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Saturday, August 25, 2007

Any diversity audit must consider ways to assess the space for diversity of life styles

We the peoples Suhas Palshikar Indian Express [August 24, 2007]
As India celebrates the diamond jubilee of its independence, it may be worthwhile to take stock of its diversity record. There does not exist any comprehensive state policy to monitor diversity. The following four principles can be considered for evolving a framework for such a diversity audit.
One, at the minimum, any society should ensure a firm commitment to protect any and all groups from extermination. India may take pride that it has not, after Partition, witnessed mass killings or ethnic cleansing though, of course, Gujarat 2002 came close. One has also to take into account instances of exclusion and marginalisation that may be used against linguistic groups, and smaller tribal communities. Treatment of the Pandits by Kashmiri insurgents is an instance of exclusion.
Two, we need to ask: is our public life generally - as a matter of routine - pro-diversity? Much too often there is a tendency towards homogenisation. In the name of our great tradition', one segment of the heritage masquerades as representative of all. For instance, the many rich north Indian traditions of the Hindi language are drowned in the din for one formal Sanskritised Hindi language for official purposes.
Or take the Mahatma's all-religion prayers. Many certified secularists have ridiculed these. They worry about the display of religiosity involved in these prayers. They miss the intent of underscoring symbolically the multi-religious social reality and avoiding the public predomination of only one religion. Gandhi knew well that symbols matter in public life and they need to be inclusive of diversity.
Also, how much does our public policy encourage diversity pro-actively? Public interest' is often defined in a sanitised manner as if it refers to an abstract category called people', oblivious of their myriad diversity.
The fate of the Indian languages testifies to this: have we ever thought of giving special encouragement to the student who would learn an Indian language other than her mother tongue? While learning of foreign languages thrives - and it should - we have allowed our education policy to become a prisoner of linguistic chauvinism.
Three, the pressure of democracy has made us somewhat alert to the need to make our political' power structures more diverse in character but this awareness has yet to penetrate the insulated portals of the bureaucracy, military, judiciary and so on. Some time ago, senior women IAS officers from the Maharashtra cadre formally wrote to the CM that women officers normally do not get key postings involving policy-making and governance. Surprisingly, there has been no public debate on this at all.
Besides, we are almost shy of talking about the diversity profile of our non-state public institutions such as the corporate management, media and voluntary sector. One suspects that these are the least diverse sectors of our public life, but the entire focus is limited to structures of the state. And this is not only restricted to issues of caste or religion; women, persons with rural background, those from the Northeast, are some other segments that may be inadequately represented in our public institutions - both state and non-state.
Lastly, discussions of diversity should not stop at representational issues. We also need to think of ways to protect diversity of lifestyles. Often, nationalism is an obstacle in diverse lifestyles. Indian nationalism was aware of this danger and its early leadership tried to avoid the rise of a homogenising nationalism.
Capitalism produces the anti-diversity effect without engaging in any formal discourse of homogenisation. It reduces the diversity of cultures, lifestyles and choices. Any diversity audit must consider ways to assess the space for diversity of life styles.
As democracy becomes more entrenched, there is a danger that it will become only procedural and formal. Efforts to make it more substantive must address the issue of diversity. This alone can ensure the deepening of democracy as a norm that governs social relations. It is necessary that we evolve public awareness of the symbiotic relationship between democracy and diversity and develop an institutional mechanism to monitor and audit diversity in our public life. The writer teaches political science at the University of Pune

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