Every now and then nations must pause and reassess their core values. As a nation, how do we evolve an inclusive nationalism that takes with it the poor and the diverse cultures of the subcontinent?

July 18, 2009 marked the world’s first Mandela Day. Mandela Day is celebrated to honour the life and legacy of the 91-year-old veteran freedom fighter, Nelson Mandela. Mandela spent 67 years of his life, 27 of these in prison, in South Africa&# 8217;s struggle against apartheid. Mandela Day marks the moral authority of this great statesman and is a global call to action to each and every individual to devote their time and effort to the service of their communities.

The history of the struggles of many nations across the world has shaped each country’s basic beliefs and core national values. This evolves into a nationally upheld value system which is usually institutionalised in that country’s constitution.

The United States of America has laid out its core democratic values in its Declaration of Independence and its Constitution. These core values of life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, justice, truth and common good are taught to every elementary school student in America.

Members of the European Union have been working on a consortium for European values and in 2005, the Atlas of European Values was published. This atlas presents the values, norms, and beliefs of Europeans at the turn of the millennium. The results of this study have turned out surprisingly conservative. An overwhelming majority of folks has chosen “married-with-children” as their preferred lifestyle, dispelling influences from the liberating 1960s, with its messages of emancipation and individualisation.

Our Indian heritage is awash with values that have been emphasised and passed down from generation to generation. The Indian national pledge calls for treating parents, teachers and all elders with respect. The Indian interpretation of respect differs slightly from those of Western nations. As a mark of respect for elders, we rise to offer them a seat, we refrain from calling them by their first names and are taught not to backchat to them.

Refreshingly different

United States President Barack Obama demonstrates an understanding of and is at ease with different world cultures. After being sworn in as President, when Obama personally saw off his outgoing counterpart George W. Bush onto his helicopter Marine One and off to his home in Texas, the President was practising a value that is well understood in the Eastern world. Another unprecedented act in the realm of Western campaign politics was the dinner that President Obama hosted for his defeated opponent, John McCain. Many people of Eastern descent would recognise the act of seeing off an elder statesman to be a mark of respect for his age, for his stature and for the services rendered to his country. President Obama has had global life experience — having spent four of his formative teenage years in Indonesia.

The Indian constitution embodies many of the core values that have been part of the Indian ethos. It has resolved to secure to all its citizens justice, equality, liberty and fraternity.

The Preamble to the Constitution of India seeks to establish what Mahatma Gandhi described as “The India of my Dreams”:

“I shall work for an India in which the poorest shall feel that it is their country, in whose making they have an effective voice, an India in which there shall be no high class or low class of people; an India in which all communities shall live in perfect harmony. There can be no room in such an India for the curse of untouchability or the curse of intoxicating drinks and drugs. Women will enjoy as the same rights as men. We shall be at peace with all the rest of the world. This is the India of my dreams.”

We have other core values handed down to us over the generations — values such as respect for women, caring for the old and the sick and empathy for the poor and downtrodden.

If morality is the answer to the question “how ought we to live”, group morality develops from shared beliefs and helps regulate behaviour within a community. The reality of today’s society is that many countries are faced with endangered values.

In answer to the question, “What is the world’s greatest challenge in the new millennium?”, Jimmy Carter has stated in his book Our Endangered Values America’s Moral Crisis: “The greatest challenge we face is the growing chasm between the rich and the poor on earth”. He goes on to explain that the gap is steadily widening. At the beginning of the last century, the 10 richest countries were nine times wealthier than the 10 poorest ones. Today that ratio is 131:1.

Many independent studies are being conducted on the factors affecting changes to the moral fabric of our society. There is a need to put into perspective the values that are changing as a result of globalisation. George Matafonov in his book Fire and Water: Market Morality and Civil Society states that the root causes of global social unrest are not primarily the result of the rise of terrorism, but should be attributed to the new model of society whose core has become economic theory rather than traditional human values. He argues that in a span of less than 50 years, economic theory has turned the world upside down by insisting that our chief value should be competitive self interest. The challenge therefore for modern societies is to bring back the sense of traditional morality without negating the advantages of economic theory.

Our choices

India is a country of many cultures and ethnicities. Our common binding force doesn’t have to be drawn from Western influences, food, language or dress. Our history can be taught as a proud acceptance of our diversity or can be spun into a grim reminder of assault and plunder. Our attitude can be forward looking as an all-inclusive and tolerant community or can be backward looking, exclusionist, reactionary and violent. Our behaviour can be marked by belligerence and suspicion or we can be cosmopolitan and yet preserve our individual cultures.

Every so often, the moral fabric of our nation must be whetted and reaffirmed. Refreshment of our core values has to be an ongoing process. While attempts have been made in different communities to define a benchmark set of moral standards — enforcing these standards is quite another issue. Coersion is not the best form of adherence. If we perceive an individual or group of individuals to be violating a core value, the appropriate response is one which is within the framework of justice and equality.

Our most steadfast and enduring values are those that were introduced in our early years. Character education shows best results when introduced early in life. This makes schools a vitally important instrument in the character education agenda. Also, cohesive nationalism is a concept that needs broader definition and support. We need to champion this cause — something that we can practise everyday until it resonates in our lives. To teach our children to be divisive is a very dangerous game to play. They grow up looking at all relationships from this lens. The dangers of stoking the embers of hatred for this or that ethnic group are that the ensuing fire sometimes turns around to ultimately consume one of our own loved ones.

True progress has no room for mutual suspicion or divisiveness and can be achieved collectively, not individually. Our greatest moral challenge today is our poor. As a country with about 25 per cent people in poverty, this should be our primary focus. Our second biggest challenge is finding a way to live peacefully and amicably with all of our cultures and to preserve and promote our diversity.