OVER CENTURIES, India has evolved as an ethnically diverse country with significant syncretism, similarities and commonalities in ways of life. Not only the peopling of India from different racial and regional origins, but the geographical diversity within provided ecologies for evolution, sustenance, perpetuation of diversity and interaction, assimilation and harmonization of the same.
In anthropological and political terms, this makes India a unique country in the world. In ethnic terms, racial origin, religion, caste and language are the major sources of socio-cultural diversity in India. Over the centuries, migration has brought together a great diversity of human genes and cultures and today, bulk of the Indian population represents racial and cultural admixture in varying degrees. Anthropological Survey of India conducted (1996) ‘People of India Project’ and registered a list of 17096 entries of castes, communities, sub-groups, surnames and other names of which, 8530 were castes or communities, 3123 sub-groups and 2729 surnames.
In 2011, 1241 individual ethnic groups were found among scheduled castes while the number of individual ethnic groups notified as scheduled tribes were 705. India has as many as 325 languages and 25 scripts in use, deriving from various linguistic families, like Indo-European, Tibeto-Burmese, Dravidian, Austro-Asiatic, Andamanese, Semitic, Indo-Iranian, Sino-Tibetan and apart from these there are thousands of dialects. In fact, the number of mother tongues counted by Census of India has risen over the years (as the speakers became conscious of their identities and started identifying their language/dialects). The total number of mother tongues stated in 1971 was around 3000 which in 1991 increased to around 10,000.
However, it is not to deny that there have also been forces and ideas that have attempted to communalise and divide Indian people on religious, caste, linguistic, racial and regional identities. One of the major setbacks to Indian civilsational unity, in this regard, was division of the country in 1947 on the basis of religion. Even after that there have been attempts to divide the people of India and instrumentalise them for intolerance and violence against each other. To divide people of India, the ethnic consciousness and identity is brought to fore through two main processes (as evident for creating religious divide among Hindus and Muslims): (i) Essentialism or primordialism (that states that Hindus and Muslims have been separate communities and there is no connection between them), (ii) instrumentalism (through which people of different religious and ethnic identities are used to achieve some political or social goals–for instance Hindus and Muslims being used for garnering political power or vote).
Despite emerging contradictions in recent years and rising violence along religious and caste lines, India still stays as a ‘honeycomb’ in which communities are engaged in vibrant interaction, sharing space, ethos and cultural traits. There are a number of communities defining themselves in terms of dual religious configuration, such as Hindu-Sikh, Hindu-Muslim, Hindu-Buddhist, etc. Further, there are communities such as the Khasi Muslim of Meghalaya and the Nicobarese of Andaman and Nicobar Islands which have segments professing three or sometimes four religions, such as Hinduism, Islam, Christianity and tribal religions. In India, religion is superimposed on culture. The pre-conversion practices survive among all religious communities–Christians, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains, Muslims, and Hindus. Further, all religious and tribal communities have multiple sub-sects and groups within; displaying multiplicity and variety of adoptions of different religions and cultures.
In recent centuries, both the Bhakti and Sufi saints had helped to recast and reorient syncretism specifically between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. These saints propagated the fundamental equality of mankind. It is because of this that Sufis are revered both by Muslims and Hindus. Temples and mosques were/are places of equal respects. In many parts of the country Muslim marriages (as in Konkani Muslim) are solemnized by the groom tying an amulet to his bride or giving mangalsutra that is known as a tali among Hindus. Mirji (a Muslim) of Lahore laid the foundation of the Golden Temple, the most sacred place for Sikhs. Shirdi’s Sai Baba, a Muslim by birth, is one of the most popular deities among the Hindus. It was in this tradition, as Munsi Premchand writes how on hearing the cry of a distraught woman, Syed Salar Masud Ghazi got up from his wedding to save cows. At the Cheluvanarayana temple, devotees worship Bibi Nachiyar, the Muslim consort of Lord Vishnu. There are countless such examples across India.
In fact, the term ‘Hindu’, today used for signifying religious-majority community in India, was once used to denote geographic region not the religious belief. At that time even Muslims and Christians were referred to as Hindus.
These pluralistic traditions, beliefs and practices go to underscore and establish that people of India, despite being divided on the basis of diverse identities, are the people of our nation. The belief in different Gods, religions and adoption of different languages as a process of history created their new identities, while erasing many other identities. In many respect, this diversity has got due recognition in Indian Constitution and as such ‘secularism’ as state ideology (to maintain and cherish ‘unity in diversity’) flows from this pluralism. The lives of people in India have been organically linked but attempts through the above mentioned processes are to generate parallel lives (each religious community living unconnected with other religious communities) or compartmentalise and divide. This Indian diversity needs to be contrasted with rest of the world, particularly western European countries, USA and Canada, where diversity emerged because of the immigration of people having different religious, social, cultural and racial traits from rest of the world. The issues in these countries are about how to organically link the parallel lives of citizens so divided. In case of India, we find a significant attempt from some groups (emerging both from minority and majority religious groups) to separate people-by disrupting their organic lives and forcing them to live as parallel entities.