Diversity, Belonging and Multiculturalism
released United Nations report titled the Global Assessment Report on
Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services alarmingly reveals that one million animal
and plant species face extinction in the next ten years or so. (You can read
the summary here;
the full report will be released later this year.) In fact, this is the age of
mass extinction, the Anthropocene defined by the dominance of human species
over all other species of life, and an excess of human activity disturbing the
subtle balance of nature.
The age of
mass extinction of species spells troubles for the very existence of humanity.
It was reflected by the renowned historian Arnold Toynbee when he wrote that
human beings were never as helpless as when they were defenceless against
tigers. Today, tigers are extinct in large parts of the world and human beings
find themselves powerless to maintain the balance of life on earth.
of biodiversity is a threat to the survival of life. Rabindranath Tagore wrote
that social diversity flows from the diversities of life in forests. So a mass
extinction of species leading to loss of diversity would lead to a reduction of
heterogeneity in society. Such a loss of variance is a threat to peace and
Human Development Report of the UNDP on Cultural Diversity stated insightfully
that wherever there are rich diversities of culture, language, faith and ways
of life there is relative peace and nonviolence. The linkage of rich diversity
with peace is intriguing.
of diversity is now considered a goal for nation building. The report titled
One America brought out during the regime of US President Bill Clinton stated
that "America's greatest promise in the twenty-first century lies in our
ability to harness the strength of our racial diversity. The greatest challenge
Americans are facing is to accept and take pride in defining ourselves as a
supremacist philosophy goes against the vision and values of racial diversity
and multicultural democracy. This is against idea of diversity of species which
is inherent to nature.
more than a hundred years ago large parts of Europe were plunged into the First
World War and suffered massive bloodshed. The magnitude and intensity of that
war was not known in Europe's earlier history. At the end of the war, relative
peace prevailed and the celebrated economist John Maynard Keynes famously wrote
that a Londoner of that period could order anything from any part of the world
by sitting at home and enjoying lasting tranquility and prosperity. However,
with his remarkable insight into the future Keynes cautioned that politics and
imperialism, rivalries of culture and races and policies based on restrictions,
monopolies and exclusion would act as serpents in the paradise of peace.
Today as we
focus attention on multiculturalism in the context of globalisation and peace,
Keynes' warning is significant. If "cultures" and "races" void themselves of
diversities and remain engaged in rivalries, their coexistence will become
impossible and therefore, multiculturalism will be endangered thus jeopardising
three decades later the "serpents of paradise" became lethal and wreaked havoc.
The onset of the Second World War starting spiraling the process of violence
and bloodletting, in an agonising manifestation of the serpents' venom nurtured
in the form of exclusion, inequality and cultural rivalries.
the horrific Second World War began, many peace-loving people were quite keen
to prevent it. Some of them wrote to Mahatma Gandhi, the apostle of
nonviolence, to do something to save the world from its catastrophic consequences.
After much thought, Gandhi wrote two letters to Hitler. In one letter he wrote
something that is of abiding significance for building peace in the
twenty-first century world and safeguarding diversity. Gandhi appealed to
Hitler to stop that war, because he could hear a cry for peace from among
the fundamental prerequisite for peace and diversity is to remain tuned to the
lifestyle of ordinary people, who typically become the victims of a loss of
diversity, and of increased injustice, discrimination and exploitation.
Peacebuilding measures call for such affinity among the vast masses of the
citizenry who yearn for a social order free from violence. They long for a life
abounding with opportunities to pursue cultural liberty, celebration of their
faiths and also access to social, economic and health entitlements without any
discrimination on account of their creed, language, ethnicity or race.
insightful observations of Gandhi, Keynes and others have to be seen in the
context of the emergence of nation-states in Europe which were built around one
king, one faith and one law, and evolved with time. The homogeneity of these
nation-states lacked diversity, and in fact there was a conscious attempt made
by the political leadership of Europe in that era to discourage diversities of
culture, faith and language. As it turned out, it was the putative homogeneity
of Europe's nation-states in terms of economic systems, faith, language and
race that generated intense competition and rivalry, which eventually gave rise
to aggressive nationalism, war, violence and colonialism.
globalised world of the early twentieth century, homogeneity in a nation was
thought to be a desirable factor for the purpose of safeguarding the unity of
the nation and introducing democratic methods of governance. The statesmen of
those nations who understood the evolution of modern societies around one
faith, one law and one king could never conceive that nation building and
governance would be possible in a vast and diverse country with many faiths,
languages and ethnicities.
Indians, engaging themselves in the struggle for independence, demanded the
introduction of democracy and democratic institutions the British authorities
scoffed at the idea, and a leading British statesman Lord Northbrooke who was a
Member of the House of Lords famously stated in the 1930s that, "to think that
India with all its vastness and differences in religion, languages and castes
would ever be able to work a parliamentary institution is the wildest of dreams
that has entered the minds of men." Earlier still James Mill, the great
utilitarian thinker, had written that "Among people without fellow feeling,
especially if they read and speak different languages the united public opinion
necessary to the working of representative government cannot exist."
were thus not considered conducive to the unity and cohesion thought necessary
for democracy. Diversities were considered to be a stumbling factor for purposeful
action for nation building. Homogeneity and uniformity were counted as
conducive conditions for a coherent approach to uniting a nation and governing
it by employing democratic or parliamentary methods.
society was defined in terms of its variety and plurality, it was considered
incompatible with democracy and a democratic method of governance. However,
over the decades the view has changed: now it is believed that diversity,
instead of retarding progress and development, can be a factor for onward
society which has remained diverse through thousands of centuries remains a
standing refutation of what is now understood as a clash of civilisations, an
idea launched from an imperialist United States.
Gandhi's thinking that he did not want India to be wholly Hindu or wholly
Islamic or wholly Christian, but wholly tolerant, with all its religions
co-existing side by side and flourishing, testifies to the authentic
multiculturalism of India which dates back to thousands of years. What has been
achieved by India in fostering unity, progress and the democratic management of
a diverse society is a distant goal for many societies. The European Union is a
clear example of an attempt to put together people of different nationalities,
languages and ethnicities. It has yet to come near the achievements of India.
Its reluctance and refusal to accept Turkey as a member of the European Union
on account of its being a Muslim country brings out the reservations against
full-fledged multicultural policies which the European Union aspires to
twenty-first century world, no nation can be counted as a homogeneous nation in
terms of culture, religion, language and ethnicities. Most nations are diverse
and plural. In fact, globalisation driven by information technology and the
faster movement of capital, goods and services, and to a lesser extent
people, has been a factor in promoting pluralism, even as there are coercive
movements which put in jeopardy the freedom of people belonging to minority
faiths, ethnicities or linguistic groups, and deny them access to the
political, social and economic entitlements which are fundamental for wholesome
UNESCO for the first time adopted a Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity
which states that cultural diversity is as essential for human society as
biodiversity is for forests. We have here the Indian insight flowing from the
writings of Tagore which teaches us to value biodiversity for protecting the
diversities of society at the core. In defending the equal coexistence of cultures,
we defend the equal coexistence of species of life.
Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem is therefore important to
protect diversity in society as well. At a time when majoritarianism is being
imposed based on Hindutva in India we need to counter it based on strength of
diversity. It is interesting that the Global Assessment Report states that
indigenous people and tribals who live in harmony with nature constitute the
source of wisdom for the survival of species of life and celebration of
biodiversity. Therefore, the protection of tribal ways of life is important to
Women's Manifesto on Climate Change states that if we can respect the cultures
of tribals and aboriginals we can protect the Earth from the dangers of
environmental destruction and global warming. Mahatma Gandhi in his
Constructive Programme of 1941 also put Tribals as one of the key premises for
attaining independence, achieving positive social change and rebuilding the
nation based on nonviolence.
President of India the late Shri K.R.Narayanan in his 2001 Republic Day Eve
speech, discussed the need to show compassion and understanding towards tribals
while pursuing the developmental agenda, and discerningly articulated ideas and
words which are worth quoting at length.
of development is having different kinds of impact on different sections of our
people. It tends to widen the existing inequalities and create new
inequalities. The already marginalised sections, the Scheduled Castes and
Scheduled Tribes, are the greatest sufferers in this process.
to the tribals, Dr. Ambedkar had said: 'Civilizing the aborigines means
adopting them as our own, living in their midst and cultivating fellow feeling,
in short loving them'. But the developmental path we have adopted is hurting
them and threatening their very existence. It is well known how the large river
valley projects are uprooting the tribals and causing them untold misery. The
mining that is taking place in the forest areas are threatening the livelihood
and the survival of many tribes. It is through enlightened developmental
policies that we can resolve such dilemmas of development.
pre-condition for the success of developmental projects in our extensive tribal
areas is that we should take into confidence the tribals and their
representatives, explain the benefits of the projects to them, and consult them
in regard to the protection of their livelihood and their unique cultures. When
they have to be displaced, the resettlement schemes should be discussed with
them and implemented with sincerity. This could avoid many critical situations,
and we will be able to carry the tribals with us.
laws that are enlightened and which prohibit the transfer of the tribal lands
to non-tribals, private bodies and corporations. The Supreme Court has upheld
these provisions through its judgments. We cannot ignore the social commitments
enshrined in our Constitution.
India, the exploitation of minerals like bauxite and iron ore is causing
destruction of forests and sources of water. While the nation must benefit from
the exploitation of these mineral resources, we will have also to take into
consideration questions of environmental protection and the rights of tribals.
Let it not be said by future generations that the Indian Republic has been
built on the destruction of the green earth and the innocent tribals who have
been living there for centuries.
Socialist leader had once said that a great man in a hurry to change the world,
who knocks down a child, commits a crime. Let it not be said of India that this
great Republic in a hurry to develop itself is devastating the green mother
earth and uprooting our tribal populations. We can show the world that there is
room for everybody to live in this country of tolerance and compassion".
We need to
adopt such enlightened and compassionate policies as also the wisdom of the
aborigines to save biodiversity, pluralism, the human species and life on