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.