Sunday, November 1, 2015

Unity and Integrity (in India)

Respected… / dear…
I had a very well-read history professor who used to say India will disintegrate into fifty pieces in fifty more years! It’s already twenty years since he said this. And there is no reason to believe it will be a reality in thirty more years (or is it?). What made the professor say so? Why we don’t see such a thing happening? What should we do to maintain the Unity and Integrity of the nation as it was envisaged during its formation? These are some of the questions that we shall try to answer in the next few minutes. 
First of all, let us dwell upon the very terms: Unity and Integrity. What is Unity? … It is different units coming together for one purpose: in the context that we are speaking, it is different units of people coming together for the sake of governance in a well defined geo-political territory. This constitutes the idea of a republic. In that sense, Unity (or unity in diversity) is not unique to the Indian context. Wherever there are republics, there is a need to have unity. Unity is not just displayed during war or emergency or a calamity or a tragedy but also during peace: in our day-to-day transactions, administration, executing welfare measures and all such kinds of cooperation. This sense of unity also comes with a sense of equality and a sense of responsibility without which there can be no cooperation. 
Moving on to ‘Integrity’, what is it? … If we are speaking about an individual, integrity is about the ethical character which is beyond suspicion. In the context of a country, Integrity is all about the indivisibility of the geo-political unit, or the ability of the geo-political unit to stay as a whole in the present and in perceptible future. Probably, we could also think about this geo-political unit having a distinct ethical character. This is because a country takes part in international political and economic transactions and it takes a certain stand in these interactions. The stand also reflects of its ethical character. Therefore, I would say, both the senses of the term ‘Integrity’ are integrated when we use the word in the context of a country. I would also go a step further and say that since integrity has to do with the wholeness, there is also a sense of completeness in its geo-political territory such that the country may not nurse any aspiration of annexing a part of another geo-political territory, which could be called a war. Therefore, Integrity, I think, also connotes peace with its territorial neighbors. 
Moving on, when we talk about these two terms: Unity and Integrity, one would also get a sense that Unity is a precondition for Integrity. Unless a unit of people agree to become part of the whole, neither is there Unity, nor integrity. Once they feel they have a common cause with the rest of the people, they would unite with them, in turn, also bringing about integrity. However, the problem begins when say, 99 units feel that the 100th one is part of the whole and the 100th one feels otherwise. This is also the problem of democracy, where the majority rule prevails. In such circumstances utmost care should be taken not to hush up the 100th voice and settle the dispute as amicably as possible without violence. And THIS is difficult.
The point I am making here is that the issues of Unity and Integrity are acutely political. However, the day-to-day audio-visual images that surround us do not tell us so (after playing a few youtube clippings with search returns for 'Unity in Diversity in India'). … What happens here? They present a beautiful and colorful world where everything is alright and peacefully co-exist as though it is a coherent collage that makes perfect sense. These representations render the ideas of unity and integrity as romantic and glamorous. As soon as you utter the terms Unity and Integrity or Unity in Diversity, these picturesque ideas strike to our mind. But that doesn’t do justice to the ideas and ideals of Unity and Integrity. This is the reason why I DO NOT say in this lecture that ‘India is a land of great cultures; We can see beautiful dance forms like Bharathanatyam, Kuchipudi, Kathak, Odissi; We can listen to beautiful musical forms such as Carnatic, Hindustani, Rabindro Shongeet, etc’. Because these representations take away the mundane practical issues related to the questions of how we adjust ourselves among a myriad of cultures and peoples; how we solve our disputes; what do we do of unresolved problems; how are we to our neighbors, etc. 
For example, in my opinion, when we talk about Unity and Integrity, it is not possible to avoid the questions of the disputes in northeastern pockets of India, disputes in Kashmir, so many dissident voices from different pockets of the country and so on. To think as to how we respond to these problems, is a very meaningful way of engaging with the question of Unity and Integrity. You might have as well seen the brief visuals of the armed forces in between the clippings that we just saw. What could be the relevance of that? How do the soothing, harmonious pictures of dance and music get along with the forcefully spirited and vigorous visuals of the armed forces? In such a case, what is the nature of Unity we have achieved? Is it serene and peaceful like dance and music or spirited and forceful like the armed forces? These are important questions. 
It is NOT that we should not speak about our culture, music and art forms. We certainly should (I, myself, am a musician with deep appreciation for Indian musical genres!). The vibrancy as well as the variety of culture in our part of the subcontinent is quite breathtaking indeed! However, my point is that the discourse of Unity and Integrity has been carried away by the discourse of culture so much so that we refuse to return to bigger questions which are beyond culture. In other words, it may be good to begin to talk about Unity and Integrity in cultural terms, but it is naïve to remain there and not address the question in political terms: After all, man is a political animal too. 
Let us go back to those fundamental questions that we raised in the initial part of this lecture: Let us first ask what is it that keeps us together and gives us some sense of Unity and Integrity? Well, at the outset, we can certainly say that there is a civilizational ethos that runs through the subcontinent giving us a sense of bonding. We learn from the history text books that from the time of Ashoka, the southern part of the Himalayas has been ruled by kings and emperors, who more or less kept the people of the subcontinent together as compared to their relations with Eurasians or Southeast Asians. Mughals once again consolidated this geo-political territory in the medieval period. During colonialism, the ‘modern’ man awoke to the concerns of loot, plunder and political domination of the economy and of the country by the British. And this united them from across the subcontinent to fight the British. Thus, the long history of the subcontinent shows considerably good signs of bonding. 
Let’s ask the second question: In such a scenario, is there a case for concern, as the professor pointed out? Well, certain problems from the moment of the creation of our nation-state continue to haunt us. Kashmir is one such issue. Certain problems have arisen in the course of last few years. These are the dissenting voices: that of naxalites who think violence will bring about equality; or of tribals in mineral rich hilly pockets of India who can’t face the lobby of the corporate world; or of terrorists who disrupt the status-quo with enormous violence. In my opinion, the problem does not lie in the dissenting voice itself. It rather lies in the way the issue is handled. A country like India, with all its diversity, will have to continuously engage with the question of Unity and Integrity. Each case is specific to itself. A real statesman should negotiate the situation taking into account all its particularities and settle the issue with minimal force and maximum sensitivity. There is absolutely no doubt that Unity and Integrity will get strengthened with sensitivity to our fellow citizens. Therefore, the answer for the question as to if there is a case for concern, relies upon with what sensitivity and what force the problem is tackled by the nation-state. 
After India gained independence, several crores of people have been displaced for the sake of developmental works. These people had to sacrifice not just their resources but an entire lifestyle for the sake of ‘mainstream’ India. In many cases, this sacrifice took the form of dissidence in opposing the established polity. Politics has been the effective way of claiming a fair share of the country’s wealth and resources for different groups of people. Polarization of wealth and resources has mostly been the reason for dissidence in search of an alternative politics for a fair distribution. I shall conclude this speech with a small example of land acquisition in India. Land acquisitions are highly contentious issue in India with farmers, the state and other interest groups vying for the best bargain. The latest Land acquisition bill did not come through since it was perceived as anti-farmer. Nevertheless almost at the same time, there was a successful case of land acquisition taking place for the construction of the new capital of Andhra Pradesh, Amaravathi. It was hailed as one of the best models with a win-win for all the interest groups: The Andhra Pradesh Govt has not only promised to pay the compensation for the acquired land in ten installments over the next ten years, but also give back 25% of the developed land after it is ready. This has made people cutting across their occupation agree with the scheme and there was hardly any resistance to this model of sharing resources. This probably is worth emulation elsewhere. 
We shall inevitably see more developmental works in the coming years and obviously there will be different interest groups who would place a huge claim on land and other resources. Such a scenario will need innovative and sustainable plans on the one hand and the political will to engage with people in a truly consultative process, on the other. As stated earlier, each case is specific and there is no panacea for all the ills bothering Unity and Integrity in India. Finally, I would like to reiterate that Unity and Integrity are not glamorous ideas as represented in the Indian media on the day of a national festival; on the other hand, these are the ideals difficult to attain and they relate to toleration of differences. In a multi-religious and multi-ethnic country like India, preserving the pluralistic fabric of the country is the forte of Unity. It is NOT that we need to learn to IGNORE the differences in this cultural diversity; but it is important to learn to LIVE WITH differences of this diversity: the diversity of worships, the diversity in attitudes, the diversity in rituals, and the diversity in food habits and so on. There should be a continuous and honest attempt at attaining this toleration and through that, Unity, because it is worth attaining in a democratic republic like ours. Otherwise, yes! we might indeed be 50 pieces in 30 more years!