The unity of ideology could not keep the communists politically united, thus leading to the creation of two entities — the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India
While delivering the keynote address at an event recently, noted political commentator S Gurumurthy questioned the efficacy of the much-acclaimed slogan, “Unity in diversity’, and suggested that ‘Harmony in diversity’ would be a more apt rallying point, at least in the Indian context. He was speaking at a seminar on the subject, ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam: Relevance of India’s Ancient Thinking to Contemporary Strategic Reality’, organised by the Delhi-based Vivekananda International Foundation.
In the south, parties supposedly united in the Dravidian cause are at loggerheads with each other
It is a valid observation. It was independent India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru who had enthusiastically adopted the ‘unity’ slogan to reflect the ‘oneness’ of India in the midst of various differences in language, region, culture etc. But, like with many other Western concepts that had mesmerised him — his idea of secularism, for instance — this too had problems in fitting into the Indian paradigm.
The Italian Nobel prize winner, Ernesto Teodoro, was the first in modern times to adopt the motto, In Varietate Concordia/In Varietate Unitas. Various others, including nations and societies, later latched on to the bewitching slogan, quite forgetting the impracticality inherent through the oxymoronic expression of ‘unity’ and ‘diversity’. In the Indian context, this impracticality became even more pronounced, though it has failed elsewhere too.
There was unity of religion in Pakistan, and yet the country got divided. There was unity of ideology in the Soviet Union, but the Soviets were fragmented into several independent nations. There is unity of religion in the Islamic world, and still many of them are in violent conflict with one another. Back home, the unity of ideology could not keep the communists politically united, thus leading to the creation of two entities — the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
At the people level in India, there has been no real unity in the face of a diverse nature. Regional conflicts and religious frictions have been common. In the south, parties supposedly united in the Dravidian cause are at loggerheads with each other. This is because we have for decades stressed on ‘unity’, quite forgetting that ‘harmony’ is the key to a conflict-free society. Unity does not necessarily lead to harmony. It’s the other way around — harmony can pave the path to unity, though the caveat is that there is really no need to hanker for a ‘unity’ that does not unite. We have sought to unite without harmonising the various diverse strands of our people.
We, in India, have a diversity of faith. Over the decades, these faiths have strengthened their roots here and some have even been fortified through special laws which ensure the protection of that diversity
The penchant to push for unity has led us to the promotion of another term, ‘tolerance’. It has been presumed that tolerance is the key to unity. Not surprisingly, that too hasn’t worked, because of a flawed understanding of the word. The Cambridge dictionary explains tolerance as follows: ‘Willingness to accept behaviour and beliefs that are different from your own, although you might not agree with or approve of them.’ The Oxford dictionary has this definition:’The ability or willingness to tolerate the existence or behaviour that one dislikes or disagrees with.’ Note here that none of two explanations has the term, ‘respect’, ingrained. This is where the problem lies, not just semantically but also in practice.
Indeed, the origin of ‘tolerance’ has a negative connotation. The Late Middle English referred to tolerance as the ability to bear hardship, or the ability to bear pain and hardship — the Latin Tolerntia provides that reference. In definition after definition, therefore, tolerance is not something that is a voluntary virtue, but a sense of acceptance without one’s heart in it.
One can tolerate pain, but one does not respect it. One can tolerate betrayal, but there is no endorsement of that. Tolerance, therefore, has an element of condescension. If one is tolerant towards another faith, it does not mean that one respects that faith; the limited meaning, both in the books and on the ground (which we see in our lives experiences) is that one lives with it as one would with something unpalatable because circumstances do not offer an option. So long as this state of mind remains, conflicts are inevitable.
When the level of unity is dependent on the level of tolerance which does not inculcate respect, the end result cannot be anything beyond less than inadequate. We ought to have, thus, promoted and publicised over the decades the need to ‘respect’ diversity rather than to ‘tolerate’ it. That respect would have led to a sense of harmony in society — a harmony which, as opposed to unity, could have been a more enduring glue.
We, in India, have a diversity of faith. Over the decades, these faiths have strengthened their roots here and some have even been fortified through special laws which ensure the protection of that diversity. Many spiritual leaders drawn from different faiths have endured to bring about ‘unity’ within and among different belief systems. Yet that unity has been elusive, primarily because the project to harmonise — which imbibes respect, not mere tolerance — has not got the attention it deserves. The key part of harmony is to bring about an agreement despite differences. The Cambridge dictionary defines ‘harmonise’ in the following words: ‘To bring about ideas, feelings, or actions into an agreement or to be a pleasing combination of different parts.’ Oxford dictionary too stresses on the aspect of making something ‘consistent’ or ‘compatible’. Harmony has its origins in music, where various musicians, with their different instruments, string or percussion, eventually get together to produce a single melodious rendition.
Our policymakers, the academia, the media and various other people who have the power to influence, will have to understand the potency of ‘harmony’, and they must stop chasing the mirage of ‘unity’. When even in the West, where cultural diversities within a given nation, are far less as compared to India, ‘unity’ has been a frustrating exercise, why must India continue to walk down that path — especially when the option of ‘harmony’ holds greater potential?