Cultural minorities worldwide are making their voices heard these days when they feel the majority community does not attend to their interests, e.g. the Basques in Spain, Welsh in the UK, and Quebecois in Canada. Wrong handling of ethnic grievances has often led to major conflicts, as it happened between the Hutus and the Tutsis in Africa; Sinhalese and Tamils in Sri Lanka.
Uzbeks feel anxious in Kyrgyzstan, Armenians in Syria, Kurds in Turkey, Hindus in Pakistan, Christians in India. Such situations in different parts of the world reveal the strength of ethnicity, culture and religion in the political dynamism of a nation and inter-community relationships in a pluralistic society. There are not many countries in the world that do not have to deal with tensions related to ethnic, cultural, or religious differences.
The reason is easy to understand. For every community their collective identity is unique. It constitutes the ground of their selfhood and collective existence. That is why anthropologists consider self-affirmation of communities as something normal, even necessary. Therefore, we should not look at this phenomenon negatively. It provides the energy a community needs for its survival and self-enhancement. It serves a psycho-social purpose, ensuring solidarity within the community in times of need.
Even weak cultures have survived when related communities have had a strong sense of uniqueness about their identity during the course of their history. It gave them the needed strength even in the most adverse circumstances to struggle and survive, as it did for the Jews, Armenians, Gypsies, Welsh, Irish, Poles, and Tibetans. Every community has a right to be proud of its collective self and cultural heritage.
The smaller ethnic groups in any nation are inclined to resent the indifference and unconcern of the dominant society to their problems. It is for that reason that the assertion of ethnicity and culture has become a discernible trend almost in every part of the world: in Russia, France, India, Pakistan, China, and Australia; by the Scots, Welsh, Tyrolese, Basques, Catalans, French Canadians, Flemings, and Croats.
Such a phenomenon has been gathering strength in recent years, and has acquired the name ‘Identity Politics’ on the world scene. Such self-affirmation can take a violent turn when it is not given scope for legitimate self-expression or when the concerned parties make up their mind to take their claims to extremes: e.g., in ex-Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Georgia, Indonesia, Chechnya.
There are any number of communities that want to secede from a bigger political unit for reasons of cultural or historic differences, or economic or political deprivation: e.g. the Scots in the UK, the people of Aceh and Irian Jaya in Indonesia, those of Chechnya in Russia, the Baluchis in Pakistan, Muslims in South Thailand, Kurds in Iraq, and Catalans in Spain.
This can turn out to be a threat to the unity of the nations. In some cases, there is violence on the side of the protesters, and in other cases, the State takes the initiative in being hard on the minorities. Emotional integration of smaller tribes and ethnic groups on the borders calls for a strong sense of cultural sensitivity on the part of those who guide the nation’s destinies.
Competing interests of different communities in the neighborhood can lead to tensions. Such tensions are built on perceptions of political, economic, psychological, or cultural exploitation of a group by a stronger one. Some such perceptions may be true and some exaggerated.
If, on the contrary, the neighboring communities begin to consider their aptitudes and skills complementary, the chances of conflict become significantly reduced. But such a helpful development will greatly depend on leaders on either side. If intelligent and sensitive leaders are on either side during these troubled times to provide an inspiring and complementary vision, the communities concerned quickly move forward with a great sense of serenity and self-confidence.
If the smaller ethnic groups feel that the natural resources in their areas are taken away from them without adequate compensation or without any advantage to them, and if their land keeps going out to the corporates or is hastily turned into special economic zones, resentment is bound to build up. The announcement of dams and other mighty projects with little consideration to the economic needs or difficulties of local communities sends a shiver through their spines. In several places these communities have been holding up such projects.
We need bridge-builders and culture-translators to enable minds and meanings to meet. We need peacemakers today: those who esteem others, even their enemies; those who win sympathy and support by the uprightness of their conduct and truthfulness of their argument; those who, by the human touch with which they handle even the most vitiated situations, build confidence; those who can identify and separate real issues from ego-requirements, from rigid ideologies, and pre-determined positions. “Kindness facilitates the quest for consensus; it opens new paths where hostility and conflict would burn all bridges” (Fratelli Tutti, n. 224).