innovative criticisms, transforming concerns into new ways of escaping the catastrophes that we are confronted with. The article proposes a new rhythm for understanding the relationships among these three concepts: from the historical to the utopian, from the utopian to the political, and from the political to the historical.

The transfer from the historical to the utopian takes place as the reality of an epoch is denied by utopian interventions. These interventions highlight the contingency of the present reality and shape its critique through the fabrication of narratives, communities, or social theories indicating other possibilities. Utopias reveal the gap (the non-place) between the immediate reality and the real not-yet happened. This is precisely where the narrative of India figures into the construct of the concrete utopia. In reframing the understanding of utopia from its place-ness, we arrive at an understanding of utopia as a “moment”. The myth allows for the internal and collective reorientation in the gap identified which leads to politicization. Unmooring the notion of any finality and rejecting the historicist understanding of utopia, it is the embrace of India, as a narrative, a theory, and a community of possibilities. Politics doesn’t concretize utopia but denies it to live up to its call to reopen history – that is, to make other realities happen.

The idea of India so conceived was captured through a process of relatively inclusive constitution making process, headed by Babasaheb Ambedkar: providing us with the idea of a ‘written utopia’ that was to mediate the relationship between the resulting state and its peoples. The Constitution of India has been argued to be a “radical charter written at a moment of historical rupture”: it remade the colonial state into a republican nation with the transformation of its people from subjects to citizens.[43] Relying on republican values of liberty, equality, and fraternity, it gave a value-laden document, an almost sacred text, that fed into and shaped the contours of the myth so created. The Constitution, as understood from Edward Said’s contrapuntal approach, went far beyond the limitations of its tangible text and entered the collective imagination of the populace. As argued by Rohit De, the constitution was refigured by ordinary people and constitutional law became a key domain of politics and political communication between the state and its citizens.[44] Putting it in context of Erik Olin Wright’s “Real Utopias Project”,[45] the Constitution of India provided “a clear elaboration of workable institutional principles that could inform emancipatory alternatives to the existing world.”[46] It also is a text that is reshaped based on the needs and the demands of the society it seeks to serve; embodying the ideas of a living and transformative constitution. A significant element, relevant for our analysis, is the inclusion of the notion of secularism. Drawing from ideas of enlightenment, the text included secularism, but such a construct was reconfigured in service of the “idea of India” as respecting and promoting each religion without state interference.[47]

The argument till now has focused on the more cosmopolitan[48] and progressive aspects of the utopic ideal that is rendered by the mythic idea of India. To understand the contradiction that arises out of its proposal, and thereby, inherent in the idea of concrete utopia is to see its manifestations. This brings us to the lived reality of republic of India. While the idea of India has offered us avenues of solidarity, theorizing, and a narrative of acceptance, the reality is still riddled with contradictions, the fundamental one being the subjugation of Kashmir as a way for it to justify its existence. The premise of a full-throated acceptance of the other, in this case Muslims and Dalits, is arguably based on the comfort that the majority retains in determining the political arrangement. It is the acceptance of the subjugation of the minority by the majority, religiously constructed, that allows for ‘peace to be maintained’. As Sujatha Gidla put it, “India has the highest number of extreme poor, caste violence is worse than ever before, and Muslims and Christians live under existential threat.”[49]

The myth of Indian secularism, which exists within the boundaries of the idea of India, is one that is illustrative to indicate the utopian gap recognized by Riss. The separation of state and religion was a deceptive illusion, as religious and caste disparities continued to fester beneath the surface of a seemingly secular society. The fact that idea of “secular” was added to the Indian Constitution in 1976 during the time when fundamental rights were suspended and an official emergency was declared[50], highlights the lies of the progressive, secular ideals. Further, the institutional imposition of the idea of India also led to the non-confrontation of uncomfortable past violations and harms, which tore apart the inherent contradictions with the approach of the 1980s. As indicated earlier in the essay, owing to the contradictory space between the reality and the myth, the edifice of the secular polity was shaken by a series of events.[51] These included the Shah Bano case[52], Mandal politics[53], the Babri mosque demolition[54], and the Gujarat riots[55]. Each of these incidents demanded that the Indian reality acknowledge the presence of entrenched communal identities, revealing the contradictions of India’s secular facade.

In his speech at the Oxford Union[56], Kendall Thomas refers to Umberto Eco’s notion of the ‘power of the fake’. The reference here is to Eco’s thought-provoking essay, “The force of falsity” (later republished as “The Power of Falsehood”).[57] In the essay, the argument being made is that the driving force behind human history has been falsehood, rather than truth.[58] It is through misconceptions about gods and stars that humanity wove captivating ancient myths. The elegant scientific theories, from Copernicus to Galileo and Darwin, emerged from mistaken beliefs about the natural world. Moreover, the erroneous ideas about language and art fostered new and profound interpretations of most treasured cultural symbols.

With due acknowledgement of the essential falsity of the Indian myth, we turn to the etymological grounding of concrete utopia to understand and explicate the dimension so far elided. The neologism of ‘utopia’ as introduced by Thomas More in the seminal work Utopia, singularizes the utopian form and establishes its unchanging elements: it is fundamentally polarized and draws its power from the gap “between the effective historical reality and the unrealized possibilities ceaselessly working on it”.[59] The etymological roots contain within it a contradiction: “eu-topos” meaning “good place” and “ou-topos” meaning “not place”. In Laëtita Riss’ formulation the good place refers to utopia as a prescriptive ideology and simultaneously the non-place element refers to it being an inaccessible fantasy.[60] However, when considered in context of the idea or the myth of India, can be reformulated as the beautiful, inclusive, cosmopolitan imaginary as against the non-place, unrealized reality that strives to be better, but also results in a nightmare for a specific collectivity. This then is the cognitive and corporeal dissonance; the alienation and the attraction; the gap that Riss speaks of.

The enduring power of the myth, its concretization as the utopic moment, can be showcased by its subversion by those that are required to survive its contradictions. The history-utopia-politics waltz can be argued to have played out in context of 2019 protests in India against the Hindu majoritarian government’s passing of amendments to the citizenship laws introducing faith as the basis for acquiring Indian nationality in certain cases – which are understood as being “anti-Muslim”.[61] In response, working class Muslim women, at the crossroads of many oppressions, created and nurtured a space for resistance that was accessible to all. Kindness was the ability theme; with people keeping vigil, giving and taking classes on various subjects, bringing nourishment and clothes to stave off the winter chill, maintaining a freely accessible library, and most significantly, opening the doors to their hearts. The framing of the resistance was premised on the lie of the mythic India that, which critically, has allowed for, and perpetuated, grave injustices against them historically. However, and more importantly, regardless of the essential hollowness of the promise underlying the idea, they took up the bible of the Constitution, swore by its preamble, and made real the myth: if that cannot be utopic, that the category must fall.

In bringing this argument to a close, the most poignant elaboration of the feeling that India leaves me with was best put across in a review[62] of the fantasy novel Babel[63] by R. F. Kuang: “[The book] derives its power from sustaining a contradiction, from trying to hold in your head both love and hatred for the charming thing that sustains itself by devouring you.”


[1] Stories My Country Told Me: With Eqbal Ahmad on the Grand Trunk Road, H.O. Nazareth dir., BBC Arena/Penumbra, 1996.

[2] “The Grand Trunk Road was built in the sixteenth century by the Emperor Sher Shah. It ran from Calcutta to Peshawar. For me it symbolized the unity of India. Then the two nationalisms, Indian and Pakistani, broke up the Grand Trunk Road. It lost its continuity only in 1947. ” From Eqbal Ahmad, Confronting Empire, Interviews with David Barsamian, South End Press Cambridge, Massachusetts (2000).

[3] Partition of India in 1947 involved the reconfiguration of political boundaries and the distribution of resources that coincided with the dismantling of British Raj in South Asia, leading to the establishment of two sovereign nations: India and Pakistan.

[4] Stories My Country Told Me: With Eqbal Ahmad on the Grand Trunk Road, H.O. Nazareth dir., BBC Arena/Penumbra, 1996, 45:00-48:00.

[5] Lauren Fayer, Nearly 27 Years After Hindu Mob Destroyed A Mosque, The Scars In India Remain Deep, NPR, April 25, 2019, available at:

[6] Poonam Taneja, Why 1984 Golden Temple raid still rankles for Sikhs, BBC, August 1, 2013, available at:

[7] John Ward Anderson, Molly Moore, Ancient Shrine in Kashmir Destroyed in fight between Indian forces, Rebels, Washington Post, May 12, 1995, available at:

[8] The first prime minister of independent India.

[9] The speech delivered by Jawaharlal Nehru to the Indian Constituent Assembly in the Parliament House, on the eve of India’s Independence, towards midnight on 14 August 1947.

[10] “Jana Gana Mana”, the national anthem of the Republic of India, originally composed as Bharoto Bhagyo Bidhata in Bengali by polymath Rabindranath Tagore on 11 December 1911.

[11] Nitisha Kaul, The Idea of India and Kashmir, India Seminar: Eye on Kashmir, March 2013, available at:

[12] Explained: Kashmir, the most militarised zone in the world, SBS News, August 6, 2019, available at:

[13] From Domicile to Dominion: India’s Settler Colonial Agenda in Kashmir, 134 Harv. L. Rev. 2530, May 2021, available at:

[14] Kendall Thomas, The American Dream Has Become a Global Nightmare, Oxford Union Debates, January 9, 2023, available at:

[15] Bernard Harcourt, Introduction to Utopia 13/13, September 20, 2022 online available at

[16] Étienne Balibar, Uncovering Lines of Escape: Towards A Concept of Concrete Utopia in the Age of Catastrophes, October 1, 2022, available online at

[17] Étienne Balibar, Uncovering Lines of Escape: Towards A Concept of Concrete Utopia in the Age of Catastrophes, October 1, 2022, available at:

[18] Kali Akuno, The Jackson-Kush Plan: The Struggle for Black Self-Determination and Economic Democracy. Undated PDF available online at

[19] Alyssa Battistoni, Spadework, Spring 2019, NPlusOne Mag available at

[20] Degrowth: History, Theory, Praxis, Utopia 4/13, available at:

[21] Bernard Harcourt, Six Questions for Utopia 13/13, September 25, 2022 available at

[22] Bernard Harcourt, Noam Chomsky and the Common Good, January 18, 2023, available at:

[23] Noam Chomsky, What Kind of Creatures Are We?, Journal of Philosophy, Volume CX, December, 2013.

[24] Role of Lawyers in Progressive Politics, Utopia 8/13, available at:

[25] Bernard Harcourt, On Architecture and Utopia, Utopia 13/13, available at:

[26] The Frankfurt School on Utopia, Utopia 10/13, available at:

[27] Laëtitia Riss, To Utopize the Present: The Historical Dream of Utopias, February 28, 2023, available at:

[28] Utopia and Cosmopolitanism, Utopia 12/13, available at:

[29] Winston Churchill, Churchilll In His Own Words, Richard Longworth (ed.), 2008, 163.

[30] A term borrowed from Salman Rushdie’s The Golden House, Alfred A. Knopf, 2017.

[31] Sneja Gunew, Museums of Identity and Other Identity Thefts, Sydney Review of Books, July 31, 2018, available at: Gunew argues that: “The way nations quantify and code identity is enmeshed in many ‘invented traditions’ but of course these also operate at a semi-conscious level and can be inflamed very quickly.”

[32] Shashi Tharoor, A struggle between two ideas of India, The Hindu, August 15, 2021, available at:

[33] “The Riddle of Midnight: India, August 1987”, published in Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands, Vintage Books, 2010, 26.

[34] Judith M. Brown, The Jewel Without a Crown: Review of the Idea of India by Sunil Khilnani, New York Times, February 15, 1998, available at:

[35] Ibid.

[36] Eqbal Ahmad, Confronting Empire, Interviews with David Barsamian, South End Press Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2000, 19.

[37] Faisal Devji, Muslim Zion: Pakistan as a Political Idea, Harvard University Press, 2013.

[38] The partition of India and Pakistan.

[39] Eqbal Ahmad, Confronting Empire, Interviews with David Barsamian, South End Press Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2000, 19.

[40] Mosarrap H Khan, Nehru’s ‘Idea of India’ is dead, but is there still a way to re-imagine a sense of community in our fractured times?,, March 3, 2016, available at:

[41] See generally, Manan Ahmed Asif’s The Loss of Hindustan, Sunil Khilnani’s Idea of India, K.S. Komireddi’s Malevolent Republic, Irfan Habib’s response to Perry Anderson’s essays on India.

[42] Laëtitia Riss, To Utopize the Present: The Historical Dream of Utopias, February 28, 2023, available at:

[43] Mukul Kesavan, ‘The Transformative Constitution — A Radical Biography in Nine Acts’ review: Progressive charter, The Hindu, May 18, 2019

[44] Rachel Sturman, Review of Rohit De’s People’s Constitution, The American Historical Review, Volume 125, Issue 5, December 2020, pp. 1856–1857.

[45] Erik Olin Wright, Envisioning Real Utopias (London: Verso, 2010).

[46] Wright, Envisioning Real Utopias.

[47] Mosarrap H Khan, Nehru’s ‘Idea of India’ is dead, but is there still a way to re-imagine a sense of community in our fractured times?,, March 3, 2016, available at:

[48] Bernard Harcourt, Introduction to Utopia 12/13, March 25, 2023, available at:

[49] Sujatha Gidla, India at 75, August 15, 2022, available at:

[50] Amendment to the Preamble of the Constitution of India vide The Constitution (Forty-second amendment) Act, 1976.

[51] Mosarrap H Khan, Nehru’s ‘Idea of India’ is dead, but is there still a way to re-imagine a sense of community in our fractured times?,, March 3, 2016, available at:

[52] What is the Shah Bano case?, Indian Express, August 23, 2017, available at:

[53] Satish Deshpande, The OBC primer on Indian politics, The Hindu, November 6, 2015, available at:

[54] Lauren Fayer, Nearly 27 Years After Hindu Mob Destroyed A Mosque, The Scars In India Remain Deep, NPR, April 25, 2019, available at:

[55] Timeline of the Gujarat Riots, New York Times, August 19, 2015, available at:

[56] Kendall Thomas, The American Dream Has Become a Global Nightmare, Oxford Union Debates, January 9, 2023, available at:

[57] Umberto Eco, On Literature, Harcourt, 2004.

[58] Rushie J, Umberto Eco: In Defense of Stupidity, Faith in Fakeness and How Falsehoods Shaped History, Medium, November 24, 2019, available at:

[59] Laëtitia Riss, To Utopize the Present: The Historical Dream of Utopias, February 28, 2023, available at:

[60] Laëtitia Riss, To Utopize the Present: The Historical Dream of Utopias, February 28, 2023, available at:

[61] Elizabeth Puranam, Why Shaheen Bagh protests are an important moment in India’s history, Al Jazeera, February 3, 2020, available at:

[62] Amal el-Mohtar, The Magic of Translation, New York Times, October 14, 2022, available at:

[63] Babel is a book on language, translation, academia, colonisation, and the double consciousness of the colonized.