The use and abuse of multiculturalism Chili and “Liberty”

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The demand for multiculturalism is strong in the contemporary world.
It is much invoked in the making of social, cultural, and political
policies, particularly in Western Europe and America. This is not at all
surprising, since increased global contacts and interactions, and in
particular extensive migrations, have placed diverse practices of
different cultures next to one another. The general acceptance of the
exhortation to “Love thy neighbor” might have emerged when the neighbors led more or less the same kind of life ("Let’s continue this
conversation next Sunday morning when the organist takes a break"), but
the same entreaty to love one’s neighbors now requires people to take an
interest in the very diverse living modes of proximate people. That this
is not an easy task has been vividly illustrated once again by the
confusion surrounding the recent Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed and the fury they generated. And yet the globalized nature of the contemporary world does not allow the luxury of ignoring the difficult
questions that multiculturalism raises.

One of the central issues concerns how human beings are seen. Should
they be categorized in terms of inherited traditions, particularly the
inherited religion, of the community in which they happen to have been
born, taking that unchosen identity to have automatic priority over
other affiliations involving politics, profession, class, gender,
language, literature, social involvements, and many other connections?
Or should they be understood as persons with many affiliations and
associations, whose relative priorities they must themselves choose
(taking the responsibility that comes with reasoned choice)? Also,
should we assess the fairness of multiculturalism primarily by the
extent to which people from different cultural backgrounds are "left
alone," or by the extent to which their ability to make reasoned choices
is positively supported by the social opportunities of education and
participation in civil society? There is no way of escaping these rather
foundational questions if multiculturalism is to be fairly assessed.

In discussing the theory and the practice of multiculturalism, it is
useful to pay particular attention to the British experience. Britain
has been in the forefront of promoting inclusive multiculturalism, with
a mixture of successes and difficulties, which are of relevance also to
other countries in Europe and the United States. Britain experienced
race riots in London and Liverpool in 1981, though nothing as large as
what happened in France in the fall of 2005, and these led to further
efforts toward integration. Things have been fairly stable and
reasonably calm over the last quarter-century. The process of
integration in Britain has been greatly helped by the fact that all
British residents from the Commonwealth countries, from which most
non-white immigrants have come to Britain, have full voting rights in
Britain immediately, even without British citizenship. Integration has
also been helped by largely non-discriminatory treatment of immigrants
in health care, schooling, and social security. Despite all this,
however, Britain has recently experienced the alienation of a group of
immigrants, and also fully homegrown terrorism, when some young Muslims from immigrant families —born, educated, and reared in Britain— killed many people in London through suicide bombings in July 2005.

Discussions of British policies on multiculturalism thus have a much
wider reach, and arouse much greater interest and passion, than the
boundaries of the ostensible subject matter would lead one to expect.
Six weeks after the July terrorist attacks in London, when Le Monde
published a critical essay called "The British Multicultural Model in
Crisis," the debate was immediately joined by a leader of another
liberal establishment, James A. Goldston, director of the Open Society
Justice Initiative in America, who described the Le Monde article as
“trumpeting,” and replied: "Don’t use the very real threat of terrorism
to justify shelving more than a quarter-century of British achievement
in the field of race relations." There is a general issue of some
importance to be debated and evaluated here.

I will argue that the real issue is not whether "multiculturalism
has gone too far" (as Goldston summarizes one of the lines of
criticism), but what particular form multiculturalism should take. Is
multiculturalism nothing other than tolerance of the diversity of
cultures? Does it make a difference who chooses the cultural
practices —whether they are imposed on young children in the name of
“the culture of the community” or whether they are freely chosen by
persons with adequate opportunity to learn and to reason about
alternatives? What facilities do members of different communities have,
in schools as well as in the society at large, to learn about the faiths
and non-faiths of different people in the world, and to understand how
to reason about choices that human beings must, if only implicitly, make?


Britain, to which I first came as a student in 1953, has been
particularly impressive in making room for different cultures. The
distance traveled has been in many ways quite extraordinary. I recollect
(with some fondness, I must admit) how worried my first landlady in
Cambridge was about the possibility that my skin color might come off in
the bath (I had to assure her that my hue was agreeably sturdy and
durable), and also the care with which she explained to me that writing
was a special invention of Western civilization (“The Bible did it”).
For someone who has lived—intermittently but for long periods—through
the powerful evolution of British cultural diversity, the contrast
between Britain today and Britain half a century ago is just amazing.

The encouragement given to cultural diversity has certainly made
many contributions to people’s lives. It has helped Britain to become an
exceptionally lively place in many different ways. From the joys of
multicultural food, literature, music, dancing, and the arts to the
befuddling entrapment of the Notting Hill Carnival, Britain gives its
people—of all backgrounds—much to relish and to celebrate. Also, the
acceptance of cultural diversity (as well as voting rights and largely
non-discriminatory public services and social security, referred to
earlier) has made it easier for people with very different origins to
feel at home.

Still, it is worth recalling that the acceptance of diverse living
modes and varying cultural priorities has not always had an easy ride
even in Britain. There has been a periodic but persistent demand that
immigrants give up their traditional styles of life and adopt the
dominant living modes in the society to which they have immigrated. That
demand has sometimes taken a remarkably detailed view of culture,
involving quite minute behavioral issues, well illustrated by the famous
cricket test proposed by Lord Tebbit, the Conservative political leader.
His cricket test suggested that the sign of a well-integrated immigrant
is that he cheers for England in test matches against the country of his
own origin (such as Pakistan ) when the two sides play each other.

Tebbit’s test has, it must be admitted, the merit of definiteness,
and gives an immigrant a marvelously clear-cut procedure for easily
establishing his or her integration into British society: "Cheer for the
English cricket team and you will be fine!" The immigrant’s job in
making sure that he or she is really integrated into British society
could otherwise be quite exacting, if only because it is no longer easy
to identify what actually is the dominant lifestyle in Britain to which
the immigrant must conform. Curry, for example, is now so omnipresent in the British diet that it features as “authentic British fare,” according
to the British Tourist Board. In last year’s General Certificate of
Secondary Education (GCSE) examinations, taken by graduating
schoolchildren around sixteen years old, two of the questions included
in the “Leisure and Tourism” paper were: "Other than Indian food, name
one other type of food often provided by take-away restaurants“and”Describe what customers need to do to receive a delivery service from
an Indian take-away restaurant." Reporting on the GCSE in 2005, the
Daily Telegraph complained not about any cultural bias in these
nationwide exams, but about the “easy” nature of the questions, which
anyone in Britain should be able to answer without any special training.

I also recollect seeing, not long ago, a definitive description of
the unquestionable Englishness of an Englishwoman in a London paper:
“She is as English as daffodils or chicken tikka masala.” Given all
this, a South Asian immigrant to Britain might be a bit confused, but
for Tebbit’s kindly help, about what will count as a surefire test of
British identity. The important issue underlying the frivolity of the
foregoing discussion is that cultural contacts are currently leading to
such a hybridization of behavioral modes across the world that it is
exceptionally difficult to identify any local culture as being genuinely
indigenous, with a timeless quality. But thanks to Tebbit, the task of
establishing Britishness can become nicely algorithmic and wonderfully
easy (almost as easy as answering the GCSE questions just cited).

Tebbit has gone on to suggest, more recently, that if his cricket
test had been put to use, it would have helped to prevent the terrorist
attacks by British-born militants of Pakistani origin: "Had my comments
been acted on, those attacks would have been less likely." It is
difficult to avoid the thought that this confident prediction perhaps
underestimates the ease with which any would-be terrorist—with or
without training from Al Qaeda—could pass the cricket test by cheering
for the English cricket team without changing his behavior pattern one
iota in any other way.

I don’t know how much into cricket Tebbit himself is. If you enjoy
the game, cheering for one side or the other is determined by a number
of varying factors: one’s national loyalty or residential identity, of
course, but also the quality of play and the overall interest of a
series. Wanting a particular outcome often has a contingent quality that
would make it hard to insist on unvarying and unfailed rooting for any
team ( England or any other). Despite my Indian origin and nationality,
I must confess that I have sometimes cheered for the Pakistani cricket
team, not only against England but also against India. During the
Pakistani team’s tour of India in 2005, when Pakistan lost the first two
one-day matches in the series of six, I cheered for Pakistan for the
third match, to keep the series alive and interesting. In the event,
Pakistan went well beyond my hopes and won all of the remaining four
matches to defeat India soundly by the margin of four to two (another
instance of Pakistan’s “extremism” of which Indians complain so much!).

A more serious problem lies in the obvious fact that admonitions of
the kind enshrined in Tebbit’s cricket test are entirely irrelevant to
the duties of British citizenship or residence, such as participation in
British politics, joining British social life, or desisting from making
bombs. They are also quite distant from anything that may be needed to
lead a fully cohesive life in the country.

These points were quickly seized upon in post-imperial Britain, and
despite the diversions of such invitations as Tebbit’s cricket test, the
inclusionary nature of British political and social traditions made sure
that varying cultural modes within the country could be seen as being
entirely acceptable in a multi-ethnic Britain. To be sure, there are
many natives who continue to feel that this historical trend is a great
mistake, and that disapproval is often combined with severe resentment
that Britain has become such a multi-ethnic country at all. (In my last
encounter with such a resenter, at a bus stop, I was suddenly told, "I
have seen through you all!," but I was disappointed that my informant
refused to tell me more about what he had seen.) Yet the weight of
British public opinion has been moving, at least until recently, quite
strongly in the direction of tolerating—and even celebrating—cultural
diversity. All this, and the inclusionary role of voting rights and
non-discriminatory public services, have contributed to an interracial
calm of a kind that France in particular has not enjoyed recently.
Still, it leaves some of the central issues of multiculturalism entirely
unresolved, and I want to take them up now.


One important issue concerns the distinction between
multiculturalism and what may be called “plural monoculturalism.” Does
the existence of a diversity of cultures, which might pass one another
like ships in the night, count as a successful case of multiculturalism?
Since, in the matter of identity, Britain is currently torn between
interaction and isolation, the distinction is centrally important (and
even has a bearing on the question of terrorism and violence).

Consider a culinary contrast, by noting first that Indian and
British food can genuinely claim to be multicultural. India had no chili
until the Portuguese brought it to India from America, but it is
effectively used in a wide range of Indian food today and seems to be a
dominant element in most types of curries. It is plentifully present in
a mouth-burning form in vindaloo, which, as its name indicates, carries
the immigrant memory of combining wine with potatoes. Tandoori cooking might have been perfected in India, but it originally came to India from West Asia. Curry powder, on the other hand, is a distinctly English
invention, unknown in India before Lord Clive, and evolved, I imagine,
in the British army mess. And we are beginning to see the emergence of
new styles of preparing Indian food, offered in sophisticated
subcontinental restaurants in London.

In contrast, having two styles or traditions co-existing side by
side, without the twain meeting, must really be seen as plural
monoculturalism. The vocal defense of multiculturalism that we
frequently hear these days is very often nothing more than a plea for
plural monoculturalism. If a young girl in a conservative immigrant
family wants to go out on a date with an English boy, that would
certainly be a multicultural initiative. In contrast, the attempt by her
guardians to stop her from doing this (a common enough occurrence) is
hardly a multicultural move, since it seeks to keep the cultures
separate. And yet it is the parents’ prohibition, which contributes to
plural monoculturalism, that seems to garner the loudest and most vocal
defense from alleged multiculturalists, on the ground of the importance
of honoring traditional cultures—as if the cultural freedom of the
young woman were of no relevance whatever, and as if the distinct
cultures must somehow remain in secluded boxes.

Being born in a particular social background is not in itself an
exercise of cultural liberty, since it is not an act of choice. In
contrast, the decision to stay firmly within the traditional mode would
be an exercise of freedom, if the choice were made after considering
other altenatives. In the same way, a decision to move away—by a little
or a lot—from the standard behavior pattern, arrived at after
reflection and reasoning, would also qualify as such an exercise.
Indeed, cultural freedom can frequently clash with cultural
conservatism, and if multiculturalism is defended in the name of
cultural freedom, then it can hardly be seen as demanding unwavering and unqualified support for staying steadfastly within one’s inherited
cultural tradition.

The second question relates to the fact that while religion or
ethnicity may be an important identity for people (especially if they
have the freedom to choose between celebrating or rejecting inherited or
attributed traditions), there are other affiliations and associations
that people also have reason to value. Unless it is defined very oddly,
multiculturalism cannot override the right of a person to participate in
civil society, or to take part in national politics, or to lead a
socially non-conformist life. No matter how important multiculturalism
is, it cannot lead automatically to giving priority to the dictates of
traditional culture over all else.

The people of the world cannot be seen merely in terms of their
religious affiliations—as a global federation of religions. For much
the same reasons, a multi-ethnic Britain can hardly be seen as a
collection of ethnic communities. Yet the “federational” view has gained
much support in contemporary Britain. Indeed, despite the tyrannical
implications of putting persons into rigid boxes of given “communities,”
that view is frequently interpreted, rather bafflingly, as an ally of
individual freedom. There is even a much-aired “vision” of "the future
of multi-ethnic Britain“that sees it as”a looser federation of
cultures" held together by common bonds of interest and affection and a
collective sense of being. But must a person’s relation to Britain be
mediated through the culture of the family in which he or she was born?
A person may decide to seek closeness with more than one of these
pre-defined cultures or, just as plausibly, with none. Also, a person
may well decide that her ethnic or cultural identity is less important
to her than, say, her political convictions, or her professional
commitments, or her literary persuasions. It is a choice for her to
make, no matter what her place is in the strangely imagined "federation
of cultures."

There would be serious problems with the moral and social claims of
multiculturalism if it were taken to insist that a person’s identity
must be defined by his or her community or religion, overlooking all the
other affiliations a person has, and giving automatic priority to
inherited religion or tradition over reflection and choice. And yet that
approach to multiculturalism has assumed a pre-eminent role in some of
the official British policies in recent years.

The state policy of actively promoting new “faith schools,” freshly
devised for Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh children (in addition to
pre-existing Christian schools), illustrates this approach, and not only
is it educationally problematic, it also encourages a fragmentary
perception of the demands of living in a desegregated Britain. Many of
these new educational institutions are coming up precisely at a time
when religious prioritization has been a major source of violence in the
world (adding to the history of such violence in Britain itself,
including Catholic-Protestant divisions in Northern Ireland —themselves
not unconnected with segmented schooling). Prime Minister Tony Blair is
certainly right to note that "there is a very strong sense of ethos and
values in those schools." But education is not just about getting
children, even very young ones, immersed in an old inherited ethos. It
is also about helping children to develop the ability to reason about
new decisions any grown-up person will have to take. The important goal
is not some formulaic parity in relation to old Brits with their
old-faith schools, but what would best enhance the capability of the
children to live “examined lives” as they grow up in an integrated


The central issue was put a long time ago with great clarity by
Akbar, the Indian emperor, in his observations on reason and faith in
the 1590s. Akbar, the Great Mughal, was born a Muslim and died a Muslim, but he insisted that faith cannot have priority over reason, since one must justify—and, if necessary, reject—one’s inherited faith through
reason. Attacked by traditionalists who argued in favor of instinctive
faith, Akbar told his friend and trusted lieutenant Abul Fazl, a
formidable scholar with much expertise in different religions: "The
pursuit of reason and rejection of traditionalism are so brilliantly
patent as to be above the need of argument. If traditionalism were
proper, the prophets would merely have followed their own elders (and
not come with new messages)." Reason had to be supreme, in Akbar’s view, since even in disputing reason, we would have to give reasons.

Convinced that he had to take a serious interest in the diverse
religions of India, Akbar arranged for recurring dialogues involving not
only people from mainstream Hindu and Muslim backgrounds in
sixteenth-century India, but also Christians, Jews, Parsees, Jains, and
even the followers of “Carvaka”—a school of atheistic thinking that had
robustly flourished in India for more than two thousand years from
around the sixth century B.C.E. Rather than taking an “all or nothing”
view of a faith, Akbar liked to reason about particular components of
each multi-faceted religion. Arguing with Jains, for example, Akbar
would remain skeptical of their rituals, and yet he was convinced by
their argument for vegetarianism and even ended up deploring the eating
of flesh in general. Despite the irritation all this caused among those
who preferred to base religious belief on faith rather than reasoning,
he stuck to what he called “the path of reason,” the rahi aql, and
insisted on the need for open dialogue and free choice. Akbar also
claimed that his own liberal Islamic beliefs came from reasoning and
choice, not from blind faith or what he called "the marshy land of

There is also the further question (particularly relevant to
Britain) about how non-immigrant communities should see the demands of multicultural education. Should it take the form of leaving each
community to conduct its own special historical celebrations, without
responding to the need for the “old Brits” to be more fully aware of the
global inter-relations in the origins and development of world
civilization? If the roots of so-called Western science or culture draw
on, say, Chinese innovations, Indian and Arabic mathematics, or West
Asian preservation of the Greco-Roman heritage (with, for example,
Arabic translations of forgotten Greek classics being re-translated into
Latin many centuries later), should there not be a fuller reflection of
that robust interactive past than can be found, at this time, in the
school curriculum of multi-ethnic Britain?

When a British or an American mathematician today employs an
algorithm to solve a computational problem, he or she implicitly
commemorates the contribution of the ninth-century Muslim mathematician al-Khwarizmi, from whose name the term “algorithm” is derived, and from whose path-breaking Arabic mathematical book, Al-Jabr wa al-Muqabalah, the term “algebra” originates. Even if Muslim faith schools fail to celebrate such non-religious works of Muslim intellectuals, should not all British students—old Brits as well as new ones—read something about such global contributions to the roots of modern world
civilization? Educational broadening is important not only in Britain
but across the world, including the United States and Europe. World
history need not come to children (as it often does) only in the form of
parochial recollections, combined sometimes with small capsules of
packaged history of religion—not to mention the lampooning cartoons
encountered outside the school. The priorities of genuinely
multicultural education can differ a great deal from the intellectual
segmentation of a plural monocultural society.

If one issue concerning faith schools involves the problematic
nature of giving priority to unreasoned faith over reasoning, there is
another momentous issue here, which concerns the role of religion in
categorizing people, rather than other bases of classification. People’s
priorities and actions are influenced by all of their affiliations and
associations, not merely by religion. The separation of Bangladesh from
Pakistan was based on reasons of language and literature, along with
political priorities, and not on religion, which both wings of undivided
Pakistan shared. To ignore everything other than faith is to obliterate
the reality of concerns that have moved people to assert identities that
go well beyond religion.

The Bangladeshi community, large as it is in Britain , is merged in
the religious accounting into one large mass along with all the other
co-religionists, with no further acknowledgment of culture and
priorities. While this may please the Islamic priests and religious
leaders, it certainly shortchanges the abundant culture of that country
and emaciates the richly diverse identities that Bangladeshis have. It
also chooses to ignore altogether the history of the formation of
Bangladesh itself. There is, as it happens, an ongoing political
struggle at this time within Bangladesh between secularists and their
detractors (including religious fundamentalists), and it is not obvious
why British official policy has to be more in tune with the latter than
with the former.

The problem, it must be admitted, did not originate with recent
British governments. Indeed, official British policy has for many years
given the impression that it is inclined to see British citizens and
residents originating from the subcontinent primarily in terms of their
respective communities, and now—after the recent accentuation of
religiosity (including fundamentalism) in the world—community is
defined primarily in terms of faith, rather than by taking account of
more broadly defined cultures. The problem is not confined to schooling,
nor to Muslims. The tendency to take Hindu or Sikh religious leaders as
spokesmen for the British Hindu or Sikh population, respectively, is
also a feature of the same process. Instead of encouraging British
citizens of diverse backgrounds to interact with one another in civil
society, and to participate in British politics as citizens, the
invitation is to act “through” their “own community.”

The limited horizons of this reductionist thinking directly affect
the living modes of the different communities, with particularly severe
constraining effects on the lives of immigrants and their families. But
going beyond that, how citizens and residents see themselves can also
affect the lives of others, as the violent events in Britain last summer
showed. For one thing, the vulnerability to influences of sectarian
extremism is much greater if one is reared and schooled in the sectarian
(but not necessarily violent) mode. The British government is seeking to
stop the preaching of hatred by religious leaders, which must be right,
but the problem is far more extensive than that. It concerns whether
citizens of immigrant backgrounds should see themselves as members of
particular communities and specific religious ethnicities first, and
only through that membership see themselves as British, in a supposed
federation of communities. It is not hard to understand that this
fractional view of any nation would make it more open to the preaching
and cultivation of sectarian violence.

Tony Blair has good reason to want to “go out” and have debates about terror and peace “inside the Muslim community,” and (as he put it) to “get right into the entrails of [that] community.” Blair’s dedication to fairness and justice is hard to dispute. And yet the future of multi-ethnic Britain must lie in recognizing, supporting, and helping to advance the many different ways in which citizens with distinct politics, linguistic heritages, and social priorities (along with different ethnicities and religions) can
interact with one another in their different capacities, including as
citizens. Civil society in particular has a very important role to play
in the lives of all citizens. The participation of British immigrants — Muslims as well as others — should not be primarily placed,
as it increasingly is, in the basket of “community relations,” and seen
as being mediated by religious leaders (including “moderate” priests and
“mild” imams, and other agreeable spokesmen of religious communities).

There is a real need to re-think the understanding of
multiculturalism, so as to avoid conceptual disarray about social
identity and also to resist the purposeful exploitation of the
divisiveness that this conceptual disarray allows and even, to some
extent, encourages. What has to be particularly avoided (if the
foregoing analysis is right) is the confusion between a multiculturalism
that goes with cultural liberty, on the one side, and plural
monoculturalism that goes with faith-based separatism, on the other. A
nation can hardly be seen as a collection of sequestered segments, with
citizens being assigned places in predetermined segments.


There is an uncanny similarity between the problems that Britain
faces today and those that British India faced, and which Mahatma Gandhi
thought were getting direct encouragement from the Raj. Gandhi was
critical in particular of the official view that India was a collection
of religious communities. When Gandhi came to London for the Indian
Round Table Conference called by the British government in 1931, he
found that he was assigned to a specific sectarian corner in the
revealingly named “Federal Structure Committee.” Gandhi resented the
fact that he was being depicted primarily as a spokesman for Hindus, in
particular “caste Hindus,” with the rest of the population being
represented by delegates, chosen by the British prime minister, of each
of the “other communities.”

Gandhi insisted that while he himself was a Hindu, the political
movement that he led was staunchly secular and not a community-based
movement. It had supporters from all the different religious groups in
India. While he saw that a distinction can be made along religious
lines, he pointed to the fact that other ways of dividing the population
of India were no less relevant. Gandhi made a powerful plea for the
British rulers to see the plurality of the diverse identities of
Indians. In fact, he said he wanted to speak not for Hindus in
particular, but for “the dumb, toiling, semi-starved millions” who
constitute “over 85 percent of the population of India.” He added that,
with some extra effort, he could speak even for the rest, "the Princes
... the landed gentry, the educated class."

Gender, as Gandhi pointed out, was another basis for an important
distinction that the British categories ignored, thereby giving no
special place to considering the problems of Indian women. He told the
British prime minister, "You have had, on behalf of the women, a
complete repudiation of special representation," and went on to point
out that “they happen to be one-half of the population of India.”
Sarojini Naidu, who came with Gandhi to the Round Table Conference, was
the only woman delegate at the conference. Gandhi mentioned the fact
that she was elected the president of the Congress Party, overwhelmingly
the largest political party in India (this was in 1925, which was
exactly fifty years before any woman was elected to preside over any
major British political party). Sarojini Naidu could, on the Raj’s
“representational” line of reasoning, speak for half the Indian people,
namely Indian women; and Abdul Qaiyum, another delegate, pointed also to the fact that Naidu, whom he called “the Nightingale of India,” was also
the one distinguished poet in the assembled gathering, a different kind
of identity from being seen as a Hindu politician.

In a meeting arranged at the Royal Institute of International
Affairs during his visit, Gandhi insisted that he was trying to resist
“the vivisection of a whole nation.” He was not ultimately successful,
of course, in his attempt at “staying together,” though it is known that
he was in favor of taking more time to negotiate to prevent the
partition of 1947 than the rest of the Congress leadership found
acceptable. Gandhi would have been extremely pained also by the violence
against Muslims that was organized by sectarian Hindu leaders in his own
state of Gujarat in 2002. But he would have been relieved by the massive
condemnation that these barbarities received from the Indian population
at large, which influenced the heavy defeat, in the Indian general
elections that followed in May 2004, of the parties implicated in the
violence in Gujarat.

Gandhi would have taken some comfort in the fact, not unrelated to
his point at the Round Table Conference in London in 1931, that India,
with more than 80 percent Hindu population, is led today by a Sikh prime
minister (Manmohan Singh) and headed by a Muslim president (Abdul
Kalam), with its ruling party (Congress) being presided over by a woman
from a Christian background (Sonia Gandhi). Such mixtures of communities may be seen in most walks of Indian life, from literature and cinema to business and sports, and they are not regarded as anything particularly special. It is not just that a Muslim is the richest businessman—indeed the wealthiest person—living in India (Azim Premji), or the first putative international star in women’s tennis (Sania Mirza), or has captained the Indian cricket team (Pataudi and Azharuddin), but also
that all of them are seen as Indians in general, not as Indian Muslims
in particular.

During the recent parliamentary debate on the judicial report on the
killings of Sikhs that occurred immediately after Indira Gandhi’s
assassination by her Sikh bodyguard, the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, told the Indian parliament, “I have no hesitation in apologising not only to the Sikh community but to the whole Indian nation because what took place in 1984 is the negation of the concept of nationhood and what is enshrined in our Constitution.” Singh’s multiple identities are very much in prominence here when he apologized, in his role as prime minister of India and a leader of the Congress Party, to the Sikh community, of which he is a member (with his omnipresent blue turban), and to the whole Indian nation, of which he is a citizen. All this might be very puzzling if people were to be seen in the “solitarist”
perspective of only one identity each, but the multiplicity of
identities and roles fits very well with the fundamental point Gandhi
was making at the London conference.

Much has been written concerning the fact that India, with more
Muslim people than almost every Muslim-majority country in the world
(and with nearly as many Muslims—more than 145 million—as Pakistan),
has produced extremely few homegrown terrorists acting in the name of
Islam, and almost none linked with Al Qaeda. There are many causal
influences here, including the influence of the growing and integrated
Indian economy. But some credit must also go to the nature of Indian
democratic politics, and to the wide acceptance in India of the idea,
championed by Gandhi, that there are many identities other than
religious ethnicity that are relevant to a person’s self-understanding,
and also to the relations between citizens of diverse backgrounds within
the country.

I recognize that it is a little embarrassing for me, as an Indian, to
claim that, thanks to the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi and others
(including the clearheaded analysis of “the idea of India” by
Rabindranath Tagore, the greatest Indian poet, who described his family
background as "a confluence of three cultures, Hindu, Mohammedan, and
British"), India has been able, to a considerable extent, to avoid
indigenous terrorism linked to Islam, which currently threatens a number
of Western countries, including Britain. But Gandhi was expressing a
very general concern, not one specific to India, when he asked, "Imagine
the whole nation vivisected and torn to pieces; how could it be made
into a nation?"

That query was motivated by Gandhi’s deep worries about the future of
India. But the problem is not specific to India. It arises for other
nations too, including the country that ruled India until 1947. The
disastrous consequences of defining people by their religious ethnicity
and giving priority to the community-based perspective over all other
identities, which Gandhi thought was receiving support from India’s
British rulers, may well have come, alas, to haunt the country of the
rulers themselves.

In the Round Table Conference in 1931, Gandhi did not get his way,
and even his dissenting opinions were only briefly recorded, with no
mention of where the dissent came from. In a gentle complaint addressed
to the British prime minister, Gandhi remarked, "In most of these
reports you will find that there is a dissenting opinion, and in most of
the cases that dissent unfortunately happens to belong to me." Yet
Gandhi’s farsighted refusal to see a nation as a federation of religions
and communities did not “belong” only to him or to the secular India he
was leading. It also belongs to any country in the world that is willing
to see the serious problems to which Gandhi was drawing attention.


* From “New Republic” February 27, 2006. Circulated by South Asia Citizens Wire Dispatch | 22 February, 2006 | Dispatch No. 2221.

* Amartya Sen received the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1998. His new book, “Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny”, will be published by
W.W. Norton this spring.

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