Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Dimensions of India Experience: Diversity

Diversity is the most obvious dimension of the Indian experience, yet it is the most sublime. Yes, India indeed looks like an endless fancy dress party, a bewildering combination of languages, dresses and appearances. Yet, everyone also keeps telling you about a sense of 'unity in diversity' all the time. That expression comes from Vincent Smith, a British historian who wanted to understand the broad concept of India, in European terms.

Since then, the theme of any study of India was to see this 'unity' in all diversity, making a rather tortured effort to root all elements of diversity into an universal Indianness. These attempts are so common that the apparent diversity has become sublime, at least in the interpretative literature, and in the name of political correctness, the sublime unity seems to have become all pervasive.

It does not have to be so confusing though, at least if we accept that India is not a nation in the European sense. That should not offend anyone: Conceptually, India is more of an ancient civilization than a modern nation. At the outset, India represents a diverse unity, an implicit social contract between diverse elements to come and stay together.

However, before we get to deeper understanding of how that could possibly work, let us think about the idea of India. The name, India, is a formulation in the context of an Euro-centric world. India was the land east or South of Indus, a giant river which would have resembled the sea in the difficulty of crossing in the ancient time. It was a geographical entity, somewhat moulded into one by equally insurmountable mountains in the North and East, and oceans further down South and West. This land, which was diverse and inhabited by indigenous tribes, had been given another identity, Bharat, and a civilizational identity emerged around that. This would have encompassed a way of looking at the world, shaped by its geography and the dynamic of coexistence, not unlike the members of a diverse family trying to live together in a walled family house. This coexistence, accommodation, adjustment, finding middle ground, are the essential element of a Bharatiya, Indian identity.

The Indian identity, thus formed, evolved, but essentially stayed the same. The invaders came primarily from the West, by land and by sea. Those who could surpass the geographical boundaries of India, found it extremely easy to conquer, because of its diversity, and extremely difficult to leave, because of its accommodation. India absorbed them. As one observer noted, as the invading army moved in, India did not fight it, but enveloped it. That may just be a poetic vision, and somewhat undermines the blood and cruelty of such invasions, but with the advantage of time, rings true. With every invasion, the Indian identity became more diverse, but essentially remained the same, the social contract extended to another newcomer in the family.

I said this before, the modern Indian identity developed in phases. The ancient times gave the land a civilizational, spiritual identity, and its essential federating social contract; the middle ages, the Hindu, Pathan and Mughal kings, gave it a political and military identity, and achieved its geographic unification [somewhat similar to what Ming and Qing kings attained in China]. The British rulers imposed their system of colonial expropriation and created a country, and gave it a modern economic identity. And, finally, the Indian nationalists, primarily led by Gandhi, imagined the modern nation of India, equated the geography, politics and economics with the diversity and dynamics of its people.

But, India is more than a nation. Nations, a modern conception, are essentially exclusionary conceptions. You are either part of it or you are not. Surely, it is an useful conception. It is often argued, by modern historians, that the invaders found it so easy to conquer India because India did not have a national identity [though they overlook that national identities did not exist in human consciousness till about modern times]. But at the same time, nationalism is essentially at odds with the inclusive social contract that held India together. Nationalism may be a convenient label to understand the political confederation of India, but it is no part of the India experience.

So, this is my thesis: The diversity that we experience in India, and talk about all the time, isn't just different expressions of the same Indianness; the differences are deeper, and, rich and potent enough to become individual national identities by themselves. The Indianness is essentially a deep social contract, coming out of somewhat desperate situation of being crammed in a family house with disagreeable relatives, but which has evolved into a conscious culture of adjustment, responsibility and accommodation. It does not matter how diverse things around us are anymore; we expect diversity and learnt to live with it.

Finally, diversity is essential - rejecting it will repudiate the essential, inclusive social contract that built Bharat. It is key to the cultural and religious identity of India, it makes the country irreversibly democratic, and it allows the country to live with the dualisms of modern India. And, in essence, the India experience looks like a great diverse family, reflected in the mini-fragments of the domestic experiences of each Indian, and narrated with great complexity in its great epics.

Summing up, Rudyard Kipling saw a little piece of England everywhere an English soldier is buried. That's a classical territorial vision befitting the premier poet of the most successful colonial nation of the time. India never conquered any territory, except in thought and spirit. So a similar Indian claim is difficult to make. But here is one which may match Kipling in audacity: If you are able to approach others who are different, and with humility, appreciate the goodness of humanity in everyone, it is most likely that you are an Indian at heart.

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