‘Unity in Diversity’? Tensions and Contradictions in Cultivating National Unity

Political leaders have been strategic about their use of history, religion and methods of inclusion to develop various conceptions of national unity. 


In 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the Rashtriya Ekta Diwas, a day dedicated to mark and celebrate Vallabhbhai Patel’s birth anniversary. Patel is considered vital to uniting India’s 565 semi-autonomous princely states and provinces under British control. 

To mark the day, the central government encourages public institutions to conduct activities that “reaffirm the inherent strength and resilience of our nation to withstand the actual and potential threats to the unity, integrity, and security of our country.” Specifically, schools associated with the Central Board of Secondary Education and universities under the University Grants Commission (UGC) were directed to organise events to mark the day in October 2018. In colleges with National Cadet Corps (NCC) units, the UGC has suggested inviting army officers or ex-army officers to give talks on “National Unity, Integrity, Security and any other related topic.”  

Governments have thus made diverse attempts to conceptualise and nurture unity and a shared sense of national belonging since India’s independence. However, any attempts at this exercise have been in tension with the diverse affiliations that people of the subcontinent hold. While governments have ostensibly held that they believe in the concept of “unity in diversity” in India, tensions and fault lines among social identities and groups have often been appropriated for ideological gains. Political leaders have thus been strategic about questions around how unity will be achieved and who the unity is between and against. 

This reading list aims to investigate the concept of “national unity” in relation to history, religion, and methods of inclusion in the post-independence period. 

1) Using History to Encourage ‘Unity in Diversity’ 

Gurpreet Mahajan traces the concept of “unity in diversity” in the post-colonial period, arguing that actions by political leaders including Vallabhbhai Patel and B R Ambedkar sought to create an environment where different points of view could be in constructive dialogue. This was important because, since there was a desire to create a separate homeland for Muslims, it was clear that “unity in diversity” could be not taken as a given in practice. Leaders, thus, carefully drew from historical events based on the ideology they sought to encourage. 

History that spans over thousands of years is unlikely to be univocal or moving in a single, linear direction. For every example given, there is likely to be a counterfactual. Instances of peaceful coexistence and syncretic culture can be countered by picking out situations of conflict, hostility, violence, and domination.   

Michael Gottlob adds that, generally, debates on national unity are greatly dependent on the “interpretation and representation of the past.” More specifically, Gottlob details how history can be used to mobilise a sense of unity and objectify the “other.” 

Well aware that a conflict with the other and alien more than anything else could strengthen the sense of self, [Vinayak Damodar] Savarkar assumed a fundamental relation of friend and foe in Indian history. The entire Indian history since the arrival of Mahmud of Ghazni had to be viewed as a struggle between the defenders of religion and foreign aggressors. In the “prolonged furious conflict our people became intensely conscious of ourselves as Hindus and were welded into a nation” (p 44). All people, whatever sect they belonged to, “all suffered as Hindus and triumphed as Hindus”... In the representation of the past, applied as a means to secure inner cohesion, everything should look like inevitable fate.

2) Conceptualising Unity Based on Territory 

Conceptions of territory play a key role in encouraging unity (and developing a common other) and form a part of the questions on the appropriation of history. Based on an analysis of an essential book for Hindu nationalism⁠—V D Savarkar’s Hindutva: Who Is a Hindu? (1923)⁠—Gottlob identifies that Savarkar referred to territory as a unifying bond. Savarkar saw land as a way to connect “the remotest past to the remotest future.”

Pia David writes that in order to build cohesion between different states, it was important for leaders to locate the threat to India “outside its borders.”

The choice of Rabindranath Tagore’s Jana gana mana as the national anthem is an excellent example of how India was to be perceived. The territory was to be the significance of unity. The  idea of what it may mean to be a nation was understood not as a struggle of groups and individuals for an Indian nation, rather it was marked out by territory which in a certain sense could be identified as what it may mean to be part of the Indian nation. 

3) Nurturing a Sense of Commonality

Rudolf C Heredia argues that people in the Indian subcontinent did not have a sense of a common national identity or a desire to be united as a nation prior to the freedom movement’s efforts to nurture a feeling of national belonging. Heredia identifies two poles of tension that underlie these efforts: one represented a “vision of an idealised ancient past prioritising religious and cultural revivalism,” while the other prioritised a future “centred on social transformation and concern." 

[W]hen religion is used to construct this national identity, then religion is politicised into an “ideology” and vice versa and nationalism is sacralised into a “religion”—in other words, a nationalised religion and a sacred nationalism. This entanglement of religion and politics inevitably becomes explosive, as religion becomes fundamentalist and exclusive; and politics becomes extremist and violent. No religious tradition has been an exception to such political manipulation, even those purported to be tolerant and non-violent. Only the expression of the violence varies.

4) Ambedkar’s Approach to the Question of Unity

Shabunam Tehan also identifies that the groups spearheading the freedom movement⁠—the Congress and the Hindu Mahasabha⁠—were so unwavering in their determination to convince the British that India was a unified nation that they never examined who the Indian nation was supposed to be for and how a sense of unity would be encouraged. Ambedkar was sceptical of India’s ability to be a unified country because of the “like-mindedness” of religious and caste groups. 

Communication and participation between groups, Ambedkar believed, was “essential for a harmonious life, social or political,” but in India there was no such participation. Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Parsis, and Jews, each had their own like-mindedness, isolating them from the others, and it was this isolation that was “the chief evil” (Ambedkar 1919: 249). Moreover, the Hindus were further divided by caste. Castes had  their own like-mindedness and were so divided from each other as to make the term “Hindu” practically meaningless. The most profound fault line lay between those he called “touchable” Hindus and the untouchables. 

Pia David adds to this conversation and argues that Ambedkar encouraged the concept of fraternity⁠—a concept he believed was different from the concept of unity⁠—that was to be based on the life of the Buddha. 

Navayana Buddhism, as he termed it, had an inbuilt conception of how society was to recognise the other. It was not based on assimilating via inclusion rather recognised groups on the basis of karuna—active love, a conception which upheld a reciprocity of recognition. Karuna was to be supplemented by maiytree or the notion of loving kindness towards all creation. Alternatively in the nationalist paradigm, the heterodoxy within the Hindu tradition was projected as “inclusivism”—a process of assimilation to project a condition of tolerance which was later extended at a national level to make claims as done in standard descriptions/marker of Indianness. However, it may be useful to more clearly spell out this conception of tolerance and its aims. Toleration in the Indian context was a process of assimilation which allows for diversity of religious beliefs to be absorbed and arranged within the larger discourse of the Hindu religion itself. 

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