Group identity and difference


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Reset-DoC has an agenda, and not a hidden one: to promote an exchange of views and experiences on the ways in which difference is not only tolerated (that being the bare minimum), but rather valued and cherished as a way of both avoiding violence and preserving the many-faceted richness of human experience. The problem, of course, is not new, but historically it has been addressed in many different ways.

Empires: In the imperial system, difference was de facto preserved, tolerated, but only insofar as it did not interfere with power. Empires (British, Turkish, Moghul and others) were multicultural systems, but were neither democratic nor liberal. Repression, often of the utmost brutality, was always lingering around the corner. Modernizing the conquered, the peripheral, the subject, was never an ideological concern, but only a practical necessity related and limited to extracting resources or maintaining efficient communications.

The nation state: The nation state was certainly not born democratic, but became the environment in which gradually, one could say painfully, democracy evolved on the basis of the rule of law. The ideology of the nation state (including democratic nation states), however, tends to be not very friendly to the recognition of difference, to multiculturalism. The French concept of the citizen, a product of the French Revolution that became a model for nation states all over the world, is characterized by a tendentially assimilationist logic.

This is as far as the ‘internal’ nature of the state is concerned. When we turn to its external dimension, we see another strong ideological component: that of la mission civilisatrice, in other words, a modernizing task which found as its inevitable corollary the colonial fight against traditions that were despised and considered ‘backward’. Colonial exploitation was always there, but we should not underestimate this ideological aspect, i.e., the conviction of the right/duty to bring a more modern, more civilized way of life to the colonized.


I would like to introduce here a footnote on one aspect of the British colonial experience in India that helps us identify some possible variations in the ways in which difference is addressed even within an imperial framework.

I quote from a book by William Dalrymple, The White Moghul, that focuses on the protagonists of Britain’s colonial enterprise in India. It turns out that, somewhat paradoxically, the top echelons of the East India Company, a highly exploitative colonial enterprise, related to the native population in a way that was not only more respectful of difference, but was less tainted by the racism that characterized much of the later colonial stage when India shifted to the direct control of the British Crown, and of British bureaucrats as well as missionaries. A stage in which the imperial model became rather similar, in its basic characteristics, to the colonial pattern of the nation state.

The ‘White Moghuls’, formidable adventurers and colonial exploiters, often went native marrying local women, adopting local lifestyles and sometimes mastering local language and culture. They were not interested in projecting ideology or modernizing by exporting ways of life, but only in extracting value. They were not ‘good people’, they were greedy and mercenary, but looking at them in the light of later colonial practice, full of contempt and missionary zeal, they seem to us less dreadful than those that followed them.

After the imperial and the nation state approaches to difference and modernization, we have now reached a third stage: that of globalization.


What has to be said is that today the task of avoiding conflict while pre-serving difference has become more difficult than it either was under the imperial or the nation state model. In the first place, both empires and nation states possess institutions within which diversity can be made compatible with political coherence and economic necessity. Globalization does not allow for that.

At the same time, contradictions are running wild. In some respects, the world has moved and, in an accelerated fashion, in a unified, centripetal direction, whether we speak of the transmission of economic trends (if today Wall Street sneezes, Singapore gets pneumonia), or of the rapidity of travel, and especially of electronic communication.

At the same time, powerful, even violent centrifugal forces are at work. A loss of control over our material well-being and political destiny has produced a sort of ‘agoraphobia’: the open, disquieting spaces of the present globalized world in which things are decided in an unknown and disquieting ‘elsewhere’, making the building (or reconstructing) of smaller communities almost irresistible. Separatism, an old historical phenomenon in Europe, is today back on the agenda, not only as nostalgia but as a conceivable political project, from Scotland to Catalonia.

How about India? The history of post-independent India has known separatist challenges, from Khalistan to Assam. And yet today, of all the problems that affect India, separatism does not seem to be the most threatening or the most urgent.


The fact is that in Europe it is possible to say that the modernizing role of the nation state has been completed, and that the nation state is often considered, at the same time, as too small (to address issues of economic size and international influence) or too big (to address the need for cultural identity and democratic control). In India, instead, the nation state is still engaged in a modernization process, and at the same time society is undergoing change (in terms of both geographic and social mobility, which in Europe has come to a virtual standstill).

What is more specific to India, compared to other rapidly changing non-European societies, is the peculiarity of the Indian state: one that did not, could not, impose on its original multiculturalism the strictures of the European nation state in terms of language and culture. India is more truly federal than any European state. It is a true nation, and yet one that has maintained – in many respects – a plurality, a diversity, that reminds us of an imperial past. In a way this combination of a dynamic collective pursuit of a modernizing task with the preservation of an ancient, rooted religious and cultural plurality explains ‘the mystery of India’, a true nation state despite all its huge problems.

And yet, pitfalls abound, and political leadership in India should be extremely aware of their danger. One has to do with the eclipse of the citizen, replaced by an insatiable consumer. This, it has to be said, is a problem that affects both India and Europe. If modernization is basically equated with an increase in private consumption, disaster is around the corner. Incidentally, the present global crisis is arguably the product of an irrational and irresponsible expansion of credit made necessary by the need to sustain consumption at a time when the income growth of the lower and middle classes has become stagnant.


A country that is made of consumers instead of citizens is not only economically fragile, but also politically unstable and ethically weak. Corruption (another unifying characteristic, unfortunately) is not only debilitating from a political and economic point of view, but also escalates the potential for social conflict and even violence. Both in Europe and in India resentment against injustice, unfortunately, tends not to be directed at the real culprits (that are both public and private) but rather towards scapegoats that tend to be the immigrants and in general the different Other.

As a general rule, diversity is sustainable and positive when it is combined with a common task, a shared citizenship, a mutual respect for the rules. When inequality, injustice and perceived corruption prevail, diversity turns into mutual hostility and a zero-sum struggle for survival. The degree of socioeconomic inequality and the scourge of corruption are much more inimical to the acceptance of diversity and the avoidance of conflict than communal tensions or local separatisms. This is in particular true for the Muslim community in India, whose socioeconomic relative disadvantage is infinitely more problematic, in terms of peaceful coexistence, than the creeping Wahabi influence fostered by Saudi money.

Having drawn all the necessary differences between India and Europe, at the end we must say that the delicate balance between peace and diversity requires many of the same conditions: Politically, we need institutions that are at the same time well-functioning and democratic. It is not enough to say ‘democracy’, however. Everyone, these days, claims to be a democrat, but there are too many ‘imitation democracies’ around, distorted by demagogy, populism, kleptocracy, and illiberal majority rule.

In a global world, democracy must necessarily be multilayered: the nation state, of course, the announcement of whose demise, in spite of all its limitations, is certainly premature. But a nation state that institutionally recognizes difference, with systems of federalism or of autonomy. At the same time, local democracy, at the city or town level, is also essential and allows representative democracy to get closer to a more direct participation of citizens.


More problematic is the question about how to build democracy above and beyond the nation state: a world government is neither possible nor desirable, and the UN, even in its most democratic body, the General Assembly, embodies the principle ‘one nation/one vote’ and not ‘one citizen/one vote’. Europe, with its long-standing process of integration, represents the only concrete attempt at building democratic institutions beyond nation states, but even here the results are still imperfect. What European integration has, however, done – while not sufficient enough to talk about ‘European democracy’ or true ‘European unity’ – is extremely relevant in terms of our discussion today: peace with a difference. In this, the EU, and the institutional process that preceded it has been extremely successful, and I do not share the general skepticism about the recent award of the Nobel Peace Prize. All we can say – if we want to share part of the criticism (focused on the present less than dynamic state of the European Union, both in terms of economic unity and its international role), is that when the Oscar is given to an outstanding movie director, or actor, the prize is termed as a ‘lifetime achievement’. The EU has thus been awarded, deservedly, an ‘Oscar for its career.’ As a European citizen, I hope that this does not signal the end of its career. We need much more from the EU, both to make peace and the recognition of difference truly irreversible and to be able to handle the economic and international challenges of the future.

As far as the economy is concerned the task is not only of emerging from the present crisis, but of doing it while halting the now general trend toward growing inequality. The lowering of the Gini coefficient and the prevention of conflict in a diverse yet very much an interconnected world are demonstrably linked.

Last but definitely not least, is the cultural dimension. Diversity is a fact of life (homogeneity is a lie: a biological, historical, cultural lie), but the acceptance of diversity is neither natural nor obvious. We need not merely recognize the fact of multiculturalism, but the promotion of inter-cultural knowledge and dialogue. This requires a pedagogy built not only on principles but on direct awareness.


Let me conclude with a sad remark about Europe: in the recent past there have been reports about a sharp cut in funding for the Erasmus programme which allows young EU citizens to spend one year of their university training in another European country. Facing the spread of populist, and often racist, identity politics in Europe, we cannot afford to abandon initiatives which have made Europe, for centuries an almost permanent battlefield, in the area of peace and difference that it is today.