“Social progress can be measured by the social position of the female sex” - Karl Marx


Diversity, Belonging and Multiculturalism

A recently 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.

An absence 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 nonviolence.

The 2004 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.

Acceptance 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 multicultural democracy." 

The white 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.

A little 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 peace.

Less than 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.

But before 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 Europeans.

Therefore, 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.

The 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.

In the 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.

When 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." 

Diversities 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.

As Indian 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 advancement.

Indian 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.

Mahatma 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 embrace.

In the 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 living.

In 2001, 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.

The Global 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 protect biodiversity.

The British 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.

Former 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.

"The march 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.

"Referring 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.

"One 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.

"We have 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.

"In eastern 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.

"A great 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 Earth.  


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