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an interview with Doudou Diene
(courtesy of Auroville Today,
August 2010)

Breaking a deep historical trend



Dr. Doudou Diene is a member of the International Advisory Council of the Auroville Foundation. Before that he had a distinguished career in UNESCO where, among other posts, he was Director of the Division of Inter-cultural Projects. Between 2002 and 2008 he was U.N. Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.

Auroville Today spoke with him in February during a private visit he was making to the community.


A gathering in the Amphitheatre. Photo by Manohar



Auroville Today: In a talk during a previous visit to Auroville you mentioned that whenever we encounter somebody from a very different culture there is a “tension”. And the way that individuals and societies deal with this tension determines whether there is a positive outcome, where diversity is embraced, or a negative outcome reflected in intolerance, discrimination, racism etc.


What determines how an individual or society responds to this tension?


Doudou Diene: Every community or group constructs an identity for itself because people need to recognize themselves not only as individuals but also as members of a group. However, in this process of identity construction the negative dimension has always tended to predominate because, historically, identity is always constructed in a context of division or of war. In other words, the construction of an identity has always tended to be done against something or somebody else. Take the nation state. The process of constructing the nation state was done in a context where nations were warring among themselves. So the factor of fear, of the need to defend itself, preceded the construction of the state.


Political leaders have played a crucial role in creating such group identities because they have played on fear of other groupings to get power and control. Historically, the basic ingredient of identity construction has been ethnicity, because this is the most obvious way that people differ from one another. Another factor which has played a very powerful role has been religion. Every group has created beliefs, gods, spirits, to answer to the fundamental questions of life and death. Then the intellectual elite artificially put all these factors together using, in addition, archaeology, religion, philosophy, history etc., to give coherence and meaning to the idea that a particular group has a distinct identity.


The end result is the notion that we are a distinct group and the enemy is anybody who is different, ethnically, religiously or culturally, from us. In other words, diversity is interpreted as a threat.


However, in all communities you also find individuals or small groups who do not share this negative view of ‘the other', either because they themselves have originally come from another culture or because they have reinterpreted the dominant tradition or legacy and have found another way of looking at others, a way which embraces difference rather than fears it. The basic point to understand here in the context of social evolution is whenever you have a negative you also have the seed of its contrary. And it is this inner tension which brings the deep evolution of any society.


Photo by Jyoti


Do you see Auroville as being such a ‘seed', as a way of redefining diversity?


Yes, because Auroville is based on Sri Aurobindo's incredible vision of the unity of mankind behind its diversity. So it is clear that Auroville is an attempt to break or to reverse this very deep historical trend of interpreting diversity as opposition, as something to be afraid of. It is clear that when people come here with the ideal that the other is not an enemy but my brother or sister, a part of me, they have to live and interact in a different way from other societies. At the same time, everybody carries within them also the legacy of their cultures, their education, their separateness and fears of ‘the other': they see through the ‘tinted lenses' they have inherited. So the tension in Auroville is between this very pure, profound reinterpretation of diversity and the legacy which everybody is carrying. And what is fascinating is that you are openly trying to confront this, you are not trying to deny it. You are conscious of your legacy but you are determined to do something else. This is not happening elsewhere, and it makes Auroville unique.


How well do you think Aurovilians are doing in transcending their legacy, in cleaning their culturally-tinted lenses?


It is impossible for me to make a judgment as I have not had the inner experience of Auroville, of the dynamic of trying to work out this tension which each of you is facing every day. But as someone who sympathizes with your ideals from the outside, I can share a few observations.


Firstly, let's look at the context. One thing that fascinates me is that Mother did not call you here to pray together in an ashram. She called you to build a city, to engage in a yoga of action. So you are engaged in something which necessarily puts you together in such a way that constantly you have to invent solutions to the tension between inherited notions of diversity and the ideal set before you. And you are doing it in a way which I like very much because it is very human. You bring all your weaknesses and your strengths, you bring your passion. I have seen this when Aurovilians interact with each other. Sometimes very negative feelings, even hatred, has been expressed but I have realized, whenever I encounter such negativity among Aurovilians, that it is never very profound, never very deep, unlike the negativity I have encountered in other societies.


Why? Because the dynamic of creating Auroville has been a dual process – you are building the city but there is also the inner process of transformation. And clearly this inner process has produced something which allows Aurovilians, whenever this negativity comes out, to tap into something deeper. It's like when you throw a stone in a pool. It makes ripples on the surface but soon some inner force wells up to make it calm again.



It is this inner thing, this inner force, which allows you, while being very human and expressing your passions in your daily life, to transform them. This is what has allowed you to persevere for so many years in dealing with so many challenges.


Take, for example, the governance dimension of Auroville. Mother said that she wanted something that goes beyond democracy. Here you don't have any existing models to refer to, you are in a void and it's very uncomfortable, yet you are trying to find solutions. You go about it in a chaotic way, but this chaos is a creative chaos.


Sometimes we who come from outside, like the members of the International Advisory Council or the Governing Board, see the chaos and immediately we want to bring order. But this is an order which we carry within ourselves, it means the old solutions, the old ways, because we only know the old ways, we don't know the new ways which are emerging here. So we have to be very modest and careful in the advice we give because we tend not to get inside the inner dynamic of what is going on here.


This is why the autonomy of Auroville is a fundamental principle which should be respected by everybody. Aurovilians should be their own light, working out their own solutions, because it is only here in Auroville that the external realization and the inner transformation are going on hand-in-hand.


This brings a different dimension to everything you do here. For example, I see that most of the scientific and technical breakthroughs you have made in Auroville are marked by the notion of service: they are there to serve others rather than simply to generate profits. Look at what Jacques has done in the villages. Seeing the poverty and the difficulty of providing dental care to these people, he set up outposts in the villages, using a simple table instead of a dentist's chair and training the local people to do primary care. Or take Aquadyn. They developed a process to not only purify but also to dynamise water. A machine was invented, as would have happened in London or Paris, but because it was created here in Auroville the first thing done was not to sell these machines on the market but to install them in the local villages where, historically, water has not only been a life force but also a force of death.


I have visited these villages and seen what a difference it has made to provide, day after day, purified water to these people. This is incredible, fantastic, and I think that this kind of work is perhaps the high mark of Auroville for the time being.


photo by Jyoti



It is also building bridges between the different communities.


Yes. If Auroville is to break the historical tendency of seeing diversity as opposition, it must go beyond the intercommunity tensions which have led in other countries to individual or institutional prejudice. And you are making real efforts; you are in the process of trying to clean your tinted lenses. Sometimes you are failing – there have been moments when those lenses were very dark, but now I think they are becoming much clearer. I see this not only in the diversity of cultures represented in your main working groups but also in the way that children from different cultures and background interact in your schools. I see it in the growing number of marriages between communities and in the way that Auroville, sometimes with difficulty, has been trying to get the local villagers on board.


Auroville has changed their lives, it is changing their lives. That factor is a very important one and maybe it will be the ultimate test of how successful you will be in shedding the old clothes of prejudice and emerging into something else, a more fertile concept of diversity. For, finally, you are constructing a new human tapestry where each thread, each individual, nationality, will retain its specificity, its beauty, while contributing to the tapestry as a whole. You are not there yet but you are definitely on the way.


From an interview by Alan

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