T. K Arun
These vital imperatives depend on one another, and attacks on diversity can be fought back only by building democracy
Democracy Key to Diversity
The face of a crying girl, blood streaming down her face, after being attacked by those opposing chicken being served at a student mess in the Capital during Ram Navami. Sword-wielding thugs planted a saffron flag atop the entrance to a mosque while swaying to throbbing music from a vehicle in a procession. A Muslim bangle-seller was assaulted for plying his trade near a temple. Calls to boycott halal meat. What is common to these disparate cameos of a new India in the making?
They testify to the convergence of three vital imperatives: protecting the integrity of India as a nation, building democracy in this country, and shielding Hinduism from its own version of radicalization.
India is global humanity in microcosm: all the major faith and their subdivisions, hundreds of languages, 22 of them with official status, linguistic states larger than most countries represented in the United Nations.
Indians are further divided by caste, by food habits, by norms of marriage (in some parts, marriage within the gotra or clan is taboo, in some other parts, the mother’s brother has deemed an ideal match for a nubile girl, and, in yet others, the mother’s brother’s son). The Scheduled Tribes account for about 9% of the population. Among them, the tribes of the Northeast and the tribes of central India find themselves at different ends of the development spectrum.
Indians are divided, too, by the degree to which they have admittance to a culture of learning, or to a culture of taking on risks to generate new income. There are the malnourished, the well-nurtured, and the obese. Those in the towns have access to some form of healthcare. Quacks are everywhere, shamans skew to the rural areas.
Then, there are the economic differences that can be found in any other part of the world. People are divided into the rich, the poor, the destitute, the neo-middle class who have pulled themselves out of poverty, and the neo-poor, who, having been stricken by pandemic shutdowns or other misfortunes, have relapsed into destitution. There are those who earn their livelihood collecting forest produce and those who perform cutting-edge research at captive R&D units of multinationals.
To the western imagination, trained to see the homogeneity of language, culture, and religion as the defining features of a nation, it is difficult to accept the diversity that is India as a nation — it is no more a single country than the equator, derided Churchill.
Yet India has survived for thousands of years as a distinct entity, even if not quite a nation with a modern state, because of its civilizational genius for acceptance of diversity and ideological justification for hierarchy and difference. The traditional Hindu template is flexible in how one achieves spiritual equilibrium — atheists and hedonists are as much part of the fold as the devout and the ascetic, tantric sex is fine for some, abstinence is the route for others, doing just your duty gets you salvation, as does pious observance of ritual, or dedicated pursuit of knowledge. All rivers flow to the same ocean, so why cast divergence in the pursuit of the divine as deviance?
Caste oppression is justified by an ideology of karma and rebirth, in which unquestioning pursuit of one’s caste duty leads to salvation. Ethical conduct varied by caste and varna. The ugliness of what could happen to a lone woman out at night, minus her sanctioned male protector, father, husband, or son, is glossed over by the deification of the female force.
Modern life disrupts occupational segregation by caste, and, thereby, the very basis of ensuring compliance with traditional ethical codes. The arrival of the centralized colonial state, with its penal code and other laws and law enforcement mechanisms, struck a body blow to traditional ideological authority and control. Historians and sociologists trace Hindu vulnerability to such a development.
When traditional cohesion is in flux, the threat of other religions making inroads gets amplified. The colonial policy of divide and rule magnified the antagonism. One response was to organize the Hindu religion on the lines of western ones, with uniform norms and cultural homogeneity. The RSS project is an offshoot. The slogan, Hindu, Hindi, Hindustan pursues such homogeneity. The same urge seeks universal abjuring of meat during Ram Navami, perforce.
The urge to homogenize ruptures the tradition of acceptance of diversity that goes beyond mere tolerance. This has the potential to violate all norms of liberty and respect for individual and group rights, as also to destroy, rather than reinforce, national unity. The anti-Hindi agitation of the 1960s came from attempts to impose Hindi, not from its natural expansion.
The Nehruvian project of building democracy and a modern nation did not go far enough or deep enough. The formal rites of elections and legislatures continue, minus their substance. The challenge is to organize the people to build democracy as the organizing principle of society. That will also protect diversity and help forge a Hindu society that abjures caste and theological deviance, based on its philosophy of Advaita, the unity of the creator and all of creation.
This article was first published in the Sanjay Report as Democracy, Diversity, and Nation on 13th April
Read another piece on Financial Reporting by TK Arun titled Strengthen Financial Reporting with Data Consent in IMPRI Insights
Read another piece on Counterinsurgency by T K Arun titled Time to change tack on counterinsurgency in IMPRI Insights
Read another piece on COVID-19 Vaccines and Democracy by T K Arun titled Protests Against Covid Vaccines and Restrictions are Signs of Democratic Failure in IMPRI Insights
YouTube: Watch T K Arun at IMPRI #WebPolicyTalk- India: Growth Prospects after COVID
About the Author
T K Arun, Senior Journalist, and Columnist