India is diverse

Updated 16 June 2014

The previous page explored China’s homogeneity. On this page, India‘s diversity is examined.  Although India is also protected by water along the south west, south and south east and by mountains to the east and north, the west has several highly vulnerable passes, the Khyber Pass being the best known, through which invader after invader has entered India and in the process diversified it.

India is a land of “unity in diversity”…

… so postulated the late Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, first Prime Minister of India, in Discovery of India written during his imprisonment by the British for his role in fighting for independence in 1942-1946 in the Fort at Ahmednagar.

Unity is still holding 60 years after independence. However, over these years, some 15 new states have been formed. Some were recognition of areas with unique ethnic groups such as Nagaland in Assam; others were incorporation of extra territory such as Goa and Sikkim who decided it had no future as a small land-locked resource-poor country. But most were due to ethnic, linguistic or religious disharmony, such as Haryana, mainly Hindu and Hindi-speaking split from Punjab, now mostly Sikh and Punjabi-based and in 2009; and Telangana has recently (2014) been formed out of Andhra Pradesh.

Diversity is certainly there. India has:

  • A population of c1.2 billion growing at 2.1% and slowing along the pattern seen all over the world as a society becomes affluent and infant mortality drops. But the people comprises of:
  • Ethnic groups: Indo-Aryan 72%, Dravidian 25%, Mongoloid and other 3% (CIA World Factbook). Consequently, surnames are a very good indicator of religious or ethnic origin and, sometimes, of caste as well.
  • Languages: 18 official: Hindi 41%, Urdu 15%, Bengali 8.1%, Telugu 7.2%, Marathi 7% plus 1,650 dialects. Such is the diversity that often two educated Indians from different ethnic backgrounds find it easier to converse in English. English is one of the official languages and is accepted as an alternative to Hindi in parliament and for central government reports and forms (of which, unfortunately there are many!)
  • Religions: Hindu 80.5%, Muslim 13.4%, Christian 2.3%, Sikh 1.9%, Buddhist 0.8%, Jain 0.4%. India has the third largest Muslim population after Indonesia and Pakistan. Incidentally, the origin of Kerala Christians dates back to 52 CE, when St. Thomas the Doubter landed near Cochin. He visited different parts of Kerala and converted local inhabitants. Not surprisingly, many male Keralan Christians are called Thomas! This assertion means that Keralan Christianity pre-dates all European Christianity.
  • India also has a rigid 3,000 year old Hindu caste system, outlawed since independence, still much in evidence over 60 years later:
    • There are four main Hindu caste categories:  or varnasBrahminsKshatriyasVaishyas and Shudras – comprising of literally thousands of separate castes – and then there are the ‘outcasts’, the Dalits or ‘untouchables’ excluded from the varnas of >150m (16%population).
    • Including other lower castes and ethnic minority tribes they form nearly 50% of India’s population! Premier Manmohan Singh said that this is India’s ‘apartheid’.
    • But affirmative action is very strong for education and government posts and elected positions; nearly 30% of places are reserved and creates resentment in higher castes.
    • In 2007, tens of thousands of Gujjars – traditionally herdsmen rioted in Rajasthan – when the promise to be officially demoted in caste terms and hence could enjoy positive discrimination did not happen.
    • Nevertheless, the first Indian Vice President Dr B R Ambedkar who developed the Indian Constitution was a Dalit.
    • And recently a lady Dalit, Mayawati Kumari, currently chief minister of Uttar Pradesh (India’s most populous state), was contending to lead the country.
    • The good news is that with the affirmative programme, increasing education and – more importantly – the desire to educate one’s kids whatever the cost, and IT (see later page), things are looking up for women, the poor and the Dalits.
    • It should be noted that caste is practised not only by Hindus but also by Sikhs (though slightly less rigidly) and also by Muslims (both in India and Pakistan, particularly in the Punjab) and some Indian Christian communities.
  • You need no further demonstration of India’s diversity than considering that when Sonia Gandhi stood down as PM-in-waiting when Congress won in 2004, we had the unlikely situation of an Italian Catholic woman giving way to a Sikh swearing the oath of allegiance to a Muslim president in a Hindu-majority nation.
  • For an anecdotal view of how Hindu castes affects day-to-day life, I recommend Nine Lives – in search of the sacred in modern India by William Dalrymple. Although the nine real-life stories are mainly about spirituality in INdia, caste is seamlessly woven into the narrative.

For a contemporary view of India’s diversity, read: India’s Unending Journey – Finding Balance in a Time of Change by broadcaster, Sir Mark Tully.


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