Looking to history and economics to explain why the optics of progressive globalisation often collides with deep-seated nationalism.

While globalisation is not a recent trend, there are three aspects of this phenomenon in modern times that distinguish it from forms we have seen in the past. The first one involves reach and access. Within seconds and with a few taps of our fingers, we now have the ability to connect with people and communities located on the other side of the world.

The second aspect has to do with the degree of vulnerability that people share even when they are in geographically distant areas. The most compelling example of this involves the spread of disease or viruses that have occupied so much of our attention over the last twenty years. In a paradoxical way, these outbreaks have served to unify the world against a common enemy, with global resources being devoted to quelling them.

And the third aspect revolves around globalisation’s most powerful effect – of enhancing or arousing people’s curiosity about other people and cultures. The stereotypical view is that the western world is largely the originator of culture, entertainment, literature and other ideas that are then embraced by the rest of the world. But the reverse scenario can also be true given an equal degree of curiosity about the developing world and parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America.

We saw this in the enormous success surrounding the declaration of the International Day of Yoga that was unanimously adopted by the UN General Assembly towards the end of 2014. Within six months of the declaration, the day was commemorated across the world, transforming what was once considered an esoteric, eastern practice to something that was truly universal and celebratory.

This is a trend worth encouraging in other areas as well – particularly in the creative arts. For example, we have a tremendous wealth of literature in each one of our regional languages but there is not enough of an effort being made to translate these works and make them available to a global audience. Think of how much poorer the world would be, in literary terms, if the works of Tolstoy and other Russian greats had not been beautifully and meticulously rewritten in English or French. We see more attempts at translation and communication in the visual world
of film but literature or written stories still remain restricted to their original languages.

A world without borders of the mind, through which ideas and resources can flow freely seems ideal, and possibly idealistic, at this stage. It certainly does not explain the negative reaction to globalisation that is mirrored in people and communities shrinking within themselves. People who feel that globalisation is threatening their way of life are increasingly identifying themselves by smaller and smaller groups – whether these are nation states or religions or communities within nation states – and that becomes an insular withdrawal of sorts.

The one factor to keep in mind is that, historically, whenever human beings have sought to create larger political or social entities, there has always been opposition in one form or another. That has definitely been true in the history of India – through periods spanning the growth of the British empire as well as various wars or conflicts that predate it – and it is something we are experiencing again now, albeit with undercurrents of an increasingly integrated society.

However, there is no reason to become alarmist about a human reaction that is as prevalent today as it was a thousand years ago. While, on the face of it, much of this assertion of identity is cloaked in nationalistic or communal terms, the real imperative may well be economic.

If what a given community produces is going to be challenged by communities halfway across the world, the former may view it as a threat to its own economic wellbeing. For example, an Indian state’s beautiful and painstakingly created indigenous craft could be endangered by the introduction of machinery. This actually goes back to Gandhi and the handloom movement that he jumpstarted, with the spinning wheel as its symbol. But Gandhi also realized that India had to move along the path of progress, even at the cost of some of its traditional and non-globalized forms of occupation.

But it is in this dilemma, and in the constant tussle between quality and expediency, that the greatest potential for conflict exists. In these times of instant gratification, we would rather get our hands on a product in three hours than wait for it to be laboriously crafted over a month. However, as consumers, we should introspect on the bigger questions of quality and value before making our choices. This also calls for greater assertion by civic and community groups as well as government to enable people to recognize quality and consider the price it commands as fair investment.

The part that we do have to be careful about is a certain intolerance to ideas that is growing under the guise of freedom of expression. Intolerance, as we say at the UN, has to be unlearned. During the course of their lives, most humans acquire varying degrees of intolerance that manifests itself in their reactions to particular ideas, beliefs or people. This can be changed through education and the power of reason. On the one hand, you have the undeniable freedom of every individual to have a point of view. But at what point does that freedom intrude upon another person’s freedom to have their point of view? These are issues we need to work through very carefully.

Some outcomes of globalisation are inevitable. You cannot stop what people read on the internet. You cannot prevent them from listening to music they like or wearing the clothes they choose to wear. But in this increasing global order of values, aspirations and ideas, a few are exchanged that may clash with prevailing norms and perceived interests, leading to opposition and hostility.

Still, it is unlikely that we will become an insular, inward looking country. We have come together as a nation because diverse communities and groups within India were prepared to reach out to each and formalize that relationship into a union. And that is a metaphor for the way we view and treat the world.

Ramu Damodaran is Deputy Director at the United Nations.