Identity and Citizenship: An Indian Perspective


Excerpts from a recent speech delivered at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, London, by the Vice President of India, Hamid Ansari.

  • Speculating on the ‘ifs’ of history, Edward Gibbon had visualised a course of events that might have resulted in the teaching of the interpretations of the Qur’an at Oxford. He could not foresee a happier, intellectually more rewarding, happening that the concluding decades of the twentieth century would bring forth. Among its manifestations is the establishment of this Centre.
  • It is a truism that the human being is a social creature and societies consist of individuals who come together for a set of common purposes for whose achievement they agree to abide by a set of rules and, to that extent and for those purposes, give their tacit or explicit consent to the abridgment of individual free will or action. They, in other words, do not get subsumed totally in a larger whole and retain their individual identity. This identity, as pointed out by William James and sustained by more recent social-psychological research, is a compound of the material, social and spiritual self. Furthermore, and when acting together in smaller groups, they develop group identities and these too are retained. Thus, in every society, we have identities at three or four levels, namely individual, group, regional and national. We can also, in this age of globalisation, add an international dimension to it. The challenge in all societies, therefore, is to accommodate these layered identities in a framework that is harmonious and optimally conducive to social purpose.
  • .. the superstructure of a democratic polity and a secular state structure put in place after independence on August 15, 1947 is anchored in the existential reality of a plural society. It is reflective of India’s cultural past. Our culture is synthetic in character and, as a historian of another generation put it, ‘embraces in its orbit beliefs, customs, rites, institutions, arts, religions and philosophies belonging to different strata of societies in varying stages of development. It eternally seeks to find a unity for the heterogeneous elements which make up its totality’. It is a veritable human laboratory where the cross breeding of ideas, beliefs and cultural traditions has been in progress for a few thousand years. The national movement recognised this cultural plurality and sought to base a national identity on it. The size and diversity of the Indian landscape makes it essential. A population of 1.27 billion comprising of over 4,635 communities 78 percent of whom are not only linguistic and cultural but social categories. Religious minorities constitute 19.4 percent of the population; of these, Muslims account for 13.4 percent amounting in absolute terms to around 160 million. The human diversities are both hierarchical and spatial. The de jure WE, the sovereign people is in reality a fragmented ‘we’, divided by yawning gaps that remain to be bridged. Around 22% of our people live below the official poverty line and the health and education indicators for the population as a whole, despite recent correctives, leave much to be desired.
  • .. the Indian approach steers clear of notions of assimilation and adaptation, philosophically and in practice. Instead, the management of diversity to ensure (in Nehru’s words) the integration of minds and hearts is accepted as an ongoing national priority. Some have described it as the ‘salad-bowl’ approach, with each ingredient identifiable and yet together bringing forth an appetising product.
  • The question of minority rights as a marker of identity, and their accommodation within the ambit of citizenship rights, remains a live one. It is not so much on the principle of minority rights (which is unambiguously recognised in the Constitution) as to the extent of their realisation in actual practice. A government-commissioned report on Diversity Index some years back concluded that ‘unequal economic opportunities lead to unequal outcomes which in turn lead to unequal access to political power. This creates a vicious circle since unequal power structure determines the nature and functioning of the institutions and their policies’.
  • The past six decades have witnessed immense changes in social and political perceptions in societies the world over. Theories and practices of ‘assimilation’, ‘one-national mould’ and the ‘melting pot’ have been discredited and generally abandoned; instead, evolving perceptions and practical compulsions led individual societies to accept diversity and cultural pluralism. In many places, on the other hand, a process of reversal induced by xenophobia, Islamophobia and migrant-related anxieties, is also under way. The concept of multiculturalism, pioneered to address accommodation of diversity within the framework of democracy, is being openly or tacitly challenged. An ardent advocate of multiculturalism concedes that ‘not all attempts to adopt new models of multicultural citizenship have taken root or succeeded in achieving their intended effects’ because ‘multiculturalism works best if relations between the state and minorities are seen as an issue of social policy, not as an issue of state security’.
  • There is an Indian segment to the debate on multiculturalism. It has been argued that ‘while a multicultural polity was designed, the principles of multiculturalism were not systematically enunciated.’ It is asserted that multiculturalism goes beyond tolerance and probes areas of cultural discrimination that may exist even after legal equality has been established; it therefore ‘needs to explore ways by which the sense of alienation and disadvantage that comes with being a minority is visibly diminished, but in a way that does not replace the power of the homogenising state with that of the community. It should therefore aspire towards a form of citizenship that is marked neither by a universalism generated by complete homogenisation, nor by particularism of self-identical and closed communities’.
  • These debates and practices vindicate in good measure the vision and foresight displayed by the founding fathers of the Republic of India. The vindication is greater when considered in the context of the size and diversity of India and the stresses and strains it has withstood in this period. And yet, we cannot rest on our laurels since impulses tilting towards ‘assimilationist’ and homogenising approaches do exist, suggestive of imagined otherness and seeking uniformity at the expense of diversity. Indian pluralism, as a careful observer puts it, ‘continues to be hard won’. Hence the persisting need of reinforcing and improving present practices and the principles underlying them. Such an endeavour would continue to be fruitful as long as ‘the glue of solidarity’ around the civic ideal remains sufficiently cohesive, reinforced by the existential reality of market unity and the imperative of national security. There is no reason to be sceptical about the stability of the tripod.