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Embracing differences

Publication Date : 26-12-2013


Tribe against tribe and Muslims against Christians in Africa; sect against sect (Sunni against Shia or Ahmadias and so on) in the Muslim world; Hindus against Muslims and high castes against lower castes in India; Buddhist Sinhalese against Hindu Tamils in Sri Lanka; and Buddhists against Rohingya Muslims in Burma.

These are only some of the examples of differences that are wreaking havoc in the non-Western world.

Divide and rule

Even though behind all this, one ethnicity or another’s control over the state is at stake, these non-Western societies have not been able to cope with their differences or the idea of being different.

Much of this inability to understand, respect and tolerate differences is the result of European colonialism but the rest is self-inflicted. "Divide-and-rule" might have been part of Europe’s colonial policy to exploit differences in their colonies, but Europe simply imported it from its own violent ways to deal with diversity in its own medieval as well as modern history. This was especially true after the birth of its peculiar brand of subsuming, homogenising, monoculturalising nationalism, whose extreme form manifested as fascism and nazism. 

But even Europe’s majoritarian democracies, caught in the grip of the homogenous idea of a nation, had an inveterate intolerance for minorities. Anglicans for Puritans, on one hand, and Catholics, on another (including the Irish) in England; the idea of fraternity, equality and liberty in enlightened France was did not jive with the diversity within its own European sub-regions, such as Burgundy and other sub-regions with local cultures and languages; let alone France’s dealings with non-European groups from the former colonies (Switzerland and Belgium had earlier on recognised their differences as "irreconcilable", and so demarcated cantons and multilinguality as a permanent settlement).

Schools of differences

But since the sixties, in the wake of the Civil Rights movements in the United States, the West "woke up", albeit reluctantly, to the idea of multiculturalism, to recognise and respect differences, not just a reluctant government policy (one only needs to hear British Prime Minister David Cameron’s pronouncements on multiculturalism).

In fact, governments formed based on majority votes could hardly be expected to pave the way in embracing diversity. It was the universities that led the charge in the study of cultural diversity, and pushed for public recognition and respect for differences of all kinds — ethnicity, race, religion, gender, sexuality and even languages.

In other words, it is not just politics that work to resolve tensions and conflicts arising from differences. In fact, politics follow pressures by academics and informed activism in universities, where curriculum and extracurricular activities specifically address differences by promoting critical thinking.

For example, the university where I teach has two core courses mandatory for first-year college students — Culture and Civilisation, offered by the history department, and Diversity, by the Sociology Department, The goal is to inculcate awareness among students by helping them think critically about diversity.

Besides, undergraduate curriculums in many universities in the United States is built from first to senior year to include mandatory courses in general education to inculcate understanding of cultural diversity in the US and of the world beyond.

My colleagues would be horrified if I told them how differences in caste and religion was viewed in my undergraduate college located on the banks of the Ganges in north India in the late seventies and early eighties, probably even now, as caste and religious identities seem to have hardened in India. 

Politics has its own logic. Democracies have majorities or powerful minorities. Dictatorships have their own ideas of powerful minorities at the helms of governments at the expense of ethnic majorities. And in South Asia, India’s example is given with pride by both scholars and intellectuals as a polity that has successfully addressed diversity through politics. The rise of Mayawati, Lalu, Nitish and the forces they have unleashed are cited as examples of the miracles of democracy.

A technical education

But the problem in India is that the rest of its society has failed to address differences deliberately and systematically, beyond individual instances of goodwill. The media in India raises the issue of diversity whenever a crisis occurs, such as a riot or some outrageous event such as the Delhi rape case in 2012 and the death of a young woman as teachable lessons.

But the media, dependent on sound bites, ad money and run mostly by privileged groups, can do only so much.

Higher education in South Asia, especially India, has voiced out over its standard of science and engineering education, but failed to address differences in the curriculum. Its moribund curriculum, exams based on rote learning, and overall lack of awareness of the importance of the humanities and social sciences to address not just the universal human condition in its abstraction but diversity in its concrete manifestation has made the entire society totally dependent on politics to address the issues of differences.

Democracy politics alone has severe limitations in handling diversity because of its need for votes, swaying voter opinion by hook or crook, rarely by rationale, logical, complex explanations.

The outcome has been such that young men and women emerge from their institutes of higher learning equipped with modern education, but still holding tight to their primeval prejudices when it comes to the areas of caste, ethnicity, religion and gender. This is the major reason why cultural differences still spark so much violence in the non-Western world overall, not just in South Asia or Nepal.


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