Celebrating India’s diversity      

Celebrating India’s diversity     

K.M. Chandrasekhar

K.M. Chandrasekhar

During the past seven decades, India and the world have changed dramatically. This period of change in our country will be seen in the distant future as an era of transformational change, much like the Meiji restoration in Japan or the Industrial Revolution in Britain and Europe. Successive governments have left their own imprint on Indian society and have built on the foundations laid by past administrations. Make in India, Direct Benefits Transfer, Jan Dhan Yojana, infrastructure development schemes and the Aadhar mechanism are logical offshoots of changes effected by successive governments. The introduction of GST, a massive shift in the taxation and federal structure of India, itself evolved from the Modvat and VAT regimes created in the past.

The changes effected in the last three decades signify a change of direction and of momentum. This may not however have been possible had we not, during the early years, laid strong foundations of democracy, investment in basic capital intensive industry and revolutionary changes in agriculture. The role of the giants of Indian industry of the times, the JRD Tatas and the GD Birlas reinforced and strengthened the growth momentum.

There were many who foresaw gloom and division in the years ahead. Ramachandra Guha, in his book ‘India after Gandhi’ talks of an event in 1891, when Rudyard Kipling visited Australia and a journalist asked him about the possibilities of self government in India. “Oh, no,” said Kipling, “They are 4000 years old out there, much too old to learn that business. Law and order is what they want and we are there to give it to them and we give it to them straight.”

Guha talks also of a cricketer and tea planter who predicted that “chaos would prevail in India if we were ever so foolish to leave the natives to run their own show. Ye gods! What a salad of confusion, of bungle, of mismanagement and far worse would be the instant result. Themselves, they are still infants as regards governing or statesmanship. And their so called leaders are the worst of the lot”.

And yet India triumphed, the Constitution stayed firm and secure, the institutions of governance evolved, albeit at varying pace and, within the broad embrace of democracy, the concept of Indian nationhood blossomed, despite divergences in society, despite the divisions of religion, caste, language, even ethnic variations. And while India changed and grew, we had to contend with massive global changes, the decline of socialism as a development doctrine, the end of the Cold War and the consequent political change, the emergence of Europe as an economic entity, the various global changes wrought by energy related politics, the growth of terrorism and the phenomenal rise of information technology, to name only a few.

The Indian economy underwent spectacular change. When I first went abroad twelve years into my career and did a postgraduate course in management in the University of Leeds in the UK, India was in the same league as some of the poorest countries in the world. There was hardly any mention of India in the British newspapers. When I later went and stayed abroad from 1999 to 2004, hardly a day passed without mention of India and developments in the country in “The Financial Times” or the “International Herald Tribune” ,a tribute to the growing economic might of the country and its concomitant political influence. When the Information Technology revolution came, India at first lagged behind, but soon became a centre for outsourcing and for development of new programmes. When I worked in Brussels, Indians visiting that country inevitably made a beeline for shops that sold mobiles. Today, mobiles have flooded Indian markets. Buying goods from abroad is no longer of interest to Indian travelers. We have all that we want produced right here in this country, Incomes have grown, the middle class has burgeoned, domestic demand has grown and the Indian market has become one of the major engines of global growth. Indian industry is no longer afraid of competition. Instead, we are looking to make deep inroads into markets in other countries, competing or equal terms with foreign industry.

There has been an onslaught of information to which all people have access through the internet and this, in turn, spawned new forms of organization, new ways of doing things. Ambition has soared, the ability to take risks has multiplied manifold and an entrepreneurial culture is sweeping across large parts of the world. Eli Praiser in “The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is hiding from you”, stated “Eric Schmidt likes to point out that if you recorded all human communication from the dawn of time to 2003, it takes about five billion gigabytes of storage space. Now we are creating that much data every two days”. Eric Schmidt was the CEO of Google from 2001 to 2011.

India has been at the forefront of global transformation in all directions. Unlike many other countries who emerged from colonial rule, we have been able to transcend our weaknesses and scale great heights of success in many areas. Why did we succeed while others are still struggling?

The answer probably lies in the manner in which our Constitution makers accepted our diversity and endeavoured to build a polity that would accommodate our multicultural society. The problems that Kipling mentioned, that the British visualised as factors that would divide India forever, were all thought through and built into the fabric of the State. Not that explosive situations never arose, which could have torn the country apart, and its neighbour too.

The first test arose even at the moment of freedom when thousands of people on both sides of the India Pakistan border were slaughtered in a frenzy of communal hatred, which left a deep wound that is still not fully healed. It arose again ,when India was being formed ,in the princely states of Hyderabad, Junagadh and Kashmir. The beautiful valley of Kashmir still remains as a festering sore, a stark reminder of what can happen to common people when politics is unable to find a happy solution. Kashmir has exploded again and again and caused untold misery to people in both India and Pakistan. Later,in the sixties, linguistic differences came to the fore, when the south of India, particularly Tamil Nadu, rose in revolt against a perceived attempt by the rulers of the North to impose Hindi as as an official language. On November 5, 1948, in the Constituent Assembly, TT Krishnamachari had spoken out strongly against the dangers of not accommodating linguistic diversity.”I refer to this question of language imperialism,” he said.”There are various forms of imperialism and language imperialism is one of the most powerful methods of propagating the imperialistic idea… This kind of intolerance makes us fear that the strong Centre which we need, a strong Centre which is necessary, will also mean the enslavement of people who do not speak the language of the legislature, the language of the Centre... “

The communal divide and sub-national ambitions often flared up later in history too. For many years in the sixties and seventies, Sikh nationalistic feelings surfaced in the form of the Khalistan movement. The Sikhs have always been strong patriots, great soldiers, willing to give up their lives for the national cause. For some years, however, Punjab was in the grip of a militancy that seemed to have virtually spun out of control. It was the return of democracy, the will power of a Prime Minister, a Chief Minister and a Police Chief acting in tandem,that brought order back to that troubled land. The communal flare up in Delhi in 1984 , directed this time against the Sikhs, was an unimaginable event. Fortunately, this did not leave a lasting impact on the communal equation and the Sikhs again became the nationalists they always were. The Hindu-Muslim divide, never satisfactorily resolved, flared up again in Gujarat in 2002 and remained always uneasy. Even if the incidence of communal conflict has declined, it remains under the surface and breaks out sporadically in various forms.

The diversity of India is reflected also in ethnic and tribal divides. The Mizo movement of the past, the Bodo agitation, the demand for Gorkhaland and the continuing demand for Nagalim are assertions of cultural diversity assuming militant forms. The Left Wing Extremist movements in forested areas in the heartland of India is again rooted in tribal identity and the perception that tribals and forest dwellers have been treated unfairly. Even in the relatively urbanised northern States of the country, the Jats and the Gujjars occasionally assert their rights and firmly adhere to cultural practices like khap panchayats.

The Constitution of India was designed in a flexible manner to accommodate cultural differences. To recognise the diversity of India and to create a single structure that provided both for unity and differences in thought, practice and cultural mores was an unparalleled exercise in statecraft for which we have to be grateful to the stalwarts who created the document. As Dr. Gurpreet Mahajan of the JNU put it in the book edited by her( “ Accommodating Diversity: Ideas and International Practices”, 2011), “ If we look at the functioning of the Indian State since independence, it is evident that it has been remarkably successful in accommodating diversity in this kind of way. In fact, the ease with which it has been done can only be appreciated and understood fully when we look at the challenges that are currently being faced in this regard by many liberal democracies in the west.”

India aims to become a 5 trillion dollar economy in five years. For this, we require 8% annual growth of GDP. The IMF has predicted 7% growth in the current year and 7.2% in the next. We have many problems of equity and growth in social indicators to overcome. It is important to ensure that respect for diversity and multiculturalism enshrined in the Constitution is upheld at all costs. Indian law and Indian polity has to recognise that uniform cultural practices are unrealistic in this country. The unity and integrity of India have to lay the foundation for prosperity.