New Internationalist

What happened to unity in diversity?

Religious icons on wall in India [Related Image]
Images painted on a wall represent three of India's major faiths. Girish Gopi under a Creative Commons Licence

I’ve never felt discriminated against because of being a Christian in India. All of us minorities feel Indian. In a simple, uncomplicated way. But we have a different identity, too: as Parsis, Jews, Goans, Keralites, Punjabis, Bengalis, Manipuris, Catholics or Muslims.

Every Indian state is like a country on its own, with a distinct cuisine, language and culture. A Bengali Brahmin will eat fish, chicken and mutton, much to the horror and disbelief, not to mention disgust, of an orthodox, or even quite ordinary, vegetarian-by-definition, South Indian Brahmin. We prided ourselves on unity in diversity. It was a lesson we read quite early on in our school text books.

So an anti-Christian comment left on one of my recent blog posts left me dismayed – but not surprised.

I found this sentiment echoed by my daughter. She recalled a similar comment made during a discussion at school in 1999, following the death of Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two young sons, who were burnt alive in Odisha. ‘It’s the sort of inane remark someone might make unthinkingly at 16, without malice, but it jolted me,’ she recalled. ‘A silly chap, a friend, actually, said dismissively: “Maybe the solution is to put all Muslims on a train to Pakistan and send all Christians to Jerusalem or Rome, or wherever”. There was a horrified, embarrassed silence as my friends squirmed. And suddenly he looked across at me and he froze in embarrassment, too,’ she told me. ‘He was my friend and he was just being silly. But it was the first time I felt “different” or that my being born a Christian could be a problem for someone.’ Until then, she confessed, ‘I was hardly aware of being different. We grew up in a community where our closest playmates were Hindus. They were my extended family, and they still are.’

The communalizing of India has been a slow and deliberate process, starting from the early 1990s, with the rath yatra (chariot journey) of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) politician Lal Krishna Advani, who exhorted hate and demanded an end to secular India.

I am categorically against conversion. I abhor the fact that fundamentalist Christian groups feel the need to proselytize. But I would defend their right to do so in the same way that I would defend the white-skinned, blue-eyed American Hare Krishna acolytes who have stopped me, a brown-skinned Indian, in Manhattan, to ‘convert’ me to ‘their’ faith! I was amused by it.

I respect other people’s religions and see value in the philosophy of Buddhism and Hinduism. Yet I am lumped with fundamentalists by ignorant folk like ‘Gary’, the person who commented on my blog.

It surprises me hugely that Indians living in the US or Britain should support fundamentalist groups who want to pack Muslims off to Pakistan and Christians to Rome or Jerusalem! Non-resident Indians would be the first to demand their ‘rights’ in the countries they have adopted. Do they then want to support a party or group which seeks to dismantle secular India?

I am surprised that these questions are not being asked by journalists in Britain or the US, where Indians support Narendra Modi and the BJP. If discrimination happens in Britain or the US, there are shouts of ‘racism’. Yet the events in Gujarat in 2002, when 2,000 Muslims were butchered and thousands raped, are treated as a mere aberration. The corporate and IT folk want ‘progress’ and ‘economic welfare’ at any cost. Killing fields can be glossed over. Consciences salved at the high altar of profit. But if India breaks down under communal instability, the economy will collapse. History has shown this, but we seem determined never to learn. I fear for my country.

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  1. #1 Cavery 20 Mar 14

    And Mari,
    I was just getting hopeful. Somehow, I believe that Namo will be kept under check - perhaps it just what I want to believe .

  2. #2 david cohen 20 Mar 14

    s an American Jew I am deeply moved by Mari Marcel Thekaekara's blog on unity and diversity.

    I am not an orthodox Jew, and my life has in part been spent fighting the intolerance of fundamentalists and absolutists. I am an observing Jew who thrives with my Judaism and social justice in an America that is largely respectful of people who are different religiously in our pluralism.

    Those of us who believe in diversity and unity in core values of respect for difference-- respect is a much stronger concept than passive tolerance-- must defend the rights of those whose views we find abhorrent and at the same time in the market place of ideas insist on saying why we find abhorrent ideas abhorrent.

    Above all that means protecting the right to speak, to have a free press, to organize, to protect the free exercise of religion while not giving any religion official preference.

    Just this past weekend I visited for the first time in many years the home of two of the United States founders--- Thomas Jefferson, principal author of the Declaration of Independence, and James Madison, the Father of the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights. These leaders were far from perfect. But one of their lasting legacies include the free exercise of religion and no state favoring of one religion over another or religion over non-acceptance of God.

    These principles, often breached, remain one major standard that we have to judge my country, India and other countries that aspire to democratic process and belief.

    David Cohen
    Washington, DC
    March 20, 2014

  3. #3 david cohen 20 Mar 14

    As an American Jew I am deeply moved by Mari Marcel Thekaekara's blog on unity and diversity.

    I am not an orthodox Jew, and my life has in part been spent fighting the intolerance of fundamentalists and absolutists. I am an observing Jew who thrives with my Judaism and social justice in an America that is largely respectful of people who are different religiously in our pluralism.

    Those of us who believe in diversity and unity in core values of respect for difference-- respect is a much stronger concept than passive tolerance-- must defend the rights of those whose views we find abhorrent and at the same time in the market place of ideas insist on saying why we find abhorrent ideas abhorrent.

    Above all that means protecting the right to speak, to have a free press, to organize, to protect the free exercise of religion while not giving any religion official preference.

    Just this past weekend I visited for the first time in many years the home of two of the United States founders--- Thomas Jefferson, principal author of the Declaration of Independence, and James Madison, the Father of the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights. These leaders were far from perfect. But one of their lasting legacies include the free exercise of religion and no state favoring of one religion over another or religion over non-acceptance of God.

    These principles, often breached, remain one major standard that we have to judge my country, India and other countries that aspire to democratic process and belief.

    David Cohen
    Washington, DC
    March 20, 2014

  4. #4 Rosaleen Mulji 20 Mar 14

    Well expressed and it needs saying.

    Rosaleen Mulji

  5. #5 Aloke Surin 20 Mar 14

    David Cohen's comments on your blog post perfectly summarize the opinions of most (including mine) people capable of standing back and taking an objective view of what constitutes individual freedom and the need to create, nurture, and sustain a human society founded on tolerance of different faiths and beliefs. Why we are moving more and more towards a polarized world in spite of such huge advances in education and the dissemination of knowledge since the early sixties and seventies of the last century continues to mystify me; it should have been the opposite way.

    Is it because now the individual and collective expression of opinions and biases are acceptable in public life even if it means hurting, maligning, misrepresenting,defaming another point of view or belief?

    In any case, the argument for tolerance and peaceful co-existence needs to be constantly broadcast and journalists like Mari need to be shown that they have the support of everyone who believes that we have to continue to point out the injustices in the society that we live in.

    From some recent conversations with a few friends - one living in India and the other living abroad - the impression I got was that both supported Narinder Modi because to them he appeared to have a ’forceful personality’ and could represent India positively in world forums and be the spokesman for the India that has forged ahead in recent years in some sectors. To them, the soft spoken ManMohan Singh was perceived to be a mere shadow of more powerful forces working in the background. When queried if Modi's tainted past did not bother them, they actually said, ’NO’.

    Since both these persons belong to what can be called the ’educated middle class’, I am beginning to wonder if we no longer value a leader's ethics and moral stand?

  6. #6 Nirupama V G 20 Mar 14

    Simple! We are all citizens of the world. We cannot change the thinking of small minded people who divide people on the basis of caste and creed but we can change ourselves not to pay too much attention to it. This was said thousands of years back in the tamil poetic work Purananru and I quote below from how profoundly it is said. (check out on wiki)

    The Sages To us all towns are one, all men our kin,
    Life's good comes not from others' gifts, nor ill,
    Man's pains and pain's relief are from within,
    Death's no new thing, nor do our blossoms thrill
    When joyous life seems like a luscious draught.
    When grieved, we patient suffer; for, we deem
    This much-praised life of ours a fragile raft
    Borne down the waters of some mountain stream
    That o'er huge boulders roaring seeks the plain
    Tho' storms with lightning's flash from darkened skies.
    Descend, the raft goes on as fates ordain.
    Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !
    We marvel not at the greatness of the great;
    Still less despise we men of low estate.

  7. #7 Leslie 21 Mar 14

    I seem to have missed Gary's remark but would probably have dismissed it anyway. I find the term ’tolerance’ a kind of oxymoron, if you permit. It seems to me that I tolerate someone indicates that the fundamental differences (and possible hate) remain intact but I wouldn't show it in public. Hence religious or any other kind of tolerance seems to perpetuate the I-don't-like-you-but-I'm-willing-to-live-with-it idea.
    Perhaps religion has never been the problem but the people who use it to preach hatred against others, using their ’godly’ connections to make it sound holy, -- the problem lies there.

  8. #8 ludwig pesch 21 Mar 14

    The beauty of India's concept of ’Unity in Diversity’ concept lies in the fact that it takes many lessons of history into account. These lessons, both within its present borders and beyond, were far from pleasant ones - think of two world wars, totalitarianism, genocide, forced migration under colonial rule, invasions and famines. If they have shaped the Indian constitution, upholding it remains the highest priority. Enforcing good legislation including fundamental human rights in a democracy will never please all but even serves the interests of those who are ignorant or indifferent. Where any majority's rights reign supreme at others expense, democracy ends; and with it accountability, freedom of speech, movement or faith. This downward spiral can be studied all over the world in each of its deplorable phases and violence becomes ’normal’.
    Reminding citizens of this, their very self interest, namely to stay clear from demolishing the foundations of the house they jointly inhabit by necessity - this is the task at hand, now and not only in India or wherever Indians live. Journalists, citizen right goups, bloggers as Mari, educators right from pre-school up to university all play a role. I hope they'll succeed in spreading the message when there's still hope for saving the great Unity in Diversity model, however imperfect it may often have been. At least it offered a perspective for something better.

  9. #9 Cynthia Stephen 21 Mar 14

    The celebration of diversity and the pluralism that characterises India - whether in language, geography, culture, food, faith, music, or any other aspect that makes up the fabric of a society is an imperative for not just India but the world. Sectarian, identity-driven political ideologies have wreaked havoc in human societies for centuries - and still we think that it is possible for human beings to live a better life if we carve it into tiny homogenous parcels where some ecxclusive lifestyle will be available for the privileged, and the 'insider', like 'gated communities'(what an oxymoron!). But this is just one ball of earth and water, in which a few billion have to live a few decades, and then pass on... when will we all realise this? And learn to accept each other as different but equal, and still, having humanity as the one common denominator?

  10. #10 chandrika sen sharma 22 Mar 14

    Mari - there is so much diversity in India that there is always going to be some who preach hate and some one else will follow. For those of us who live outside India, we also face discrimination is subtle ways in our adopted countries - our color, clothes and ’funny accents’ amuse and sometimes irritate them. However, this only strengthens our aversion to what is going on now in India - hopefully, centuries of acceptance of diversity will finally prevail!

  11. #11 mari 23 Mar 14

    Chandrika,

    this is why I cannot understand Modis support base among Indians in the US and UK.How is this possible?.
    They demand their right abroad but want India to turn narrow and ;'Hindutva'

  12. #12 Ludwig Pesch 23 Mar 14

    As for Indians living outside India (of whom I know and respect many though not the following one), let’s consider this voice – a timely reminder of core values that can’t be traded, just like human suffering caused for political ends, regardless of one’s social nationality or religious background:
    “Elections are not about the substantive issues of human well being, environmental destruction, and ethics, but are reduced to a superficial drama of a clash of personalities. Fascism is in the making when economics and development are amputated from ethics and an overarching conception of human good, and violence against minorities becomes banal. Moral choices are not always black and white, but they still have to be made. And if India actually believes this election to be a moral dilemma, then the conscience of the land of Buddha and Gandhi is on the verge of imploding.”
    NISSIM MANNATHUKKAREN The Hindu, SUNDAY MAGAZINE March 22, 2014
    The author is with Dalhousie University, Canada. E-mail: [email protected]
    http://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/the-banality-of-evil/article5818580.ece?homepage=true
    Much food for thought in today’s edition of one of India’s most respected periodicals. Some reason for hope that criminals won't get away indefinitely and justice will prevail, hopefully in our lifetime!

  13. #13 Peter Berger 26 Mar 14

    Your article really struck a chord with me because I too grew up in South Calcutta and played with my Bengali friends everyday on the street, whether it was football,cricket or seven tiles or Dana I spy. We played till it got dark and then we went our separate ways and nobody commented when I joined them at the Durga Puja Pandal or joined in with bursting fire crackers at Kali Puja. It was a carefree time but then the 1992 riots happened and in Beniapukur where I was staying albeit behind the walls of the school campus,there was tension. Things never went back to the way they used to be, the BJP changed the way everybody saw themselves and their neighbours.
    Such a pity.
    Peter

  14. #14 Krishna 06 Apr 14

    I was born in an uppercaste south Indian family but grew up in Delhi. We spoke Hindi with an accent and was constantly taunted on the streets being called a 'Bengali', the derogatory term that was applied to all south Indians in my locality! I grew up feeling I was from a minority community. In fact the Govt. School that I went to was a special one for linguistic minorities. My grandparents were Kannada speaking but living in Tamilnadu again as a minority community. The fact is that there is no single group in India that can claim to be a majority either on basis of caste or on the basis of language. So maybe an acceptance of this fact would lead to a greater tolerence and celebration of diversity.

  15. #15 ashutosh 18 May 14

    Tooooo theoritical. IF you fear for your country, then you can migrate into another.

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

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