Individual vs community: Why the 2 ideas of India must and will coexist

It is obvious that the idea of India, which the Congress party thinks it has a patent to, is always in transition. This is only as it should be. To think that an idea can never change even when people change, environments change, society changes, is foolish. Moreover, in a nation of 1.2 billion people, it is impossible that everyone - or even a majority of Indians - will agree on any single idea of India. The only thing that can be said with certainty is that ideas about India will keep emerging, clashing and coalescing over time.

 Individual vs community: Why the 2 ideas of India must and will coexist


During the election campaign, the Congress articulated its idea of India where no community is discriminated against or excluded. But it did not seek to abandon the idea of India being an aggregation of communities. The BJP's Narendra Modi articulated his own idea of equal citizenship without separating Indians into their narrower identities (Sabka saath, sabka vikas; Ek Bharat, Shresth Bharat). This idea has been contested by Modi's detractors not for what it seems to mean, but because they believe it is a cover for majoritarianism.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta, writing in The Indian Express today (22 May) posits that, at the fundamental level, the real clash relates to two different ideas of India - one that sees India as an aggregation of communities and identities, and another where individual freedom is the core value. Mehta's short-hand for these two ideas is FOC - a federation of communities - and ZIF, a zone of individual freedom.

In terms of our past leaders, Mehta groups Gandhi, Maulana Azad, Deendayal Upadhyaya, and even Mohammed Iqbal (the intellectual father of Pakistan) in the FOC group; Nehru, Ambedkar, Syama Prasad Mookerjee, Lala Lajpat Rai, MG Ranade, and even Jinnah, he lumps in the ZIF category of leaders.

Regardless of whether you agree or not with Mehta’s classification, the clash of these two ideas comes from what they give primacy to. Both seek tolerance and inclusiveness, but on their own terms: the FOC idea values group diversity within a calcified view of identity. Inclusiveness is at the group level rather than the individual level. Freedoms relate to the group you belong to, and less to you as an individual. In ZIF, diversity is valued and emanates from the free choices made by individuals. You may belong to groups, but the group can impose nothing unreasonable on your choices, including your choice of identity.

Mehta is clear which idea should win: ZIF. He writes: “The deep psychological challenge we have to overcome is not the threat of majoritariansim. That threat is easy to identify, at least intellectually. The deeper challenge is that so long as the idea of majority and minority, understood in ethnic terms, remains embedded in our legal and political fabric….the threat to freedom and the possibility of conflict will remain. We need to create a political culture that moves from the idea of India as a federation of communities (that is) constantly balancing, to a zone of freedom with equal opportunities for individuals.”

Without necessarily contradicting what Mehta suggests, I have a few caveats to add to this formulation.

It is always a mistake to view any conflict in binary terms – either/or, one or the other. While the ideas of FOC and ZIF may live in some tension with each other, it would not be right to view them as always being in conflict. If we accept the basic reality that human beings are social animals who can’t live in isolation, to formulate an idea of ZIF that is in conflict with community is problematic. We have to find a way to make FOC and ZIF to coexist peacefully.

Moreover, whether you want to think of yourself as belonging to a community of identity or an individual citizen with his own unique identity and interests, the fact is human beings form group identities in all circumstances. If you were to take members from one homogeneous community and divide them into Group A and Group B without any kind of identity markers of caste or religion or class, they will still form separate ways of thinking and behaviour. The normal tendency of human beings is to break into groups and form their own identities and culture. The challenge is thus to ensure that group identity does not submerge individual rights – without insisting that group identities are always inimical to individual rights. They need not be.

A third point is the stage of development and immigration in a society. A sense of common citizenship and individual rights comes when group identities have coalesced or are stable at some point during the co-evolution of varied peoples. Europe solved its diversity problem by disaggregating itself into separate nations within which ethnicity became the common ground for citizenship. India evolved the idea of vertical communities split along caste lines. Individual rights are easy to come by within geographical and vertical communities that are homogenous.

But nations in early stages of acquiring new groups of immigrants and workers tend to become salad bowls of separate communities (ie, FOCs) before they can be shaken together and become melting pots with common ideas of citizenship. America was a stable WASP nation before Hispanics, Asians, Chinese and Afro-Americans forced it to become a salad bowl once more. Even though Americans are said to value individual rights, American society is not what its lawmakers say it is: there are deep racial, ethnic, religious and class fault lines, and as long as these remain, America will be as much as nation of FOCs as ZIFs. Not for nothing did Samual Huntington expound his idea of a clash of civilisations.

Fifty to sixty years down the line, if immigration stabilises, a common sense of American citizenship will develop. This would be the case with India too.

My conclusion is simple: binaries do not work in any situation. Societies cannot put communities in conflict with individuals. The idea of India will be ever-changing and diverse as its newest communities seek to adjust and assert themselves. The real challenge is to see how individual rights are not squashed in this confederation of communities. ZIF has to coexist with FOC.

(Read Pratap Bhanu Mehta's full column here)

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Updated Date: May 22, 2014 15:38:31 IST