Civilisationalism and Ethnocentrism: What’s the Difference?

The natural, legitimate and fundamental human aspiration of a people or a civilisation is to preserve the integrity of the one place it can call its natural homeland.

Last October, this author was invited to take part in a public debate at a leading National Law School in Southern India (not “South India”) on the topic “Do We Need a Nation-Wide NRC?”. The debate, a video of which is available on YouTube for public consumption, was organised in the backdrop of the publication in September of the consolidated yet not final National Register of Citizens (NRC) prepared exclusively for the State of Assam. The consolidated list resulted in the exclusion of 1.9 million persons, mostly Hindus, who must prove their bona fides through appellate mechanisms in order to be included in the list. In the debate, this author took the position that while, in principle, a nation-wide NRC must be undertaken to deal with the silent cancer of illegal migration which is eating into the vitals of the country, the flaws in the process which have been exposed by the Assam NRC must be addressed before the mechanism is implemented on a national scale at considerable expense to the taxpayer. This author further argued that along with a national NRC, the Union Government must work with State Governments to strengthen the options available under the Foreigners Act, 1946 to expedite the process of deportation of illegal migrants, or to render them electorally and politically redundant at the very least in the interest of civilizational security.

The subject of the instant piece is neither the NRC nor the author’s position on the merits of the NRC, but the characterization of the position as being rooted in “ethnocentrism” at the end of the debate by one of the organisers. Of course, everyone has the right to form and express their opinions on a given position, and no individual or individual’s position is the subject of discussion here. However, what is relevant to the instant piece is the broader issue of “ethnocentrism”. Given the leitmotif of this column i.e. understanding Bharat as an Indic civilizational state, it is important to unpack the definition of “ethnocentrism” and the assumptions underlying it so as to understand if Bharat’s construction as an Indic civilizational state is but a sophisticated way of advancing and defending ethnocentrism or xenophobia.

The general understanding of “ethnocentrism” in cultural anthropology and social sciences is the belief in the superiority of one’s culture or way of life, which is typically attributed to ethnic heritage. Ethnocentrism exists in several parts of the world and in several societies based on a variety of premises, including racial, religious or both. Some cultures make the claim that their way of life is the only universally valid way of life, but stop short of imposing it on those who don’t belong to their group because they value their exclusivity as “the Chosen People”. Some believe that their way of life must be imposed on everyone “for their own good” so that their “souls may be saved” and they can be lifted out of their “wretched existence”. Some believe that while there could be several ways of life, theirs is best suited for their geography, circumstances and temperament and have no interest in evangelising or imposing their worldview on others. Then there are those who believe that it is possible for several individual ways of life to exist within each group, all of which are oriented towards a common ideal or goal, so as to enable each individual to choose what is most apt for her or him in order to reach that goal. In fact, even this common goal is not imposed but is left to voluntary adoption by the individual. In this category, a missionary approach, be it peaceful or otherwise, to spreading “the only true path” is missing thanks to its fundamental faith in the validity of diverse paths.

In view of the above, the term “ethnocentrism” cannot be equally applied to the approach of all of the above categories because the requirement of the belief of superiority in one’s culture is not uniformly or at all present in all of them. Simply put, this brand of othering does not manifest itself to the same degree and in the same manner across cultures, which makes a world of difference to an individual’s freedom of thought and conscience in a culturally, and hence morally diverse universe.

Critically, the natural, legitimate and fundamental human aspiration of a people or a civilization to preserve the integrity of the one place it can call its natural homeland, must not be mechanically and ignorantly equated with “ethnocentrism”. This is because calling a geography one’s natural home is more a statement of fact, and is not remotely the same as proclaiming the superiority of one’s culture. After all, it cannot be denied that every culture and its way of life has a specific geography which it is historically identified with, notwithstanding the fact that those who don’t share its values are accommodated within that geography for multiple reasons, mostly owing to the twists and turns of history. It must be appreciated that as long as identity exists and matters at the individual level, the cultural or civilizational identities of geographies will continue to matter because individual identities ultimately contribute and lead to group identities, and this is not “ethnocentrism”. In fact, this is how societies take shape.

Also, in the context of a civilization such as the Indic Civilization, which has multiple sub-cultures, identities (“sub” here does not mean subordinate) and ways of life, all of which are united by a common idea instead of a racial or ethnic commonality, the appropriate term would be “Civilizationalism”, and not “ethnocentrism” or even “nationalism” since the premise is not a “nation” but a “civilization”. Pertinently, if a living civilization happens to be a minoritized group i.e. a group which behaves like a disenfranchised community despite its significant numbers on account of the persecution that it has suffered owing to its beliefs and ways of life, it would be a blatant furthering of elitism and coloniality if “ethnocentrism” were to be used as a whip to quell, subdue and stifle the civilization’s attempt to reclaim its indigeneity and its safe space, namely its natural homeland.

 It must be clarified without mincing words that none of this is an excuse or apologia for xenophobia. That said, unfortunately terms such as “ethnocentrism” and “xenophobia” have become loosely used buzzwords to deny the still-relevant basic human impulses which have created societies for millions of years. If the idea is to create an open, inclusive, diverse and egalitarian society, it would be a grave mistake to assume that this goal can be reached by denying natural truths and historical facts. If the goal is reconciliation, truth is and must always be the starting point.

 J. Sai Deepak is an engineerturned-Advocate practising before the Supreme Court of India and the High Court of Delhi.