Why didn’t India breakup given its diversity?


Humans have historically lived in closed groups, as tribes. Hence, we have a strong tendency towards seeking “identical people”. We feel comfortable around them.
The metrics for the identity can be many — colour of skin, language, region, religion, country, same college, same school and so on. Of these, some are strong (language, religion, region) while some aren’t.
Any difference in these identities lead to frictions. Yuval Harari provocatively questions in his book Sapiens
Tolerance is not a Sapiens trademark. In modern times, a small difference in skin colour, dialect or religion has been enough to prompt one group of Sapiens to set about exterminating another group. Would ancient Sapiens have been more tolerant towards an entirely different human species? It may well be that when Sapiens encountered Neanderthals, the result was the first and most significant ethnic-cleansing campaign in history.
The formation of nation-states brought a significant shift. Suddenly, people were expected to identify themselves with a geographical territory, an imagined community. Such nation-states needed a common marker to all to keep people within nation-state united. Hence, ethnic nation-states was considered the most suitable form.
Experiments with multi-identity nations faced significant troubles. Even today, we notice that careless redrawing of boundaries in Africa and Middle East has led to arbitrary division of territories of different ethnicities, leading to civil wars and movements of secession. Kurdistan is the latest example. In our neighbourhood, Sri Lanka had to face a civil war due to an issue of language. The case of Rohingyas in Myanmar is well known.
Given this context — it is surprising to note that India more or less remains united despite vast diversity in language, religion, customs, skin colour, ethnicities and so on.
The welding together of Indians into a nation wasn’t spontaneous. As many freedom fighters argued, India was a “nation in making”, nation being the modern concept.
The unity during British era might make sense because there was a common purpose, which united people. But what explains the unity after the enemy disappeared.
How did India survive being united even 70 years after independence? What’s the reason for India’s unity despite its diversity?

One of the commonly propounded theory is that Indians are kind hearted and tolerant by nature. Hence, they can co-exist despite diversity.
I examine this hypothesis in this post. To do this, I first list out various other plausible hypothesis and discuss the research regarding it. This is to demonstrate that there are equally compelling other theories, with even supporting research.
I then focus on the warmheartedness argument and argue that this isn’t a reasonable explanation.
The plausible theories that explain India’s unity despite its diversity are:
I. Common experience of colonialism: Common experience of colonialism has created a form of shared common imagination of the entity of India.
II. Culture of non-militaristic struggle: Indian Freedom Movement is remarkable in the sense that it was largely non-violent. This had significant impact on the way people organise and mobilise.
This may seem subtle but it’s important. Masses can be shaped. The way masses are shaped will have lasting consequences.
In early days of independence, MG Ranade used to write letters to British criticising their rule. Someone asked him — why do you keep writing the letters despite British’s lack of interest? Ranade replied — these letters are not for them, it is for our people. They need to be taught how to think and articulate.
This captures the importance of shaping the masses.
A largely non-violent independence struggle meant that militaristic option as a way to express grievance was out of people’s mind maps.
Further, as Pratap Bhanu Mehta says, Ambedkar binded Dalits, one of the most oppressed sections, to strict form of constitutional methods.
All these together had an effect.
III. Nehru’s leadership in initial years of independence: Nehru’s towering leadership, coupled with his strong democratic ethos has helped a newly born nation survive. It also sowed seeds of democratic spirit.
IVLack of single common identity: Lack of single common identity is cited a plausible reason for India’s breakup. Contrary to this perception, Paul Brassargues it is in fact the reason that India is united.
Brass’s argument is that every individual in India possesses multiple identities — religion, region, caste and so on. This overlap of cross cutting identities means that one can’t neatly carve out a section of people with single common identity, without other contradictory identities.
For instance, one can demand a separate state based on language. Once that’s achieved, people discover too many other contradicting identities — religion, caste, rural, urban, class etc. Note that there are overlaps in these identities. This makes any form of secessionism difficult.
V. State Nations: Yogendra Yadav, Alfred Stepan and Juan Liz in their book “Crafting State-Nations” outline seven reasons for India’s unity.
  1. Asymmetrical federalism addressing special needs of states like Nagaland, Mizoram etc.
  2. Protection of group rights along with individual rights
  3. Parliamentary system
  4. Coalition of regional and national parties
  5. Country wide opportunities to businesses
  6. Federal and parliamentary system doesn’t lead cultural nationalism to secessionism.
  7. Multiple and complementary identities where individuals identify with both their communities and the larger polity.
From this, it is clear that there are historical, social, leadership and constitutional reason for India’s unity. Let’s next focus on the warmheartedness hypothesis.

VI. Indians are inherently identity blind and can co-exist with anyone? It is commonly suggested that Indian unity is due to the inherent nature of Indians who can co-exist with people of all forms of identity.
This, I argue, is misreading of the scenario. To begin with, as we have already noted above, research (Paul Brass and Y.Yadav’s for example) clearly shows historical, social and constitutional reasons responsible for keeping India united. If Indians were inherently identity blind, these wouldn’t have been needed.
Further, there are three more reasons to argue against the inherent tolerant nature of Indians being the reason for its unity:
1) Not sharing mental space: Coexistence of people of different identities in India is sort of a myth. People may live closer geographically but they aren’t so mentally. This helps prevent frictions.
The argument is that friction between different identities become significant only if one identity ends up occupying significant mind space of others. Such friction is avoided in India by segregating people geographically into ghettos.
One may live in same country but are separated linguistically through ghettosof states. One may live in same village but separated through ghettos of caste colonies. One many live in same city but separated through ghettos of class. And so on.
We all seem to be living in same city, state, country but we all are leading completely different lives. It’s possible for one to exist without any knowledge of people of other identities.
All these help prevent friction between different cultures and classes.
The moment these barriers are broken, friction arises. For instance, language issues started arising due to increasing migration between states.
2) Hierarchical society with a hegemony of subordination: Gramsci defined hegemony as a manufactured consent that makes something as a commonsensical principle, that isn’t even a matter of question. Indian society has manufactured a hegemony of subordination, that some sections are inherently subordinate to others. It leads to acceptance of others, not in form of tolerance as is usually understood but in terms of fate, thereby reducing the friction.
This is different from other countries where different communities see each others as equals and competitors.
In cases where such hegemony is broken, the resistance against such subordination finds it vents through politics. Taylor called it the politics of recognition: in a multicultural and unequal society, there is a demand for peer-recognition, manifested in form of politics of recognition. Pratap Bhanu Mehta in his famous book The Burden of Democracy also talks of the same — in a society when a fellow human being doesn’t treat you as a co-equal, politics becomes the vehicle to assert the equality. It’s manifested in form of caste politics and various other forms of identity politics.
Further, as noted above, Ambedkar wedded one of the most oppressed sections in India, the Dalits, to non-violent forms of protest.
We hence don’t see the form of violence that we don’t see in other multicultural countries.
3) Preference falsification: People might not be publicly revealing their preferences for fear of embarrassment as they are taboos or not politically correct things to say. Timur Kuran called this as preference falsification. Till now, a certain sense of political wisdom ensured that the narrative doesn’t cross the limits, that ends up turning these norms upside down.
If such norms are shattered, Timur Kuran says that sudden changes occur. In case of India, one such manifestation of breaking norms can be that the underlying intolerance flows out.
One needn’t look further than recent past to note this. It’s the reason I have argued that citing numbers murders due to hate as an evidence to deny intolerance is merely data dressing; it doesn’t capture the actual essence. The essence lies in shattering the norms making it acceptable to publicly air certain beliefs, which isn’t always manifested in form of immediate extreme violence.

In summary, India’s unity despite diversity is not because of special large heartedness, tolerance, and identity blind nature of Indians. Indians are like humans of any other country. The explanations for India’s unity are historical, political and constitutional.

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