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Multicultural Mayhem

Multicultural Mayhem

October 24, 2010

India can teach the West a thing or two about multiculturalism.

There's a lot of discussion about multiculturalism these days in the U.K., Canada, and Australia, three Anglo-Saxon countries that have absorbed a large number of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent. Strangely lacking in the discourse is a recognition that these countries could look to India itself for some interesting ideas.

I live in Canada, a country that prides itself on its multiculturalism. I believe the same is true in the U.K. and Australia, some far right lunatics excepted. But I wonder how many of the old stock in these countries realize the extent to which they are still unitarian states, with institutions that do not truly reflect the ethnic diversity to be found within their borders. Let me give you some examples.

For one thing, we still use only the Gregorian calendar. That means you automatically get Sunday as a holiday, and December 25th is always going to be Christmas. The very structure of the calendar embeds Christianity into the society. One option, an extreme one, would be to ditch the Christian calendar and have a new one, which doesn't have these religious resonances. Crazy idea? It was actually implemented by the French Revolutionaries, for this very reason. Perhaps they fact that they came up with other less positive ideas, such as the Reign of Terror, has limited acceptance of this one good one. The other way to go, which is what India does, is to have a multiplicity of different calendars that coexist. So a Muslim can follow his or her own calendar and so too can a Christian, and do not need to observe the Hindu calendar if they don't want to.

In the same way, India has a multiplicity of languages and scripts, all of which can be accommodated within the national narrative and given space in the public forum. By contrast, just look at the difficulty that we have in Canada of managing two official languages, and the idea of the U.K. ever adopting a second language (say Hindi/Urdu or Punjabi) is too small to even be worth discussing.

For a second thing, the Anglo-Saxon countries have had a great deal of difficulty incorporating non-Western norms into their legal, social, and cultural spheres. As a famous example here in Canada, Sikhs serving in the national police force had to go to court to win the right to wear their turbans while proudly serving the country and potentially laying their lives on the line. While times have changed, there's an incipient debate about the burqa here in Canada as I understand is already occurring in the U.K. Of course, this is not to say that there aren't legitimate reasons for being opposed to the burqa, but one of them surely shouldn't be that it doesn't fit the Western dress norm for women. Yet I routinely hear old stock Canadians say that when "they" come here they should dress like "us".

To make it more personal: I only wear kurta-pyjama at home, but am reluctant to dress this way outside the home, unless I'm at an ethnic event. It's not that something bad would necessarily happen, but, based on the few times I have done it, I can expect more than a few stares from passersby that makes the experience uncomfortable and unpleasant. Meanwhile, back in India, you can dress any way you want, or even go stark naked, like a certain sect of Jain monks, without anyone batting an eyelid.

On a more positive note, ethnic cuisines, especially Indian, are gaining wider acceptance. In the U.K., chicken tikka masala is famously considered the national dish by many, even old stock Brits. While we haven't gotten to that stage yet in Canada, basic North Indian fare such as naan and samosa is now ubiquitous, even at neighbourhood convenience stores, and Indian restaurants are behind just Italian and Chinese in popularity. When I dine out at an Indian restaurant these days, I'm struck that most of the diners aren't Indian. That would not have been true twenty years ago, maybe even ten years ago. There's an old saying that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach. Perhaps the acceptance of our cuisine is a hopeful sign, then?


    21.01.11 10:53 PM
    Well, Indians may stare at you but they won't enslave you, lynch you, segregate you, attempt to destroy your self-worth and culture. I think you might want to look at the record of the west on "tolerance" of black people. It's probably a more fertile place to start.
  • Keri
    22.11.10 02:01 AM
    I won't weigh in too much on this subject except to say, I finds Indians to be hardly tolerant - of Black people. I went to India for a month earlier this year and could not believe how long and how hard I was stared at while I was there. Really, if you stare at a person for 2 hours straight, what are you expecting to happen? Did they want my skin to change colors or were they just waiting for me to jump up and do tricks for them? And since I do understand some Hindi, I knew when they were talking about me too. And no, this didn't happen in the village (in fact, the village (Fulera in Rajasthan) was where I was treated like a human - too bad I was only there for 3 days), it was in the airport in New Delhi. Oh yeah, and it doesn't just happen in India. I also get the stink-eye from the NRIs right here in my own neighborhood of Jackson Heights in NYC, as if I somehow don't belong here, even though I was born and raised in Queens. The whites here, not so much. So, what was that you were saying again about Indians being so tolerant?
  • Dead horse
    Dead horse
    03.11.10 02:40 PM
    You are still wilfully missing the point here. If you compare the levels of diversity by religion or ethnicity in any European country or even the US (which I'll admit is probably the best of the western countries in this regard) relative to the sizes of the minorities, you will find that India has a much more diverse society at all levels than those western countries. That fact is actually obvious just from a mere persual of the data. Your examples of persecuted races is something that could happen anywhere at any time. I am not sure about your reference to muslims in pre-independence India. I believe they wanted a separate state and got it. Do not also forget your history. Muslims ruled India for 800 years. The British for 200 years. India is so tolerant they will even let other nations/ races/ religions come in and rule them, let alone just be part of society!

    I think most of us are NRIs or become NRIs because, frankly, the money is better. If India were a richer country, you would find alot more people staying there than leaving. In fact, I would wager that that is what will happen in the future.

    You have boiled my case down to those two things - that is not my case. The calendar thing shows you the level of acceptance. The willingness to allow these things. This is unheard of in Europe or even in the US. I hardly think pandering to voters is the only reason since the minorities in India only amount to 20% or so of the population. Surely you would pander to the Hindus if you want to get votes?

    Perhaps Hinduism does pop up in daily life. I went to school in the UK and I had to sit through assemblies every morning where there was a bible reading and we sang hymns! But that did not bother me, I was happy to learn more about other religions. My point is though that religion also suffuses daily life in the UK - even at the schoolchild level. As I have stated before, the very fact that European countries do not even recognize other religions shows you the level of tolerance.

    If you look back at your history Hinduism has never tried to convert anyone or tried to take countries/ start war/ colonize in the name of religion. Nor does it look down upon other religious beliefs. However, both Christianity and Islam have done and continue to do all these things. So yes, I think we can safely state that often this communal violence may be instigated by overzealous religions attempting to force their "correct" views on a largely peaceful population. Again, I bring up the colonization of India by both the Muslims and the British.

    In fact, one of my contentions would be that India is too tolerant and it is this tolerance that allows other, more aggressive countries/ religions to come in and take over. But , even if that is the case, it still does not take away from the fact that India as a multicultural society is far more advanced than any western country, inclduing the US. Any intelligent person who peruses the facts will instantly see that this is so. Your wilful ignorance of this just serves to undermine your arguments.
  • Alfred Jones
    Alfred Jones
    03.11.10 02:50 AM

    I know you don't see it but I *do* understand what you and "Perhaps" are saying about "diversity at all levels" of Indian society. Even if that were true, which I don't think it is to the degree you're implying, the point I'm making is, the mere presence of that diversity does *not* mean we are a more tolerant or accepting society in relative terms. Think of the Jewish community in pre-war Germany. They too occupied "all levels" of German society didn't they? Think of the Armenians in Turkey just before WW-I. They were teachers, scholars, businessmen, artists in Turkish society weren't they? Closer to home, think of muslims in pre-Independence India. They were represented "at all levels" of Indian society weren't they? I don't need to tell you what happened to those minorities in succeeding years do I?

    By the same token, there are Indians and other non-white minorities in just about every walk of life here in the US. What does that say? (Apart from what I think of as the US' relatively stellar record on diversity, I will go further and say that western countries by and large, offer far greater opportunities for upward socio-economic mobility into all "levels" of public life to any minority group, much more so than India does. Which is why I, Vivek - and possibly you and "Perhaps" - are NRIs aren't we?)

    So your case to rate western countries as relatively less tolerant and/or multicultural comes down to: (a) Expat Indians can't get a day off for holidays like Diwali and/or Makara Sankranthi, and, (b) They have "state religion" whereas India doesn't. Is that it?

    Re (a), no country could sustain a modern economy that produces jobs, goods and services at the level needed if it started handing out holidays to every minority group that asked for it. So which holidays are officially recognized by a country/society is a bit of a balancing act. In India's case, I'll wager that the number of official holidays we recognize is due to political pandering just as much as it was engendered by a genuine tolerance and celebration of diversity. Don't forget, most of these decisions were made by politicians and we know what politicians are like - in any country, not just India. The other unique thing about Indian holidays is the underlying reality that we've been slow to cultivate a secular Indian identity that informs our thinking as much as our identities as members of this or that social/religious/ethnic group.

    Re (b), I don't know which western country you're talking about that officially recognizes a state sponsored religion. Do tell. The funny thing is, even though in theory India is a secular country, in practice, it is anything but. Religion and ritual is everywhere in public life. And because of its demographic predominance, this means you see Hinduism crop up in pretty much all facets of public life - which in theory ought to be secular. I've touched on this in my previous comment so I won't go into this again here.

    And finally there's your explanation for communal violence in India. Your explanation for this was basically: "Hinduism, by definition, is a peace loving religion. All of this violence is the result of non-Hindu religions trying to usurp Hinduism by forced conversion. And Hindus had no choice but to fight back." Do you seriously believe that? I am speechless! If you don't see anything wrong with that explanation then I'm afraid I am at a loss for words to show you why that is a transparently shallow and self-serving interpretation of a very complex problem.

    I think we've flogged this dead horse quite enough don't you? So, it was nice trading ideas with you (and you too "Perhaps") - thanks for sharing your thoughts with me. Good luck and see you around.

  • Alfred Jones
    Alfred Jones
    02.11.10 09:46 PM

    Mea culpa re my last comment, I was responding to something "Perhaps" wrote (about Sonia Gandhi etc) as if you'd written it. Honest mistake, my apologies.

  • Nice
    02.11.10 09:15 PM

    The examples given are showing how there is diversity at all levels of Indian society. More so than at all levels of European society. Again, you have failed to see this point. If you do a detailed analysis, you will see that this is so.

    Also, you have sidestepped the fact that India does not have a state religion and makes every effort to accomodate all religions as much as possible, including the fact that all religions holy days are accepted and respected. Most, if not all, European countries are Christian or Catholic by decree. They don't even recognize other religions holy days. That right there is an example of lack of diversity. Any intelligent person can see that.

    I think you may also find that alot of the communal violence of which you speak is ignited by non-hindus attempting to evangelize or convert. Hinduism is mostly a peaceful religions as are most hindus. But when faced with the naked aggression and missionary zeal of other, more aggressive religions, they feel the need to fight back. I am certainly not condoning this course of action, but if you dig a little deeper, you may see a different story. For example, if you look at Tripura, the NLFT has banned Hindu festivals and is looking to convert the whole region to Christianity. Apparently, the Church is also involved in this and there is sympathy from US baptist churches also. Do not mistake fighting back against unwarranted aggression as intolerance. If you push a man far enough, he may have to push back. Hindus are rarely the instigators in these situations. But look at the Ayodhya verdict - would any other country in the world split the site amongst the religions? No they would not, especially as they are often under the banner of a national religion.

    We acknowledge that India is not perfect, but you must look at the whole story. You must also look at the facts on diversity in India, the constitution in India and the presence of aggressors. Under these conditions, India could still teach the West alot about multiculturalism.

    In fact, one of India's main problems may be its tolerance. Perhaps it is too tolerant and this tolerance allows problems to occur.
  • Alfred Jones
    Alfred Jones
    02.11.10 08:06 PM

    So now, India is more multicultural and therefore more accepting and tolerant because of Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh, Shahrukh/Amir Khan and Azhar?! Why stop there, let's toss in A.R. Rahman, Sam Maneckshaw, Gen. Cariappa and settle the argument once and for all shall we ;-) Seriously, is Sonia Gandhi's prominence really evidence of India's tolerance of diversity as embodied in a political culture where just about any minority candidate rises to the top by dint of integrity, determination, hard work and merit? The irony is, Sonia Gandhi had a better chance of getting where she did than the vast majority of non-Italian non-Catholic Hindu Indian women! Does Barack Obama's ascendancy to the US presidency mean African Americans have finally made it and don't, on average, suffer discrimination in the US anymore? Remember the argument that confederate southern states in the US used to fight the Civil Rights movement here in the US? They pointed to African Americans that owned and ran businesses, ran for political office, taught in schools and colleges, and said, "Racism, what racism? Look at all the opportunities you guys have. What more do you guys want?!".

    The other curious element of your argument is the tendency to explain away India's flaws as a tolerant society by saying it isn't "perfect". But you're unwilling to extend that explanation to your kurta pajama experience in Canada (or was it the UK?). Why is it okay to use the imperfect-but-great-nonetheless argument to explain away depressingly regular communal violence in India as an abberation but not your perceived distaste for being stared at when you're clad in a K&P in Canada/UK?

    My point is, the very presence of ethnic or religious minorities in positions of prominence in statistically insignificant numbers does not mean the fate of those communities at large is peachy, or getting peachy by the minute. The presence of diversity is not the same as wholehearted acceptance of it. India's tolerance of minorities as a whole, i.e. across the full spectrum of daily life is a very slow, but laudable, work in progress. That doesn't mean we're automagically better at it than western countries. The huge difference I see in the west is the degree to which an individual's right to express his/her views is protected by the state, i.e. by law and by law enforcement - regardless of how distasteful or ugly those opinions might be. And no, this isn't a "perfect" arrangement by any means but it is a lot more "perfect" than where India is at the moment.

    This has been fun. Keep 'em coming and thanks for sharing.
  • Vivek Dehejia
    Vivek Dehejia
    02.11.10 05:42 PM

    You seem to have created a straw man. I never claimed that India is an exemplar of perfection in being a pluralistic society, but merely that the West has a thing or two to learn. I stand by that point. It is your right, of course, to dissent.


    Thank you for your very thoughtful and incisive comments. I could not have put it more eloquently myself. India is by no means perfect, as all of us who come from there will admit, but in this one area we have a lot to be proud of and to show the world.
  • Perhaps
    02.11.10 01:50 PM

    Look at the current government of India. Sonia Gandhi (Italian Catholic, not even Indian-born), Manmohan Singh (Sikh). The two most supposedly powerful people in the country aren't even Hindu! If you look at all levels of government, industry, sport, military in Indian society, there are people of all religions at all levels. Try that in the UK or even in the US to the same degree. The UK has never had a non-white non-Christian PM and you can count the number of non-white politicians on one hand. The same can be said for pretty much all European countries. The US has only now had a black president and he is Christian. They have never had a woman President. India has a long history of women in politics also.

    Look at the film industry - it is dominated by Muslims. Look at the sports - the Indian cricket team had a Muslim captain for 10 years straight!

    I think the point about the Gregorian calendar is that other religions are not allowed to have holidays or they are not recognized as official holidays. In India, however, where the majority is 80% Hindu by the way, Muslim, Hindu and Christian holidays are recognized and respected. It is a secular country, of course.

    India is not a perfect example of multiculturalism, but it is not a bad one and it is certainly way more advanced in that regard compared to so called "developed" western countries. I think that is obvious to anyone who actually sits down and compares the two in detail.
  • Alfred Jones
    Alfred Jones
    02.11.10 08:04 AM
    This India is more tolerant and multicultural than the West is a distressingly popular refrain amongst NRIs. I don't think the evidence bears it out - not by a long shot. (Don't let my name fool you, I am as Indian as they come - born and bred - and a recent expat to the US.)

    First, the experiences you share to support the claim that the West isn't as tolerant as India are, well, questionable. So you draw some stares if you are seen out and about in a kurta pajama? Have you seen the stares a white westerner gets in India - especially if clothed in abbreviated summer wear?! Surely you aren't saying staring at strangely clothed outsiders is a Western idiosyncracy are you?

    Second, there's the bit about how the Gregorian calendar "embeds Christianity into society". Have you seen what we've done with the Gregorian calendar in India? I think we've done a pretty bang up job of "embedding" it with pretty much every shade of indigenous religiosity we could've thought of. I loved having the day off for Makara Sankranthi/Pongal only to be outdone by Ayudha Pooja! Point is, Hinduism in all its glorious multiversity suffuses daily life in India and shows up wherever you look. Like the District Commisioner who made me wait ten minutes in his office so he could finish a puja to several framed Hindu gods at ten in the morning. After he'd put the agarbathi sticks down in their holder he offered me the traditional "prasad" in all sincerity. Don't get me wrong, I didn't mind it because I was was accustomed to and expected it - and that is the point. Then there's the pervasivenss of Hindu symbolism and ritual in, say, the breaking ground ceremeony of a theoretically secular government constuction project, I.e. the "gudli puja"? I could go on and on but the point makes itself.

    It is true that India in general has a lot more linguistic, culinary and spiritual diversity than almost all of "the West" put together. All that means is the range of diversity we tend to not raise our eyebrows to is relatively wider. What it doesn't mean is that that somehow makes us more accepting of strangeness when it is outside of that familiar range. And yes, we do have all this diversity but how do we generally fare when our tolerance is tested, and I mean really tested? Exhibit # 1, the many years of communal, ethnic and religion-based blood letting we've seen in the past and continue to see to this day. Exhibit # 2, don't need one.

    Like one of the other commenters points out, some countries in the West are indeed trying to legislate a certain degree of cultural homogeneity. But there is resistance to that - and in some places, popular resistance - in certain quarters. It would be wrong to presume intolerance or lack of diversity just because we see this push and pull of the political process. No significant change in any country or society comes about without this political thrust and parry. It would be very naïve to judge multicultarism using the barometer of a mythical super tolerant country or society where all diversity is warmly embraced from the get go, I.e. without any bumps in the road to change. It hasn't happen and most likely won't in the forseeable future, not in India and not in the west.
  • Vivek Dehejia
    Vivek Dehejia
    27.10.10 11:19 PM
    Excellent, many thanks for your insightful and thoughtful observations. You're right that India's weakness may well be its strength, leading to an overall tolerant and laissez faire approach to diversity that makes for a truly pluralistic society. Let's hope we can preserve this in the face of new challenges such as fundamentalisms of all kinds.
  • Excellent
    27.10.10 08:20 PM
    Excellent article. I think India is a shining example of what a truly multicultural state should look like. Of course, it has its problems also. But the lengths which India goes to to be fair to all cultures and religions are amazing and unheard of in so-called multicultural, "developed" countries.

    In fact I'm not sure that developed countries are a good example of how to deal with a multicultural society. India, to my mind, has more of an enlightened approach to life than any other country in the world. Perhaps it is the spiritual angle which allows this to occur.

    Of course, the relaxed, easygoing approach may be the reason why India has so many other problems, but the enlightened approach should also be celebrated for what it is.
  • Vivek Dehejia
    Vivek Dehejia
    25.10.10 01:42 AM
    Excellent comments, as ever, BB. You're right, recent events in continental Europe certainly suggest a retreat into a traditional, monocultural past, witness comments by the German Chancellor or events in the Netherlands.

    Acknowledging minorities, albeit in a flawed framework of multiculturalism, which at the same time attempts to co-opt and contain, is probably still better, or less bad, at the end of the day.
  • Bombay Beauty
    Bombay Beauty
    25.10.10 12:52 AM
    Very good points. Indeed, I think more mono-cultural even though they would never admit it is continental Europe. The UK and former British colonies at least seem to acknowledge the importance of their minorities. To what extent this is saying the right thing or meaning it is of course an open question...

    "Meanwhile, back in India, you can dress any way you want, or even go stark naked, like a certain sect of Jain monks, without anyone batting an eyelid." Hmmm... seems a lot like NYC too!



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