An old custom
Multi-culturalism is an attractive social and political programme, although it is not without its hazards. Since most people who speak of multi-culturalism speak in its praise, I will in what follows also say something about its hazards.
Multi-culturalism is based on the recognition and appreciation of the diversity of practices, customs and institutions among the various communities that exist within the larger social order. It advocates the accommodation of such practices instead of seeking their assimilation within one single dominant way of life.
The accommodation of diversity comes naturally to Indians as it has been a part of the Indian social tradition since time immemorial. Anthropologists of an earlier generation, such as N.K. Bose and Irawati Karve, never tired of pointing to India’s rich diversity in material culture, social organization and religious practice. After pointing to the endless variety of practices relating to food, dress and habitation, Karve wrote, “The variety of family organizations is equally great. Polygamy and polyandry are both found. There are groups which are matrilineal, others which are patrilineal.” In peninsular India, the patrilineal extended family or okka of the Coorgs co-existed with the taravad or matrilineal extended family of the Nairs.
Karve noted that Indian society had evolved over the ages through a distinctive process which she called the process of accretion. “The historical process is one of continuous accretion. There does not seem to be a stage where a choice was made between alternatives, a choice involving acceptance of one alternative and a definite, final rejection of the others.”
The diversity that was accommodated in the past was organized hierarchically and not democratically. The principal bases of the traditional hierarchy were caste and gender. The contemporary advocates of multi-culturalism are strict in their scrutiny of any bias against disadvantaged castes and communities, but they tend to remain silent on the question of gender. Some of the very castes and communities whose ways of life they seek to protect are associated with the most odious forms of gender bias. Should they be allowed to continue in the name of multi-culturalism?
When people speak of multi-culturalism, they do not generally have in mind the entire range of cultures present in a complex and changing society. They do not have in mind variations springing from education and employment. After all, the medical profession has a culture of its own which is different from the culture of the legal profession. And the culture of the Communist Party of India is evidently different from that of the Bengal Chamber of Commerce and Industry. If one makes a distinction between communities of birth and fellowships of choice, it is with the former and not the latter that the advocates of multi-culturalism are concerned. In that sense, they look to a society’s past rather than to its present or future. In the modern world, both types of association are present, each in many different forms, and it is hard to find a justification for favouring the one type at the expense of the other.
The accommodation of diverse, even divergent, customs, practices and institutions has its advantages, but it also has limitations. It works well in a society that changes little and changes so slowly that the change is hardly noticed by its individual members. It is not able to cope easily with rapid and consciously designed social change. An exaggerated respect for one’s own social customs or for those of others acts as a brake on social reform. The makers of modern India were faced with serious political and moral dilemmas at the time of India’s independence. On the one hand, they wanted to carry forward the spirit of tolerance and forbearance that they had inherited from the past. On the other, they were appalled by the multitude of archaic, obsolete and retrograde customs entrenched among many, if not most, of India’s numberless communities.
Jawaharlal Nehru and B.R. Ambedkar were broadly of the same mind on the need for social reform. They both wanted to sweep away the cobwebs of the past. But, whereas Ambedkar wanted to push ahead, Nehru was inclined to vacillate. He fulminated in speech but equivocated in practice, out of real or imagined regard for immemorial tradition. It did not take long for Ambedkar to be eased out of Nehru’s cabinet.
Multi-culturalism becomes a problem when it is used as a shield for the protection of retrograde customs. It is doubtful that anybody in this day and age will seek to defend or justify cannibalism and head-hunting in the name of multi-culturalism. But what about child marriage? And what about polygamy? Until the time of Independence, polygamy was allowed by both Hindu and Muslim law. Shortly after Independence, Hindu law was reformed to make polygamy illegal. But Muslim law was not reformed in the same way, presumably out of respect for the sentiments of the community, but to the detriment of the long-term interests of all Muslims, both women and men.
The zeal for safeguarding the established practices of a community often acts against the interests of the individual members of the same community. This is seen most clearly in regard to practices relating to family and marriage where some decide what others will be required to do in the name of social tradition. Where women are denied choice in these matters, that denial is invariably justified by invoking the traditions of the community: others may do as they wish, but in our community we arrange marriages according to our own customs.
In the countryside around Delhi, local councils, known as khap panchayats act as custodians of the traditions of the community. They are dominated by men and they are strict about the regulation of marriage practices. Even though marriages outside the caste or jati and inside the clan or gotra are now permitted by Hindu law, the khap panchayats condemn them as being contrary to the customs of the community. They are both strict and swift in imposing penalties on transgressors and their families. The families generally fall in line with the elders either from conviction or from fear of ostracism.
In many communities the easiest way of maintaining order and safeguarding tradition is to impose restrictions on the movements of women, particularly young women. As they grow older, the women themselves lend their support to such restrictions. Not long ago, a local council in a village near Delhi issued a directive prohibiting women below the age of 40 from carrying cell phones. They did not have the resources to monitor such conversations. When the ban came up for criticism in the national papers, a member of the Union cabinet sought to justify it on the ground that the elders of each community have a duty to protect the integrity of its traditional way of life.
It will be naïve to believe that the diversity of cultures reproduces itself automatically without any regulation from within or outside. The regulatory mechanisms in use become obstacles to progress when they forbid choices that the law allows to individuals as citizens. Multi-culturalism will contribute to the general good only if it can build the freedom of choice, for women as much as for men, into its appreciation of diversity.