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  Opinion   Columnists  31 Dec 2023  Bhopinder Singh | India’s diversity, inclusiveness is at risk as leaders push intolerance

Bhopinder Singh | India’s diversity, inclusiveness is at risk as leaders push intolerance

The writer is former lieutenant-governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Puducherry
Published : Jan 1, 2024, 12:21 am IST
Updated : Jan 2, 2024, 12:21 am IST

India is a veritable tinderbox if not anchored to its lofty constitutional spirit of inclusivity.

The identity of Indianness will take more than semantic conflation to Bharat, but perhaps not as intended by partisans as a means of divide. (Image by pikusperstar on Freepik)
 The identity of Indianness will take more than semantic conflation to Bharat, but perhaps not as intended by partisans as a means of divide. (Image by pikusperstar on Freepik)

With all eight major religions of the world, 780 languages (according to the People’s Linguistic Survey of India) and about 3,000 castes, with another 25,000 sub-castes, the famous quote, “If India fails in diversity, so will the world”, couldn’t ring truer. If the prevailing social polarisation in India is anything to go by, the rising intolerance and supremacism, across the world, is hardly surprising. India’s rich diversity is also now becoming the cause of its disunity, contrary to the foundational hope of the “Idea of India” that envisaged “unity in diversity”.

The civilisational fault lines and persisting societal inequities have further metastasized the “us-versus-them” narrative beyond the usual religious divide and expanded to other nativistic undercurrents that are generously fanned by politicians. India is a veritable tinderbox if not anchored to its lofty constitutional spirit of inclusivity. The identity of Indianness will take more than semantic conflation to Bharat (which is constitutionally mentioned), but perhaps not as intended by partisans as a means of divide. The wholesomeness of the “Idea of India” can never be fructified by imploring its sub-identities or force-fitting all diversities into singular denomination, but by collectively championing “India, that is Bharat”, without contextualising it onto any one identity, even if were the majority. That concept of majoritarianism is for small-spirited nations like Pakistan, Turkey or other illiberal sheikhdoms. Sadly, not only have we added a partisan/political context to the civilisational formulation of “India, that is Bharat”, but the reckless invocation of sub-identities is increasingly routine by politicians of all political parties, and even by some holding apolitical constitutional posts.

As the Lok Sabha elections near, the phenomenon of thin-skinned and “manufactured outrage” (some naturally justified outrage too) by competitive politicians attempting to outdo each other is going to sully the environment even further. They will push the limits of theatrics and propriety to discredit the “other”, thus seeking to endear themselves by appealing to the baser instincts of their cadres and constituents. They will sometimes pander to selective, but telling, silences or inaction when probed about inflammatory remarks made by their so-called “leaders” that they could attribute to “fringe elements” -- but the “dog-whistling”, selective outrage or even plain acquiescence will be the norm. Pulling words out of context and spin-doctoring these to imply the unimplied, is another favourite. TV studios would be overflowing with venom-spewing “independents” (with obvious partisan loyalties) who can say the most incendiary and provocative rhetoric to stitch an explosive narrative, with plausible deniability afforded to full-time politicians, with whom these so-called “independents” are currying favour. Unknown and uncouth elements from across the Line of Control or even the hinterland to represent an ostensible cause (knowing that such persons would extract the exact opposite effect), will be par for the course.

The “othering” in recent times has seen a senior MP from a southern state (ironically, a former minister of communications) stating: “Hindi speakers from UP, Bihar clean toilets in Tamil Nadu”. Irrespective of the supposed context, it was a poorly worded statement (or perhaps clever, given the emotive language issue) and the ruling party at the Centre had a field day exposing it. A newly-minted MLA (also a religious leader) in a northern state was heard threatening the authorities, “all non-veg stalls on the streets should vanish with immediate effect” and later added for good flourish: “Karachi banana chahte ho? Yeh Apra Kashi hai!” The innuendo and reference to Karachi was not so naïve, and he presumably remains unchecked.

The calls of unbridled nativism in the form of “local versus outsider’ looms large with every regional election.

A fiery chief minister from an eastern state said: “Gujaratis are trying to capture Bengal by bringing goons from UP and Bihar”. The holder of one of the highest constitutional posts in the land was to react to a personal taunt by unwarrantedly invoking his caste credentials, by insisting: “You used the official Twitter handle of the spokesperson to demean me, insult me, insult my background as a farmer, my position as a Jat…” Obviously, the farmer or Jat denomination were of no consequence during the earlier farmers’ agitation or during the recent wrestling association drama, where many with this societal denomination were at the forefront -- but this time, the inelegant mimicry was readily conflated to identities of caste and profession. The ousted head of the wrestling federation tried to suggest his distance with his supposed nominee by suggesting caste differences: “Sanjay Singh is a Bhumihar. I am Rajput, Kshatriya”. He is also believed to have counterattacked by questioning his own party’s “Jat outreach”. All over the country, the assertion of region, language, religion, caste, ethnicities to even superimposition of partisan sensibilities is flaring, and the regression of Manipur’s fractured societal status is suggestive of the inevitability of pandering to such nativism for electoral gratification.

Besides the falsehoods, the exaggeration of issues and even realities have seemingly been fair game in electoral times since Independence, except that these have now crossed unprecedented limits, tenor and threatens to tear the delicate fibres that bind and constitute India. As the brilliant constitutionalist B.R Ambedkar had said: “I do not want that our loyalty as Indians should be in the slightest way affected by any competitive Loyalty, whether that loyalty arises out of our religion, out of our culture or out of our language. I want all people to be Indians first, Indian last, and nothing else but Indians”. Regrettably, we must brace ourselves for a forthcoming open season of competitive identities, assertions and aspersions that are not anything to do with the inclusive “India, that is Bharat”.

Tags: intolerance, diversity, nativism