The erosion of our ability to accept radical differences between communities has resulted in conflicts
The investigation by the US-based Pew Research Center revealed an interesting finding about religious tolerance in India: Indians of all faiths, paradoxically, support both religious tolerance and religious segregation. Most Indians (84%) surveyed said that respect for all religions is very important to them and that all religious groups should be allowed to practice their faith freely. Yet a considerable number of them also said they preferred religious groups to be separate and live and marry within their own community.
This curious discovery gave rise to a BBC Asia report claiming that India is neither a melting pot (diverse cultures merging into a common national identity) nor a salad bowl (different cultures retaining their specific characteristics while s ‘assimilating to a national identity) but a thali (an Indian meal made up of separate dishes on a platter where they are combined in a specific way). Academic Pratap Bhanu Mehta concluded that the survey shows that although India is committed to religious diversity, it is “exclusive and segmented into tolerance.”
An “unheroic form of tolerance”
Sociologist Ashis Nandy had developed a framework in the 2000s to understand these preferences. In a speech in Australia (2010), Mr. Nandy observed that this form of life constitutes a distinctly Asian cosmopolitanism. It has developed in regions which must welcome not only diversities but “radical diversities” which can prove to be dangerous if they are brought together in the same space. To take into account these differences and peculiarities in the practices of the different communities, daily adaptation mechanisms have evolved. This has resulted in a unique form of cosmopolitanism where differences can be accommodated without pressuring members of a community to be like one another based on a notion of universal brotherhood. On the contrary, members of one community can make extraordinary efforts to help members of the other community maintain their own customary practices, including their separate eating and eating habits. Mr Nandy called this a tolerance that is built into people’s daily rhythms, is not supported by any ideological justification, and does not imply any sense of obligation to one another. He called it a “non-heroic form of tolerance” which allows interaction for various purposes without forcing one to declare brotherly love or adopt the practices of the other community.
It is this kind of cosmopolitanism that Mr. Nandy found operating in Kochi. In one of his first essays on Kochi (2001), he explored why the city, which has nearly 15 diverse communities, had not witnessed major religious conflicts in its 600-year history. When he interviewed people, they judged the Keralites to be educated or progressive. But another story emerged when he probed them about their own life stories. “Kochi’s tolerance was, alas, based on mutual dislike,” he wrote. Each community had a story of their own to show that they were better than the others. This included two Jewish communities, each of which generally prevented its children from marrying those of the other community. Therefore, Kochi’s pluralism and communal friendship included hostilities and distances which, “because they operate in a widely shared psychological universe, have certain built-in brakes against mass violence.”
This model of cosmopolitanism, where people accept “the otherness of others,” is very different from the Enlightenment version which teaches us to get rid of all prejudices so that we can emerge as impartial citizens of the nation-state. . The latter, a harsher version of tolerance, argued Mr Nandy, forces us to hide our prejudices and preferences. As a result, everyday life becomes a struggle. It also leads to superficial forms of tolerance of diversity compatible with the demands of the middle class and the modern nation-state where radical diversities can no longer be accepted.
Mr. Nandy’s explanation helped me understand my mother’s traditional-minded attitude on the cow slaughter bill which has become a problem in Karnataka. As she showed her disgust at the idea of cows being slaughtered for food, when asked if the practice should be banned, she replied, “But how can you ban it. It is their food. They have been eating it for years. Mr. Nandy’s framework allows us to make sense of such seemingly contradictory actions in our daily lives. Is this form of life detrimental to the health of a society or is it another unique form of cosmopolitanism whose organic form must be recognized? Perhaps it is the erosion of our ability to accept the “radical otherness” of people other than ourselves that has led to many conflicts today.
Shashikala Srinivasan is the author of Liberal Education and Its Discontents