When I was growing up in Kolkata (Calcutta in those days) in the newly independent India, we were fed the mantra of our “unity in diversity.” As with all mantras we were not supposed to understand what it meant, but just to repeat it. The idea was that repeating it would ultimately give us a divine revelation some day. Later I realised the point that unity and diversity were not contradictory, but complementary. Diversity somehow moves up to unity on the transcendental plane.
It became evident to me that the slogan “unity in diversity” is a common one for the centralisation of power everywhere. This is true in Pakistan as well. But the same can be said about other countries in Asia like Indonesia and Malaysia, and also in Europe to counter secessionist movements in Catalonia, Scotland and Flanders, as well as in Eastern Ukraine. The diversity in India, however, is mind boggling. It involves race, region, colour, religion, caste, gotra, class, language, culture, monism, monotheism, polytheism, atheism, humanism and religions without God.
We get some indication of diversity if we analyse the recent troubles in our country. The first is the conflict of Kashmiris against (Hindu dominated) Indians; the second one has to do with caste diversity within one state; the last one involves conflicting interests of two states within the Union. The British intellectuals used this diversity as a camouflage to justify their colonial exploitation. They de-legitimised the right of self-determination by Indians under the cover that India was actually a mixture of many nations with constant prospect of explosive conflicts, and that was kept in check by the moderating force of the foreign colonial power. The leaders of the nationalist movement, by contrast, entertained a romantic view that India was one nation in ancient times. This was essential to arouse the masses behind our freedom movement. Gandhiji&’s Ram Rajya caught the imagination of the normally politically apathetic Hindus throughout India precisely for this reason.
Leaders of the freedom movement took their philosophical inspiration from the reformist Hindu thinkers starting from Ram Mohan Roy to Swami Vivekananda and culminating in Sri Aurobindo. The question they studied was the transcendental nature of our unity amidst the all-pervading diversity. The common theme was the popular saying of Swami Vivekananda&’s guru, Sri Ramakrishna, Jato mat, toto path. (There are as many paths to salvation as there are opinions).
This popular saying is a simple way of reiterating the Rig Veda mantra, Ekam sad vipra bahudha vadanti (There is one truth, wise men explain it in various ways). This was the underlying motive for our modern Hindu philosophers to look for the unity in our diversity. They invariably found it in our great religious tradition: from the Rig Veda to the Upanishads, followed by the founders of our great philosophical schools and culminating in the major religious/social movements of Saktaism, Saivism and Vaishnavism of the middle ages. This is fundamentally the Brahmin perspective of our tradition. Swami Vivekananda, among others, used this to interpret different Hindu traditions as just various ways of expressing one truth. It was then just one step for them to bundle Islam and Christianity into this conception of ecumenism within Hinduism. It is not obvious how one could reconcile this universal concept of religion with ‘political Islam’ or with the obsession with ‘sin’ that dominates Christian theology.
This newly formulated Hindu philosophy to confront western modernity and appropriate a place in the world for the post-Independent India led to two political ideologies in India. The Congress Party articulated one such ideology during our freedom struggle, which led eventually to the concept of ‘secularism’ that has permeated the basic structure of our Constitution and has been formally incorporated in the Preamble by the 42nd Amendment in 1976. By this we mean equal respect and absolute neutrality towards all sects within Hinduism and all other religions in India. We had a long history of multicultural society and cross- cultural fusion, at least since the Epic period, and placing the Muslims into this cultural milieu was accepted by a large section of the Hindu population. This ideal of ‘inclusiveness’ of our religion became a matter of ‘exclusiveness’ of Hinduism in the eyes of most Hindus. It motivated Jawaharlal Nehru to develop a new paradigm for post-colonial nations. This failed miserably as it did not provide any meaningful alternative to the concept of nation-state as developed in Europe. It was rejected by the main world civilisations of the West, Islam and China, as they refused to reject their own parochial ‘exclusiveness’.
The other ideology was also an attempt at modernisation by utilising traditional multicultural India to develop a large homogeneous Hindu nation based on great ideas of Brahminism. This ideology is appealing to the economically resurgent middle class. It instinctively excludes the Muslims and tries to convert people in the North-east back from Christianity. The proponents want to change myth into history to impress on Hindus a sense of historical destiny. They actually undertake the same means used earlier for modernisation in Europe, and later in America, by forging a national identity by coercing the minority into a sense of unity with the large majority population. The problem in India, however, is that the large majority (of Hindus) are also hopelessly divided by caste, language and culture. Efforts are made to circumvent these divisions by putting increasing focus on places of pilgrimage, annual puja rituals and periodic religious melas. This is exactly where the heterogeneous Hindu crowd, including most Dalits, coalesce into a homogeneous whole. It is highly doubtful as to whether this show of solidarity on the religious plane would translate into a common national purpose on the secular level.
In this vision there is no unity conceivable with the Kashmiris, Adivasis and people from the North-east. For our urban middle class this is a small price to pay for developing a nearly unified India with one-sixth of the world population to be counted some day in the world. With continuation of the IAS/IPS system inherited from the oppressive British rulers and with a strong military, made worse by unscrupulous politicians and feudal capitalists, these fringe elements in Indian society can always be contained. This ideology has given Hindutva zealots a field day lately. In response, some secularists have intensified studies on the history and politics of our divisiveness by doing research on conflicts along hundreds of faultlines within the Hindu fold. This is leading us nowhere and we need a new vision to break the deadlock.