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Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2008 > April 26, 2008 > Cultural Heterogeneity and Exclusion in India

Mainstream, Vol XLVI, No 19

Cultural Heterogeneity and Exclusion in India

Sunday 27 April 2008, by Vivek Kumar


For some politicians it is difficult to understand India’s diversity and appreciate it too. The lesson taught in our school days that there exists ‘unity in diversity’ in Indian society is taught even today in our schools and colleges. Although the slogan emerged at a particular point in time yet it is as relevant as it used to be in the past. However, very few know the basis of this ‘unity of diversity’ contained in this slogan, which was coined by British historian Vincent Smith and later on popularised by our first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. The basis of unity is unique because it did not emerge out of similarity. Unity in this slogan does not mean uniformity. This unity is organic in nature, because this emerges from differences. Very much like the unity of different organs of the human body. As in an organism, although the organs of the body are different in their shape, size and function yet they contribute to the maintenance of the body; similarly in Indian society, there are so many social groups which are of different shape, size and perform different functions but they all contribute to the main-tenance of the Indian society.

Each group has contributed in its own capacity since time immemorial to running the country’s economy, polity and society. For instance, a very small religious group like the Parsis has contributed in a significant way to the development of the country’s economy and science and technology. This helped India to maintain its scientific capability. Who can forget the labour of the Sikhs of Punjab for producing tonnes to wheat to feed the country, of course with the help of the migrant Bihar and Uttar Pradeshi labour. The Dalits and tribals have contributed their labour, acting as landless agricultural and industrial labourers, in running the economy and polity of this country. Moreover, what is known as Indian art and culture today comprises Buddhist, Jain, Mughal and British architecture as well as Madhubani and tribal paintings. Can we forget the role of Abdul Rahim Khan-e-Khana and Raskhan in popularising the Hindi language? If Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Pandit Jasraj have enriched the Indian classical singing the Dagar Brothers popularised the Dhrupad style of singing which starts with Sanskrit shlokas. The jugalbandi of Ustad Bismillha Khan’s shehnai and tabla of Ustad Zakir Hussain take Indian music to different heights. This list can be unending but I think these examples are enough to make the point that it is the collective effort of Indians which runs the country.

HOWEVER, diversity is the reality of Indian society. But what we have to understand is that no one community has deliberately created this diversity. Rather, it is natural in nature. The Indian diversity has evolved through eight interrelarted and interconnected epochs. If we take the Indus valley civilisation as the starting point, then the first epoch of the Indian society starts with the advent of the Aryans, which created a hierarchical social order and hence the diversity. The second epoch comprises Jain and Buddhist revolutions. The advent of Islam both through Sufism, that is, through peaceful means, and the ‘kings’ conquests’ is the fourth epoch. The coming of the Europeans, the British victory and the establishment of colonial rule mark the beginning of the fifth epoch in making India more diverse culturally and religion-wise. The trauma of partition of the country the transfer of huge populations on both sides of the artificial but political borders is the sixth epoch of Indian history. The commencement of our democratic Constitution along with the process of modernisation, which included the establishment of big industries and dams, can be termed as the seventh epoch in the making of India as we see it today. This epoch is significant because after centuries Indians got the identity of free citizenship. The different identities of region, religion, caste, etc. became subservient to this identity of the citizen, at least in the spheres of constitutional rights and state run programmes and policies. The eighth epoch in the making of contemporary India started with the process globalisation along with its sub-processes of liberalisation, privatisation and information revolution.

In turn these aforementioned epochs have given birth to diversities of different types. That is why people of all major religions of the world—Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, Buddhism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Bahai live in India. Along with these religious groups there are a number of sects and cults and other divisions in all the religions found in India. It is interesting to note all the religions are internally differentiated. Further, according to B.S. Guha’s classification, people of six racial stocks live in India. However, linguist Grierson reported 179 languages and 544 dialects in India. However, according to the 1971 census there were 1652 languages spoken as mother tongue. Knowing fully well this linguistic diversity the framers of the Indian Constitution gave certain languages a co-national status. The Constitution of India now recognises 22 languages, spoken in different parts the country, namely, Assamese, Bengali, Bodo, Dogri, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Kashmiri, Konkani, Maithili, Malayalam, Meitei, Marathi, Nepali, Oriya, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Santhali, Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu and Urdu. The intellectuals always play down the caste system as if it shows them the mirror of their so-called tolerant society. However, the reality is that Indian diversity becomes more acute because of the presence of approximately 6000 castes in it. The Mandal Commission alone listed 3743 castes plus there are 1000 Scheduled Castes well. If we add to these castes, sub-castes and sub-sub-castes, it is very difficult to comprehend this diversity. Although intellectuals keep on downplaying the existence of caste in society, stressing on the difference between caste assertion and caste in Indian politics, there is ‘caste in Indian politics’, ‘politics of caste’ and caste-ism writ large in Indian society.

THE most worrisome aspect of this diversity in Indian society is that it is accompanied by exclusion as well. Although this exclusion because of different diversities is part and parcel of Indian society, it is not discussed among the masses in general and in classrooms in particular. We are told on and off about the unity in diversity but rarely are we told abot the hegemony in diversity. If we analyse the nature of the exclusions in Indian society we will find its different forms with different basis. There is exclusion on the basis of cultural heterogeneity. In this type of exclusion groups are excluded because they differ on the basis cultural diversities even though they belong to same country and religion. The cultural region becomes very important in this type of exclusion. But the positive aspect of this type of exclusions is that it is always temporary in nature. That is, it passes out quickly and is never successful in driving out the people en masse from the host society. The latest outburst of a politically naïve leader against the North Indians in Mumbai is one of the recent examples of such exclusion. We can observe ourselves that although the people from UP and Bihar are Indians and a majority of them belong to the same religious group, they are not welcome in the alien culture. However, it is certain that this politics of hate against North Indians will not last long and will die its own death. Nobody would have taken note of it had the media not aired it continually for several days. One can recall the Shiv Sena’s example. It came to power on the plank ‘Mumbai for Marathis’ but soon its leadership added religious exclusion, which has a different basis. The leadership took a plank of the ‘Hindu Hriday Samrat’ for mobilisation and consolidation. Similarly, the allergy of the Dravidian parties in South India against Hindi did not last long as well. Both the Dravidian parties aligned with a party which swears in the name of Hindi and Hindutva.

In comparison to exclusion based on cultural heterogeneity the exclusion on the bases of gender, that is, between men and women, hierarchy and externality are more dangerous. Fifty per cent of the Indian population had been excluded because of gender only. Female foeticide is the latest form of eclusion. Further, around a quarter of the Indian population is excluded in Indian society on the basis of hierarchy, that is, on the basis of their caste. Here, especially in the case of ex-untouchables or Dalits, who are considered a part of the Hindu religion and belong to the same country, they are excluded from the main part of the village, certain occupations and day-to-day life interaction. They are now excluded from modern institutions like education, judiciary, bureaucracy, market and media. Another form of exclusion, which occurs in Indian society, is because certain people follow certain religious faiths which have a foreign origin. The exclusion of Muslims and Christians is the most glaring example. Even though they have been living here for generations and contribute with their labour in the process of nation-building, they are often told to got out of this country as they do not belong to this land. These types of exclusions are more permanent and harmful in nature. Their permanence is evident from the fact that in spite of a number of movements and campaigns since time immemorial they continue to survive and persist in society. Therefore, while celebrating diversity we should be more concerned about the exclusions based on gender, religion, caste and tribe. One should not worry too much about the exclusions emerging out of cultural heterogeneity. On the other hand the media should boycott such attempts of power hungry people creating hype to heighten the exclusions. The TV channels should be aware of the fact that, after all, India has survived all these years only celebrating its diversity and whosoever has tried to undermine this diversity for homogenisation has become history in due course of time.

The author is an Assistant Professor of Sociology, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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