Multiethnic and Pluralistic States Have to Stay


Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra – TRANSCEND Media Service

Development in Ukraine is a matter of concern as it has implications not only for Ukraine but also for other multiethnic and pluralistic states in the world. I am strongly in favor of multiethnic and pluralistic states. I had argued after the Kosovo independence that the Kosovo may not be a very good model for the disgruntled regions around the world. I remember after the Kosovo independence the separatists in Kashmir called for referendum in Kashmir, over which India and Pakistan are locked in a bitter rivalry. In case of Kashmir, the referendum may appear more logical than Kosovo as in the case of the former the United Nations had recommended the procedure to which both the rivals had agreed. Now, they have different positions on the issue.

Can a state be monistic (I am using the word ‘monistic’ – primarily a theological and philosophical term – in a broader sense, implying the basis of state is only one identity traditionally defined – religion, race, ethnicity, etc.)? Or, rather – should all states be monistic? In the modern, globalized world, can a state’s identity be related purely to one race or one religion or one ethnicity? One of the political leaders in the 20th century opined, pure race is a myth – there is no such thing as a pure race. The matter may seem different in case of religion (though every religion has many sects, factions, etc), but this may not be possible in case of ethnicity.

Somewhere I came across a viewpoint that if we restructure the existing states on the basis of monism, we will have hundreds of new states on the international scene. The counter argument may be true. The question is – is it possible? And how far will it help better organize human life?

The answer is not that simple. Identities clash. Some religions may believe that religion should be the sole basis of state formation and state boundary – other identities are subsidiary to religious identity. The application of this kind of logic is far-reaching. Take the case of India. It has population belonging to all religions. India has Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jainas – it has hundreds of languages though its constitution gives official status to about two dozen languages – it has people of many ethnicities. Due to these myriad diversities some analysts prefer to refer India a multinational state. If we apply the logic of monistic state, then India needs to be divided to dozens of states. One of the founders of the modern India, Jawaharlal Nehru was fond of arguing that though India is diverse it is united. This is famously known unity in diversity.

Go to the north east of India – we have China, full of diversities. Whether Tibet in the south east or Xinjiang in north east – the people inhabiting these regions are different from the Han Chinese. One of my friends told me that differences persist within Han Chinese – there are differences between the Chinese of the south and the Chinese of the east. Go to the north of China – we have Russia. Though the Slavic Russians rule the country, the population belonging to different religions and races has grown tremendously. Some reports suggest that cities like Moscow may have a Muslim majority population in 30 or 40 years. I do not know how far this prediction will be true. But Russia has vastly diverse population, belonging to diverse races, religions, languages and ethnicity. Russia has Chechens, Tatars, Ingush ethnic communities, and has besides Orthodox Christianity have people practicing Islam, Buddhism, and even Shamanism.

Across Bering Strait from Russia is the United States of America – perhaps the most diverse country in the world. All kinds of religions, practices, identities, cultures, and what not are found in USA. Perhaps that is its beauty, and keeps it young, dynamic and developed. People migrate to the country every year, mingle with the people and its richness, and in turn enrich it. I would say the founders of the country were great visionaries and could foresee that to develop and prosper the country must adopt diversity and pluralism, instead of monism. Hence, when one says the identity is American, or the US identity, it embodies in itself diversity, multiethnic and pluralism. When we say America or the USA – it does not imply any religion, race, color or ethnicity. Barack Obama before becoming President told the audience (in Chicago in 2008 as I remember) that it (implying the USA) is not Black America or White America; it is the United States of America. Arguing in a Durkheimian way, America has welded a new identity –a multiethnic and pluralistic identity.

We know Europe champions multiculturalism and pluralism despite noises from some quarters. In fact the European Union is an embodiment of pluralist values.

I have nothing against the existing monistic states. The question is – How many more monistic states? Is it possible to have more monistic states in a globalized interconnected world? Will the attempts to create monistic states lead to more violence as seen in some parts of the world? Multiethnic and pluralistic states have to stay. Rather they should be the hallmark of the 21st century globe. Religion, ethnicity, color, race, and other identity markers may have utility in human life, but they do not give all meaning to a peaceful and happy existence. And particularly in the context of state building, arguments favoring monism have increasingly proved obsolete, even devastating.

I know it is a complicated formulation. One may argue what about oppression of a minority community by a majority community in a state, which calls itself pluralistic and multiethnic? This is a valid question. I have hopes on both minority and majority communities within a state to resolve the differences. The majority community needs to come forward to address the concerns of the minority community. The developments in some conflict zones in which minority protests were crushed violently is unfortunate deplorable. There should be a fair law to apply against unlawful activities conducted by any person – whether belonging to majority or minority. I emphasize the law must be fair. The international organizations – particularly the United Nations – can play a meaningful role in reinforcing multiethnic and pluralistic values. But for that its politicization must stop, also must stop the power rivalry in its decision making bodies. There should be some global norms, reinforced by the global body. For that there needs to be consensus among the big powers. That can be possible when the big powers do not transgress the laws of the UN when it suits their national interests and enforce the international laws when they suit their national interests.


Dr Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra is a member of the TRANSCEND Network and an Indian commentator. His areas of interest include conflict transformation and peacebuilding in South and Central Asia. He is a Fellow at the Center for Peace, Democracy and Development, University of Massachusetts Boston.

A modified version of this article was earlier published in


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 21 Apr 2014.

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