Hinduism, Nation-State and Immigration

Hinduism, Nation-States and Immigration — Historic Perspective

If one looks at the definition of “Immigrant” from Wikipedia: “immigration in the modern sense refers to movement of people from one nation-state to another. Immigration implies long-term permanent residence (and often eventual citizenship ) by the immigrants”. This means that the term immigration is strongly linked to the concept of a Nation-State, and one cannot exist without the other. This behooves us to take a closer look at the nature of State in ancient India until the takeover of British.

If one goes by the accounts of Hindu epics, Jataka tales, Samhitas, Chanakya and Tiruvalluvar’s writings all the way down to Shivaji’s or Vijayanagara’s time, it is clear that there were no clear cut boundaries for any kingdom. Mountains, rivers and lakes acted as natural markers. The king or emperor was the owner of everything in the kingdom, and he ran it just like successful entrepreneurs run their businesses in modern times. He chose his subjects not on the basis of religion, faith, language, race or caste, but solely on the basis of productivity. “How much revenue and taxes will this person generate for me” was the sole consideration. As a consequence, the king ensured that the State did not do much for the citizen apart from providing very basic security, infrastructure (roads etc) and an atmosphere free from hatred of a section of people from another. The citizen did more for the State, and in return the State left him alone in matters of religion and other personal issues. Border conflicts were rare. Wars were basically a way of kings to gain one-upmanship over other kings. When a king won a war against another, he did not annex the other kingdom. The king who lost merely ended up paying a one-time tribute to the winner and life went on as usual.

When a king resorted to nepotism or reduced meritocracy in any other way, eventually the kingdom crumbled like today’s businesses. People moved across kingdoms for personal and business reasons all the time. Indeed, a king was more worried that people would move out of his kingdom rather than being worried that people would move in – unlike what happens in Nation-States today. He made all effort to woo artists, artisans, philosophers and a diversity of religious clergy to ensure that the common man would follow. He encouraged grass-roots democracy to ensure that small units of men could manage their affairs themselves without his interference. He ensured that the State would be weak so that Society could be strong. Indeed, Society was so strong that a passing comment by a washer man could land the king or queen in severe trouble. The king also knew that forcibly keeping people out from the kingdom based on race or faith or ethnicity was futile since a person who is born in the Gupta Empire today could be reborn into the Maurya Empire tomorrow. In a belief system where the atman moves freely, it made no sense to physically restrict the movement of the body.

Punishment for actions against the citizens of the State was much stronger than punishment for actions against the State itself. Thieves, robbers and murderers usually paid with their life, but people who evaded taxes, bad-mouthed the policies of the king, spread rumors and the like were simply banished from the kingdom, a lot like being fired from a modern company. This too is in complete contrast with the modern Nation-State, where punishment for going against the State is far more severe than punishment for committing crimes against the common man.

Since the Society was the building block, a person who came into the kingdom from outside had to fit into the society he was coming into, sometimes at the expense of giving up his personal privacy and freedom. It was impossible to survive without Society’s approval, and the State did nothing to help individuals to survive on their own. The only way to evade Society was to become a hermit.

Since the State did not nothing to prevent people from other kingdoms coming in, there was a free flow of people across the sub-continent. People went wherever there was a market for their skills. Since the State did very little and was not majoritarian in structure and outlook, everyone was a minority. For example, the Marathi speaking people who migrated to the South during Shivaji’s rule did not get any special benefits, and neither did they face any discrimination from the Tamil majority. Since the State was the same to all (which was very little), such conflicts did not arise at all.

There is no equivalent word for immigrant in Sanskrit or any other Indian language.

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