Let me begin by sketching, in bold strokes, the picture of India as a federation of communities. In this view, India is a diverse country, a bewildering mosaic of communities of all kinds; its peculiar genius is to fashion a form of coexistence where this diversity can flourish and find its place. It has created cultures of political negotiation that have shown a remarkable ability to incorporate diversity.
This description of India is often exhilarating; and it is our dominant mode of self-presentation. But its very attractiveness hides its deep problems. The problem lies with the normative valorisation of diversity itself. Diversity is something to be celebrated and cherished for often it is an indication of other values like freedom and creativity. But diversity has become a source of several intellectual confusions.
Very schematically these are: Diversity is not itself a freestanding moral value. It makes very little sense to discuss diversity as carrying independent moral weight, even though under some circumstances, loss of diversity can be an indication of other underlying injustices. The invocation of diversity immediately invites the question: Diversity of what? This question cannot be answered without invoking some normative criteria about the permissible range of social practices. The limits to diversity cannot themselves be settled by an invocation of diversity.
The appeal to diversity is usually an aestheticised appeal.
It is as if one were surveying the world from nowhere and contemplating this extraordinary mosaic of human cultural forms and practices. Such a contemplation of the world can give enormous enrichment and satisfaction and we feel that something would be lost; perhaps something of humanity would be diminished if this diversity were lost. But the trouble is that this view from nowhere, or if you prefer an alternative formulation, the “god’s eye” view of the world is a standpoint of theoretical, not practical, reason.
Most of us can conceptually grasp the fact of diversity; we may even try to recognise each other in an intense and important way, but it is very difficult to live that diversity with any degree of seriousness. From this theoretical point of view, cultures and practices form this extraordinary mosaic; from the practical point of view of those living within any of these cultures, these cultures and practices are horizons within which they operate. Even when not oppressive, these horizons might appear to them as constraints.
It would be morally obtuse to say to these individuals that they should go on living their cultures, just because their not doing so might diminish the forms of diversity in the world. The imperatives of diversity cannot, at least prima facie, trump the free choices of individuals.
There is often a real tension between the demands of integration into wider society – the imperatives of forming thicker relationships with those outside the ambit of your own society on the one hand, and the measures necessary to preserve a vibrant cultural diversity on the other. What the exact trade-off is depends from case to case. But simply invoking diversity by itself will not help morally illuminate the nature of the decision to be made when faced with such a trade-off.
From this perspective, talk of identity and diversity is profoundly misleading because it places value on the diversity of cultures, not the freedoms of individuals within them.
If the range of freedom expands, all kinds of diversity will flourish anyway. But this will not necessarily be the diversity of well- defined cultures. It will be something that both draws upon culture and subverts it at the same time.
Diversity Talk is compatible with only one specific conception of toleration: segmented and hierarchical toleration. To be fair, India has been remarkably successful at providing a home for all kinds of groups and cultures. But each group could find a place because each group had its fixed place. To put it very schematically, it was a form of toleration compatible with walls between communities.
Indeed, one of the major challenges for Indian society is that we have internalised forms of toleration that are suited to segmented societies. It is compatible with the idea that boundaries should not be crossed, populations should not mix, and that to view the world as a competition between groups is fine.
There is no country in the world that talks so much of diversity. Yet no other country produces such a suffocating discourse of identity; where who you are seems to matter at every turn: what job you can get, what government scheme you are eligible for, how much institutional autonomy you can get, what house you can rent.
Conceptually, there is no incompatibility between celebrating diversity of the nation and refusing to rent housing to a Muslim just because they are Muslim. Such a conception of toleration does not work where the need is for boundaries to be crossed: people will inhabit the same spaces, compete for the same jobs, intermarry and so forth. Our moral discourse is so centred on diversity and pluralism that it forgets the more basic ideas of freedom and dignity.
Excerpted with permission from “India: From Identity to Freedom”, by Pratap Bhanu Mehta, from the book Left, Right and Centre: The Idea of India, edited by Nidhi Razdan, Penguin Viking.