Situating plurality in an egalitarian frame

A German proverb proclaims that a man is what he eats. It could equally have insisted that he is also what he does not eat. Indeed, a man is also what he wears, speaks, believes, worships, smells, the music he listens to, how he dances, the colours that entice him. This list can multiply, and multiply differently for different people. Human diversity is rich and immense.

India’s own diversity is among the richest: countless culinary habits, dress, customs and musical traditions; more than 200 different dialects and languages; religious and doctrinal diversity, the ritual-oriented Vedic practices, the teachings of Buddha, Mahavira, Zarathustra, the Torah, and Guru Nanak, the religiosity in the Puranas, Islam, Syriac-Christianity, the great varieties of animism and atheism.

Hierarchical plurality

In the past, this deep diversity existed within a framework of inequality. This was not unusual, but true of virtually every agrarian, pre-industrial society endowed not only with a highly complex division of labour but also with an intricate network of social distinctions. Indeed, cultural differences often marked and strengthened a stable, rarely questioned hierarchy of roles and ranks. Differences in speech, dress, manner, food or appearance were deeply intertwined manifestations of minutely arranged, culturally nuanced social hierarchies — visible indicators of differential rights and duties in a highly unequal society. They performed another important function: by diminishing ambiguity and friction, they helped place everything and everybody in their proper place. They reduced conflict and maintained existing relations of power. Not everyone could speak, dress and eat as they pleased. Socio-cultural boundaries were not easy to cross. Our past is a system of hierarchical plurality.

A succession of egalitarian waves has challenged this system. The most obvious pointer here is the opposition to caste and gender hierarchies. Rights and duties do not vary today from one caste to another or between men and women. The right to equality enshrined in the Constitution of India is not merely a negative right against discrimination but also a positive right to be treated as an equal. Every individual is entitled to equal respect and concern simply as a human being. It is not legally possible today to have one set of laws for men and another for women. Article 15 sounds the death knell of the old order: “The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them”. It adds that none of these will be the basis for subjecting any citizen “to any disability, liability, restriction or condition with regard to (a) access to shops, public restaurants, hotels and palaces of public entertainment; or (b) the use of wells, tanks, bathing ghats, roads and places dedicated to the use of the general public”.

Not only has the degrading practice of untouchability been banned but temples have long been thrown open to everyone regardless of caste. Caste is no longer a barrier to any job, even to the highest offices of the land. This legal installation of equality could not but begin undoing the inseparable, culturally nuanced distinctions that accompanied differential status and power relations. Indeed, when it speedily dismantled some of them, an illusion was created that we might be able do away with all cultural distinctions and give rise to a new system where either cultural differences are insignificant or people can live by one culture alone.

Contesting homogeneity

This expectation that egalitarian social, economic and political movements will make cultural differentiation irrelevant or totally flatten our cultural landscape has proved to be mistaken. A complete system of universalised, abstract equality has not come into existence. The expectation that we would have a culturally homogenous society is belied too. We do not have a monocultural social system in India. Although infinitesimally small cultural differences that mark social hierarchies have disappeared or are on their way out, new, larger cultural configurations have replaced them. We have relatively more homogenised but distinct languages (among them, Bengali, Oriya, Assamese, Gujarati, Marathi, Hindi, Sindhi, Urdu, Punjabi, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kashmiri and Kannada), religions (not only Islam, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, but also Sikhism, Buddhism, Jainism and of course, the hugely internally plural Hinduism), regional cuisines and literatures, even large caste associations vying for equal recognition, each refusing subordination to the other. These cultures are unlikely to disappear. One way or another, cultural differences are here to stay.

Besides, can one publicly claim today that one language, say, Bengali or Hindi, is superior to Tamil or Punjabi? Can one one claim that Christianity is superior to Hinduism or Islam? Indeed, by granting community-specific cultural and religious rights, our Constitution is among the first to endorse an egalitarian multi-lingual, religiously plural, multicultural system — a system where no religion, culture or language-based group can say that it is superior to others.

Old practices, new illusions

India being India, nothing here is firmly entrenched. Hierarchical plurality still colonises large swathes of our land. Hopes of a complete system of abstract equality might now be entertained only by a handful of cosmopolitan intellectuals, but dreams of a culturally unified society, with or without social equality, are found aplenty in our public discourse and streets. The melodrama of how our Constitution — that (wisely) only partially endorses both abstract, culture-neutral citizenship rights (individual rights to education, belief, public employment, voting, etc) and some multicultural rights (Articles 26-30) — contests these systems of old practices and new illusions is still being played out in our country. Alas, it is hard to tell how, when and even whether it will end.

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Printable version | Oct 16, 2021 3:55:48 PM |

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