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Can we afford to be culturally blind?

By Shilpa Kameswaran

India's state and market institutions promote only a passive respect for religious and cultural co-existence. Ethnic sensitisation stops at caste-based affirmative action. What are the perils of the absence of institutional diversity-education in a country as heterogeneous as India?

promoting cultural diversity

The Indian state and its institutions have a 'passive' respect for co-existing religious and cultural ethics. So whose responsibility is it to formally protect, promote and preserve 'positive' cultural diversity? And what are the perils of the absence of institutional diversity-creation in a nation as heterogeneous as India?

In this essay I argue that India, in spite of its approach to secularism, has more than a few lessons to take away from the formal institutional diversity-creation practised in North America, which contributes in a big way to the ideology of 'secularism' in a country.

Labelling the Indian subcontinent an ethnically 'diverse' country would be an understatement. It is often challenging to explain to a foreign national or even an Indian resident the complexities of the hereditary caste system and the exaggerated existence of ethnicities in India.

Similarly, the North American continent in the purest sense is a multifarious medley of human ethnicities, and as much effort is made to foster the homogeneous American spirit in this endless heterogeneity as it is to protect, promote and provide for this ethnic heterogeneity.

Diversity-creation and diversity-sensitivity are weighty and serious issues in institutional North America. Corporate enterprises, educational institutions, hospitals, government undertakings and private firms all spend resources and efforts on diversity training and diversity best practices.

Diversity is optimally defined in the Merriam Webster dictionary as "the condition of having or being composed of differing elements, the inclusion of different types of people (as in people of different races or cultures) in a group or organisation."

In the United States, the common man can access mountains of publicly accessible documents giving detailed diversity employment data based on occupational strata in federal organisations, in corporations, higher educational institutions, the health sector and in small and mid-sized businesses and industries. The US Department of Interior Office for Equal Opportunity lists the Civil Rights Liberties and explains in detail how to file an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint. At a micro level it is mandatory for an organisation to have in place diversity-promoting groups. A fine example is the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business which has in place 21 official diversity groups which include a Latin American Business Group, a South Asian Business Group, a Korean Business Group, Gays and Lesbians Business Group, Middle-Eastern and African Business Group etc. These formal student organisations in turn interact with the corresponding diversity and cultural groups in giant corporations during recruitment processes across various cities in the US.
In this manner a backward-forward linkage of diversity networks is built and a conscious effort is made to create a diverse workforce, and instill pride in the varied ethnic peoples that migrate to make North America their home. In North America, you are an American first but you are an American because you can be a liberal, free Asian or Nigerian celebrating your 'Asian-ness' or 'African-ness' all along.

The Hispanics and Africans in North America are intensely aware and proud of their roots and histories in the larger context of American history. However, amongst the Indian diaspora in the US the pride is much more in being a banker or an Ivy-League graduate than in being an Indian historically, socially, politically and most important, ethnically.

Similarly, as I search for diversity data in corporate and urban India, there is barely any information I find besides government statistics for 'reservation' and 'quotas' for the Schedule Castes/Schedule Tribes (SC/STs) and Other Backward Castes (OBCs).In India, ethnic sensitisation revolves solely around the twin issues of instituting 'caste-based affirmative action' and dissolving 'caste-based discrimination'. The exercise of formal diversity-creation is a far-fetched ideal in urban and corporate India and at most, diversity-sensitisation may involve questioning the predominantly patriarchal society and polity.

In present-day India almost no institutional or scholarly effort is made to inform and put in place political, social and economic issues of 'Diversity Creation' and 'Diversity Comprehension' to the millions in the outward-looking liberal economy. There is also zilch institutional effort in 'celebrating' regional histories, regional cultures and regional ethnicities to create an ongoing sensitivity of ethnic roots.

Major efforts by the government chiefly include keeping up with colonial Britain's administrative aesthetics and carrying out the humongous decennial census at 10-year intervals to track demographic trends in the country. Only recently has the Indian government agreed to include a tally of all the existent socially stratified castes in its 2011 census. The last time the castes and sub-castes were officially measured and counted was 80 years ago in 1931 by the British Raj. As the government prepares to unveil the sensitive caste counts, debates rage in national dailies and international journals of repute on the consequences of the caste-based census on vote-bank politics and the 'semi-literate' and 'illiterate' economically backward populations of agrarian and rural India.
As a social-science researcher, I've often wondered whether, to actively participate in a democracy a truly empowered citizen needs to know her or his ethnic roots and build a sense of awareness and tolerance for others' ethnic roots. Perhaps a positively political will of a well-informed diverse population can be formed and put in practice only if there is a state of full comprehension of its participants and their ethnic roots?

Yet, in present-day India the millions of students in semi-urban and urban India who attend private English-medium schools, graduate from universities and professional institutions and head to work as professionals and consume a prosperous lifestyle don't take any pride in their own or each other's ethnic identities except while seeking matrimonial partners. Even assuming each of these millions find their way through society and its institutions based purely on individual merit, aspirations and occupational networks, shouldn't these very same people be concerned about diversity-creation?

Having grown-up, schooled, worked and travelled across urban centres of three continents, it has been a matter of great interest to me that most Indians I've met of my own generation primarily associate their roots with an Indian city and almost never with an ethnic group. Moreover, they are most comfortable speaking in the Indian national native tongues of Hindi and English and rarely in their personal native tongues of Assamese, Oriya, Kannada or Gujarati. Amidst the young urban elite and middle-classes, discussion on caste, community and ethnicity is strictly taboo.

Is this social behaviour a consequence of the larger central policy of national integration and unification carried out systematically in 60 years of post-independence India? Or is it a consequence of there being no formal judicial and institutional structures to protect, preserve and promote ethnic diversity?

As a civilian in a democracy, why is it so difficult for me to find data on ethnic composition of executive boards in corporate India? Are the swanky corporations in Mumbai's financial districts embarrassed to let people know that there are no Tamil dalit or migrant Manipuri directors on their board? Or physically disabled or women directors?

The SIL International Ethnologue lists 415 living languages in India, 29 of which are spoken by more than a million Indians and 24 other individual languages which are spoken by 100,000 to a million native speakers. Sadly, Indian children could graduate from high school not knowing that these regional languages exist. Contrarily as the population of Hispanics and Chinese increase in North America, White American children seek to learn Spanish and Mandarin along with English. It is a gloomy situation when only graduate students of Indian sociology know of the existence of the Indo-Aryan, Dravidian, Tibeto-Burman and Austro-Asiatic ethnic groups in South Asia and only graduate students of Indian history know the regional and ethnic histories of each of these groups.

Being 'caste-blind' in economically shining India might be a wonderful way to fight caste demarcations in urban mega-centres. But being 'culturally-blind' to an extent of not having a formal system of education that teaches you to remain conscious and celebrate your 'ethnicity' and another's 'ethnicity' could well prove short-sighted in the long run.

For a nation which has slowly and recently recovered from 180 years of submission to White English supremacy and bureaucracy, ethnically egalitarian values are hard to put in practice, privately and publicly. In such circumstances, prescribed 'diversity education' might be the only way to formally teach every Indian the fierce pride in being an Oriya, Kashmiri, Malayalee, Mizo and Konkani while working together in South Mumbai's Nariman Point skyscrapers and while living together in East Mumbai's Chembur neighbourhood.

(Shilpa Kameswaran is a poet and writer)

Infochange News & Features, November 2012