New Delhi: When 31-year-old Indian Railway Traffic Service (IRTS) officer Siddhartha Verma challenged Rahul Gandhi over his idea of India at a Cambridge University event Monday, his interjections were greeted with a small titter of disapproval.
However, the video clip of Verma arguing that “Bharat” is an ancient “rashtra” rather than what Gandhi called a “union of states” has now gone viral, and has, by his own admission, earned him pats on the back from social media users.
Speaking to ThePrint over the phone, Verma, a postgraduate Commonwealth Scholar in public policy at the University of Cambridge in England, said he questioned Gandhi to “understand” his views about India.
“I was intrigued by Rahul Gandhi’s repeated statements claiming that India is a union of states, and not a nation. He spoke about similar things at another programme in London too. I was trying to understand why he was saying this, what was the reason behind it, and why he was refusing to accept the idea of nationhood,” Verma, who is currently on study leave from his job, said.
Gandhi, who was addressing an interactive session, titled ‘India at 75’, at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge University, had declared in his speech that “India is a union states”.
Disputing this view, Verma told Gandhi that, as a political leader, his idea of India was “flawed”, “incorrect”, and “destructive” because it tried to “whitewash history of thousands of years”.
In the video clip, Gandhi is heard saying, “I don’t think so” but the rest of his response is cut off. In a tweet Tuesday, Verma said Gandhi’s “complete response will be shared once uploaded by organisers”.
Yesterday, in Cambridge, I questioned Mr. Rahul Gandhi on his statement that "India is not a nation but a Union of States". He asserted that India is not a nation but the result of negotiation between states. (His complete response will be shared once uploaded by organisers) pic.twitter.com/q5KluwenMf
— Siddhartha Verma (@Sid_IRTS) May 24, 2022
Verma, however, told ThePrint that Gandhi had, in effect, said both ideas of India could co-exist.
“Later, he [Gandhi] said that he did not have any problem with my idea of India, so I should not have any reservation with his idea of India,” Verma said.
‘Audience did not agree with my idea about Bharat’
The audience at Cambridge did not seem receptive to his ideas, Verma said, but added that he has now received overwhelming support across social media.
“There were instant reactions from the interview and the audience around at the moment when I was asking my question. They became agitated as if I had done something wrong. They did not agree with my idea of ‘Bharat’ and the response was negative in nature. But post the event, I got huge support from people across my county,” he said.
At a somewhat tense moment in the video, academic Shruti Kapila can be heard saying that the term “rashtra” means kingdom, to which Verma replied that it is the “Sanskrit word for nation”. Gandhi then added that “nation is a Western concept”. There was also a buzz in the crowd when Verma said, “A Constitution cannot make a nation, nations make constitutions”.
Talking about Gandhi’s statement, Verma said: “I do not understand the motive but I assume that there had been an attempt to whitewash India’s ancient history. There is also an attempt to negate pre-Independence India… they only talk about the post-Independence formation. If one reads the Constitution properly, it is there right in the preamble that India [is] a nation.”
“I think there is a lack of awareness about ancient history. I think Indian history should focus on ancient India a little more,” Verma added.
A Lok Sabha speech on 2 February had earned backlash for Rahul Gandhi when he targeted the Modi government over centalisation, saying, “India is described in the Indian Constitution as a union of states and not as a nation. One cannot rule over the people of a state in India… It is a partnership, not a kingdom.”
‘Patriot, taught to respect Indian values’
Hailing from Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh, Verma describes himself as a Commonwealth scholar, “civil servant” and “patriot” in his Twitter bio.
However, he said that his patriotism did not have anything to do with any political party.
“I was never associated with any political party or organisation. My family never had any political association, but they taught me to respect Indian values, culture, and tradition. They taught me about the nation that is India. I did not ask the question from any political standpoint, I was just interested to understand why he was saying this [about India being a union of states],” Verma said.
Verma studied political science and history in college before appearing for the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) exams. He was inducted as a 2016-batch officer of the IRTS, going on to serve in the northern railway as area officer in Varanasi and divisional officer (operations) in Lucknow.
During the first Covid lockdown, he was attached under the state Home Department of Uttar Pradesh as a special officer on duty to supervise the movement of migrant labourers from the state for three months.
The young civil service officer is soon to complete his scholarship programme at Cambridge, after which he will re-join his service.
(Edited by Asavari Singh)