How India & Canada manage diversities

April 26, 2007 12:00 am | Updated September 28, 2016 09:03 pm IST

Jairam Ramesh

India's approach to managing diversities has been somewhat unique. In fact even as India's electoral system produces new diversities, it is precisely this approach that has kept the country together.

LESTER PEARSON'S relationship with India was initially close. The Canadian diplomat Escott Reid wrote in his memoirs "Envoy to Nehru" that Pearson and India's first Prime Minister were largely responsible for the Korean armistice signed in July 1953. They worked closely in the Geneva Conference of 1954 on Indo-China and Korea. They also collaborated to reduce tensions between the U.S. and China and to defuse the Suez crisis of 1956, for which Lester Pearson was to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

To be sure there were mutual recriminations as well. According to Reid, Pearson felt that "Nehru exaggerated Canada's influence in international affairs and did not realize the limitations on Canada's freedom of action imposed by its position between the United States and Britain." On his part, it would appear that Pearson was unfair to Nehru when it came to India's growing relationship with the Soviet Union, to India's suspicions of U.S.-sponsored regional security pacts and to India's actual role during the Hungarian uprising of 1956, the full story of which remains to be told it is possible, for instance, that the life of Arpad Goncz, who later became Independent Hungary's first President in 1991 was saved from the gallows in 1956 because of Nehru's influence with the Soviet leadership. Mr. Goncz himself declared in the Hungarian Parliament in 1991 that "in those months (in 1956), the Indian Embassy in Budapest became the Embassy of the Revolution."

How have the two countries dealt with the challenge of diversity, while remaining anchored to the concept of a strong nation-state functioning in a system of parliamentary democracy? Their approaches have been distinctive, quite unlike that of the erstwhile USSR, U.S. and China. Both Canada and India, as Dr. B.R. Ambedkar himself pointed out while piloting the draft of our Constitution in the Constituent Assembly in December 1948, have federal Constitutions but also call themselves a Union.

Canada is defined by linguistic diversity with English and French as the two major languages. It is also defined by religious diversity with a majority Christian but significant Sikh, Muslim and Hindu communities as well. It is multi-ethnic in the sense that it has a considerable population of indigenous peoples in addition to a substantial population of immigrants from different parts of the world (around 3 per cent from India).

Diversity is part of India's DNA too. Indeed, it has been its manifest destiny described most evocatively thus: kafile aate gaye, karavan baste gaye, Hindustan banta gaya (convoys kept coming, caravans kept settling, India kept getting made). Jawaharlal Nehru had an equally wonderful description of our civilisation in his Discovery of India when he referred to it as an "ancient palimpsest on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed, and yet no succeeding layer had completely hidden or erased what had been written previously." Indeed, India has the greatest diversities seven major religions and numerous other sects and faiths, 22 official languages and over 200 recorded mother tongues, around 4,635 largely endogamous communities as revealed in the late K.S. Singh's monumental People of India and 15 distinct agro-climatic zones.

Canada's great contribution to the discourse on managing diversities is the concept of multi-culturalism, which it adopted in 1971. Multiculturalism was originally a response to the grievances of Canada's French-speaking population of Quebec province. The initial thought was to recognise Canada as a bilingual and bicultural society. Indeed, the very name of the committee that went into the issue suggests it it was called the Royal Commission on Biculturalism . Bilingualism was acceptable to all but not biculturalism. Largely on account of opposition from Canada's aboriginal population, Lester Pearson's successor Pierre Trudeau promulgated the Announcement of Implementation of Policy of Multiculturalism within Bilingual Framework in October 1971. This was followed 17 years later by the Multiculturalism Act being adopted by Parliament making Canada the first country to pass a national multiculturalism law.

There appears to be another distinctive Canadian contribution. Michael Ignatieff, the Canadian political leader and intellectual, has written in his The Rights Revolution that no country other than New Zealand has given such recognition to the idea of collective group rights as Canada. This, of course, is in context of the aboriginal populations. But with such a sweeping claim, Ignatieff betrays a fundamental ignorance of the Indian Constitution which enshrines special provisions for groups that suffer from accumulated disabilities and discrimination the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes and the socially and educationally backward classes. The Indian Constitution also provides for special provisions for religious and linguistic minorities.

Multiculturalism has not been without criticisms in Canada itself, the most influential of which has been Neil Bissoondath's Selling Ilusions: The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada that came out in 1994. Bissoondath is an interesting figure Trinidad-born of Indian descent as the name suggests (a nephew of V.S. Naipaul incidentally) and you would think his background would make him more sensitive to the imperatives of multiculturalism. Not so. He argues that multiculturalism actually weakens national unity and cohesiveness, increases competition and rivalry between ethnic groups and instils a "separatist" mentality in immigrant communities. He has gone further and the weekly magazine The Economist in its issue of November 16, 2006, has him proclaiming that Muslims are the first group to challenge Canada's notions of multiculturalism and tolerance.

In India the mantra has been "unity in diversity" which has been its gift to the political lexicon, much like the multiculturalism of Canada. According to Sunil Khilnani, it was Rabindranath Tagore who first used the phrase in 1902 in a Bengali essay Bharatbarsher Itihas . Actually, a reading of the original Bengali reveals that Tagore had actually used the phrase " unity through diversity ." Unity through diversity is actually a more powerful thought than unity in diversity. In my view, the word "through" connotes celebration of diversity, while the word "in" implies mere acceptance. Amongst our political leaders, it was Jawaharlal Nehru, more than anyone else, who kept coming back to this theme again and again. Today, Nehru's critics look at his "magnificent obsession" with planning and the public sector in narrow economic terms. But the larger political context in which planning and the public sector were embedded in Nehru's thinking and their role in welding a nation of great diversity (and I should add, disparity) is not fully appreciated these days. Neither, for that matter, is his role in riding out linguistic chauvinism that threatened to tear India apart in the 1950s. It has been left to an American academic, Robert King, to capture Nehru's contributions in this regard most sensitively in his Nehru and the Language Politics of India .

India's approach to managing diversities has been somewhat unique. In fact even as India's electoral system produces new diversities, it is precisely this approach that has kept the country together. Assimilation has certainly not been on the agenda, while integration has been pursued. Uniformity and homogeneity have been eschewed. Individual identities have been preserved and protected.

The nature of affirmative action as an instrument to give representation to and reflect diversities in India too has been different in India. No other country enshrines quotas as part of public policy to manage diversities as India does. These quotas, it should be acknowledged, have produced a more egalitarian India and have provided numerous opportunities for both personal and collective empowerment. And going by the experience of peninsular India, they have certainly not impeded efficiency and excellence.

Can India and Canada learn something from each other? On November 27, 2006, the Canadian House of Commons passed a motion by an overwhelming majority that said " That this House recognize that the Quebecois form a nation within a United Canada". Mr. A.G. Noorani, the noted lawyer-commentator, has written elsewhere that this Resolution holds lessons that India can apply to Kashmir, Nagaland and other areas where separatist movements are endemic. Mr. Noorani is being very unrealistic but it is still worth recalling that till November 1964, the head of state in Jammu and Kashmir had an elected Sadar-e-Riyasat and the head of government was called Wazir-e-Azam . Even today, J&K has a separate Constitution and flies its own flag along with the Tricolour. And speaking of separatism, it bears mention that sections of the Indian diaspora in Canada have contributed to the discourse of diversity, as for instance, in relation to the Khalistan movement.

India's approach to managing its extraordinary diversity needs to be better understood and given higher marks than has been the case so far. Instead of demonising Islam, Canada should look at how Kerala particularly has prospered with religious plurality. How the India as we know it today politically and geographically has survived and moved ahead is indeed a remarkable achievement. Many prophets of gloom, many epitaphs of doom have been proved wrong. Our approach to managing diversity has consequences for economic performance, for the pace of economic reforms as well. In my own anthology of 2005 Making Sense of Chindia: Reflections on China and India , I have argued that it is the way we have managed diversity that makes a comparative evaluation of the two Himalayan neighbours unfair, even though a look at their comparative evolution is instructive.

(The author is the Union Minister of State for Commerce. These are edited excerpts from the 13th Lester Pearson Memorial Lecture he delivered at Delhi University on April 23.)

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