Expand freedom for diversity to flourish
Pratap Bhanu Mehta

Laughter session: Senior citizens keeping themselves fit opposite Taj Hotel, Mumbai, 2004.
Laughter session: Senior citizens keeping themselves fit opposite Taj Hotel, Mumbai, 2004. — Photo courtesy: Raghu Rai

There is no doubt that India has been a remarkably vibrant experiment in the management of diversity. It has, over the years, improvised a whole range of instruments, laws and political processes to give different kinds of diversity, whether it is of language, religion, region etc. their full play. The experience of democracy has opened up numerous points of dissent, new conflicts of values and identities and a permanent antagonism of meaning and interest that often leaves Indians with a sense that society is flying off in many different directions at once, and the unity of reference points seems to vanish.

But it could be argued that new bonds have been created through this politicisation of all aspects of life, it is through the process of intense argument that a new shared public is being created. The important thing about the experience of modern India is not that Indians always necessarily have a shared conception of identity but they have agreed to argue about the question. The story of modern India is the story of Indians constantly struggling to articulate, discover and debate what it means to be Indian.

The point of this possibly banal truism is that it always has been and will be very difficult to give an interpretation of Indian identity in what might be called substantialist terms. This is conception of identity that privileges some substantial trait — religion, race, culture, ethnicity, shared history, common memory — that can be objectively identified and then configures an identity around it. There is an old joke about Indias identity: it does not occur to most Indians to doubt it until someone begins to give arguments to prove its existence. This joke captures something profound about the way in which Indian identity has been constituted.

But the thorough politicisation of identity suggests that Indian identity will not be constituted necessarily through shared attributes or aspirations but through what Sunil Khilnani once called "interconnected differences." Does all this mean that India does not have an identity? If this demand implies that there is something we all unequivocally share, the answer is no. But it does not preclude the thought that we all have lots of different reasons and ways in which we define our relationships to each other. There is no "unity" in diversity, rather we are diverse in our unities, and we might identify with connections to India, each in our own way.

The danger to India’s capacity to manage pluralism has historically come from many sources. But the important ones are these. There is a vibrant interconnectedness to India. But it is when we try and benchmark our identities; when forces like Hindu nationalism try and come up with a unique definition of becoming Indian, that there is a counter-reaction. The second source, in recent times, has been elements of what, for want of a better term might be called Islamic fundamentalism. The extent of its presence is often exaggerated, but it does serve to mobilise a possible counter-reaction and is a catalyst for polarisation.

The third is when the state itself has acted in an authoritarian manner. It is a sobering thought that state subverting secession in India has often been a product of state authoritarianism. Whenever the state has tried democratic incorporation it has succeeded; though Kashmir and the North East remain challenges. These challenges continue to be potent and will require deft political handling; these are not amenable to formulaic solutions.

But in coming years, the real challenge will not be diversity it will be preserving the freedom of individuals within communities. Indeed, it could be argued that instead of a discourse of diversity we need a discourse of freedom. This is so for two reasons. First, there is growing intolerance of dissenting opinion within communities. The simple truth is that in a diverse society people will have all kinds of views that other people find offensive. Some individuals were upset at Chandra Mohan’s paintings in Baroda; others at Dera Sacha Sauda’s alleged dressing up of their leader in the likeness of Guru Gobind Singh; others still at the Danish cartoons of Prophet Mohammed.

The merit of these expressions is not the issue. The issue is rather this. The value of free speech is precisely that once in a while it will let through things that someone finds offensive. Some of these things may have redeeming value, some will be an expression of genuine dissent, but some will be worthless. But it is dangerous when society abridges freedom of expression of heretical members.

The range of examples can be multiplied. We are a society that has banned everything from Taslima Nasreen to Salman Rushdie; and a whole range of religious organisations from Akal Takht to the Bajrang Dal have got into the business of proscribing free expression. This insidious threat to liberty is an assault on diversity and we ought to be vigilant against this corrosion of real diversity.

We also need a new vocabulary for talking about diversity. For us India’s diversity has become a mosaic of identities: so and so is a Sikh, so and so is a Muslim and so on. As a statement about India’s diversity such claims are unexceptionable. We can also take pride in the fact that we do not exclude people for being who they are. But in a deeper way this representation of India as a mosaic of identities is a trap. This is because instead of saying that your identity should be irrelevant to citizenship and to the goods that the state distributes, these identities are becoming the axis of distribution. The more they become an axis of distribution, the more likely will we have zero sum conflicts. And in extreme cases, as in the North East, when identity and territoriality get identified we produce irresolvable conflicts. So our goal should be to move to a society where identities become mostly irrelevant for public purposes. Then we will have true diversity.

Looking at individuals through their group identity also diminishes them. We are always more than who we are, we can always be different from what we are. But to excessively focus on individuals as being of interest because they represent some group, is to devalue individuals. Identity is a fact about us, but it should not define the horizon of our possibilities; we should celebrate people’s achievements, not reward them for the identity they might have. We need to privilege freedom over identity to protect genuine diversity.

The appeal to diversity is usually an aestheticised appeal. It is as if one were surveying the world from nowhere and contemplating this extraordinary mosaic of human cultural forms and practices. Such a contemplation of the world can give enormous enrichment and satisfaction and we feel that something would be lost; perhaps something of humanity would be diminished if this diversity were lost. But the trouble is that this view from nowhere, or if you prefer an alternative formulation, the "God’s Eye" view of the world is a standpoint of theoretical, not practical, reason.

Most of us can conceptually grasp the fact of diversity; we may even try to recognise each other in an intense and important way, but is very difficult to live that diversity with any degree of seriousness. From this theoretical point of view cultures and practices form this extraordinary mosaic, from the practical point of view of those living within any of these cultures, these cultures and practices are horizons within which they operate. Even when not oppressive, these horizons might appear to them as constraints. It would be morally obtuse to say to these individuals that they should go on living their cultures, just because their not doing so might diminish the forms of diversity in the world. The imperatives of diversity cannot, at least prima facie, trump the free choices of individuals.

There is often a real tension between the demands of integration into wider society, the imperatives of forming thicker relationships with those outside the ambit of your own society on the one hand, and the measures necessary to preserve a vibrant cultural diversity on the other. What the exact tradeoff is depends from case to case. But simply invoking diversity by itself will not help morally illuminate the nature of the decision to be made when faced with such a tradeoff.

From this perspective, talk of identity and diversity is profoundly misleading because it places value on the diversity of cultures, not the freedoms of individuals within them. If the range of freedom expands, all kinds of diversity will flourish anyway. But this will not necessarily be the diversity of well-defined cultures. It will be something that both draws upon culture and subverts it at the same time. The success of a nation will be if it provides individuals with the means to move beyond their identities.

The writer is a political scientist and President and Chief Executive of the Centre for Policy Research