The events of the past few weeks fill one with a sense of foreboding. The diversity of our country has been its defining characteristic through the ages. It is threatened with a stifling uniformity. The embrace of diversity can be and has been, a cause for celebration. We are a people who speak different languages, profess different faiths or no faith at all and share an incredible range of cultural traditions, musical and dance forms and literary and artistic sensibilities. Our cuisines offer a breathtaking range of flavours and our textile traditions and regional costumes are a designer’s delight. Indian culture is rich and vibrant because for us culture is for sharing not just for showing. India’s diversity demands a political dispensation that accommodates and nurtures this unique source of strength and vibrancy. The Constitution reflects this age-old wisdom.
Diversity acknowledges difference. Difference can lead to positive interaction, each actor confident of her own identity but eager to explore other identities. Difference can also lead to a sense of threat, an assertion of separate and narrow identities, an anxiety about being absorbed in a more amorphous collectivity. These differences then become fault-lines in society. These could be fault-lines involving religion, language, even modes of dressing and food habits as we have been witnessing in recent years. What should be a source of strength instead spawns deepening divisions.
The assumption that creating a religious fault-line between Hindus and Muslims can somehow enable other fault-lines in Indian society to be transcended in a larger Hindu unity is deeply flawed. No overarching Hindu unity can be built on the basis of a Hindu-Muslim binary. As soon as one fault-line is excavated, others will erupt. We are already witnessing the reassertion of regional identities. The next delimitation exercise, redrawing electoral constituencies, may well deepen the North-South divide. The larger population increase in the northern, mainly Hindi-speaking states, may lead to an even more skewed representation in Parliament. Would the southern states be willing to accept a diminished representation as reward for their greater success in delivering relatively higher growth and lower population increase over the past several years? This is a simmering danger that not much attention has been paid to.
More fault lines
There are other fault-lines which may surface with unexpected virulence. It is becoming apparent that a set of social norms and taboos, specific to the Hindi-speaking heartland, are sought to be imposed across different communities and regions. There is rising intolerance of beliefs and practices which do not conform to the norms of an imagined Hindu society. It has always been accepted that some devout Hindus would be vegetarian during Navratri, and also avoid certain kinds of grain and vegetables such as onions and garlic. It has never been expected that the rest of the country’s population must adhere to these food prohibitions. But that is what we have witnessed recently. One could enjoy Navratri dishes as a matter of choice for their unique flavours without thinking about their religious associations. Now, it has become an identity marker. It is the same with Iftaar parties during Ramzan. People of all communities would join Muslim friends and colleagues to enjoy a vast array of special dishes. Now, these, too, have become an identity marker. The sense of sharing, of celebrating together, is diminishing.
Throughout the year, there are many religious festivals to be celebrated. What used to be family celebrations or small community affairs have now become politically charged sectarian events. There is something perverse about raising Jai Shri Ram slogans while intruding into mosques or planting saffron flags on masjid minarets. To associate the holy name of Shri Ram with such deeply offensive behaviour cannot be the public image of Hinduism. Does this ancient faith, which has survived for centuries, need an enemy ‘other’ to survive and flourish?
There are over 200 million Muslims in our country and are spread across its length and breadth. Is it possible to reduce them to the status of second-class citizens and still survive as a democratic country with citizens enjoying equal rights? Would repeated acts of discrimination and violence perpetrated against them invite no reaction? If even a small fraction of the 200 million become radicalised and take to retaliatory violence, would the Indian State be able to handle the security challenge? Would more democratic freedoms have to be sacrificed to enable the State to keep us safe? There could be external ramifications, particularly among Islamic countries. Would Indian foreign policy be able to manage the fallout?
The framers of the Constitution were conscious of the fault-lines in India’s diverse society which could be easily ignited and overwhelm the State. There had to be a strong commitment to national unity but this unity was sought to be achieved not through the suppression of diversity, but through transcending it into a larger concept of common citizenship. Indians could retain and even celebrate their multiple identities but as equal citizens enjoying individual-based fundamental rights. The enjoyment of these rights was not linked to the membership of a particular community. The only exception allowed was for Scheduled Castes and Tribes taking into account the social infirmities that they had suffered through history and therefore needed a special but temporary dispensation.
Any citizen may voluntarily follow her community’s norms but the community cannot have a veto over the exercise of her rights as an individual, guaranteed in the Constitution. This is a basic character of the Constitution, which is being undermined as each community claims a veto over the actions of other communities. Any community whose ‘sentiments have been hurt’ claims an entitlement to attack others, sometimes with indiscriminate violence without the state intervening.
These disturbing trends, if left unchecked, could irretrievably fracture Indian society. Not just Indian democracy but the future of a united India itself would be in danger.
Shyam Saran is a former Foreign Secretary and a Senior Fellow CPR. Views are personal.
This article was originally published in The Tribune and has been republished here with permission.