UNITY IN DIVERSITY: Observing the year of India’s 75th Independence Anniversary

“Ek Bharat Shreshtha Bharat” is an Indian national and cultural integration program that is being observed in Trinidad and Tobago and other parts of world. Here, in Trinidad and Tobago, reflections are around the theme of “Unity in Diversity.” August 15, 2021 marked India’s 75th year as an independent country, after some 200 years of British rule, and reflections continue into this year.
As we in the Caribbean reflect with India and reflect on our colonised past and present, we remember the pillage of colonization; the pains, loss of life, exploitation and dehumanisation of Indians, Africans, Chinese, Portuguese, and others who were brought to this part of the world as bonded and slave labour under European capitalism.
India fought for Independence with the weapons of peace, non-violence, and sometimes with violent resistance, as in the First War of Independence in 1847, that started with an Indian uprising against the British armed forces. The country gained political independence from the British on August15, 1947, after some 200 years of British rule.
In my reflections on the theme of “Unity in Diversity,” I see the flip side of “Diversity in Unity.” When I first went to Benares, India as a college student in 1973, I saw civilization’s oldest alongside the newest. I find the example of bicycles on a Banaras main street a powerful metaphor for describing India’s Unity in Diversity. So, I am on the street waiting to cross over. I see what looks like hundreds of bicycles going in one direction, and even more in the opposite direction. And more folks are trying to weave their bicycles into the many undefined lanes of traffic. One makes space for the other to merge. And if the cow is on the road, you have to ride around the cow. She rules.
Western eyes see India as cows, caste, curry and chaos. I saw great compassion, accommodation, respect for all life forms, and an ancient and wise civilisation whose knowledge systems are applicable in all spheres of life, especially science.
Aside from college life, I stayed with families and in ashramas, and rarely in hotels on my several visits to India. So, I got a peek into the heart of India – an ancient heart that beats within an ever-renewing body. India is not a land where binaries hold sway. Instead, all shades of differences hold sway. Does India have challenges in managing ancient and contemporary realities wherein hostile and harmonious forces operate? Of course it does, and as the world’s largest democracy, it is doing a remarkable job. Management of diversity seems easier in autocratic and theocratic societies, where homogeneity is the order – one way to dress, one religion, etc. India was never, and can never be that, as I see it, for that is not the Indian ethos…
I learned to appreciate India’s diversity from within its domestic space. I became an insider. One must give respect and earn trust to enter new spaces, and I did that. It was easy, because my DNA tests say I am approximately half north-Indian and half south-Indian.
Ancient India demonstrated respect for diversity when their intellectuals reflected on the purpose of life, pain and suffering, the afterlife, the nature of the atman, paramatman, moksha, etc. Satyam eva Jayate (Truth alone Triumphs), India’s national motto, demonstrates the highest respect for Truth in the existential and cosmic sense. India gave the world the sad-darshanas or six systems of philosophy for viewing life. Most of these systems believe in God, while some don’t. Can you imagine believers in God living in harmony with non-believers in any God? Well, it’s been happening in India since antiquity.
Main religions in India include: Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, Buddhism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism (Parsis), Judaism, and the Adivasis.
Jains are one of the oldest dharma communities in India, dating back to some 3,000 years. They are atheistic, and retain their distinct identity in India’s diversity. They are unique in the world in how they practise ahimsa. They are India’s smallest community (just 0.4 percent of the population), yet they are more highly educated and wealthier than Indians overall, and few identify as lower jatis/varnas (caste is a Portuguese and erroneous categorisation of communities in India. The preferable term is jati/varna and approximate to “community” or “clan”).
Did you know that India has small African communities? Some were called habshis, and I recall that word here in Trinidad. So, perhaps some habshis came as indentured Indians?
Persecuted Parsis fled Iran around the tenth century because they could not practise their religion. They were welcomed in Gujarat, and though a tiny community, they have a literacy rate of 98 percent, and are among the wealthiest in India.
Word War II pushed Polish refugees to India. The colonisers had drained India’s wealth, and the country was fighting for its political Independence. Yet, The Maharaja of Nawanagar opened his summer palace to some 15,000 war-ravaged and displaced children.
The Jews are one the world’s most persecuted peoples. They have a long history in India. Many came to India as refugees, but today their numbers are greatly reduced due to migration to Israel. They are also a very wealthy minority group, with high positions in society.
The Tibetans are unique as refugees in India. Their country was annexed by China, and their whole country came over to India in 1959. The Tibetan Government operates as a Government-in-Exile in India.
This is just a snapshot that India is a model for “unity in diversity and diversity in unity.” India has been a historical haven for the persecuted. It encourages a shared vision for living in harmony by respecting diversity. What stands out for me is that all refugee groups managed to retain their distinct identity while blending in with the culture of the Indian. They remained loyal to their Indian identity and India, endearing them to those amongst whom they lived… May the great land of the ancestors, India that is Bharat, be ever victorious, and continue to be a guiding light to humanity. Jai Hind! Jai Trinidad and Tobago!