“ Vasudaiva Kutumbam” is a beautiful Sanskrit phrase which means – “The whole world is my family”. It refers to the concept of inclusion. In fact when I did a small research on the internet about the ancient Hindu philosophy and its thoughts on inclusion I found that the Hitopadesha says in verse 1.3.71 that it is only a very narrow minded person who thinks “ This is my relative and that is a stranger” ! But it is sad that despite the fact that our ancient texts speak about community living and inclusion, we are repeatedly guilty of exclusion.
So, what is it that excludes a person from a sense of community? Yes, caste and religion are important exclusionary factors which tells you who is accepted and who is not. But what about factors that integrate- a shared language or culture? Does that work for us?
I have tried to analyze this using the examples from two states in India that I am reasonably familiar with – Bengal and Tamil Nadu. It does not in any way indicate a bias either positive or negative. It is just because I have had personal experiences of inclusion and exclusion within these two cultures that I am using them as illustrations.
I grew up in Bengal spending the first fifteen years of my life there. I try to recollect whether I was in any way excluded by the fact that I was not a Bengali. I don’t think so. In fact, people used to take every effort to include me in everything. I found something very unique about Bengal- the pride in the language was so strong that it really succeeded in bringing people together. You can see this by the way Bengalis across the world celebrate Durga Puja- every Bengali ( and some others like me.. ) comes together to celebrate this festival in the true spirit of community living. It is very interesting but the festival is probably more cultural than religious . Though I guess only Hindus celebrate it, I have never sensed a feeling of caste based exclusion in any of this ( though I guess the rich poor division may be there to some extent) in all the forty odd years that I have seen this festival being celebrated. Language is used so strongly to build the sense of identity as a community it is to be seen and experienced to be believed! Bengalis probably are the only people who have not taken yet to speaking in English at home. With language being the common denominator that binds them, it is only natural that people take pride in what is accepted as a common culture. As far as I understand there is no system of mainstream of subaltern cultures. Infact language and culture extends across boundaries with Tagore and Nazrul being accepted by Bengalis on both sides of the border. Food, again is fairly homogenous- there is no concept of caste based vegetarianism – every body eats “ Machh Bhat” ( rice and fish) “ The state has had a history of social movements” say some of my friends with whom I have discussed this. True but social movements alone cannot build inclusion !
Let us look at Tamil Nadu. It is very strange but this state is probably more pluralistic than we think it is. For example- there is a strong caste based divide – Brahmin vs Non Brahmin. Then I guess there are religious divisions too. It is funny but even Tamil as a language is caste specific. The Tamil that a Tam Brahm speaks is completely different from what the rest of the state speaks ( this .. even after discounting for regional dialects which are only but natural). This therefore becomes the first layer of exclusion. If you speak the Tam Brahm lingo and you are in a non Brahmin setting you are marked as someone different and if you do not speak this lingo in a Brahmin setting you are seen as a “not one of us” ! Culture therefore becomes very fragmented. You have Carnatic music which is largely patronized by the Brahmins unlike Rabindrasangeet or Nazrul Geet which is sung by all Bengalis- Hindu or Muslim – Indian or Bangladeshi! In fact I have seen some Carnatic music teachers hesitate to take as their students people belonging to other castes and religions!
There are no festivals which are celebrated as a community. Pongal is a harvest festival but really, it is more an individual celebration and again the importance varies depending on whether you belong to a caste that has strong agrarian roots or not. Of course if you are a Christian or Muslim your festivals are defined by your religion- but what amazes me is that even among Hindus within the state there is nothing that passes for a common festival that can be celebrated together as a community!
It is surprising but this state which also had a social movement in the 1960s did not actually succeed in doing away with caste based divisions and issues that social movements are generally expected to. If anything it only succeeded in accentuating caste divides. It tried to bring about what it called a “ Dravidian” identity but sadly.. this identity continues to perpetuate caste. The movement targeted a particular caste which migrated out into other states and now other countries . In terms of numbers this so called upper caste is probably a very small minority in the state now. They continue to practice caste based discrimination but their decision to opt out from the power hierarchy has just diminished this sense of the “ other” that was being attacked. They are just too insignificant now..! But has this stopped caste atrocities in this state? No- Scheduled castes continue to be terrorized and denied temple entry in districts like Sivagangai. The “ oppressor” caste has only been replaced by another.
There is this concept that we hear of in sociology which says “ self exclusion” . This comes as a reaction to “ forced inclusion” which the Central Government sought to do through introduction ( it is often referred to as “ imposition” )of Hindi. In its efforts to fight “ Hindi” the state became very jingoistic about its language and its culture- the concept of what is called the “ radical left becoming like the radical right” So what we have now is a completely closed mind to accepting anything that is not Tamil. Even FM radio in Tamil Nadu does not play Hindi songs..!! How is this state going to survive in a market economy which calls for dealing with people from different places and cultures?
Now coming back to this thing about the whole world being my family how is it possible if we are not able to come together using what are considered relatively neutral variables like language and culture? From a lived experience I can say that though I am a Tamilian by birth ,the kind of discrimination that I have experienced in this state as a so called native is something I never experienced in Bengal. So I guess I am a stranger here! I have been trying for ages to understand what constitutes a Tamil identity and I am still struggling..!
While I am not saying that all is hunky dory with Bengal.. but at least I can say with confidence that some of these parameters of exclusion are not practiced so publicly and there are therefore lesser divides! I know that wearing a Jamdani sari would not make someone Bengali just as putting jasmines on one’s hair makes a person Tamil.. And what is more worrying is that if we are not able to come together in terms of a shared identity even within one sub culture then what are our chances of accepting a person who is not part of it? So, obviously the whole world is not going to be my family! We are constantly going to define ourselves by defining the other!
The concept of inclusion defines a society as broad minded. If we are proud of our culture we should try to include as many as possible within it. What is so special about it that it has to be kept away and protected by Iron gates from that “stranger” ?