Variety is the spice of all life and ethnicity its human expression. But stripped of tolerance and respect, ethnic feelings degenerate into communal hatred and conflict. We must flee the prison we have made of our cultural diversity.
A new threat hangs over the power elites of our time. It is the threat posed by ethnicity, variously expressed as the assertion of culture, the upsurge of communalism, the revival of religion and the voice and movements of marginalised peoples, regions and nationalities. It is O affirmation of diversity, of indigenous identity, of organic rather than televised or museumised cultures. But ethnicity has a rather sinister alter ego, too. In its defiance of the modem nation-state and Northern technology, ethnicity can assume s homogeneity. Militarised, it can tear down the walls that separate identities and preach revenge and martyrdom in its drive for victory. Alas, in so doing, it loses its finer qualities of the sacred and the mystical and emphasises fundamentalist notions of religiosity and culture.
Ethnicity is a response to the excesses of the modem project to shape the whole of humanity around the three pivots of global capitalism, the State system and a global culture. That global culture is based on modem technology, pervasive communications and information systems and a universalising educational system. Most societies of the South, prior to political independence, were described as “ethnic patchworks”. These, they were told, should be replaced by homogeneous and centralised nation-states that would “integrate” all diversities and cultures. Ethnicity is a power for rebuttal to this drive for modernisation which, fashioned after the Northern idea of how the world should be, almost succeeded in subjugating the immense diversity and richness of human experience. It is an affirmation of all “the others” who might have been brought under, colonised and eventually dispensed with.
This rebuttal to the drive for modernisation directed from the North is perhaps the most potent source of ethnicity. But there is a second source, which is located within the South. This second source of ethnicity is a response to the homogenising forces of capitalism, the nation-state and technology imported from the North and promulgated by the Southern powers.
Paranoia, chauvinism and insecurity
Among die many negative transfers from the North to post-colonial Soon ire the notions of “majority” and “minority” and the idea that both legality and legitimacy are based on majority rule. These notions have been particularly harmful for plural societies which have, for centuries, survived without them. They survived because they fostered respect for cultural diversity and coexistence. These notions were by no means easy to live with, however. Social tension and even violent outbreaks were not infrequent. There were structural inadequacies and many fonts of domination and exploitation by the powerful, clever and deceitful. But such groups were small and, in any case, there was no attempt to foist the will of the majority on the whole society. Nor did the poorer or oppressed1 strata suffer from any minority “complex”.
Even today, the “rights of a majority” are hardly ever upheld by large masses of people belonging to the so called majority community. They are more often invoked by a few people who claim to speak for the masses, seeking their sanction from imported ideas of majority and minority. The “threat” to the unity of the country, that all too common bogey, is raised by a small section of upper class and upper caste peoples. They locate the source of the threat in minority communities which, they claim, have been given too much licence or have done better economically while their community, the majority, has suffered because of its remaining disunited and unmindful of its “natural” rights. This preoccupation with the rights of the majority has emerged as the creed of some paranoid individuals who try to poison the minds of entire communities, despite the fact that those communities are composed of different castes, occupational groups, linguistic groups, even groups having diverse religious symbols and community-based godheads. They are nonetheless asked to stand together and face the “threat” from the “minorities”. Perhaps not surprisingly, most people do not want this.
The paranoia of the majority is matched by the paranoia of the minorities. They are pushed to the wall by the growing accent on numbers in a democracy. They feel betrayed by the State that began by promising them security in return for loyalty and ended by discriminating against them and pushing them around. They are eventually diagnosed as suffering from a “minority complex”. This mental state is characterised by a sense of inferiority; fear and insecurity give rise to a deep sense of alienation from the “system”— the State and the nation. Fanatics and fundamentalists emerge, calling for the closing of ranks and sowing seeds of separatism; “we´re not needed here, so let´s get the hell out!” His small groups that continue to struggle against such tendencies, and “dare to belong”, in Baljit Malik´s ringing assertion after the November 1984 carnage of the Sikhs in India, are branded as timid and compromising the integrity and honour of the community.
Such minority paranoia begins a chain reaction, reinforcing the paranoia of the majority. The result is an insecure majority that somehow feels beleaguered by minorities which it views as economically more prosperous with access to arms, foreign support, constitutional guarantees and so on. This gives rise not only to the majority chauvinism that is everywhere in evidence but to a new kind of fundamentalism of the majority. It is fundamentalism that breeds on, and takes its cue from, the fundamentalism of the minorities. Communication channels choke, the parties become estranged from each other. Polarisation feeds the fundamentalist appeal and its call for “standing together” finds earnest listeners. It is in this context, of a growing sense of alienation from “the other”, that all calls for “unity” in effect become calls for disunity with respect to the larger nation or the State.
Large communities are everywhere diffuse, plural and tolerant of ambiguity. But reversal is now sought Hindus, for instance, are called upon to close ranks, adopt a unified theology and a common doctrine, a clergy that is ordained and a common “book”. A far cry indeed from the highly plural and decentralised landscape of traditional Hinduism. There is a similar trend among Sinhala Buddhists and Islamic Malays and Indonesians. With all this, the regenerative and holistic dimensions of “ethnicity” or “community” are transformed into negative and exclusive ones, giving rise to the virus of communalism.
Communalism can have two meanings. In a positive sense it refers to the conscious identity shared by a group of people, based on their cultural heritage as expressed in language, religion, caste, homeland and soon. In plural societies, ethnic identities were positively experienced and expressed. Positive communalism has been associated, by and large, with mutual respect for other identities in an environment where diversity is celebrated as the essential parts of a whole. This is what “unity” has meant in our mixed villages, mohallas and inner cities — the possibility of diversity in the context of a positively felt identity that offers stability and security.
In contrast, the negative sense of communalism is based on an exclusive identity that denies respect for other identities and views unify as something that is achieved by subjugating others. Secularism, too, has opposing meanings; a typically Asian one that we began with and a typically Northern one towards which we seem to be moving. The former entertains no rejection of religious or cultural identities but respects them equally .The more homogenising and pervading Northern ´ concept pushes religion and culture out of the domain of the State and leaves society to find its unify by surrendering its diverse cultural heritage to the modem Stale and its modernising mission. The latter Version of secularism aims to remove diversify and what it perceives as undermining allegiances to religion, language or culture. It views its model of development as creating the conditions for modernising the minds of the people, moving them towards a post-ethnic consciousness.
But, paradoxically, instead of helping religious, linguistic and cultural identities to wither away, modernisation has hardened them and provoked ethnic conflict and communal violence. Worse still, it has transformed positively experienced identify into negative identity. Identities have not withered away – what have withered away are the conditions under which diverse identities can together share a social space. Cultural survival has been reduced to meaning the removal of the other, the exclusion of the other, the death of the other.
Modernisation creates social and economic vulnerability and insecurity as it homogenises cultures, conditions whose management the State assumes responsibility for. When governments proclaim equality as a social ideal yet persist in development and modernisation programmes that result in inequality, each individual and group interprets its loss as someone else´s gain, and interprets the other´s gain as a result of its being well organised as a group—whether linguistic, religious, caste or regional. Ethnic groupings have helped people to bargain with the State.
Economic survival becomes the issue, as it was for the upper class doctors and lawyers in Gujarat fighting against the reservation system earmarking educational seats for the depressed castes and tribes, or for the Malays resenting the upward mobility of their fellow Chinese citizens. Because electoral politics and government intervention respond to ethnic groupings, economic issues become issues of cultural survival. If “they” get jobs “we” will be unemployed. If “they” prosper, “we” will be deprived. And the struggle for economic and cultural survival is experienced by all communities, not just the minorities or the marginalised. In India, Hindus see Muslims and backward classes being pampered for votes. Muslims see Hindus excluding them in new ways, and see the State encouraging such exclusion. The same is the case with the Sinhala and the Tamils in Sri Lanka. It is this disease, nourished by cultural decay, growing inequality and the employment of ethnicity as the exclusive basis for gain and protection, that turns communal feelings violent and destroys society. This is why communal violence is epidemic.
The increasing alienation of community from the State is, in some respects, a more far-reaching development than even the growth of violence and terrorism which, of course, thrive on alienation. Alienation is the slow but growing withdrawal of the citizen from the constitutional apparatus called the State, as well as from the larger entity that envelops all smaller affiliations and identities, called the Nation. People increasingly feel indifference, apathy and alienation from the State. There is an equal if not greater withdrawal from “nationalist” commitments- While terrorist killings upset and disgust people, they fail to make them feel any closer to the government. The awe and respect for the army declines precipitously. What grows instead identification with one´s own caste or linguistic or religious community and often a with drawal into still narrower shells of primary and secondary loyalties—of peer groups and family—and often into just one´s own lonely and miserable self. Communalism thrives on this larger canvas of societal breakdown. It thrives on the destruction and decay of institutions andtheerosionoflegitimaieauthorify.lt flourishes as society declines and the democratic state collapses.
But, while the “poison” of communalism spreads under the pressure of insecurity and the power of chauvinist and fundamentalist doctrines, it is well to remember that it is spread by a minority in all communities. Thus, so-called majority communities, are born of a minority´s interpretation of a dominant or hegemonic culture that is proclaimed to be dominant or hegemonical. That powerful minority demands that the State accept its culture as dominant and that the other “minorities” be forced to do likewise. The State is asked to confer special status on those belonging to the “majority” and inferior status on the others. Of course, such privileges are conferred on a small group who in any case are privileged and have access to resources and opportunities provided by a modernising State and a capitalist economy.
Predictably, there action this produces in the minority communities also plays into the hands of small, privileged groups. Thus, in the state of Kerala, known for long for the amicable´ coexistence of its Hindus, Muslims and Christians, the communal virus has begun to spread and now affects each of them, thanks largely to the political compulsion of narrowly conceived electoral calculations. The result is Hindu communslism exploited by the privileged among the dominant castes; Muslim communalism exploited by the rich and privileged strata known as the “timber mafia” that has benefitted from “Gulf money” (and against which the Hindu communalists direct their ire); and Christian communalism in which the Catholic clergy, with massive Church and other resources, plays a major role.
Where will it all end? In the recovery of the conditions of diversity as the condition of survival for all, or in the annihilation of all? Those Hindus and Muslims who think that religious uniformity is a condition for peace need only remember the Karachi riots where, in spite of a common religion and an Islamic State, the Mohajirs fight the Pathans and Punjabis. If we do not divide ourselves up by religion, we will do it by language, by caste, or by race. Divisiveness and fragmentation is infinitely regressive. For every Hindu who thinks that Indian Muslims should be sent to Pakistan, there is a Pakistani Punjabi waiting for the Mohajirs to be sent back to India. And for every Indian who thinks that the Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka should be sent back, there is a Sinhala who believes that all the Tamils should go to India. We seem to be trapped in our cultural diversity.
Kothari, eminent Indian social scientist, is with the Center for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi. A longer version of this article appeared in Rethinking Development.