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Forced national integration of India will ruin its composite culture

Composite culture must reject mono-cultural domination, and reaffirm the value of pluralism of India. Tagore had said that the best way to union is to honour separateness.

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Manoeuvres for power, privilege and unabridged hegemony remain a grave impediment in the march towards an equitable polity. India has passed through many phases of chaos and anarchy, which, in hindsight, reveal an alarming pattern of destabilisation of the polity. The silver lining being an egalitarian democratic system, supported by a large mass of people — with courage and hope.

The emergence of a distinct pattern of national integration seems to be in an unhealthy competition with the composite culture of India. At one level, the two are different processes, but at a more meaningful level, they represent jointly a design of congruence.

A culture, rooted in heritage and critically appreciative of it at the same time, can alone become an effective medium for national integration. The vast variety of religion, caste, community, language, race, custom, dress, climate and living style, makes India the greatest museum of living cultures.

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A laboratory of intermixing 

In 1889, William Comer Petheram, then-Chief Justice of Bengal, in an address at the University of Calcutta, said: “Above all, it should be borne in mind by those who aspire to lead the people of this country into the untried regions of political life, that all the recognised nations of the world have been produced by the freest possible intermingling and fusing of the different race stocks inhabiting a common territory. The horde, the tribe, the caste, the clan, all the smaller separate and often warring groups, characteristic of the earlier states of civilisation, must, it would seem, be welded together by a process of unrestricted crossing before a nation can be produced.”

A few years later, in 1911, Rabindranath Tagore observed: “The fact of the matter is that their separateness is a reality, a blind attempt to wipe it out in order to secure advantage of the large unit is not in consonance with truth. A suppressed separateness is a terrible explosive force. The best way to union is to honour the separateness of what is really separate.”

Historically, India has been one of the greatest confluences of cultural strands, a laboratory of racial intermixing, of cross-fertilisation of religious ideas and secular thought. Sixteen major languages, about 2,000 dialects, a dozen ethnic groups, seven religious communities fragmented into many sects, castes and sub-castes inhabiting India’s 68 socio-cultural sub-regions within the seven natural geographic regions have given birth to a vivid and vibrant scheme of unity in diversity. India’s survival and continuity for more than 3,000 years of recorded history, and possibly 2,000 years of prehistory, makes it the world’s oldest, largest and most tenacious plural society.

The migration of primordial hordes of ethnic group from central, south-central and north-eastern parts of Asia into the fertile Indo-Gangetic plains, moving southwards to the alluvial Deccan Plateau, inhabited by the indigenous people, provided the first pattern of inter-ethnic mixture.

The Dravidians, the Aryans, the Semitics and the Mongoloids provided the ethnic substratum of Indian civilisation. The Aryans, followed by the Sakas, the Yue-chi, the Kushans, the Bactrians, the Scythians and the Huns made inroads into Bharatavarsha. Muslim migratory clans, Uzbeks, Turkomans, Tajiks, Iranians, Turanians, Afghans and Pathans made Hindustan their homeland.

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Making of the ‘composite culture’

In terms of culture, the two most profound influences on the making of a distinct Indian civilisation, are those of the ancient Indo-Aryan and the medieval Indo-Muslim segments. The former contributed to the flowering of Vedic cultural streams, which, over the centuries, have continued to fertilise the body politic of the ancient land and even today remain the subsoil of acculturation. The latter has weaved strands into the fabric of India, creating a rich design of ‘composite culture’ by intertwining the threads of the ‘Bhakti Marg’ with the ‘Islamic Sufi’ (mystic) traditions.

One needs, therefore, to understand that the composite culture of India originated in an environment of reconciliation rather than refutation, cooperation over confrontation, coexistence and not mutual annihilation. Between the 12th and 16th century AD, a continuous process of fusion took place in the Indo-Gangetic plains between heritages originating in three geographically determined cultural belts: the Arabian, the Iranian-Turanian, and the Indian. Islam, Zoroastrianism, and Hinduism, each in turn subsuming, with innovation and mutation, the ancient Judaic, Manian and Vedic-Vedantic traditions, respectively.

Composite culture must represent the rejection of uni-cultural regimentation or mono-cultural domination, and positively reaffirm the value of pluralism and syncretism. Composite culture is a product of borrowing, sharing and fusion through a process of interaction, for such cultural symbiosis has greater vitality over mono-culture.

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Towards national integration

In the wake of the encounter with European civilisation, when explorers sailed into the shores of India, the concept of composite culture has widened in its dimensions and includes much more than its original medieval form. The composite culture of India, called ‘Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb in common parlance, embraces seven streams of influence.

The Vedantic Vision, imbued with tolerance and respect for the many paths to truth, and the essence of Bhagavad Gita, that salvation is through action, and action is duty well done without expectation of reward.

The traditions of the Bhakti Marg, where the emphasis on ‘love’ is the axial principle of life, for the attainment of liberation.

The humanistic concepts of Islam, which include fraternity of human beings and charity towards the have-nots. Emphasis on the beneficent (Rahman) and the merciful (Rahim) attributes of God.

The Sufi message of ‘Sulhe-kul’: peace for all; ‘silsilahs’: mystic orders.

The elegance and ethos of the syncretic Indo–Islamic cultural values, which are manifested in social relations, professional ties, etiquette of daily life marked by deference towards elders, concern for the younger, compassion towards dependents and refinement in tastes.

The cosmopolitanism of modern urban development, due to migrants from the rural hinterland, increasing in the cities; and caught up in the vortex of change due to industrialisation, coupled with the rise of urban professionals.

And then there’s the heritage of the freedom struggle, which was perhaps the most broad-based, anti-colonial mass movement. It was multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-regional, non-xenophobic and forward looking, stretching its hands to other liberation movements in Asia and Africa. The finest element in the struggle for independence of India was the value of humanism and human fraternity.

Let us comprehend the basic thrust of national integration for India. The five major segments of our continental plural society have to be coalesced in a pattern of unity in diversity. These are the segments of religion, caste, tribe, language and region. Thus, in the semantics of functional politics, national integration means, and ought to mean:

Cohesion but not Fusion,
Unity but not Uniformity,
Reconciliation but not Merger,
Agglomeration but not Assimilation,
Solidarity but not Regimentation.

Let us not forget that the three pillars which ensemble India, viewed from the perspective of history, are continuity: notwithstanding change; assimilation: not precluding conflicts; and syntheses: not overlooking the polarities of theses and anti-theses. There is a causal linkage between the three. Continuity is the result of the triumph of assimilation and synthesis; assimilation and synthesis, in turn, have been the two dominant processes of India’s society.

The author is former Chief Justice of Bombay and Rajasthan High Courts. Views are personal.

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  1. I see comments from Indians responding to this article. I do not wish to resort to disdain or such but nonetheless I remain gobsmacked with all these viewpoints.

    Guys, partition has happened and the primary demand for that came from the Muslim League. Fair enough, if that’s Indeed what fate had in store. Never forget that not all left the Indian shores to live a life in the ‘land of the pure’. Nobody and I mean absolutely nobody that had voted for the league and then stayed back put their hands up to reconcile. That coupled with the appeasement that has been practised down the decades, is it any wonder that the pendulum has now swung the other way?

    Coming to this article itself and I read someone saying assure some folks that they’re Indians. I say *expletive* that. Disregarding your origin/belief system/philosophies, it’s time that people said they’re Indians first and foremost and all other competing identities a distant second.

    Yes, it really can be simple as all that.

  2. Our diversity is important. It is our pride, to have so many cultures in our country. Our non-violent ideology has let this flourish. Whether it Tibetan Buddhism , to sufism, to hinduism in southeast Asia, we have always been the source of peaceful co-existence of diversity. Even Brits are influenced by this. This militant form of intolerant Hindutva, should be denounced. This inability to see that our country is ruled by these people who can so easily stay silent when hate crimes are committed,… is a sign that our country is heading for darker times. People think they help us because they are “beyond ” all this looking at progressive agenda. Does it matter if we have done that generating fear in nearly 200 million muslims and never allowing them to complain without lashing out? If we do that, are we really different from our northern neighbours?

  3. If the prevalent strain of Islam was ‘Sufi mysticism’ can the author explain why the rallying cry around partition become the call of Islam specifically and why the Sufi strain of Islam was crushed in Pakistan?

    Furthermore, can the author explain how this so called composite culture has religious laws for one religion separate from the laws that govern all other religions? How is this even possible?

    Lastly, if it was so called Sufi Mysticism that came to India then why are these Mosques lying on top of ruins of old Indian temples?

    • You don’t get it. If you go back to 18th century you will find evidence of hindu-muslim tensions. In India, hindu-muslim unity was always a fantasy of sort… but it survived in someway for 70 years. It can never come without compromise. The separate laws was one of them. Why does that bother you so much?

      And even if you wanted to change this, don’t you think it would be better if this was not done when people are already wary of RSS? In a time when muslim lynching is not on a rise? By a government who has never really spoken up about the fears muslims have? You can sit and dissect all issues you want, the elephant in the room is there.

  4. Thank you for this article, it is quite critical to think about this issue. In country like india, State governments are more important and should be empowered even more, not be told to “cooperate”, it is the only way to actually address the diverse culture’s needs. Central government should have reduced powers. It should never be able to call shots like demonitization or lockdown without consultative process with the states. Center should be forced to cooperate.

    Frankly being from South India, sometimes it really is problematic that the hindi belt is politically uniform. Many of us really don’t like such politics. What is scary is that if this goes too far, I don’t see India become uniform, but I do see a division similar to American civil war. The sad part is it is the poorer people (predominantly in the BJP or allied ruled states) who will get isolated.

    I think India is stuck in odd loop of discussion, thinking there is only one answer (our dear BJP) to its problems, while never thinking what could be and demanding BJP to also evolve its ideology. For poorer people minority appeasement didn’t work…but answer isn’t majoritarianism, it is protecting minority without appeasing them. Assuring that they are in every way, Indian. That always has to be vocal.

    India needs to think about how it fits in today’s world. A pluralistic Indian democracy would be a reliable partner. A nationalistic indian democracy, will make others negotiate with it, with tight lips. A pluralistic Indian democracy, will allay fears of this region, a nationalistic indian democracy will only be cause of concern. A pluralistic Indian democracy can make the world a freer place and create a positive change, a nationalistic Indian democracy sticks to its past hindu culture not moving forward culturally.

  5. I fail to understand what the author means by ‘forced national integration’. Is he talking about abrogating article 370? Removing ‘triple talaq’? How does he want the country to be ruled? By appeasement of minorities, winning votes by division based on language, caste and religion?

    • BJP doesn’t stand for meeting of minds based on language caste and religion. It plays on the very division and convert them to nationalists. Think about how power in center is being used. The classic example is the labor laws. Everyone knew this had to be reformed, and some signal from center is good. But what they do is.. far worse. You see, there are not forcing states to take them up. Instead they use states that are ruled by BJP to “set an example”.

      Why is the insidious, you may wonder. Central government is actually calling the shots in BJP led states- this in itself is obliteration of federalism. Modi-Shah, should not be so easily influencing Yogi Ji, who should be basing his policies on his MPs and local unions. This tedious democratic process is what keeps us safe. Instead, they are making states ruled by opposition look like idiots, who take a more democratic approach. You then vote for them thinking they are “decisive”. They become more powerful, then they can pull off something like CAA, convincing you that it is not about anti-Muslim ideology.

      They don’t give a damn about India. They give only a damn about their power and ideology.

    • That you said “ruled” itself is disturbing

      Put yourself in their shoes. Will you be ok with an entirely muslim government?

      Cherrypicking policies doesn’t absolve their silence and thus complicity in what is being done to our minorities. Minorities have lost their voice, they have no real say that can impact decisions. They have to live in a country increasingly vocal loud about hinduism, openly calling muslims people jihadis and terrorists, saying things like they should go where they came from. Heck, this not something people do to even immigrants in other countries, and we lynch our own citizens and hindus are not outraged that government is silent.

      Then we go along saying “hey we let triple talaq happen”, you should be happy.

      Nothing good is going to come with such thinking

  6. There was a lot of excitement in 2014 when one party won a simple majority in the Lok Sabha, after thirty years. An expectation that there would be decisive leadership, an ability to take some of the tough decisions, notably on the economy. Unfortunately, it was possible to secure an absolute majority with just 31% of the popular vote, centred around nine large northern and western states. Not a single Muslim MP. Slender pickings in the South and East. In some ways, not representative of the breathtaking diversity and variation of India. That allows majoritarian sentiment to take hold. One dominant religion and language. To me, it is not surprising that a “ strong “ government is unable to deliver spectacular results in any domain. We need to rethink the value of coalitions and regional parties in the governance of India.

  7. It would be nice if those in a position like the author stick to their core competency instead of wading into philosophical preaching. Spouting on the Bhagavad-Gita with it’s emphasis on duty but failing to ensure the efficacy of India’s judicial system hardly makes for a convincing argument. Let’s hope the author has practical suggestions on how the judiciary can be made more responsive to the common man, which matters much more to everyday life then nebulous concepts like national integration etc.

    • What do you have against philosophy? This is just aggressive whataboutism. Actually ironically, there is no one common man in india. There are many types of common men and women.

      • Country was thriving before nationalism came. Economic numbers are telling. Talk of survival has come only after nationalism has ruined it.

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