Serial Bus

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The Unbearable Lightness of Diversity

with 4 comments

I remember, as a child, one of the favorite lessons in the classroom was about how India is a great country because we represent unity in diversity. Take our national anthem ‘Jana Gana Mana’ that elegantly evokes different regions of India, combine that with Iqbal’s assertion ‘Sare Jahan Se Achcha’ and we have a very powerful cause-and-effect relationship. In India, we have come to idolize our diversity, holding it dear to our hearts and yet inexplicably, we claim to have a common destiny.

In this post, I argue against the increasingly lofty ideal of diversity. I believe the costs of maintaining and acknowledging diversity far outweigh any benefits we derive from it, especially in the context of a developing democracy. I am not against diversity per se but I argue here that preservation of diversity need not be our avowed goal and loss of diversity may actually be helpful oftentimes. While I do that, I am also trying to inspire some skepticism towards what is often held as a ‘sacred truth’. Let me also hasten to clarify that I do not intend to rant about individual forms of diversity like disability, gender, political leanings and sexual orientation. I am limiting my analysis to those collective motifs of diversity that are not essential to anyone’s survival and core identity. In the immediate context of India, the most celebrated bases of our national diversity are language, religion and culture.

My central thesis is that the private and public cost of catering to myriad groups of people is staggering, the schisms created by radically diverse interests are deep, the task of development is ridden with partisan ideologies and most of the benefits of a potpourri population are dispensable.

With over 1,500 dialects and 22 official languages that India is home to, our national linguistic scene reminds me of the biblical story of Babel. When God realized that men were building a tower to reach the heaven, He used his sorcery to achieve the best non-violent way to stop this development. He waved his wand and suddenly every worker on the tower spoke a different language. Once communication became tortuous, the first casualty was the tower.

Consider modern India a magnified version of Babel. Different voices, different sounds; how do you harmonize and develop in unison? As a reprieve, we had English. But that was seen as a symbol of foreign domination, so our government valiantly tried to impose Hindi on every Venkat, Jignesh and Debashish. It was a foul and stupid plan that was doomed to fail because people value freedom over development. It did fail miserably. As a result, we now accommodate every possible language. Road signs and government gazettes have to be created in at least 2 languages everywhere, in some cases even 3 or 4. I remember seeing some signs in Delhi that were in Hindi (the supposed national language), Punjabi (local vernacular), Urdu (don’t know why) and English (for all those who don’t understand the first 3). Unilever has to perhaps create multiple ads in multiple themes to sell the same damn soap in Tamil Nadu, UP, Bengal & Gujarat.

Consider religion. I am not suggesting that people from different religions can’t coexist peacefully however we could rule out a big potential cause of differences if all people belonged to the same faith. Experience over centuries has shown us that religion is a powerful force for most people – blind belief in a specific conception of God is an affliction that even education can not cure. Many of India’s issues can be traced to religion – notably, the 2-nation theory that divided India in 1947 was based on religion, Khalistan, riots against Christian missionaries and Kashmir. Arguably, it can’t be said that if all people belonged to one faith, there would be everlasting peace. People in largely homogeneous societies (Iceland, Scandinavia, Japan, some LatAm countries) also engage in conflicts however there are of a less severe form and are certainly not inspired by differences about who created the universe.

Having written until here, I am instinctively revolting against my own diatribes against diversity. One of the chief reasons I love India is its mind-boggling diversity. Travel just 100 miles and you are in a different world – language changes, food changes, level of development changes, attires and lifestyles change. But for some fixtures like Indian Railways, government offices, cricket and movie posters, one would think there are several countries abutting each other. On the other hand, I feel somewhat bored when travel in the US – more or less the same airports, same brands, same Inter-states, same language and same level of development.

If you noticed, the truth is hidden in the above lines. Too much diversity is co-related to uneven development. This co-relation is intuitive as sameness of language, religion and culture leads to sameness of aspirations which allows consistency in developmental priorities. US offers sameness in several things including a high level of development. Agreed, there is a rust belt in the US, but it does not differ as much from its North-east as India’s BIMARU states differ from an industrial Gujarat or a prosperous Punjab.

Many of us, including myself, cherish diversity because of the cultural richness it offers. Such pride is closely related to touristic pleasure and subtly smacks of exclusive elitism. In this world, the spectator wants everything exotic (e.g. tribal cultures, handicrafts, ancient arts & customs) to survive for future generations, regardless of whether people practicing the exotica are better off moving on to a modern sameness. Imagine a hilly village where people still use dung-cake for cooking, tend cattle, crush grain using old manual instruments, attend a weekly farmers’ bazaar and rely on the resident Sanskrit-trained pundit for all rituals. Well-heeled tourists staying at a nearby luxury resort would come visiting and find everything very ‘quaint’ and would rue the fact that a road is being built to connect the village with the outside world and electricity is also in the works. Development brings choices to marginal societies, and in their effort to benefit by merging with the mainstream, their diversity gives way to sameness. If development comes at the cost of diversity, is it still desirable? City-dwellers and prosperous folks may pause before answering but ask the impoverished masses and they will approve resoundingly.

Yet, as a society, we loose something unique when this happens. The cost of such a loss is largely psychological and is felt by only those who had been tickled by the existence of the outliers. Overtime, with newer generations, such loss is forgotten and rationalized. Recently, Marie Smith, the last speaker of the Eyak language, died in her native Alaska at 89. Like several other languages that have been lost over the ages, nobody knows Eyak anymore. Does it matter? May be we lost some folk songs and some interesting idioms but surely, Marie’s progeny is better off knowing English. Economics always trumps the feel-good factor of knowing one’s mother-tongue. Some may argue that a language also preserves knowledge gained over generations (in the Indian tradition, this is called Shruti – the Heard) but in today’s day and age, if the knowledge is useful and marketable, someone will take the effort of translating it into a vernacular before it is impossible. That has happened with several Sanskrit treatises and epics.

There is a fine line between acknowledging that diversity is not always useful and in seeking conformity forcefully. I agree that rationalizing the need for homogeneity is the first step that ultimately leads to barbaric events like Holocaust, Apartheid, Cultural Revolution in China and some genocides in Africa in recent years. However, they are still separate constructs and we, as a people, should have the courage to recognize them as such.

We know that some level of diversity is inevitable due to the nature of our environment and society. We also know that diversity does increasingly give way to sameness, as communication and development allow people to join the mainstream. We should welcome such change.


Written by serialbus

December 6, 2008 at 7:11 pm

4 Responses

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  1. Another Good read. I also ponder about similar things about our nation all the time. I also wonder how much of this diversity has lasted throughout our history and if what we have now is the product that survived best


    December 6, 2008 at 7:48 pm

  2. I highly doubt an article like this would be written by you were Hindi the extinct language. It is easy for a majority to make elitist claims. You are scoffing at Western tourists for their elitism but you are not recognizing the elitism of the Hindu minority and their attempts to homogenize India and rid it of its diversity, which is its wealth.


    December 7, 2008 at 8:31 pm

  3. Sorry I mean Hindu majority


    December 7, 2008 at 8:32 pm

  4. My apology, I fail to agree with you. Though I agree that it is potential cause of conflict, I find it hard to fathom the inverse relationship between diversity & development that you claim to establish. For example ,singapore is one the most developed & diverse nation in asia. Metros are the most developed & also the most diverse parts of India.


    December 11, 2008 at 11:31 am

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