Unity and diversity: our obsession with diversity misses the point

The obsession with diversity haunts India. “India is marked by unity in diversity,” observed Nehru. The fact, of course, is that nations around the world are diverse. Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Afghanistan are diverse. The same goes for China, Russia, Germany, Poland, Great Britain and France. Perhaps the only undiversified nations that exist in the world are some of the pocket nations in northern Europe, which have a lower population than Delhi. Diversity or lack thereof is never a problem. The absence of national will is, as is the belief that some people within the nation do not belong.

Diversity never goes away. People just stop obsessing over it. In 19th century Europe, people realized that it made sense to live together as a nation rather than insisting on a lesser identity, whether of religion, region or caste. The modern state system emerged on the basis of impersonal rules neutral to these identities. In Britain, such an awareness was already present at the beginning of the 19th century. In France, Napoleon forced unity even though, as recently as 1999, an official report from France identified the continued existence of some 75 distinct languages ​​in that country. Germans and Italians consciously sought cultural unity among their various political groups. Even the USSR, one of the most diverse countries in the world, managed to find unifying threads that would hold its people together.

Come to think of it, China is even more culturally, linguistically and religiously diverse than India. “Han” – the term used to refer to people who are assumed to be the majority in China – was before the 20th century, simply used to refer to a civilized person as opposed to barbarians; much like the word “Arya” would have been used in India before thoughtless Indians were seduced by the idea that it represents race. “Han” did not refer to an ethnic group. Modern Chinese scholars Zhang Lei and Kong Qingrong in their 1999 book Coherence of the Chinese Nation write that, “According to Confucianism, the distinction between ‘hua (xia)’ (civilized Han) and ‘yi’ (minority barbarians) was a cultural boundary rather than a racial and national boundary”. They explain that “the barbarian-civilized distinction did not indicate racial or national exclusivity. Instead, it was a distinction involving differentiated levels of cultural achievement”.

The Chinese, unbeknownst to the Indians, profess five major religions and more than 20 minor religions and speak more than 13 mutually unintelligible languages. Upon gaining independence in 1948, China strove to build nationhood over divisive extra-national identities. India went the other way – highlighting divisions rather than what united people. This is a problematic way of ordering things.

The nation is, after all, an incomplete entity. There is nothing natural in that. It is a marvelous piece of social engineering that human beings have developed over the past two centuries. It is essentially maintained by modern institutions of law and the state. This requires constant reification and reinforcement through the equity inherent in the use of the institutions of law and the state. Left to themselves, without the support of institutions, human beings like most other animals have little ability to synergize on a large scale.

The British anthropologist Robin Dunbar based on his study of primates suggested that a human being can at best maintain stable social relations with 150 other individuals. Political scientist Rick Shenkman argues that this is how our brains continue to be wired.


It is the institutions of the nation-state that enable people to go beyond these natural limits. This allows people to synchronize their energies and operate beyond small face-to-face groupings like family, tribe or town. It frees the individual from primordial bonds, and allows the development of much greater synergies than had ever been possible until now. More importantly, it offers people the protection of a system of laws that does not depend on a person’s status or membership in a primordial group. We risk great danger if we dilute this by favoring narrower identities.

India has so far prospered despite many dire predictions, as more than a billion people enjoy the benefits that come from belonging to a broader community than belonging to a narrow group based on caste, religion, language or region.

Meeta is an IAS officer and Rajivlochan is a professor at Panjab University. They are the authors of Making India Great Again: Learning from our History