Why ‘unity in diversity’, and not ‘unified culture’ alone works with India’s neighbours

In the aftermath of the continuing Sri Lankan economic crisis, the neighbourhood as a whole has developed a new respect for India. As if wit...

In the aftermath of the continuing Sri Lankan economic crisis, the neighbourhood as a whole has developed a new respect for India. As if without asking, or just for the asking, New Delhi has been sending food, fuel, medicines and all other essential commodities to Colombo. Barring 90,000 tonnes of Russian crude priced at $72-m, no other nation, big or small, friendly or otherwise, has chipped in as Colombo was expecting earlier and has been hoping for, since.

How far would the Russian aid go would depend on how the Sri Lankan State handles a Colombo court ordering the ‘arrest’ of an Aeroflot Airbus passenger aircraft at the Bandaranaike International Airport over a commercial dispute initiated by an Irish-American leasing company. If the timing has anything to do with the West’s ‘sanctions regime’ on Russia over the Ukraine War remains to be known.

Indian assistance to Sri Lanka, and the rest of the neighbourhood, is not a stand-alone affair. Throughout the Covid crisis, India sent out medical kits first and vaccines to all neighbours — and all nations elsewhere, too. Every nation was in need of those vaccines. The old Indian adage, ‘Vasudeva Kudumbakam’ in Sanskrit and ‘Yaadum Oorye, Yaavarum Kelir’ in Tamil got a new purpose, going beyond what they had meant in the post-Independence past, when India’s resources did not meet its inherent, involuntary desire to help.

The unilateral, unasked-for Indian initiative earned widespread appreciation across the world and unprecedented goodwill in the neighbourhood especially. Whatever the way the political class in individual neighbourhood nations may view New Delhi’s assistance in these times of grave crises for each one of them, India has captured the benign appreciation of a vast majority of the populations in these countries.

Deliberate attempts

However, it would be wrong for zealots in India to confuse the added goodwill for the nation in the immediate neighbourhood for their possible ready acceptance of whatever is fed to them, in the form of historic concepts, ideological priorities and cultural linkages. The neighbourhood goodwill is — and has to be — placed in contemporary circumstances, unrelated to acknowledged perceptions of shared antiquity.

However, from the Indian side, over the past few years in particular, there has been a deliberate, calculated attempt to make ‘cultural connections’ between India and each of these neighbouring nations as a futuristic binding force from the antiquated past. Yes, the Mahabharat talks about Gandhar, or Kandhahar, now in Afghanistan. Other works in Indian literature and multiple notes on Indian history have referred to areas all the way up to Central Asia as part of ‘Bharata Khanda’. But it should stop there.

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After all, Afghanistan, and also Pakistan, do not fit into the contemporary milieu, despite concepts like ‘Akhand Bharat’. In realistic terms, implementing such ideas would be more problematic for the Indian State than already. In metaphysical terms, the same applies to attempts at ‘cultural unification’, or ‘cultural identification’ of individual neighbouring nations with some aspect of the present-day Indian State’s historic/mythological antiquity can only be counter-productive.

The reasons are not far to seek. Each of the neighbouring nations has acquired a certain sociological identity linked to ancient India, yes. The reverse may be true, no one has argued and that’s all to it.

For instance, the majority Sinhalas in southern Sri Lanka do not accept the Indian version that Ravana from the Ramayana was a demon-king who coveted another man’s wife — and paid for it with his life. Sri Lankan government actually has a project to prove that Ravan of the Ramayana fame was a pioneering aviator. Indian puranas date the pushpak viman to an eon possibly prior to the Ramayana.

For the Tamils in the island-nation, the Ramayana story does not relate as much, as they swear by Saiva Siddhandha as their religion — as different from the composite Hinduism in India. In southern Tamil Nadu, it is still the case, especially with the staunch followers to multiple Saivite mutts.

People-to-people contacts

There is evidence for cultural and religious exchanges among all princely states that now constitute the Indian Union. Their original numbers stood at 56, as per Indian epics. Such exchanges did not stop with regions, religions and languages in the modern Indian state and its neighbourhood Until the post-Independence integration of princely states, they underlined the modern-day appendage of ‘people-to-people contacts’ between two or more neighbouring princely states within what is at present the constitutionally-mandated Indian Union.

Truth be acknowledged, after the early versions of a united India, under the Mauryas (322-185 BCE) and the Gupta empire that ended by the middle of the sixth century, a unified India as we could visualise now, dates back to the alien Moghul empire since the early 16th century, followed by the European colonial rulers, particularly the British.

Ancient Indian history is replete with stories like how neighbourhood kings letting down Porus, who in the third century BC, courageously stood up to Alexander of Greece. Centuries later, it would repeat itself when invaders from Central Asia found allies within the country to put down the likes of Prithviraj Chauhan (1117-1192 CE) and whoever else stood in their way. The rest, as they say, is history.

National identity

Indians have to accept that just as post-Independence India succeeded in creating a unified national identity, other nations in the neighbourhood have also done theirs. Yes, in most such cases, they are proud of their national identity as much as they acknowledge their cultural ancestry, equally proudly. The latter is linked to not just India but to the sub-continent as a whole. The former is their proud earning, hence possession.

For instance, every Maldivian prides his nation as the only one in South Asia that was not subjugated by a European colonial power. Instead, they have the record as the only nation in the region to have thrown out a colonial power, Portugal, that too as far back as the 16th century. Later, when the British, based out of Colombo, did business with Maldives, the latter became the former’s Protectorate with no power to interfere in the internal matters of the archipelago-nation.

Similar stories abound in the case of every one of India’s neighbours. Their smaller sizes compared to the massive Indian landmass with relative unequalness on every aspect, from population to budget, economy to military strength, make them feel insecure viz India, ab initio. Attempts to recall a collective cultural past only frighten them and make them feel uncomfortable, hence suspicious about those who propound such theories.

In the 20th century context, all of India’s neighbours are alive to the ‘Bangladesh War’ (1971) and how the modern Indian state created a new nation out of adversarial Pakistan, by the strength of its sheer proportions — or, that is how they all feel about it, still. The voluntary merger of Sikkim in the Indian Union (1975) in the Indian Union is not seen as ‘voluntary’ in the rest of the neighbourhood. That includes Nepal and even Bhutan, the latter otherwise an abiding friend of India.

This was why when India later sent the IPKF to Sri Lanka at the instance of the host government, sections within that country saw it as an ’occupation army’ — which was absolutely untrue, especially under the circumstances. The continuing ‘India Out’ campaign in Maldives, despite an official ban, owes to domestic political compulsions, but the latter is a reality that Indian zealots should not miss elsewhere too in the neighbourhood.

Dravidian conundrum

Nothing explains the avoidable controversy better than the ill-understanding of the ‘Dravidian conundrum’ within present-day India. As Tamil zealots down South point out, on the other side of the Vindhyas, there is inadequate understanding of the hoary past of their language, culture and even religion, that they do not acknowledge theirs as equal to perceptions up North.

The more contemporary discourse reverts to the hoary antiquity of Sanskrit as a language and super-imposed perceptions that Hindi is a modern version thereof, greater are the fears of ‘Hindi imposition’ in Tamil Nadu in particular. Defenders of the Tamil faith hence recoil into a defensive position, to show off their civilisation, history, language and history as old as those linked to Sanskrit, and at times more.

An open, fuller understanding of the Tamil perceptions in contemporary India should help northern ‘culture czars’ to acknowledge the perception and beliefs of the other. As coincidence would have it, these are the people who otherwise use ‘belief’ as a tool or weapon to impose their over-arching religious/cultural posturing on the nation as a whole. Yet, when it comes to the belief of others, they are on the offensive, seeking to disprove the other.

It is thus that 21st century Tamil dogmatists point out how their region and more so their language, belonged in Kumari Kandam, which was swept under the sea in a series of tsunamis, 30,000 years ago. They also list out 70-plus Pandya kings who were ruling (south) Madurai and Kapadapuram, before each of these capitals went under.

According to accepted Tamil history, the present-day temple-town of Madurai was built far away from the sea as a new Pandyan capital, only to avoid such recurrence. Hence, the present-day Tamil youth celebrate when told that the Indus Valley Civilisation might have been Dravidian and that recent archaeological finds in Keezhadi put the Tamil ancestry to 6,000-8,000 years ago.

When provoked, these days through social media, they too take up the literary cudgel to argue that ‘Sanskritised civilisation’ is only half of that age. If it is all about beliefs, then again, neither side wins. Nor can one side argue that they had vanquished the other through the volume of their historicity or the audacity of their arguments.

Letting sleeping dogs die

What is true of Tamil and Tamil Nadu is applicable to all regions of the country. Gujarat in the west and Odisha in the east have a maritime history of their own, so has Tamil Nadu. To Tamil Nadu’s Cholas were the only ones from the sub-continent to have launched a naval exercise, going as far away to south-east Asia, a thousand years before our times. Likewise, the submerged story of Dwaraka and the missing Saraswati river, both on the west, have historic and cultural identities that have been subsumed in religion.

Taken in perspective and contextualised to the neighbourhood, the issues and problems are similar. One can argue that Buddhism went to Sri Lanka from India, which every Sri Lankan acknowledges with reverence. But in Nepal is the place Lord Buddha was born. Bodh Gaya became a part of the present-day Indian state much later.

Yet, ask Sri Lankans, they would also tell you how Buddhism prospers in their country and not in the country where Lord Buddha attained salvation under a Bodhi tree or Bo tree in what is now Bodh Gaya. That is to say, for every argument based on common cultural antiquity, there is one contemporaneously different and contesting the former.

Much as there is an urge to re-discover one’s roots and ancestry, dating it back to generations and centuries, more so in this IT generation, often in an adopted country, the contemporary reality is more about food and shelter, job and income. Reviving age-old claims that are controversial in nature can only interfere with social progress, as Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sri Lanka have all suffered after they began putting religion and culture before their people’s socio-economic needs.

From India’s neighbourhood perspective, thus, ‘unity in diversity’ alone works, and not attempts to re-unite them all through ‘cultural harmonisation’ that may have been true in a very distant past and has the potential only to divide nations and peoples in the modern context. That is to say, what is good for the Indian nation is good for its relations with its neighbours, too!

The writer is a Chennai-based policy analyst and commentator. Views expressed are personal.

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India World News: Why ‘unity in diversity’, and not ‘unified culture’ alone works with India’s neighbours
Why ‘unity in diversity’, and not ‘unified culture’ alone works with India’s neighbours
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