Dealing with diversity the North-American way

Being ‘caste-blind’ in economically shining India might be a wonderful way to fight caste-demarcations in urban mega-centres. But, being ‘culture-blind’ could prove very short-sighted in the long run. A reply to Rajeev Bhargava
Shilpa Kameswaran
11 April 2011

In an extended argument entitled, ‘States, religious diversity, and the crisis of secularism’ by Rajeev Bharghava, published by openDemocracy on March 22, the author makes an emphatic case for how ‘secularism’ in western democracies - particularly the United States of America and France - could positively benefit by flexibly assimilating into their secular systems alternative and unique ingredients and instruments of Indian ‘religious’ secularism. The author argues that ‘deep religious diversity has ensured a conceptual response not only to problems within religions but also between religions in India’ and that it has encouraged the Indian state to have a passive respect for religion and people’s various religious ethics.

However, when the Indian state and its institutions have ‘passive’ respect for co-existing religious ethics, whose responsibility is it to formally protect, promote and preserve ‘positive’ cultural diversity? Are there not perils attached to the lack of institutional diversity creation in a nation as heterogeneous as India?  I want to argue in response that India in spite of its approach to secularism has more than a few lessons to learn from the formal institutional diversity creation practiced in North-America, the latter contributing to a significant extent to what I would defend as the more deeply-rooted ideology of ‘secularism’ in that country.

Labelling the Indian sub-continent as an ethnically ‘diverse’ country would be a gross understatement. It is often unmistakably challenging to explain to a foreign national or even to an Indian resident the functioning complexities of the hereditary Hindu caste system and the exaggerated existence of ethnicities in India. Similarly the North-American continent in its purest sense is a multifarious medley of human ethnicities: as much effort goes into  fostering the homogenous American spirit in this endless heterogeneity as it does into protecting, promoting and providing for this ethnic heterogeneity. Diversity creation and sensitivity are deservedly issues of gravity and seriousness in institutional North-America. Corporate enterprises, educational institutions, hospitals, government undertakings and private firms all expend considerable resources and effort in providing diversity training and best practices.

Diversity is optimally defined by Merriam Webster as “the condition of having or being composed of differing elements, the inclusion of different types of people (as in people of different races or cultures) in a group or organization.” In the United States, the common man can access mountains of publicly accessible documents giving detailed diversity employment data based on occupational strata in federal organizations, in corporations, higher educational institutions, the health sector and in small and mid-sized businesses and industries. The US Department of Interior Office for Equal Opportunity lists the Civil Rights Liberties and explains in detail how to file an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint. At a micro level it is nearly mandatory for an organization to have in place diversity-promoting groups: a fine example is the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business which has in place 21 official diversity groups including a Latin American Business Group, South Asian Business Group, Korean Business Group, Gays and Lesbians Business Group, Middle-Eastern and African Business Group and many more. These formal student organizations in turn interact with the corresponding diversity and cultural groups in giant corporations during recruitment processes across various cities in the US.

In this manner a backward-forward linkage of diversity networks is built up and a keen effort made to create a diverse workforce, and to install pride in the varied ethnic populace that migrates to make North America their home. In North America, you are an American first but you are an American because you can be a liberal, free Asian, Palestinian or Nigerian celebrating your ‘Asian-ness’, ‘Jewish-ness’ and ‘African-ness’ alongside your patriotism.

Hispanics and Africans in North-America are intensely aware and proud of their roots and histories in the larger context of American history itself. However, the Indian Diaspora in the US takes rather more pride in being a banker or an ivy-league graduate than in being from India historically, socially, politically and most importantly ethnically.

Let us turn to diversity data in corporate and urban India. I could find almost nothing apart from government statistics for ‘reservation’ and ‘quotas’ for the Schedule Castes/Schedule Tribes (SC/STs) and Other Backward Castes (OBCs). In India ethnic sensitization solely revolves around the twin arguments of instituting ‘caste based-affirmative action’ and dissolving ‘caste-based discrimination’. The exercise of formal diversity creation is a far-fetched ideal in urban and corporate India and unfortunately, diversity is mainly reduced to standing for the ‘genderization’ or ‘feminization’ of a predominantly patriarchal society and polity.

In present day India little institutional or scholarly effort is made to  make accessible the many political, social and economic issues of ‘diversity creation’ and ‘diversity comprehension’ for the billions making up this outward-looking liberal economy. There is zilch of institutional effort in ‘celebrating’ regional histories, regional cultures and regional ethnicities in order to disseminate greater sensitivity to ethnic roots. Major efforts by the government are pretty well confined to keeping up with colonial Britain’s administrative aesthetics and carrying out a humongous decennial census at ten-year intervals to track demographic trends in the country.

Only very recently the Indian Government agreed to include a tally of all socially stratified castes in its 2011 census. Shockingly, the last time castes and sub-castes were officially measured and accounted for was 80 years ago in 1931 while under the rule of the British Raj. As the government prepares to unveil the sensitive caste counts in a few months time, raging debates in national dailies and international journals of repute circle around the consequences of the caste-based census on ‘vote-bank politics’, as well as on the ‘semi-literate’ and ‘illiterate’, economically-backward populations of agrarian and rural India.

Peculiarly in these popular discussions there is no mention of the merit-based corporate Indians and the literate urban masses. As a social-science researcher, I am convinced that to actively partake in participative democracy a truly empowered citizen needs to know her or his ethnic roots and build a sense of awareness and tolerance for others’ ethnic backgrounds. Yet, the case in present day India is that the millions of students in semi-urban and urban India who attend private schools, with English as their  medium of instruction, and graduate from technical institutions expecting to work hard as professionals and well-off consumers  - take no pride in their own or each others’ ethnic identities except while they seek matrimonial partners. Even if we assume that each of them finds his or her way through society on individual merit, aspiration and occupational networks, shouldn’t they also be concerned about diversity creation and integration?

I have worked my way across the urban centres of three continents - India, Europe and the United States - and it has been a matter of great interest  to me that most Indians I’ve met of my own generation primarily associate their roots with an Indian city and almost never with an ethnic group. Moreover, they are most comfortable speaking in the Indian national native tongues of Hindi and English and rarely in their personal native tongues of Assamese, Oriya, Kannada or Gujrathi. Amidst the young urban elite and middle-classes, discussions on caste, community and ethnicity are clearly a taboo.

Is this social behaviour a consequence of sixty years of policy in post-independent India? Or does it arise from a lack of the necessary muscular judicial and other institutions to formally protect, preserve and promote ethnic diversity? Are big jazzy banks in Mumbai’s financial districts embarrassed to let their tens of thousands of employees know that there are no Tamil Dalit or migrant Manipuri directors on their board? Even worse - that there are no physically disabled or women directors on their board?

The SIL International Ethnologe lists 415 living languages in India, 29 of which are spoken by more than a million Indians and 24 other individual languages which are spoken by 100,000 to a million native speakers. Sadly, Indian children in Punjab could graduate from high-school not knowing that Kannada is the regional language of Karnataka state or not knowing that India has 26 official languages. By contrast, as the population of Hispanics and Chinese increase in North America, white American children seek to learn Spanish and Mandarin along with English. It is a gloomy situation when only graduate students of Indian Sociology know the existence of the Indo-Aryan, DravidianTibeto-Burman and Austro-Asiatic ethnic groups in South-Asia and only graduate students of Indian history know the regional and ethnic histories to each of these groups.

Being ‘caste-blind’ in economically shining India might be a wonderful way to fight caste-demarcations in urban mega-centers. But, being ‘culture-blind’ could also prove very short-sighted in the long run.

For a nation which has slowly and only recently recovered from 180 years of submission to white English supremacy and bureaucracy, ethnically egalitarian values are hard to put in practice privately and publicly. In such circumstances, prescribed ‘diversity education’ might be the only way to formally teach every Indian the fierce pride in being an Oriya, Kashmiri, Malayalee, Mizo and Konkani while working together in South-Mumbai’s Nariman Point skyscrapers and while living together in East-Mumbai’s un-posh Chembur neighbourhood.  

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