Celebrating diversity


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I write as a Tamil Brahmin refugee from Pakistan, which makes me, I think, a member of India’s smallest minority. And yet, very few would accept any claim that I might make to being a minority because, I think, the fundamental reason why we have survived these last many years without any serious challenge to the idea of India is because everyone in this country belongs to a minority.

A Hindi-speaking Hindu belongs to a minority because a very large number of Hindus are not Hindi-speaking. When, therefore, one looks across the border at Pakistan and finds a country where 60% of the population is Punjabi and the economic centre of that country lies largely in the Punjab, where much of the military is absorbed from Punjab, where much of the political class comes from Punjab, where the votes cast in Punjab determine who will run Pakistan, you see the problems that arise when a single province becomes dominant in a country in which, otherwise, in terms of its religions, is actually fairly uniform, because almost all Pakistanis are Muslims. And yet I will say, as someone who is very familiar with Pakistan, that there is a greater sense of national unity in India than there is in Pakistan. Perhaps it would also be true to say there is a greater sense of being Indian than is evident in Nepal today, as to what constitutes the Nepalese. Or in Sri Lanka, what constitutes the Sri Lankan. And perhaps even in Bhutan, as to whether those who live on the plains of Bhutan actually belong to that country or are just immigrants from outside.

So how has this sense of nationhood been achieved in India? I would refer you, above all, to the young historian who is sitting among us. Ananya Vajpeyi, in a remarkable book called Righteous Republic, argues that much of the modern institutions of India that have succeeded in coming into existence and surviving are the consequence of their roots being found in a very long – unbroken but turbulent – history of our civilization. I could hardly say our ‘country’ because that word applies usually to a political entity. I am referring not just to our country but to the subcontinent. Therefore, the fundamental reason why we have survived, and perhaps will continue to survive, is that the only way in which we could survive is by learning to live with diversity. This diversity has been so profound and so much the proverbial theme of the evolution of India’s civilization that perhaps we could best understand this in terms of the relationship between India’s civilization and other older civilizations.


There are civilizations in the world, such as Pharaoic Egypt and probably Sumeria, which are older than ours; so, we cannot place a particular claim to antiquity. There are others that are older than us and there are several others which are at least as old as us. Nor in the claim to be special because our civilization has been continuous, for there are other civilizations – such as the Greco-Roman and the Chinese, for example – which have demonstrated equal continuity. But where, I think, we can claim to be unique is that we have combined antiquity and continuity with heterogeneity. When you compare, for example, the Chinese to us, everyone who is a Han or who has accepted the basic principles of Han civilization is included in the Middle Kingdom; and everyone outside the Middle Kingdom is a barbarian. Whereas we, by contrast, are a collection of barbarians!

If an Indian opens his mouth, he is not understood by most other Indians. When another Indian opens his mouth, most Indians can’t understand what he is saying. Most Indians wouldn’t be seen dead wearing clothes that other Indians wear on a daily basis. Many Indians cannot really digest the daily food of other Indians. Most Indians do not have the same colour as other Indians. Most Indians don’t have the same racial origins as other Indians. Unsurprisingly, therefore, most Indians dance dances that are different from other Indians. They sing songs that are different from those of other Indians. Their music, their literature, their memories are different to those of other Indians. And, therefore, inevitably, their religions are also different. So who, at the end of the day, is an Indian?

My provisional answer to my own question is that in India anyone who accepts anyone else who says he is an Indian is an Indian! That is how we have been able to live together as a nation of minorities. And neither military conquests nor war nor economic turbulence have affected the fundamental civilizational discourse of celebrating diversity, not just tolerating it, as the only way in which to remain united. The fundamental principle appears to be that if you attempt to impose uniformity, you end up weakening unity. Whereas the more you celebrate diversity, the stronger becomes the unity of the nation.


Again, I will take the example of Pakistan next door, which is founded on a principle of uniformity – that, somehow, Islam constitutes the basis of nationhood, and that Islam would provide for a sense of national unity. Then other inconvenient questions started cropping up. What is the language of Islam? It is claimed in northern India that Urdu is the language of Islam. So, Pakistan decided that they would have as their national language, not only Urdu but only Urdu. And this in a country where only 4.6% of the population in 1947 spoke Urdu as their mother tongue. It deprived 56% of the population, which spoke Bengali as their mother tongue, of their right to be both Muslim and Bengali. Still today there are great internal tensions over the role of Sindhi. Sindhis, often with some justification, at least theological justification, say that Sindhi is written in the script in which the Qur’an is written whereas Urdu is written in the script of the Persians, so how can Urdu be the language of Islam in Pakistan; it ought to be Sindhi that is the language of Islam in Pakistan. I don’t think that would be accepted by the Pathans or by the Baloch.


If you don’t accept the diversity which is the characteristic of the subcontinent, it becomes very difficult to find an alternative standard by which to promote unity. In Sri Lanka, there was a long history of the Tamils and the Sinhalese living together. The Tamils include Hindu Tamils, Christian Tamils, and Muslim Tamils. Yet, because in 1956 it was said that the Tamil minority held too many government jobs and too many professorial appointments, there was a desire on the part of the majority to end minority rule. So, Solomon Bandaranaike was elected in 1956 on a very narrow chauvinistic, pro-Sinhala and pro-Buddhist platform. In doing so, the Buddhist clergy played a huge role in mobilizing Buddhist sentiment in favour of having a Buddhist country where Sinhala alone would be the national language. Bandaranaike was too much of a patriot and too poor a politician to not realize that the basis on which he got elected in 1956, defeating a lifelong enemy Dudley Senanayke, would be that Sri Lanka would disintegrate under his prime ministership.

So, within a year of having been elected on a chauvinistic platform, he entered into an agreement with the Tamil leaders, which is known in Sri Lanka as the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact, which repudiated much of the platform on which he got elected. And the infuriated Buddhist clergy then sent an assassin who killed Bandaranaike. And yet, because the genie had been let out of the bottle, in the end, from 1983 till 2009, that country was convulsed in civil war, although its population is less that 20 million. And it so happens that the bulk of their Tamil population – the Hindus, the Burgers, the Christians, the Muslims – live in the north and eastern provinces. And therefore, in this regard, geographically, they are somewhat isolated from the other provinces where the majority, almost all, are Buddhists. So, how did this civil war of three decades happen? It happened because the principle of diversity as the basis of national unity was sought to be subverted.


And today, in Nepal, where a remarkable revolution, one quite similar to what happened in France in 1789, occurred a few years ago; the so-called Maoists came into power. The Maoist armed cadres were to be integrated into the regular army. The Maoists then decided to adopt the democratic path of coming into Parliament. And yet they haven’t been able to form a constitution because the Gurkhas there asked, ‘Where is our place in it?’; the Newaris asked, ‘Where is our place in it?’; the Madhesis asked, ‘Where is our place in it?’ Thus, one of the smaller countries of South Asia, despite an effort that has been going on for nine years, can only find their way to a constitution by saying, ‘Let us elect yet another constituent assembly, leaving aside the work of the two previous constituent assemblies.’

What is the lesson for India to learn from this? It is that unless we recognize every sub-identity that asserts itself, it is not possible for us to have a larger Indian identity. This seems to pose no particular problem for many of the minorities of India which are much smaller in number than the Muslim minority. In fact, the expression ‘minority’ for the Muslims requires an understanding of the difference between the absolute and the relative. For in absolute numbers, the Muslims of India are more numerous than the Muslims of virtually any country in the world other than perhaps Indonesia. We have probably got the second largest number of Muslims of any country in the world. There are sometimes arguments as to whether there are marginally more Muslims in Pakistan than in India, or whether there are perhaps more Muslims in Bangladesh than in India. But that is the absolute level at which the minority, which is what we usually have in mind when we speak of the Muslim community, is numerically in our country.


And the running theme of electoral politics in India is whether or not one is appeasing the minority. If they were in fact a small minority that wouldn’t matter; why would there be any reason to appease them? Solely, because they are a relatively large minority that it matters enormously. Anywhere in western Uttar Pradesh, it’s impossible to win an election by alienating this minority community. The same holds true for vast sections of India. Unless one ensures that the Muslim minority accepts one’s platform and trusts one, it is difficult to win an election. So, in fact, the Muslim minority does matter. It matters almost on an annual basis in our politics, because every year there are local body elections or state elections or parliamentary elections. And everyone is wandering around wondering how to get that vote, which is so critical for victory. Economically speaking, the Muslim community has been left behind, apart from one or two of our prized names who are among the richest Indian businessmen.

For the icons of our youth, if in the Bombay film industry your name is not Khan, then it is difficult to get an audience to come to the cinema! And before that, we had all these Muslim women, Meena Kumari etcetera. It’s a very prominent community in our economic life, in our cultural life, in our social life, in our religious life, in our political life, and yet the issue of the minority is generally an issue of the Muslim – not of the Sikh, not of the Jain, not of the Buddhist, not of the Christian – it’s an issue of the Muslims.


Why is it such a big issue? And to deny that it is an issue is to deny a huge Indian reality. I think this is in consequence of the fact that a section of Muslims, especially the Muslim elite, in the decades of the 1930s and ’40s, started backing a movement for breaking up India on religious grounds and succeeded in getting Pakistan created on the alleged grounds of a ‘homeland for the Muslims.’ I say ‘alleged’ because if it really were a homeland for the Muslims, why would a majority of Pakistanis, the Bangladeshis, break away from Pakistan? In any case, even at that time, if Pakistan was a homeland for the Muslims, then why was it not a part of Afghanistan, which is even more Muslim? And why is it that the only country in the world – the only member state of the United Nations – which refused to vote for the admission of Pakistan into the UN, was Afghanistan? And it is not a part of Iran either, which is certainly at least as Muslim as Pakistan.

These questions were put aside, they were not thought through, a country got created and in the process of creating that country, there was a huge amount of disruption and destruction of human life. And virtually the entire non-Muslim population of Pakistan got emptied, in a matter of weeks, and found their place here. Then there was a slow haemorrhage of non-Muslims from East Pakistan into India. This has left an impact on the Indian mind, where all diversity is Indian.

But, is the Muslim community Indian or not? Now those of us who call ourselves secular cannot conceive of India without Islam. And given the numbers of Muslims that live in India, it’s impossible to conceive of Islam without India. I cannot envisage an India without Muslims. And, yes, there are Muslims who have done extremely well in India but still feel insecure. For example, a friend of mine who was at school with me, whose father was the first head of the National Defence Academy in Khadakvasla, did extremely well, got into the Indian Administrative Service, then became my first secretary in the panchayati raj ministry, then went on to being named the first Chief Information Commissioner of India, and became head of the National Minorities Commission.


I asked him to give me a draft chapter on Muslims and the panchayati raj system and I was quite taken aback to see the extent to which this highly-successful Muslim felt under siege in this country, despite the evident success (even his mother was for years a Rajya Sabha member). Yet, it is clear from what he wrote that he felt under siege, and that, again and again, Muslims are required either overtly or covertly to pass the cricket test: that if there is an India-Pakistan match, then whom does one cheer? And the same people who ask this question expect Indians in England, in an India versus England match, to cheer for India not for England!

So why is this question being raised insistently so many years after Partition? At Partition, the Muslim elite voted with their hands for Pakistan. But the vast majority of the Muslim poor voted with their feet to remain in this country. Not only did they not want to go to Pakistan, they would not be allowed to come into Pakistan. There is no immigration of Muslims allowed from India. They don’t even allow the immigration of Bihari Muslims from Bangladesh.


In these circumstances, the fact that there is a sense of insecurity on the part of the Muslim community in India means the building of our nation on the principle of diversity is still a work in progress. Indeed, till 1962, Tamil Nadu was a secessionist province – most people have forgotten that. I once looked at the newspapers to see what the headlines were on the day that I was born (that is the 10th of April 1941). In Europe, Hitler had attacked Belgrade that day. But here in India, Mohammad Ali Jinnah had gone to Madras where he was given a huge reception by the Dravidar Kazhagam (Association of Dravidians) of Periyar E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker who said we welcome Pakistan because we want to become Dravidistan! So every other secessionist or tiny nano-community in India has succeeded in being accepted by Indians as part of India, but there is still a problem about the Muslims. And that remains the Rift Valley of Indian politics.

There are those who insist that India must be a Hindu country. Fortunately, they are a minority. And others who have a diversity of opinion on every other aspect of national life are agreed that no, we cannot be a Hindu country, we must be a secular country. So, the majority in India is fully willing to accept the diversity of religion as part and parcel of our national life. But a substantial minority of Indians wants to extinguish the problem of the Muslim minority by saying one must never call them a Muslim minority, just call them Indians. Now that’s a cop-out because the problem that the Muslim minority faces in our country is not the same problem that I face in my country. And we have to recognize that there are problems specific to Pakistan arising out of the post-Pakistan syndrome, and which, in my opinion, will only be solved finally when India has a sensible relationship with Pakistan, which I believe is entirely feasible although most of my countrymen would disagree with me.


There are several real issues concerning our Muslims. And for those issues you have to consider three or four major factors. One is protection: security of life and limb on the one hand, and security of property on the other. Both these are generally allowed, but suddenly came under attack in Muzaffarnagar, which is a city I have known all my life. Because I was educated in Dehradun and my family was in Delhi, we regularly passed through Muzaffarnagar, and we always had our lunch break there because it’s exactly halfway between Delhi and Dehradun. Who could have imagined that a city which is almost half and half Hindu and Muslim, and lived in perfect peace all this time, would suddenly experience 65 hours of horror with no guarantee that it will not be repeated again? In apprehension of those 65 hours of horror, those who live here as a minority wonder when those 65 hours will once again visit them.

Then there is the question of affirmative action for the Muslims. The fact is that in 1947, the Muslim elite of North India were the carpetbaggers who left to find their fortunes in Pakistan. They just pushed off for Pakistan, leaving the bulk of their religious brethren behind in a very unprotected and economically and socially poor state. This did not happen in South India. So in Tamil Nadu, if one uses the word ‘Muslim’, what comes to ones mind is a very rich person. In North India, you use the world ‘Muslim’, and it comes as a surprise to discover that there are few rich persons. It was the emptying of the Muslim leadership of northern India that has rendered the Muslims in northern India in a bad, and Iwould say, pathetic, state. Before the establishment of the Jamia Millia Islamia University, the Muslim elite regarded only Ashrafi Muslims as worth educating, for that was the declared import of Aligarh Muslim University. One didn’t really get general Muslim education until this institution was conceived and especially after it was brought to this location on what was once the outskirts of Delhi. But there has not been the promotion of Muslim educational, cultural and economic interests where they are the most deprived. This adds to the sense that there is a minority being discriminated against.


At the same time, the fact is that the Muslims of the North have not been pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. You will be amazed to know that in Tamil Nadu, come the month of admissions, I am pestered to get Hindu students into Muslim institutions because the best educational institutions are private institutions run by Muslims. The majority of the students there, who pay for themselves to come in, tend to be non-Muslim and the Muslims are making the money running the institution. And this is such a stark contrast to the situation in North India, portrayed by the Sachar Committee that there has to be affirmative action in favour of the Muslims. We are really talking about the Muslim poor rather than the Muslim rich, but they are so overwhelming that on every yardstick of poverty, the Muslims, particularly of North India, tend to fall below the scheduled caste even if slightly above the scheduled tribes.

In these circumstances, to describe affirmative action as ‘appeasement’ is to deny the fundamental civilizational principle of diversity that we have. If we can have, as we should, affirmative action for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes to pull our country out of the misery of institutionalized inequality that has lasted for 5,000 years, it must apply to those elements of the Muslim community who are desperately in need of assistance.


There are sections of the Muslim community – the business communities of the Khojas and the Bohras, or the Memons, or the Ismailis – who do not really need any of this. They are doing very well, thank you. But the vast majority of Muslims in urban and rural India, in all of northern India, and in pockets of southern India, do need the help of the state. And if that help is not forthcoming, for fear of being branded ‘appeasers’ – some word out of German history that our right-wing has picked up; every time you try to do something for this community, you are faced with the charge of appeasement – well, if looking after my own countrymen is regarded as appeasement, I’m delighted to be called an appeaser. To appease means seeking to satisfy an enemy to prevent him from going to war. How can you appease your own countrymen? They are not in revolt against us! They are just asking us for a little bit of assistance.

And now, ever since that wretched 9/11, and the ‘War on Terror’ and India being an enthusiastic partner in the War on Terror, the fact of the matter is that Muslim youth are being targeted. I want to say a very special thank you to the Jamia Millia Teachers’ Solidarity Organization which have done so much to codify the awful injustices being inflicted on innocent youth only because they are Muslim. And yet when the home minister writes a letter to the chief ministers saying, ‘Please, don’t allow your police to target innocent Muslim youth’, there is an outcry by the right-wing. And from that other element of Indian society, the anchors on TV shows – they should be banned in the interest of free speech! They are the ones who are whipping up this kind of sentiment. The term used in Hindi is tushtikaran and for some reason it is translated into English as ‘appeasement’. And if ministers say ‘don’t target innocent youth’, well, don’t target innocent people is part of the law of the land. He could have said ‘don’t target innocent youth’ but every time there is a bomb blast, I am not picked up, but ‘she’ gets picked up, maybe because she is a Muslim. And, therefore, it is the duty of the state to say, ‘please don’t target innocent Muslim youth.’ And yet, when you use that expression, somehow the country seems to get on the defensive.


What we need is secular activism. We cannot sit back and say, ‘because I am secular I have nothing further to do.’ All of us owe a major duty to ourselves to protect the Muslims and to promote their interests. And to do so in a way that does not infringe on the rights of other communities. And if some Muslims wish to concentrate on their own community, that is communitarianism; it is not communalism. Yet, very frequently the right-wing portrays communitarianism as communalism. So having said this, I would say that fundamentally India has got it right. But on the details of actually evolving our nationhood to the point where these questions would not need to be discussed, there is still work to do. While there is work to do, it is essential that those of us who are secular are not complacent about secularism but recognize that it is a work in progress.


* This text is an edited version of the talk at the Venice-Delhi Seminar, 2013.