Multiethnic and pluralist states here to stay

Pluralist states are a legitimate form of state organisation. Yet, do we properly understand the viability of this form of state structure  in the twenty first century? This article unravels the values inherent in multiethnic and pluralistic states and the source of  their legitimacy.

Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra
25 March 2014

The escalating situation in Ukraine is a matter of concern, as it has implications not only for Ukraine but for the international community at large. The main argument regarding Ukraine is: secession of Crimea is unconstitutional. The referendum was not approved by the Ukrainian parliament, nor does international law approve of such a referendum and consequent secession. Russia’s argument is: the overthrow of the democratically elected Yanukovich government was unconstitutional. In regards to Crimea, Russia argues that there is the Kosovo precedent. These are complicated issues. Evidently, Crimea is not Kosovo and there are many differences between the two successions.

I am strongly in favour of multiethnic and pluralist states. After Kosovo’s independence, I was among those who argued that Kosovo would not be a good model for other states with similar problems. Following Kosovo’s independence, the separatists in Kashmir called for a referendum in Kashmir, over which India and Pakistan are locked in a bitter rivalry. In the case of Kashmir, the referendum may appear more logical than Kosovo, since the United Nations had recommended the procedure to which both the rivals had agreed. Now, they have different positions on the issue.

Can a state be monistic? I am using the word ‘monistic’ – primarily a theological and philosophical term – in its broadest sense to mean that the basis of a state has only one identity traditionally defined – religion, race, ethnicity, etc. Should all states be monistic? In the modern, globalized world, can a state’s identity be related purely to one race, religion or ethnicity? As one of the political leaders in the twentieth century opined, pure race is a myth – there is no such thing as a pure race. The matter seems obvious in the case of religion (though every religion has many sects, factions, etc.), but this may not be possible with regards to ethnicity.

There is one perspective of monism which is important to any discussion on pluralist states. This perspective notes that if we make/restructure states on the basis of monism, we will have an increase of states on the international scene. The counter argument may however also be true. We may have fewer states than we have now. The question is – is it possible? And how far will it help to better organize diverse communities?

The answers to these questions are not simple. Identities clash. Some religions may believe that religion should be the sole basis of state formation and state boundary – other identities are subsidiary to religious identity. The application of this kind of logic is far-reaching. Take the case of India. It has a population belonging to all religions. India has Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Jainas. It has hundreds of languages, though its constitution gives official status to about two dozen languages, and it contains multiethnic communities. Due to these myriad diversities some analysts prefer to refer to India as a multinational state.

If we apply the logic of monistic states to India, then India would need to be divided into dozens of states. One of the founders of modern India, Jawaharlal Nehru, was fond of arguing that India is as diverse as it is united. This is famously known as unity in diversity.

To the north east of India, China also has a population that is richly diverse. From Tibet in the south east or Xinjiang in the north east, the people inhabiting these regions are different from the Han Chinese. And if you go to the north of China there is Russia. Though Slavic Russians rule the country, the population belonging to different religions and races has grown tremendously. Some reports suggest that cities like Moscow may have a Muslim majority population in 30 or 40 years. Russia has an array of diverse communities belonging to multiple races, religions, languages and ethnicity. Russia has Chechens, Tatars, and Ingush ethnic communities.  While Russia is often identified with Orthodox Christianity, there are also individuals practicing Islam, Buddhism, and indeed Shamanism.

Across the Bering Strait from Russia is the United States of America, perhaps the most diverse country in the world. Many different religions, cultural practices, identities, and beliefs are found in the USA. People migrate to the country every year, mingle with the people and its richness, and in turn enrich it. In my opinion, the founders of the country were great visionaries and could foresee that in order to develop and prosper the country must adopt diversity and pluralism, instead of monism. Hence, when one says one's identity is American, the term embodies in itself notions of diversity, multi-ethnicity and pluralism. Think of America or the US – and this does not imply a specific religion, race, color or ethnicity. Barack Obama before becoming President told an audience that the US is not black America or white America; it is the United States of America. Arguing in a Durkheimian way, America has emerged as a new identity – but that identity is multiethnic and pluralistic.

We know that Europe champions multiethnicism and pluralism, despite many debates. In fact the European Union is an embodiment of these values.

The question is - is it possible to have more monistic states in a globalized and interconnected world? Will the attempts to create monistic states lead to more violence as seen in some parts of the world? The answer to this question has to be yes. Multiethnic and pluralist states are here to stay. They should, in my opinion, be the hallmark of the twenty-first century. Religion, ethnicity, race, and other identity markers all have their purpose in a pluralist civil society. And particularly in the context of state building, arguments favoring monism have increasingly proved obsolete, even devastating.

Of coruse there is nothing simple about the result. What about the oppression of a minority community by a majority community in a state, which calls itself pluralist and multiethnic? We must hope that minority and majority communities within a state can resolve their differences. The majority community needs to come forward and enable power sharing with the minority community. The developments in some conflict zones in which minority protests have been violently crushed is tragic. There should be fair laws protecting individuals and communities against discrimination – whether they belong to the majority or minority. The law must be fair.

International organizations, particularly the United Nations, have a meaningful role to play in reinforcing multiethnic and pluralist values. In my opinion, what is required are international norms and values, which are reinforced by international organizations and governing institutions. However, this rests on the premise that the countries with most power reach a consensus. This is possible if states with power in the international community do not transgress UN laws, and learn to enforce international laws even if they do not suit their supposed national interest.  

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