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  Opinion   Columnists  24 Aug 2023  Anita Anand | India remains a diverse nation, but there’s little sign of unity left

Anita Anand | India remains a diverse nation, but there’s little sign of unity left

The writer is a development and communications consultant and the author of Kabul Blogs: My Days in the Life of Afghanistan
Published : Aug 25, 2023, 12:05 am IST
Updated : Aug 25, 2023, 12:05 am IST

Nehru’s vision of India was one where differences would be celebrated, and we would be unified. But no mechanisms set in place then or now.

Volunteers with displaced villagers from Gwaltabi protest over the ongoing ethnic violence in Manipur, at Yaingangpokpi in Imphal East. (PTI Photo)
 Volunteers with displaced villagers from Gwaltabi protest over the ongoing ethnic violence in Manipur, at Yaingangpokpi in Imphal East. (PTI Photo)

In November 1949, a month before I was born, the Indian Parliament adopted the Constitution, and it came into force two months later, in January 1950. The document laid down the ideals and modalities of how India, as a new nation, would function. Among these was the principle of “unity in diversity”.

In newly independent India, those were heady days. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India and the leader of the Indian National Congress party, promoted unity in diversity as an ideal essential to nation-building and progress. In his 1946 book, The Discovery of India, he wrote of the physical appearances and mental habits and traits of Indians, pointing to the physical difference between the Pathan of the North-West and the Tamil in the far South -- differences in their racial stock -- two extreme examples and all the others that lay in between. All had distinctive features, and still more, the distinguishing mark of India.

“Though outwardly there was diversity and infinite variety among our people, everywhere there was that tremendous impress of oneness, which had held all of us together for ages past, whatever political fate or misfortune had befallen us,” wrote Nehru.

The Cambridge dictionary defines “oneness” as a state of being joined as one thing, and no longer separate. In 1947, a year after Nehru wrote about this oneness, the land experienced the Partition and India and Pakistan were created as two countries. Some 14 million to 18 million people moved between the newly and randomly created borders, Hindus to India and Muslims to Pakistan, accompanied by bloodshed, violence and unwarranted grief, the memory of which persists to this day.

In 2023, what then is the “distinguishing mark” of India? What is the “oneness”? I believe it is notional. A decade ago, while travelling in the Northeast and chatting with a group of young people, I asked if they got to Delhi much. They smiled and said no, as people they met there asked them if they were from China or Korea. I was not surprised.

As a people and government, we have not promoted oneness. It was assumed that by adding it in the Constitution it would happen, just like equality and justice. While the mechanisms were put into place for justice and equality, it was not so for oneness. Lost in the myth of diversity, we deluded ourselves that it was something to be proud of. Side by side, we steeped ourselves in our differences, clinging on to our religious beliefs, foods and customs, guarding them zealously, afraid they would be lost in the sea of diversity. And as a majority of Indians were Hindus, it was assumed that all the others were inconsequential. This is true till today.

Muslims living in Delhi talk about how Hindus will not rent out homes to them. The author Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar wrote a short story in which his Adivasi parents, both professionals, move to Gujarat, but find it hard to get housing as they are non-vegetarians.

Examples abound. Questions about caste, gotra, class, gender and sexual orientation influence our lives after we check each other’s complexion and features to determine origin.

The recent incidents of violence in the states of Manipur and Haryana, spurred by false news on the social media but based on decades of conflict in the two states and communities, point to the inability of the government, both Central and state, to promote harmony and oneness. The roots of the conflict existed, aided and abetted by policies of ruling parties. But what about the citizenry?

Let us start with institutions. The family is the first place where seeds of both oneness and differences are sown. When parents see differences as problematic, how can they pass on the notion of diversity as something positive to children? If differences based on caste, class, religion, language and sex are threatening, then how can oneness be promoted? Adult Indians are a product of their upbringing, besides their families, in institutions of education, and religion, which pay lip service to harmony, but practice discrimination. These biases are carried over to the workplace, where they are reinforced.

Promoting the idea and practice of unity in diversity is a responsibility of all institutions.

Central and state governments can practice and create and broadcast programmes addressing diversity and the importance of peace and harmony via their radio, television and social media platforms. Workplaces and educational institutions can create curricula on how our biases develop and are perpetuated. Families can inform themselves on how to be better examples for young children and raise them differently. It must start with each of us.

When the Constitution was adopted, there was little awareness how to inculcate these values in citizens. Today, with the advent of the Internet, knowledge and awareness are available to us. There is no excuse to be ignorant.

The India of 2023 is vastly different from the India that became independent in 1947. The Constitution is but a piece of paper to guide the nation. Nehru’s vision of India was one where differences would be celebrated, and we would be unified. But no mechanisms were set in place, then and even now.

The conflict and violence in India today are not surprising. And it will get worse. The challenges of keeping 1.4 billion people together are huge and the task of building unity in diversity is for each of us, an urgent and compelling task. As in our diversity, there is little unity.

Tags: manipur violence, constitution of india, diversity