Revisiting Unity in Diversity

Unity in diversity is the irreducible logic of life. Uniformity is its contradiction, necessarily attended by disastrous consequences 

Published: 12th October 2019 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 12th October 2019 07:56 AM   |  A+A-

There are certain expressions and formulations in public parlance that are taken for granted. They rarely attract rational or factual scrutiny. Unity in diversity is one such. The assured triumph of truth may be a national motto, but no one pauses for a moment to consider what this entails in personal and collective strategies. 

Nehru envisaged India as unity in diversity. He pursued ‘national integration’ and took a symbolic step in this direction by setting up the National Integration Council, which is now defunct. In the dying decades of the last century one still heard leaders avowing their commitment to national integration. As of now, this goal stands replaced with national oneness, without any debate or discussion on what this could entail. Oneness can be the outcome of integration or of homogenisation. For ‘integration’ to take place, diversity must endure informed and voluntary alignment to the unifying nucleus, which is misconceived as the Centre. The Constitution of India envisages it as a federated Union. That the Centre needs to be in dynamic union with the periphery is a self-evident geometric principle, even if it seems a political inconvenience. One thing is obvious. Diversity for its own sake is undesirable and unprofitable. It promotes disunity and paves the way to domination. The strongest dog ends up enjoying the bone as a matter of natural entitlement. 

Unity is the sine qua non for authentic, wholesome diversity. It entails purposive cooperation among the divergent parts and their harmony with the whole. Without such unity, diversity can prove a hindrance rather than a blessing. What is obtained is a jumble of mutually unresponsive parts that perceive each other an inconvenient entity, rather than a source of enrichment. There is a subtle, but crucial, difference between diversity and difference, which is often overlooked. Difference can exist without unity; diversity cannot be healthy without it. It’s like a headless heap 
of limbs. 

For unity in diversity to be an advantage, therefore, the diverse parts have to abide responsibly in the whole, as was envisaged by the architects of our Constitution. They sought to avoid two pitfalls: One, the erosion of diversity via constriction of separate identities, and two, the fragmentation of national life into an assortment of autonomous constituents, each relating to the Union with the sole intent of maximising its own gains. Both outlooks amount to an implicit rejection of unity in diversity. Religious communities, in particular, have tended to relate to the Union of India largely in this manner. In the recent past, political parties too have succumbed to this trend. UPA-2 is an instructive instance of what happens when coalition dharma is made to supersede rashtra dharma. 

Every citizen has a duty by the Union: to develop a sameness of sentiment in relating to the country in matters of public interest. No country can function without a coherent inner core, the absence of which creates, in the words of Kenneth Galbraith, ‘a managed anarchy’. The working and waking life of every Indian is governed by his status as a citizen. It is dishonest and irresponsible to advocate religious agendas at the expense of citizenship duties. In saying so, I do not intend to advocate statism: the absolutisation of the state that led, to take a random example, to the judicial murder of Socrates. The truth is that all of one’s rights and opportunities to develop and live in a productive and secure relationship with the society are derived from the Constitution and realised under the auspices of the Union. But the members of all religious communities are conditioned to think that their loyalties must rest almost entirely with their religious communities, as though the latter can exist by themselves. Separatism in Kashmir is only a bloodier version of this outlook.

Unity in diversity is the irreducible logic of life. Uniformity is its contradiction, necessarily attended by disastrous consequences. Majoritarianism is the seemingly legitimate, but specious, equation of the Union with the overwhelming majority. But unity is predicated on completeness, not on quantity. Measured by this yardstick, the exclusion even of a tiny element—like the Parsi community numbering a little over 60,000 in India—is assuredly self-defeating. Religious minorities, by pursuing their agendas in indifference to the coherence of the Union, cut the branches on which they are sitting.
It is necessary, hence, for all constituent elements of the Union to shift to the outlook of voluntarism as an investment in unity in diversity. Absence of bottom-line voluntarism activates need for coercion, which undermines unity. We need to develop a public discipline by which contentious issues are approached and settled with a mind-set of voluntary self-adjustment meant to create and consolidate sameness of sentiment among citizens, which is the necessary bedrock of unity in diversity. 

Failure to do so reflects poorly, especially on religious communities. The matrix for pan-Indian unity already exists in the spiritual vision of India, valued world-wide as a spiritual breakthrough—the truth that the world as a whole is one family, or vasudhaiva kutumbakam. I value this vision as perfectly harmonious with Christ’s vision of the Kingdom of God on earth. God is the unfailing source of all-embracing unity until perverse communalism, armed to the teeth by state power, makes religion a pretext for violent self-assertion under the aegis of a theological state in which might alone is right. 

Valson Thampu
Former principal of St Stephen’s College, New Delhi

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