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17 July 2011

Forget Bollywood or cricket, what does it really mean to be Indian?

What Britain can learn from the subcontinent about multiculturalism.

By Shloka Nath

David Cameron and Nathan Glazer could very well be the best of friends.

In 1997, Glazer, an American sociologist, published his seminal work, We Are All Multiculturalists Now, a testament to the dominance of the multiculturalism ethic in public schools in the United States. He expressed his immense dissatisfaction with multiculturalism and how it has prevented African-Americans from fully integrating into a society, where ‘assimilation’ has become a dirty word.

In February this year at a conference in Munich, Cameron spoke of the dangers of Islamist extremism in the domestic context. In his opinion, “the process of radicalisation” of British Muslims was essentially a crisis of identity as a result of the steady attrition of British character. “Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives,” said Cameron. ” We have even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run completely counter to our British values.”

It was only a matter of time before Cameron began to develop his “being British” narrative and asserted Britishness as the uniform national identity for all people living in the UK. After all, the repudiation of Britain’s laissez-faire multiculturalism — the notion that a multiplicity of ethnicities, religious and cultural groups can exist in peaceful separation in society — is so rife these days as to be platitudinous.

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Since the late 1980s, following the fatwa against Salman Rushdie for his novel “The Satanic Verses,” the multiculturalism model has been in flux, only made worse by 9/11 and the 2005 London bombings.

But the debate about multiculturalism and national identity is not confined to Britain alone. In India too, the question about what it means to be Indian is a subject of great national consternation.

At a party in Mumbai recently I asked a few of the guests (read: educated elite) what was India’s 21st Century version of the “American Dream”?

The answers I received were rather unsettling:

Me: So really, what’s the quintessential quality that defines being an Indian today?
Guest 1: Er…. you know, I think cricket unites everybody. Yes that’s it! (Beaming) We Indians love our cricket.
Me: Um. I was thinking something slightly more intangible?
Guest 2: Well dear, it really is all about Bollywood. Being Indian is Bollywood, that’s who we are. All Indians are united by their common love of Bollywood.
Me: Isn’t Bollywood really only one form of Indian cinema?
Guest 3: Bloody hell! They’re all morons, its none of this Bollywood-Shollywood nonsense, we are Indians because we are not Pakistanis!

You get the general drift.

I would argue however, that being Indian is indeed a very identifiable thing. And there are lessons here for Britain too. Wander about the streets of Mumbai or Delhi and you will be struck by the monumental remnants of each city’s pluralistic, polyglot past. For India is a nation consumed by the many; the Turks, Persians, Mongols and indeed the British are all testament to a pervasive and historical migration process in the sub-continent, each of which has left an indelible mark on what is supposedly an Indian cultural composite.

The Indian state, as imagined under the Nehruvian ideal, was to be a pluralistic one, where there were to be no agreements between different communities except on the methodologies that determined how to disagree. Nor was there to be any separation between religion and the state, instead, the state would maintain a respectful and “equal distance” from all religions.

Unlike European liberal frameworks, the Indian Constitution gives autonomy to both the individual as well as communities, thereby providing diverse cultural groups equal treatment under the law and avoiding excessive state interference.Thus India, it seemed, was destined to be defined by the sum of its parts rather than the whole of its aspirations.

Cut to the 21st century. The Indian nation-state stands as an impressive example of successful multiculturalism. There is no such thing as the conventional Indian.

As a Hindu, I represent the religious majority in my country but under our constitution we are a secular state with representation of almost every religion known to man. I cannot even lay claim to a commonality amongst my Hindu brethren, for we are segregated by caste, and we do not practice Hinduism, a philosophy more than a religion, in the same manner.

Hindi, the national language, is spoken by only a fraction of the population (a peculiarity most keenly evinced by the election of our former Prime Minister, HD Deve Gowda in 1996, who spoke not a jot of Hindi).

Instead India is characterised by a multitude of local and regional languages; 29 of them are spoken by more than a million native speakers. We are ethnically dissimilar and geographically divided, which is why the Indian statesman, Shashi Tharoor says, “Indian nationalism has…always been the nationalism of an idea.” It is the idea of unity in diversity, sustained by a historical narrative stretching over centuries and a common belief in pluralist democracy. Indians, according to Nehru, existed long before the creation of the Indian state.

The United States has also had a fair amount of success with multiculturalism. But theirs is of a putatively assimilative variety. They are a contractual society – immigrants came to the Americas in droves specifically because they wanted to “sign up” to the ideals laid out in its Constitution. The United States is, as Lincoln once said, “an almost chosen nation.” Which is why America is often referred to as a “melting pot” of cultures. It doesn’t matter whether you’re yellow, pink or brown as long as you are American first – the state has pushed down its own version of cultural pluralism on its citizens, because its citizens had implicitly agreed to abide by those very conditions.

It brings to mind Richard Hofstadter’s famous observation about the United States that, “It has been our fate as a nation not to have ideologies but to be one.”

British national identity is unlikely to ever become like that of India, that is defined by its very cultural diversity. Not everyone in Britain should be a minority, no. But I do think a state-driven, top-down approach to asserting British values will fail and will result in exactly the sort of social alienation that hatches extremism. To expect immigrants to abandon their cultural and ethnic past is simply unrealistic.

What is needed, then, is a synergetic process whereby British character remains a dominant force but it allows itself to be transformed by the incoming minority cultures and in turn, substantially alters those minority cultures as well. This sort of society produces a British Muslim, or British Chinese, who is completely different from a Muslim or Chinese person anywhere else in the world. They are uniquely, British.

Both Britain and India realise that their historical identity has been formed through accommodation and a slow and subtle accretion. In 1913 Woodrow Wilson insisted the constitution be interpreted according to the Darwinian principle of evolution. “A nation is a living thing,” he said.

Shloka Nath is a broadcast journalist. She has worked with the BBC in London and for New Delhi Television (NDTV) in Mumbai.

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