Multicultural or Monochromatic India? Choice is ours

Multicultural or Monochromatic India? Choice is ours

Today, India needs not just a culture of democracy, but a ‘democracy of cultures’

In India, immigration and multiculturalism are as old as recorded history. Credit: DH File Photo

“There is no greater threat to democracy than indifference and passivity on the part of its citizens.” -- Bronislaw Geremek 

Multiculturalism emphasises the importance of cultural diversity. It recognises the dignity and importance of cultural distinctiveness. It reiterates that cultural differences are natural phenomena. Cultural diversity, diverse ideas, perspectives and beliefs enhance our vision of a better society. Multiculturalism stands for heterogeneity and diversity. It is an inclusive process in which all cultures are valued.

In India, immigration and multiculturalism are as old as recorded history. Since time immemorial, wave after wave of ethnically and culturally diverse people have poured into India, settled here, and assimilated into its mosaic. Each community, while interacting and being influenced by the others, retained its own identity, customs, beliefs and ways of life. It has truly been said that Indian culture is a ‘culture of cultures’, like a beehive of interlocking cells.

Hinduism has played a seminal role in shaping the Indian mind and character. It has no dogma, no prophet, no single sacred book. It believes in freedom of thought and expression. It encompasses different forms of belief: monotheism, polytheism, agnosticism as well as atheism. Intense religiosity and materialism, godliness and godlessness – all sit side by side. Hinduism is also the foundation of a general spirit of tolerance and acceptance of the ‘other’, the belief that different paths can lead to the same goal. Hinduism’s flexibility has endowed Indian civilisation with a unique resilience and power of absorptive survival.

The 700 years of Muslim rule from the 11-12th century bequeathed a mixed legacy. Politically, Islam in India represented subjugation. But culturally, it generated outstanding creative achievement and synthesis. The centuries of Muslim rule impacted all aspects of Indian life: our art and architecture, our music and dress, our manners and cuisines, our language and aesthetic sensibility – producing a composite Indo-Islamic culture. Kabir, a Hindu by birth but a Muslim by upbringing, represented a kind of spiritual fusion between Islam and Hinduism. Sufi shrines and festivals attract equal devotion from Hindus and Muslims in India today.

British colonial rule replaced Muslim rule, adding one more layer to India’s plural personality. India’s exposure to the West was both debilitating and nourishing. On the one hand, colonial rule devalued Indian civilisation by claiming and justifying the ‘civilising mission’ of Britain. On the other hand, the work of great European Indologists helped India rediscover her classical literature, her forgotten wisdom and values.

It is striking how the intellectual journey of the leaders of the Indian renaissance went from India to the West, before returning to India with a new-found sense of Indianness. The greatest of them in the last century were Rabindranath Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. All of them represented a mingling of East and West, a synthesis of European and Indian thought.

This was the background to the emergence of an independent, democratic India in 1947, after the bloodbath of Partition. We are the most complex and diverse society on earth. Today’s India has over a billion Hindus, 150 million Muslims, 24 million Christians and 24 million Sikhs, apart from several smaller but important denominations.

In addition to English and Hindi, we speak more than 20 major languages and some 22,000 dialects. Each religion is further sliced and diced by caste, sub-caste and region. There are also thousands of tribal groups, with distinct ethnic and cultural identities. Each of India’s states has its own centuries-old flourishing culture, with further internal diversities.

Contemporary challenges

However, it is indeed tragic that in the recent past, multiculturalism in India has become a battleground! In the competition for votes, various forms of identity politics have emerged, based on region, caste and religion. Identity politics has created a culture of ‘us’ and ‘them’.

Opportunistic politics is today fomenting sectarian strife, by reopening old scars and reviving memories of past wrongs. The ambition of the leading political dispensation today is to make India a monochromatic ‘Hindutva’ nation.

Its ideologues denounce secularism as a form of appeasement of India’s Muslims and Christians. They are portrayed as “foreigners”, undeserving of the full rights of Indian citizenship. They have become the targets of hate-speech and violence. State governments have often failed to enforce the law fairly and impartially.

Repeated incidents of terror attacks have widened the chasm between Hindus and Muslims. Where enlightened politics once healed the wounds of Partition, opportunistic politics is today fomenting sectarian strife across the country. There is growing bigotry in other spheres as well.

The contemporary reality reveals several disturbing features. There is a visible deepening of religious animosities; exploitation of religion for dubious purposes; spread of communalism and religious fundamentalism; cultural stereotyping of the ‘other’ religion, based on myths, misperceptions and fallacies; and maintenance of entrenched positions, with no spirit of give and take, no tolerance of the ‘other’, and no compromise. To compound matters, there are the challenges posed by modernisation, secularisation and industrialisation to the traditional order.

Our responsibility

Against this disturbing background, it is time to draw up a charter of multicultural responsibilities. Every right-thinking citizen of democratic India must seriously embark on the following:

1. Uphold the unity and integrity of the nation, maintain peace and harmony, observe the Fundamental Duties, and respect the Fundamental Rights and Freedoms guaranteed under the Constitution to all sections of the people.

2. Respect others’ faiths and beliefs in the religious, cultural and social spheres.

3. Promote the right understanding of religion, and stress the common core of all religions.

4. Understand and appreciate that at least eight values are central to all religious traditions: Justice, Peace, Equality, Love, Compassion, Non-Violence, Truth and Human Dignity.

5. Highlight the role of religion as a promoter of peace and an instrument of conflict resolution.

6. Build up public opinion against communalism, religious fundamentalism and religious and cultural discrimination.

7. Nip communal hatred in the bud.

8. Promote multicultural understanding.

Today, India needs not just a culture of democracy, but a ‘democracy of cultures’. The challenge is to create an overarching sense of national identity that does not erode or threaten the rich tapestry of Indian life. People of India must retain the right to have, and to express, multiple identities of language, of region and of religion, within the framework of common citizenship. We must not allow ‘Multicultural India’ to become a ‘Monochromatic India’!

(The writer is Hon. Professor at Karnataka State Rural Development and Panchayat Raj University, Gadag).