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India’s diversity must never be used against it

🔴 Kapil Sibal writes: The only way forward is to address our core national concerns to build just, inclusive and egalitarian societal structures.

Written by Kapil Sibal |
Updated: January 7, 2022 7:52:14 am
Multiple identities of individuals are spread all across India. Each has attributes that differ from state to state. (Express Photo: Abhinav Saha)

It is time to reflect on the years gone by. We need to assess where our nation stands today and what lies ahead with the dawn of the new year. The nature of politics today feeds on our stratified social structures. Our relatively young population is aspirational yet frustrated. The middle class dreams of a better life, which at present is beyond its grasp. The elderly worry about the challenges of ageing. This makes our country one of the most complex to govern. The manner in which the political establishment has tried to grapple with all these issues has made the task even more daunting.

The fundamental complexity that confronts us as a nation is that as citizens of this country, we clothe ourselves with multiple identities. An upper-class Hindu does not necessarily identify himself with backward or most backward Hindus. Competitive backwardness divides rather than unites each backward caste and sub-caste group looking for state largesse. This tokenism does not lead to substantial upliftment of their backwardness, yet its symbolic value is a powerful political weapon. Punjabi Hindus, who speak Punjabi, live happily with the Sikh community which speaks the same language, yet they have different cultural identities. Within them, there are those who are part of the Scheduled Castes. Such multiple identities of individuals are spread all across India. Each has attributes that differ from state to state.

The Yadavs, whose identity is subsumed by the nature of their backwardness, may at times, hold the reins of power. They have no common identity with the Brahmins or the Thakurs or those who belong to the forward castes. They also do not share a common identity with other backward communities in Uttar Pradesh like the Kurmis, Mauryas, Kashyaps, Nishads, Rajbhars, Binds, Sahus, and Prajapatis among others. The Scheduled Castes in the state have their own unique identity. Similarly, in Madhya Pradesh, Bhumihars and Yadavs along with Kurmis, Kushwahas and Lodhis have their own separate identities. Within these two states, there is also a large segment of Muslim minorities who have their own special identities and castes. The Muslims themselves have two separate identities in the form of Shias and Sunnis.

A tribal culture belonging to a different race within the cauldron of the Northeast serves multiple identities. States like Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland are inhabited prominently by tribals. They, in turn, have their own diversities. States like Assam, Manipur, Tripura and Sikkim have people of various religious denominations like Hindus, Christians and Muslims and a combination of local tribes and communities. The Bengali and non-Bengali speaking Hindus within Assam have their own identities. Similarly, Nagas, Manipuris, Assamese, Muslims and others all live together with different languages and cultures, seeking to protect their identities and cater to their distinct yet separate aspirations, both cultural and territorial.

In south India, social groups in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, and Kerala have their own cultural identities and aspire to be part of the political structure to satisfy their multiple aspirations. In Tamil Nadu, the intermediary castes like the Vellalars, Chettiyars, Mudhaliyars, Naidus, Gounders, Thevars and Vanniyars, among others, seek to play an important role in electoral outcomes. In Karnataka, the Vokkaligas and Lingayats along with Muslims and OBCs have their own cultural and electoral identities. In Andhra Pradesh, the two politically dominant communities are the Reddys and Kammas.

A nation with multiple individual identities needs to search for solutions to take India forward. However, the ruling political class seeks to exploit these identities for political power. We, therefore, see the spectacle of shifting alliances when individuals with multiple identities feel disenchanted with the power structures for the failure to recognise their needs and aspirations. This shifting of alliances is opportunistic, unrelated to any cohesive national agenda. Coupled with this, majoritarian groups take sustenance with Hindus of multiple identities being fed on propaganda that seeks to divide, while the power structure they have established continues to reap electoral dividends. They forget that the 200 million Muslims within the country, unlike minorities in other nations, cannot possibly be subjugated into obedience.

There is also a big divide that is taking place between the rich and the poor. The poor too have multiple identities. They are also not bound together by either a political idiom or a lingua franca or by caste or creed. They react in different ways in the context of their own identity and, therefore, political outcomes are difficult to predict. That is why Chanakyas reap electoral benefits without providing good governance. The nation may regress while “jugaad” in politics may, for the time being, succeed.

The last few years have shown that the Hindutva experiment of nation-building may, in the short run, pay political dividends but in the long run, will take the nation away from the path of progress. We need to address issues of national concerns, not through divisive agendas or by opportunistic alliances, which cater to a conflict of identities. Such a path will be hazardous for our nation’s future.

Without peace at home, there can be no progress. The multiple identities of individuals must never be manipulated to cater to divisiveness which tears asunder the social fabric of the country. We must not allow this policy of divide and rule to become a tsunami. In the new year, we need to reassess our nation’s journey. The only way forward is to address our core national concerns to build just, inclusive and egalitarian societal structures. For that, the present establishment must not be given another lease of life in 2024.

This column first appeared in the print edition on January 5, 2021 under the title ‘We, the many’. The writer, a senior Congress leader, is a former Union minister

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