The Myth of ‘Unity in Diversity’

This campaign emphasizes unity among all Indians by employing a rhetorical strategy that erodes the contradictions in imagining India as a singular nation.

The phrase ‘Unity in Diversity’ is periodically invoked to express the spirit of post-colonial Indian nationalism. What this phrase seeks to assert is that irrespective of varied religions, ethnicities, linguistic affiliations and other such differences, India and Indians stand united. Following Ernest Renan’s argument that ‘unity [in the context of nations] is always brutally established’, the Indian narrative of ‘Unity in Diversity’ too needs to be critically scrutinized. In post-colonial India, several policies and programs have been formulated that seek to emotionally invoke the idea of ‘Unity in Diversity’ among people in India. In the wake of recent events that have sparked off debates over ‘nation’ and ‘nationalism’ in India, I was reminded of the national integration campaign Miley Sur Mera Tumhara, produced in 1986, that still evokes a feeling of a unified Indian nation.

Mile Sur Mera Tumhara was a campaign produced by the Council for Public Service Commission, an undertaking of Government of India, and promoted by Doordarshan, the state-owned television at that time. This video is intended to represent the true Indian spirit: the diversity in Indian languages, costumes, regions, religions, ethnicities, and celebrities. It starts with a slow Hindustani classical rendering by vocalist Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, then picks up speed and moves across many languages, cultures, and musical variations, fading at the end into a harmony with the final notes of India’s national anthem. All the participants sing Mile Sur Mera Tumhara, Toh Sur Bane Humara, meaning, if my tune synchronizes with yours, then the tune becomes ours, making it indistinguishable.

The Indian nation, in its post-colonial avatar, was confronted with the immediacy to address the linguistic differences across different regions in India. A Committee for Emotional Integration with a mandate to ‘‘study the role of education in strengthening and promoting the processes of emotional integration in national life”. This committee was responsible to introduce Hindi in school curriculum so that it becomes a common medium of communication binding the whole country together. This imposition of Hindi has received severe criticism as it imposed North Indian norms onto the rest of the regions, inorder to discipline them into nation-subjects. This song too starts with a Hindi couplet first, thus establishing that the ‘Mera’, or the first person privilege within the Indian polity is for the Hindi speaking community while ‘Tumhara’, or the ‘othered’ ones are communities with regional languages. What must be noted is how the Hindi language here is elevated to an all-encompassing representational category, embodying the ‘Indian’ nation, while other languages are reduced to categories that merely represent India’s regional ethos.

What is interesting to note here is how two regions, Goa and the states in the North East of India have been shown in this campaign video. While all other regions are represented through individuals singing the Mile Sur… couplet in their respective languages, the sections where Goa and the North Eastern states feature only have background music and no words. For the North Eastern region, the camera pans over a group of people holding each other by their waist. The video provides no other markers apart from their racial features and costumes to suggest that this group represents the North Eastern states of India. Similarly, for Goa, one can see people waving their hands and a family descending down the stairs of an old house with Indo-Portuguese architecture. The scene closes with noted Goan cartoonist Mario Miranda in the frame sketching a boat, fishermen, and coconut trees. There is something peculiar about this muting of voices from Goa and the North Eastern regions of India. It shows the discomfort that the narrative of Indian nationalism encountered to integrate these regions, with their own distinct histories, into its fold.

This campaign overtly emphasizes unity among all Indians by employing a rhetorical strategy that erodes the contradictions and cultural diversity inherent in the idea of a singular India as imagined by the Indian political dispensation. The trap in Mile Sur… is that it seeks to essentialise all differences within the Indian polity through languages and its regions. But it is a well known fact that regionalism and mutli-lingualism are not the only premises of difference that mark the social realities in India. The differences of caste, religion, color, race, ethnicities or even sovereignties often transcend the narrow and artificial regional-linguistic boundaries, and in fact, often challenge the very idea of India as a single unified nation. The campaign can be said to assert the Indian state’s version of imagining India as a post-colonial nation and does not necessarily reflect its lived realities. Just two years before Mile Sur… was released in 1986, India witnessed the state sponsored anti-Sikh riots, in response to Indira Gandhi’s assassination by her Sikh bodyguard. The polarization within the Indian polity has increased thereon, after the implementation of Mandal commission and the infamous Babri Masjid demolition in early nineties to the recent killings in Dadri and the overall political atmosphere in India that celebrates the masculine Hindutva rhetoric. The crisis, thus, as reflected in Mile Sur… is that of the ever increasing gap between Indian state’s projection of itself as a unified nation and its social realities that indicates otherwise.

Cantaram as political dissent

Earlier this month, Goa Government’s Department of Information and Publicity held a ‘Konkani Kantaram Utsav’, a cantaram singing competition in which the participants were asked to sing about the achievements of the current Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) government. This competition attracted a lot of criticism, noticeably from the tiatr community, questioning the government’s intentions behind organizing such a competition. Cantaram competitions are usually held without any pre-decided themes and certainly not with a rule that prohibits participants from criticizing the government. On the contrary, one of the several requirements of a cantar and cantorist is that of political sharpness. Cantoristsranging from Conception-Nelson-Anthony (famously known as the Trio kings) and William de Curtorim in the past, to the current sensation Francis de Tuem, have been famous for their radical political positions.Cantaram carry a huge affective magnitude for the Goan Catholic communities and it has played a key role in influencing public opinion at various historical junctures in post-colonial Goa.  The concerned department, in its official press release, stated that “[s]ong and drama is one of the medium used to propagating various policies, programmes and the schemes of the Government [sic]”. While using traditional cultural practices to propagate government schemes is not unheard of, there is more to the said cantaram competition than meets the eye.

11754510_905717512811034_6447163134040975280_oCantaram are an indispensable part of the tiatr, a theatre form that is popular largely among the bahujan Catholic communities in Goa. Audio CDs of cantars have brisk sales across Goa and is one of the most consumed form of Konkani music. In digital space too, acantar shared on YouTube would have an average of 25,000-30,000hits, a popularity that no other Goan cultural form enjoys. But the potency of cantar form lies in how, over the years, it has become a medium of formulating a discourse about the Catholic communities in Goa, wherein they retain their own agency.Cantaram, beyond its appeal as a form of entertainment, are employed to narrate and remember Goa’s history from the perspective of bahujan Goan Catholics. For instance, it would be helpful to look at two Goan political leaders, Dr. Jack Sequeira and Dayanand Bandodkar and their respective portrayal in cantaramand popular history. The popular narrative of Goan history escalates Bandodkar as a leader of masses while Sequeira’s role in Goan politics is inadequately discussed. But in cantaram, one finds an inversion of this narrative where Sequeira is celebrated for his definitive role during the Opinion Poll in 1967 while Bandodkar is subjected to sharp criticism for wanting to merge Goa with Maharashtra.

Such popular commentary on the state of Goa, emerging from a marginalized community poses a significant discursive threat to the regimes in power. Almost a year ago, the current BJP led government was exploring possibilities of setting up a censor board on tiatrs. However, the popularity that tiatrenjoys in Goa is far too powerful for the censors. Following a backlash over this move, the BJP government had to retract its decision. Having burnt their fingers once, this time the BJP led government saw it fit to organize a cantaram competition, with a clause that no adverse remarks could be made on the government, effectively imposing the censorship.

While the BJP draws its support largely from its anti-minority rhetoric in rest of the India, such stance hasn’t proven to be a success in Goa. In fact, any political outfit in Goa cannot afford to neglect the bahujan Catholic voters that until recently, could make or break governments. This is not to reduce the bahujan Catholic communities in Goa merely to a vote bank but to point to their acute political awareness, which marks them distinctly from the rest of the Goan population. The manner in which the Indian state has been rendering the Goan Catholic communities as dispossessed citizens, for example, by the denial of official recognition to Romi Konkani or the recent uproar over state grants to English medium primary school, makes them confront the state machinery in a manner which often proves to be litmus tests of Indian democracy in Goa. Cantaram and tiatr are central to the production and distribution of the discourse that makes this political awareness among the bahujan Catholic communities possible. By organizing the Cantaram Utsav, the BJP government precisely wanted to seek control of that discourse.

However, the tiatr community almost boycotted this event as a mark of protest. A collective that identifies itself as “Musical Warriors” gave a clarion call to Tiatrist and cantorists to gather outside the competition venue for a parallel cantar singing competition. This competition aimed at bringing forth the truth about the last four years of BJP governance and their anti-people policies and schemes. Singers Francis de Tuem, Lawry Travasso, Marcus Vaz among others, gathered outside the competition venue and singing critiques of the BJP-led Goa government in a sharply satirical cantar titled ‘Acche Din Aane Waale Hai’. This performative protest was sheer brilliance on the part of these singers to indicate that they will not compromise their political position for state patronage. While one fears that cantaramwould lose its radical potential owing to attempts of appropriation by the state such as the said Kantaram Utsav, the tiatr community, through this protest kept alive the tradition of political dissent.

Countering hatred

Past few days have been really busy as our new Marathi play, Jatharaanal, enters final leg of rehearsals. A satirical critic of totalitarian state where the king turns into a cannibal, this play is an exciting project to work on since it is a musical we are doing after a very long time. There is a qawwali that has been written which echoes the protagonist’s dilemma to choose between knife and alcohol while the lyrics plays on some interesting pun on the word “Suraa” which means both, knife and alcohol, in Marathi. Towards the end of it, the Qawwal urges everyone to choose “Sur” (Music) over both the “Suraa” as that has a bigger capacity to heal.

The attack on the school in Peshawar has numbed everyone beyond limits. While people wrote very emotional messages on Facebook (and even diplomatic advices to Pakistan), I didn’t feel the urgency to respond to it mainly because I was not able to articulate my feelings. I just felt scared and incapable. The emotional outpour is more because it is children who were killed. What bothers me is this killing and wiping off innocence from our lives while we are living in times when we need it the most. Children seem to embody that innocence that we all yearn for and we must hold onto it as much as we can.

There is some apparent connection I am trying to find between the qawwali from the play and my concern with incidents like Peshawar. I think Music, like innocence, is one answer to counter hatred and we need more of it. Because as Bard said, Music is the food of love and we must play on.

Video

Faith Connections and Bhoom Shankar

Pan Nalin is one of my favorite director and I particularly love the way he films and visualizes vast landscapes and creates a beautiful narrative through a minimalist yet powerful visual design. His recent documentary, Faith Connections, is a testament to that. I’m yet to watch it fully and hope the opportunity comes soon enough but while checking out its trailers on YouTube, came across this lovely song that is used in the film.

Faith Connections is a documentary film on Kumbh Mela, which is considered as world’s one of the most extra ordinary religious events. Kumbh Mela is also known for the Sadhus smoking Ganjaa and this song by One Drop Forward juxtaposed with the visuals of Sadhus smoking a joint celebrates that carefree attitude of this festival.

Though I’ve never tried smoking (forget smoking Ganja), this song is addictive so thought of sharing.