Last week in the United Kingdom a 50-pence Diversity Built Britain coin was entered into circulation, the first in a series to honour ethnic minorities and recognise the contribution of minority communities to the shared history of the country. The coin was launched after discussions with the We Too Built Britain campaign, which demands persons of colour, different races and ethnic figures be acknowledged on bank notes. Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, has asked the Royal Mint to come up with proposals.
A number of ethnic minorities have made Britain their home, of whom a significant number are South Asian, including Indian. Yet the real import of these developments is its crushing effect on the idea that a “clash of civilisations”—the theory first propounded by Samuel Huntington—will determine geopolitics and national developments around the world.
Huntington proposed that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, civilisations will not just be in conflict but collide. “It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilisations. The clash of civilisations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilisations will be the battle lines of the future,” he proposed in 1993. This theory dominated the global scene, particularly in the aftermath of 9/11. Osama bin Laden called 9/11 “jihad” and George Bush launched an attack on Afghanistan calling it a crusade, while Tony Blair attributed to the “divine” the western attacks on sovereign nations.
The theory provided United States and its allies an ideological cover for their misadventures abroad, which were primarily driven by lust for control over oil. The “clash” theory was a neat justification for violations by countries that have always sought to control global resources—what earlier took the form of colonisation emerged as the neo-imperialist forces which influence the global economy.
At an ideological level, the finest retort to the clash thesis came from the then President of India, Dr KR Narayanan, who said, “civilisations don’t clash, it is barbarisms which clash”.
The United Nation led by Kofi Annan appointed a high level international committee to come up with a fresh and clear understanding of our world and recommend measures to restore amity among nations, cultures and people. Their report, released in November 2006 is a landmark in many ways. Called Alliance of Civilisations, this global study, describes the role of migrations by diverse communities in building nations through alliances at multiple levels.
For instance, Christianity arrived in India right in the first century, already finding different religious traditions—Jainism, Buddhism present. Islam came to India’s Malabar coast through Arab traders in the 7th-8th centuries, and later many renounced the varna-caste system to embrace Islam, especially through Sufi saints. Invaders also arrived in the North West, seeking power and wealth. Buddhism spread to South East Asian countries, and Indians also migrated, mostly for trade and employment or seeking greener pastures. The United Kingdom has an abundant number of migrants from India, as do North America, Canada, and now also Australia. Earlier, Indians migrated to island nation, including Mauritius, among other places, in a variety of circumstances.
Migrating communities do not become monoliths in the countries they arrive in. Most feel nostalgic for their country of origin, and relate to the societies of their adoptive homes in different ways. For example, a large number of Indians in West Asia, particularly in Gulf region, are a diverse lot. Here in India, sectarian elements uphold the sentiments of Non-Resident Indians, but look upon the minorities (chiefly Muslims and Christians) in their own country as foreigners. There is great diversity within the Hindu fold too. All our literature, art and architecture is a mix of contributions from multiple streams.
That is why India’s diversity is considered multi-factorial and taking place at different levels. Different communities have been living and celebrating this diversity. Religious festivals have been a strong platform for community-level interactions. In the religious field, the Bhakti and Sufi traditions have upheld diversity too. While the “melting pot model” of cultural integration does apply, partly, diversity has also been compared to a “salad bowl”, a model where each of the different components of a diversity are visible, maintain their independence, and are still are part of the whole.
Our literature, for example, mirrors this social reality and tells us of the diversity which has always prevailed here. The same diversity formed the base of the freedom movement, in which each component of diversity took its rightful place.
In contrast to those who participated in the national movement, the communal streams, which also prevailed in India, went for monolithic concepts such as “Urdu-Muslim-Pakistan” and matching “Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan”. The leaders of India’s freedom movement upheld this diversity as a strength, and coined phrases such as “unity in diversity”. One of the paramount leaders of the freedom movement, Jawaharlal Nehru, who also became the first prime minister, expressed diversity as a celebration in his magnum opus, The Discovery of India.
Today, ironically, we need to learn one thing from the United Kingdom. If after its history of the recent decades and years it can still recognise, appreciate and uphold the role of minorities, a similar acceptance for diversity can once again pave the path to peace and progress in India as well.
The author is a social activist and commentator. The views are personal.