The fact that immensely diverse people have managed to live side by side on this land over centuries, is an undeniable evidence hinting at the multicultural ethos, or in cultural terms - the Ganga-Jamuni Tehzeeb, or in language of Indian constitution - fraternity. An extremely unique and vibrant way of life has evolved on this land after being transformed and metamorphosed over centuries. When one questions whether this Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb is just an overcoat or an elite romance, I’m immediately reminded of the deeply interwoven life of the people here. Ironically when they divide themselves on religious lines, the same business of religion ties them back together. In Lucknow and Agra till date its the muslim artisans who produce the costumes of hindu dieties and export throughout the country. Khan Abdul Gaffaar Khan, aka frontier Gandhi, was not an elite but a man of the soil of North West Frontier Province, who till the end waged against two nation theory in favour of secular India. One need not look into the dining halls of elite class, you’ll find this tehzeeb deeply embedded in the most ordinary faces.
The criticism claiming it to be a myth is grounded on the deeply entrenched communal lines and rising violent skirmishes from time to time. Though I do acknowledge these fault lines which need earnest attention, that doesn’t negate/nullify the multicultural facet of Indian society.
In the post truth world, we suffer from the Rashomon effect. In a deteriorating communal climate, when our current reality says otherwise, we doubt and hence question everything. There’s nothing wrong with questioning. But the problem arises when we seek dichotomy in answers- either it exists or it doesn't. I, on the other hand, think that any value, for instance equality or liberty, are the end goals of any society. They define the long-run aspirations of society. It’ll always be a work in progress, a pursuit to be constantly undertaken. So it’ll be wrong to ask whether any society is really ‘equal’, or ‘liberal’ or ‘multicultural’ in our case. I think a better question would be - how well have we as society performed in our pursuit of fraternal goals.
Ambedkar believed that the graded inequalities and hierarchies in society can only be partly addressed through law. For these hierarchies to go, it’s the people who have to forge a consistent war against them. To kill hatred, you’ll need love. To kill division, you’ll need companionship. To kill strangeness, you’ll need belongingness. “Such a conscience which becomes agitated at every wrong, no matter who suffers.” Such a fellow feeling ‘fellow feeling’ is what makes democracy-a way of living. It will only come when people associate beyond caste and communal lines. Fraternity is cultivated by commonality of experience born out of co-living. Constitution makers could only ensure ‘political democracy’, but for it to become a lived social reality then it’s a project that citizens must pro-actively invest in.
While rummaging for the missing link, to reconcile the contrary political and social reality, I came to the realisation that it is the ‘Adhesive of fraternity’, missing from the debate of political and legal practise, that can provide for explanation. And to arrest these deepening cleavages people will need to act as constable to their much treasured multicultural ethos.
Impediments to fraternal concord
Despite the popular multi-cultural facet of Indian identity, one finds divisive tendency
deeply entrenched and normalised in day-to-day conduct of business. When society is fractured by caste and religion, people confined to live in ghettos, there can be no conjoint community experience. I’ll highlight two such impediments – 1) the issue of housing societies, 2) the issue of inter-marriage.
If one had to imagine the most obvious kind of resistance to growth of fraternal concord, then what form would it take. For ‘other’ to remain ‘other’ and not become ‘we’, it’s essential to preserve ‘strangeness’. i.e., to imagine something which is everything contrary to co-living. I’ll try to highlight such characteristics of Indian housing. The growth of urban spaces was looked at with hope that they’ll become the centre of cosmopolitan culture. But in reality it’s an incomplete project suffering from its own structural issues. In urban spaces (cities and towns), we see, the living spaces are often segregated on the basis of one’s community. For e.g.- there are separate colonies like – Punjabi colonies, baniya colonies, jat colonies, especially in north Indian states. This is a milder form of segregation, but yet has important implications in producing a segregated order. Thus, people develop strong closed bonding within their own community, but get rare opportunities to do so beyond their community. A more solidified form of this tendency, to not merge and mingle with ‘other’ people, can be seen in cases of housing discrimination, and emergence of ghettos. Such occurrences contribute to perpetuating second-class status on a now informal plane, ensuring that the social disadvantages and disabilities continue to endure.
The ghetto sharpens the boundary between the outcast category and the surrounding population by deepening the sociocultural chasm between them: it renders its residents objectively and subjectively more dissimilar from other urban dwellers by submitting them to unique conditionings, so that the patterns of cognition and conduct they fashion have every chance of being perceived by outsiders as singular, exotic, even aberrant which feeds prejudicial beliefs about them. Security and sense of belongingness and the feeling that the society does not accept them, led Muslim to stay within closed communities. It is unconventional to be different, especially when there is a lot of petty politics peeping into the daily lives of Muslims. The ‘choiceless’ nature of choice compels Muslims while making their housing decisions. In the perception of physical security and residential security, Jamia Nagar represents the case of self-segregation.” Living in a multicultural community can be a distant dream for some who don’t belong to the affluent/ elite class. Why ghettoization when the whole country belongs to you? If the reason behind ghettoization doesn’t attack the principle and the idea of India that we imagined then we need to rethink and redefine this idea.
Moving to my second concern, In the book ‘Annihilation of caste’ Ambedkar doubly focused on the importance of inter-marriages, when he remarked “through inter-marriages, the fusion of blood can alone create feelings of kith and kin. Unless the feeling of kinship becomes paramount, the separatist feeling, of being aliens, will not vanish.”
Historically, Love-marriages in India have been viewed as dangerous and subversive. The religious communities are constituted by hierarchically-ranked castes, consisting in turn of kinship groups (gotras), which are ultimately formed of families. These sub groups negotiate status through the institution of arranged marriages. That’s why love marriages are largely perceived as antithetical to the very fabric of social relations, and hence resisted in every form, as Veena Das remarked 'community seeking to colonise the life-world of the individual'. Though the degree of resistance is incremental in following order: inter-regional marriage, inter-caste marriage, inter-faith marriage.
These couples who dare to blur these communal/caste lines pay the cost with their lives. The crime of murder acquires an active character when the couple is murdered by their own parents. It acquires a passive character when they are abetted to a decision of suicide. In true sense, they are the pivots, whose spirit is unbound and unafraid of walls of communities, acting as adhesive for holding the social fabric of this country together. Whatever traces of life is left there in the idea of cosmopolitanism, we owe it to them.
To continue to be the confluence of all waters, to be the melting point of all cultures, we as a society need to imbibe the Ubuntu philosophy- ‘I am, because we are.’ The evil of sectarianism, communalism, casteism, works through a well organised and entrenched system. For a multicultural ethic, to provide any formidable resistance, it cannot be accomplished passively. The goodness of multiculturalism and the people who believe in it, needs to be equally and rather more, organised. Only a constant and proactive resistance, which exhausts all means possible, can arrest the momentum of homogenising and divisive forces.