In the name of Durga: How India led the West in road to diversity

  • Narayanan Madhavan, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Oct 22, 2015 16:47 IST
Pranab Mukherjee (C) performs rituals at a temple in his village in West Bengal’s Birbhum. Mukherjee has invoked Goddess Durga to convey India’s cultural diversity. (AFP/ RASHTRAPATI BHAVAN)

President Pranab Mukherjee’s invocation of Bengal’s favourite goddess, Durga, to underline the importance of tolerance amid a surcharged national atmosphere on issues relating to caste, minorities and religious diversity is rich at many levels. At a deeper level, he speaks for an ancient Indian culture that strangely is a leader in modern times as a beacon of diversity and its conceptual twin, multiculturalism.

The President is himself a rich example of eclectic multiculturalism, as a pipe-smoking ex-professor spouting authentic English in a famously local accent and diction. He invoked Durga, the goddess of courage, as he held forth on the holy day of Durga Ashtami and Navami on diversity. (This year, two lunar days straddled a single, auspicious Wednesday, in a possibly temporal symbolism of diversity).

“We can see that in the idol of Goddess Durga, different, seemingly disparate forces can be seen co-existing,” the President said in a speech at his ancestral home. “Shiva’s vahan (vehicle) is the bull but the bull is also a source of food for the lion which is Durga’s vahan. The rat and the snake have no relationship of friendship. But the rat is the vahan of Ganesh where the snake is one of the weapons that Durga carries. The peacock and the snake have a relationship of animosity, but the peacock is Kartikeya’s vahan.”

(L-R) Kashish, Farhana Khan, Poonam Khan and Farah Khan, who play the roles of Surpnakha, Sita, Kaikeyi and Sabri, get ready backstage for their roles in a Ramlila play in Greater Noida on Monday. (Burhaan Kinu/ HT Photo)

It is perhaps not a coincidence at all that Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru gets the credit for a modern quest for diversity that President Mukherjee sought to underline in his speech laden in Hindu idioms that subtly run counter to the “Other Hindu” narrative based on a right-wing invocation of glorious ancestry.

Nehru’s “Discovery of India,” published in 1946, described India as “a geographical and economic entity, a cultural unity amidst diversity”--and set the tone for a popular post-colonial national slogan, “Unity in Diversity”. In hindsight, that slogan was a trendsetter for Western democracies.

Consider that it was only in 1965 that the United States passed the “Immigration and Naturalization Act,” also known as the Hart-Celler Act, which abolished an earlier system of citizenship based on national origin of immigrants. The law kicked off a new immigration policy geared to attract skilled labour. This was an early step in the US march to institutionalize diversity in government and the corporate sector. President John F Kennedy, months before his assassination in 1963, described as “intolerable” the quota system that favoured Northern Europeans, and seemed to have racial undertones. Relatively less “white” Greeks, Poles, Italians and Portugese were the flag-bearers of a larger drive for political diversity that resulted eventually in the US having its first black president in Barack Obama. Gender- and race-based diversity is now a mainstream ideal in the US.

The European Union and the UK are still discovering the bittersweet joys of multiculturalism. Despite limited success and raging controversies over treatment of refugees and assimilation of ethnicities from elsewhere, they now recognise diversity as a desirable ideal. The thought acquired momentum only about 30 years ago. Australia initiated steps towards multiculturalism in the 1970s as a futuristic idea, and enhanced its policies over the next decade.

However, it was Canada that led the way as a success story. It was Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau who declared in 1971 that Canada will adopt a multicultural policy and celebrate diversity. A formal Canadian Multiculturalism Act was passed in1988, but as many as 38 years after India adopted a preamble to the Constitution that offered to all its citizens “liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship” and “equality of status and opportunity”.

In the week during which President Mukherjee has spoken of Durga’s semiological significance for diversity, Canada has seen the election of the multicultural pioneer’s son Justin Trudeau leading the Liberal Party to be the new prime minister in a nation where signboards in Punjabi are common. We can quibble on the degree of diversity and the pragmatic difficulties in politically supporting multi-cultural initiatives, but it is clear from the President’s speech that India’s ideas have informed the modern world’s political correctness--with all its warts and virtues.

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