The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Integration could yet acquire a truly multicultural resonance
Piquant salad bowl

We don’t have to look for inspiration elsewhere, at the American melting pot, for example, with its reluctant multiculturalism. We have our own overflowing, piquant salad bowl. Our biggest strength is the Great Indian Experiment, a unique experiment in which an extended family of peoples speaks in many tongues, voices, communities. Where else but in India do you have a secular principle meeting the reality — not the idea — of a multicultural society'

But not everyone wants this experiment to continue. The biggest danger to our survival comes from the straitjacket-lovers — fundamentalists from various camps. The reigning fundoos beat the swadeshi drum, but strangely enough, they reject this one truly, uniquely, Indian experiment. Instead they are obsessed with replicating the European nation-building model via blood-and-kin nationalism. As they consolidated their nations, the European heroes of our pseudo-swadeshis ruthlessly exterminated minorities or shipped them off to melting pots elsewhere. Rigid borders were drawn with room for only one language, one religion, one exclusive nation. In the process, much was lost; this loss continues, in the present, to threaten countries from Germany to Canada with rupture. They too (mostly courtesy colonialism) have their version of multiculturalism now; but it is a kind that has to be coped with, the kind with strains and stresses that have to be somehow contained and fitted in.

Back on home ground, the real one, not the fundoo one: though its very existence seems an anomaly or a near-miracle, the Indian model of multiculturalism may have a lesson or two to offer anyone serious about examining the possibility of European “integration”. Both Indians and non-Indians have acknowledged, (some shaking their heads ruefully, others throwing up their hands), that there are many ways of viewing “India”. All of them have discovered in the process that perhaps there is only one way these stubbornly elusive strands and sharp-edged fragments can be contained in the same frame, whether in the imagination or in reality. It is by seeing India as a political entity which derives its reason to exist, and gathers its strength to survive, from its overweening diversity and hybridity.

Suppose we look at just a part of this “plural” Indian soul. Language is an obvious example to focus on, given the link between language and naming the world; between language and dream; language and identity; language and expression. Language-wise, certainly, India’s multicultural project is by no means a modern phenomenon. In his essay, “The Case of a Wounded Literature,” Malayalam poet and critic K. Satchidanandan points out that quite a few Indian poets between the 10th and 19th centuries — Guru Nanak, Mira and Kabir for instance — wrote in two, three or even four languages, without any conscious effort or cultivated scholarship. Indeed, our languages themselves are multilingual. Satchidanandan takes up the case of Malayalam. In addition to generous doses of Sanskrit and Tamil, it has, in day-to-day use, naturalized words from Urdu, Kannada, English, Dutch and Portuguese.

Later, multilingualism was closely identified with Indian nationalism. The polyglot nature of Indian culture was, for the colonizer, an alien map, impossible to link with their vision of a political entity; useless for journeys in real life. The British, with their monolingual and monoreligious culture, were simply unable to comprehend the multi-lingual, multi-religious culture of India. Charles Trevelyan found the “diversity among languages” to be “one of the greatest existing obstacles to improvement in India”. It may be useful to air, once again, the astonishing array of such expressions of a “global” homogenizing impulse of another time — looking the ancestors in the face so to speak, before taking on their descendants in contemporary times.

It may also be useful to mention here the political contests that have always existed as undercurrents to a dynamic multilingual scene. To uphold the Indian multilingual model is not to gloss over the perennial conflict between the normative voices, say in a language like Sanskrit, and oppressed or protesting voices such as those of the Dalits. Even a medieval poet like Kabir drew attention to the inevitable tension between the language in power, Sanskrit, describing it as “the stagnant water of the Lord’s private well” as opposed to the spoken language, “the rippling water of the running stream”.

A historian may perhaps see the presence of competing cultural forms as a symptom of reasonable health. There are other, more persuasive reasons to handle with care the case being made for the Indian multicultural model. If we point out that the universalist tradition of Europe, the humanist ideas of the Enlightenment, have all now culminated in the one-world diktat of the International Monetary Fund, we can also recall that independent India has built its daring secular project on the shaky foundation of a partition along religious lines. In our part of the world, the secular fabric is growing distinctly frail, large frayed patches marked by “barbaric survivals” or a retreat from modernity. In another part of the world, on the rebound from the brutalities of 19th century colonialism, the descendants of colonizers find it difficult to recognize continuities, interdependence and interpenetration.

Suppose we straighten our backs for a moment, temporarily shake off those crude dichotomies — ethnocentricity and pluralism, east and west. Why do we — all of us then — find “integration” or “unity in diversity” so difficult to achieve' After all, these are widely recognized, on all continents, as worthy and indispensable clichés, a little like the air we breathe or the water we drink. The answer — in its baldest form — is that regardless of vantage point, our colonial pasts and the new imperialisms of the present are fertile breeding grounds for unequal relationships. So that the criss-cross of unequal relationships exists not just between the erstwhile colonizers and the erstwhile colonized, but in the midst of multicultural India or multicultural Europe.

“The fact of the matter is that colonialism cannot simply be ‘put aside’,” says Alok Rai in a typically elegant and insightful 1992 essay, “Black Skin, White Masks”. Rai elaborates: “Quite apart from the comprehensive material damage, one carries the coded inscription of the unequal colonial relationship in the deepest recesses of one’s being.” The “post-colonial” — or for that matter the “post-colonizer” — are vulnerable to all “the twists and turns of the dialectic of the post-colonial consciousness, in which betrayal and inauthenticity are a constant danger, and appear in bewildering and unsettling disguises”.

Perhaps this is one reason why some of our traditionally multicultural societies are, when pushed against the wall of the neo-colonial present, so vulnerable to revivalisms. There is always the possibility of a nostalgic harking back to a time when peaceful co-existence was possible. We do not know if this golden age is true or a sustaining myth, or something humanly in between. If there was, once, some diluted version of an integrated federation minus original sin, the contemporary models of multiculturalism — even those with a spectacularly hoary tradition — contain within it layers of contradictions it would be dangerous to slap whitewash on. If we admit this, our ideological vision may fill a better mould; words such as integration may assume a truly multicultural shade. Dreams need not turn into nightmares.

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