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Unity in Diversity: A Paradox

Updated on November 23, 2020


Unity implies oneness or a sense of we-ness. The reverse of the term ‘unity’ is ‘diversity’ which denotes collective differences or diversities among groups of people. It can be biological, religious, linguistic etc. Unity in Diversity means integration wherein divisive people and culture are synthesized into a united whole along with mutual understanding, shared values and above all national consciousness. It holds together the various relationship of ethnic groups or institutions through the bonds of contrived structures, norms and values.

All large societies are heterogeneous or plural in their composition and so is India which can also be called as an ethnological museum. India had had to find ways to cope with its diversity and the possible strains that it has given rise to in the economic, social, political and religio-cultural spheres of life. Thus the phenomenon of ‘Unity in Diversity’ came into existence in India. Hinduism and Islam coexisted in India for over a thousand years. When the world witnessed the most intensely fought religious war in Europe in the middle ages, India stood as a country where a multiplicity of religions coexisted in relative social harmony. But the claim of having achieved unity in diversity remains patchy, what we have succeeded in achieving is a state without religion. India has not been able to secularise its social life and the political system is not insulated from religion ( political parties are rooted in distinct religious identities ). Many communal eruptions in the present and the past also defy the claim. Unity in diversity thus is not a contemporary social reality.

Preamble, The Constitution of India
Preamble, The Constitution of India

Unity in Diversity ─ A process

Within three years of independence India gave itself a constitution which is unique with its clearly spelled out Directive Principles that has a rational humanist thrust. The Preamble declares the country as secular and the Fundamental Rights reinforces it. In the formative years of the republic, the country faced major problems of partition, of war over Kashmir, of famine and food shortage, of the dismantling of the apparatus of princely states, and of reorganisation of states but the country showed the will and the determination to absorb the hundreds of small and large principalities within the framework of its republican constitution. Yet, at the end of six decades, we find ourselves living in land with widespread unrest.

What led to the breakdown in the process of development?

  • Perhaps our fractured sense of nationality.
  • Economic deprivation of certain groups
  • Loss of consensus on the major national goals
  • Crisis of identity among people in terms of nationality and religious identity
  • The concept of unity in diversity itself poses problems to society as diversity implies a commitment of different groups to different styles of living and to different value frameworks whereas unity raises the question about which lifestyle should prevail.

Ancient India

Indian society followed the path of hierarchisation to accommodate its plurality in the ancient times. This led to the development of varna/jati structure. But this system gave rise to status-quo and resulted in groups that preferred to function as closed systems in remote areas with limited communication with the mainstream. Another way of accommodation to the mainstream was through religious doctrines. The main doctrines were of the Vedic religion gradually followed by Brahminism, Jainism and Buddhism. These groups did not assert the separateness of their religious identity after the initial period of protest and conflict and faded away in terms of influence in later period.

Medieval India

In this period Islam entered India and began to be represented as a distinct religious identity. Prior to Islam, no foreign invaders ( the Macedonians, the Scythians, the Huns or the Kushans) did bring with them any major developed religion with articulate ideology. The process of accommodation to Islam thus raised several unprecedented issues which were spread across several centuries and took different forms at different levels of society. Islam came to India at various points of time, beginning with the Arabs in the 7th century to Mughals in the 16th century. In between the Turks, Ghazanavids, Ghurs, Afghans and others had invaded and established their empires. Thus the processes of accommodation were going on at different levels between different groups ─ between those who had come to India earlier and those came later, between the original Muslims and those who had been converted to Islam and between the Muslims and the non-Muslims. Islam was exclusionist in terms of messianic claims of its religious doctrine. In the middle ages it was uncommon for the political regime to be clearly differentiated from religious, as a consequence the process of rapprochement between Islam and Hinduism remained impaired.

The Colonial India

During the reign of British, a new hierarchy emerged in Indian society. A hierarchy headed by the British descents, followed by other Europeans, Anglo-Indians and Indian Christians. Christianity did not come to India as the religion of the ruler but it came as a new faith. Advent of Christianity had considerable impact on other religions prevalent in India and was responsible for the major religious reform movements in Hinduism in the last quarter of 19th century. Though the reform movements had significant influence in bringing about a change in Indian social thought but it could not fight and rather reinforced caste consciousness. The persisting consciousness of caste has become the basis of individual identity and a means of group-based assertion for political power in the present context.

An image of a religious riot
An image of a religious riot
Godhra riots, 2002
Godhra riots, 2002
Terrorist attack on Hotel Taj, Mumbai, 2008
Terrorist attack on Hotel Taj, Mumbai, 2008

Unity in Diversity : A paradox

India is a land of paradoxes. Communalism is one of the biggest threats facing society. The coexistence of communalism, which gives rise to religious fundamentalism and casteism in a society which boasts of its unity drawn out of diversity makes it ironic. Eruptions of violent communalism in the recent past and present context reveals the paradoxes of Indian society. Root of these communal eruption can be cited to the period before independence but secular forces has not realised the truth sufficiently and opposed communal forces politically without exposing or opposing the communal ideology.


India being accustomed to plural culture, Muslim communalism had no mass base before 1938. M.A Jinnah and the Muslim League leadership began to emphasise on religion and religious zeal from 1938 onwards and acquired a massive support during the 1940s by arguing that Islam would be in danger in a united and secular India. Partition brought more tensions and left the country to bear its brunt through six decades.

Hindu communalism also shares a similar history which was weak before 1947. In 1984, the Hindu communalists picked up the inflammable Ram Janmabhoomi issue and raised communal politics to the level of a popular movement. The Ram Janamabhoomi movement and the subsequent demolition on Babri Mosque in 1992 became reason for a violent communal strife. Instead of seeing the incident as an attack on secularism the issue was portrayed as an attack on Islam by Muslim fundamentalists.

Communal problems in Punjab were believed to be solved after partition but Hindu and Sikh communalism grew very fast from 1947. The most horrifying communal violence broke out in Punjab in 1981 and in 1984 after assassination of Indira Gandhi which gave another evidence of increasing intolerance among people.

Riots in Moradabad, Meerut, Bangalore, Bombay, Bhiwandi, Bhagalpur, Jaipur and Lucknow are examples where spread of communal ideology has brought out the monstrous effect.

Gujarat killings of February-March 2002 is one of the worst cases of communal violence which becomes an inerasable blot on the face of Indian society. The state sponsored killing of minorities has its root in prior spread of communal thinking through propaganda machinery of some fundamentalist forces.

Attack on North Indians in Maharashtra by Maharashtra Nava-nirman Sena in 2008 exposes the narrowness of region based politics. In a nation comprising 28 states, preventing free movement of people for the sake of politics may only lead to a society made of numerous closed systems as prevalent in the ancient times.

Kandhamal district of Orissa witnessed a terrifying sight of violence following the murder of Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Swami Lakshmanananda, targeting members of Christian community. The carnage resulted in looting and burning of thousands of houses, demolition of several churches and killing of innocent people by Sangh Parivar leaders.

The biggest irony of the so called secular Indian society is that not a single mass movement has been organised to check the spread of communalisation and to stop the killing of people in the name of religion. Sights of people being burnt alive do traumatise people of certain region or religion but the rest of the population do not extend their hands to take them out of their plight. Rather the communal forces are coming up with new ideas of divisive strategy through moral policing or “Love Jehad”.

Who are Guilty?

Riots usually occur after the people have been subjected to intensive doses of provocative speeches or other forms of inflammatory propaganda that polarises people along communal lines. A great deal of underground organisation precedes actual violence. Hence the instigators and organizers of violence are actual culprits and not those who lift the weapons.

Communal Violence and The State Apparatus

State inactivity plays a major role in the spread of communal violence in various parts of India. State alone possess the instruments to successfully counter communal violence. West Bengal provides ample evidence, especially in 1984 and 1992-93, which shows that effective administrative action that can scotch communal violence. Secularism exists everywhere among the urban elites but penetration of the ideal of secularism to the level of general population is essential.

Gradual communalisation of the state machinery and consequently, communalisation of the police in many parts of the country is a major reason for the growth of communal violence. The threat of communal violence would be lessened if the Government was strong and impartial and was determined to put down at any cost communal violence or any talk of communal violence.


A major saving feature of Indian situation till recently was the absence of state support to communal eruptions but Gujarat’s example and some recent examples in Karnataka has undermined the positive feature today.

Education and Media

Communalism is spread on a mass scale not only by mass ideological work by communal political parties such as the RSS, VHP, Bajrang Dal, Jamaat-i-Islami and Akali Dal also through socialisations, places of worship and social gatherings. Education and the Press has a crucial role to play in this respect which should help in secularising people but freedom of Press should not be misused to propagate communal ideology through magazines, cartoon strips etc. Political parties when assume power also pursue their ideological agenda through educational and academic bodies as The National Council of Educational Research and Training ( NCERT ), Indian Council of Historical Research ( ICHR ), Indian Council of Social Science Research ( ICSSR ), University Grants Commission ( UGC ).

Communalism and Culture

Though communalists appeal to and claim to be champions of Indian culture, in reality they are hostile to its basic content and character. They adopt a purely religion-based definition of culture and assert that there can be no common cultural ground or mutual cultural interaction between Hindus, Muslims and Christians and also sometimes between the upper and the lower castes.


Independent of religion, India has also experienced strife based on other dimensions of ethnic identity such as race in the northeast and language in the south. Unity in diversity may not be a social reality but it is obviously a precondition, in the present context, to achieve a peaceable society in the midst of plurality. Seeking unity does not mean to establish uniformity. India has a remarkable ability to accommodate and live with what the west would tag “contradictory”. The crisis in which the nation finds itself after almost six decades of independence is at once economic, political, social, cultural, and psychological. Our real hope for achieving a peaceable society lies in our ability to give meaning and substance to the promise of a socially just, democratic, and secular order which calls for constructive thought, political skill and sustained social action.

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