Pluralism masks caste inequalities
The archbishop of Canterbury has made me proud by saying that the west can learn from pluralism in my country, a former British colony. But I refuse to revel in my pride lest I belittle the suffering of almost half of India's population.
At the Chevening lecture in New Delhi last weekend Rowan Williams seemed particularly enamoured with India's definition of secularism, which is "not hostile to multiple religious identities" and nor does it treat its population as "a collection of individuals" but acknowledges that their "actual identity is already bound up with values and beliefs".
Against the backdrop of a world caught up "between renewed bids for theocracy and anxious efforts to secure the complete privatising of faith", secularism as practised in India seems fascinating.
Also, an aerial view of India's of 60-year experience in maintaining its diversity – on which western academics normally dwell – appears to be commendable. Pluralism has survived ideological attacks by right wing Hindus both before and after India's independence – in contrast to Pakistan, which after the 1947 partition became an Islamic nation.
However, a closer look leaves me far from inspired. Williams acknowledged that at its formation the modern independent India needed "a new kind of loyalty" to maintain its multi-religious mosaic while ensuring "a degree of equal access to social goods: to fairness before the law, the chance of economic liberty and protection from the violence of other groups". The latter is where India has been found lacking.
Economic disparities in India are one of the indicators of that deficiency. All major businesses – be it software, cement, telecommunication, or civil aviation – are dominated by just three castes: Brahmins (the "highest" caste in a hierarchical Hindu society) Banias and Jains (among other "upper" castes). Only six percent of the population is from these three castes. This fact is hardly told in India's "growth" story abroad.
On the other hand, the 166 million Dalits (the "lowest" and formerly "untouchables") have remained mostly poor for centuries. Though banned by law, ill-treatment of Dalits is rampant. Dalits are not allowed to enter a Hindu temple or sit at the same table with the upper castes in many parts of the country – regrettably, the caste system is practised in some Christian and Muslim circles too; it's part of the Indian psyche.
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