Culture

India’s Plural and Diverse Identity Is Under Threat

The hitherto accepted norms of Indian culture are being repackaged and distorted out of shape, and all citizens, particularly those who mould public perceptions through their work, need to respond to this challenge.

Former Vice President Hamid Ansari. Credit: Reuters

Former vice president Hamid Ansari. Credit: Reuters

Former Vice President M. Hamid Ansari inaugurated a two-day seminar on ‘Nationalism and Culture’ organised by the Progressive Writers Association in Chandigarh on October 28, 2017. Reproduced below is the text of his address.

I thank the organisers for inviting me to this important conference today. The theme is relevant to us as citizens as also to those who study the finer aspects of literature.

Writing is the product of hard work. It requires a sensitivity to register and interpret human experience. This gathering of writers knows only too well the role they and their writings play in shaping public taste and consciousness just as their predecessors did in earlier times. A good work of literature creates a stream of consciousness; a bad one evokes contempt and cynicism. Writers generally work in time and space; those blessed with deeper insight transcend these boundaries.

Writers thus have a social responsibility since their work influences and help shape public perceptions. The reading public, consciously or otherwise, judges the social purpose, intellectual depth and emotional sincerity of their writings. Their work is and should be reflective of contemporary cultural mores and of national identity.

We thus come to the critical question: What is Indian national identity?

There could be two ways of answering the question: the first would be a priori or deductive, independent of experience or facts; the second would be inductive based on facts and experience.

The first, premised on assumed infallibility of tradition, suggests uniformity, homogeneity, oneness; the second, based on ground reality, identifies diversity, heterogeneity, complexity.

It is truism that all perceptions have to be tested on discernible facts. What then is the factual reality of the Indian social landscape?

The Anthropological Survey of India indicates that our land has 4,635 communities diverse in biological traits, dress, languages, form of worship, occupation, food habits and kinship patterns. The Linguistic Survey of India indicates that apart from the 22 languages in the Eighth Schedule of the constitution, there are 100 other languages and thousands of dialects in the country.

As a result, the identity of India is plural and diverse, a consequence of coming together of people with such different social and cultural traits. It is this plurality that constitutes Indian identity expressed in the constitution through the principles of democracy and secularism. It is not a melting pot because each ingredient retains its identity. It is perhaps a salad bowl. Jawaharlal Nehru said it is a palimpsest on which the imprint of succeeding generations has unrecognisably merged.

For the same reason, Indian culture is not to be conceived as a static phenomenon tracing its identity to a single unchanging source; instead it is dynamic and interrogates critically and creatively all that is new.

This is the reality. Can we homogenise it? Can we initiate a process of assimilation? In a democratic polity, how is any ingredient to be subsumed in another? Can we visualise an India that is non-democratic, non-plural, non-secular?

Why then is effort underway to subsume diversity in a notional identity? Is its purpose to erase, subjugate or dominate this diversity and replace it with an imagined uniformity based on a version of history that corresponds neither to the authentic record of India’s past nor to the rich diversity of her present?

Alternatively, our approach could be accommodative based on the principles of pluralism and secularism with three ingredients:

  • Energetic engagement with diversity and educating all sections of the public, particularly students, about the uniqueness of our structure and benefits flowing from it
  • Going beyond mere tolerance, seeking active understanding across line of differences and considering community disharmony a threat to national security and deal with it in the same manner as other such threats
  • Having a continuous inter-community, inter-faith and cross-cultural dialogue, of speaking and listening in a process that reveals both common understanding and real differences.

History itself has becomes a site for struggle; it draws within its ambit all those who register and interpret human experience, particularly the writers. As citizens they cannot remain oblivious to what happens in the polity. While remaining committed to their chosen art, their social responsibility requires that they use their art to guide the public and lead them out of the poisonous haze of ignorance, superstition and unreasoned prejudice and to ensure that our secular culture and liberal democracy are preserved.

Friends, we live in difficult times. The hitherto accepted norms of Indian culture are being re-packaged, distorted out of shape. The values of liberal nationalism are sought to be substituted by illiberal doctrines and practices that impact adversely on individual freedoms guaranteed by the constitution of India. All citizens, particularly those who mould public perceptions through their work, need to respond to this challenge.

India has an age-long tradition of religious and philosophical dissent and of bringing forth multiple traditions of authenticity. Indians takes pride in being argumentative. Again and again our writers have penned anthems of resistance; many have recalled the words of Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s clarion call in the poem ‘Bol’. I am confident that similar responses would be forthcoming from today’s conclave. 

Jai Hind.