Although I wrote this book in 2017, it has been in gestation for nearly twenty years, since the end of the 1990s.
Growing up in India during the increasingly turbulent decade of the 1980s, coupled with my immediate family's keen interest in and engagement with the political life of the country, spurred my interest in Indian politics. I left my hometown, Calcutta, in 1988 for undergraduate studies in the United States, but stayed closely interested, visiting often and spending considerable time in the country. The challenge to Indian secularism escalated dramatically during those years. When the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, the symbolic focal point of the challenge, was razed in December 1992, I was finishing my first semester as a PhD student in political science at Columbia University in New York. I returned for the winter vacation to an India in crisis, engulfed in ‘communal’ (religious) violence.
My family background and upbringing had instilled in me a deeply felt sense of love of country which applied to all its people, without any question of distinction or discrimination. This mainly stemmed from my paternal family, in which my granduncle, grandfather – and, in the 1940s, my father, as a very young man – had been extremely active in India's struggle for freedom from colonial rule. My maternal family was not as political, but they came from an enlightened tradition of the (East) Bengal intelligentsia which lent itself to the same kind of view. The parental influence shaped, as is natural, my own conceptions and convictions. Nevertheless, I realised from the political events that unfolded in India from the early 1990s onward that the form of national identity which had been dominant since before our independence (from the 1920s) faced a very serious challenge, and equally that our ‘secular state’ established after independence could no longer be taken for granted.
I did write an extended academic essay on those developments in 1993, which was eventually published as a long chapter in an anthology on contemporary India in 1997. My perspective drew attention, but I was too immersed in pursuing various other research and writing interests to work further on the topic.