"Inequality at birth is neither just nor unjust. What's just and unjust is the way institutions deal with it" - John Rawls
"I always had a certain dislike for general principles and abstract prescriptions. I think it's necessary to have an "empirical lantern" or a "visit with the patient" before being able to understand what is wrong with him. It is crucial to understand the peculiarity, the specificity, and also the unusual aspects of the case" - Albert O. Hirschman
have historically lived in closed groups, as tribes. Hence, we have a strong
tendency towards seeking “identical people”. We feel comfortable around them.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
did India survive being united even 70 years after independence? What’s the
reason for India’s unity despite its diversity?
of the commonly propounded theory is that Indians are kind hearted and tolerant
by nature. Hence, they can co-exist despite diversity.
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
then focus on the warmheartedness argument and argue that this isn’t a
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.
may seem subtle but it’s important. Masses can be shaped. The way masses are
shaped will have lasting consequences.
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.
captures the importance of shaping the masses.
largely non-violent independence struggle meant that militaristic option as a
way to express grievance was out of people’s mind maps.
as Pratap Bhanu Mehta says, Ambedkar binded Dalits, one of the most oppressed
sections, to strict form of constitutional methods.
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
IV. Lack 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.
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.
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
Asymmetrical federalism addressing special needs of
states like Nagaland, Mizoram etc.
of group rights along with individual rights
of regional and national parties
wide opportunities to businesses
and parliamentary system doesn’t lead cultural nationalism to
Multiple and complementary
identities where individuals identify with both their communities and the
this, it is clear that there are historical, social, leadership and
constitutional reason for India’s unity. Let’s next focus on the
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
these help prevent friction between different cultures and classes.
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.
is different from other countries where different communities see each others
as equals and competitors.
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.
as noted above, Ambedkar wedded one of the most oppressed sections in India,
the Dalits, to non-violent forms of protest.
hence don’t see the form of violence that we don’t see in other multicultural
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
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.
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
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.