Multiculturalism is not denial of religion By AMULYA GANGULI
The Times of India Tuesday, January 17, 2006
Multiculturalism is under attack again. After Samuel Huntington followed up his clash of civilisations theory with a warning about the US losing its core Anglo-Protestant culture because of the influx of immigrants of various faiths, two British clergymen expressed the same fear about their country losing its identity. If you take the Christian faith out of British identity, what have you got left, asked George Carey, a former archbishop of Canterbury. Earlier, the Ugandan-born archbishop of York, John Sentamu, said that multiculturalism has seemed to imply, wrongly for me, that let other cultures be allowed to express themselves but do not let the majority culture tell us its glories, its struggles, its joys, its pains.
All this hand-wringing is the result of the tendency in Britain and the US to avoid referring to Christmas and use non-religious words instead, as President George Bush’s cards greeted their recipients on the occasion of the holiday season without mentioning Christmas. But a misunderstanding is involved here. Since the white Europeans on both sides of the Atlantic are still not accustomed to the concept of a multicultural society, they believe that the use of Christian terms will offend the non-Christians among them. The whites probably also believe that the Christian symbolism might be interpreted as a reassertion of their sense of superiority, which has long characterised their behaviour towards the blacks and browns, especially as colonial masters.
But if they are serious about retaining their multicultural label, they may well turn to India for a lesson since the multi-culti system, as V S Naipaul derisively calls the concept, has prevailed in this country for centuries. Unlike in the West, where it is virtually equated with atheism, multiculturalism in India is a celebration of religions, not their denial. What is more, with the growth of the advertisement industry, more and more occasions are being marked for festivities from Valentine’s Day to Karwa Chauth, not to mention Diwali, Christmas and Eid.
Yet, this is nothing new. Even the Mughal emperors (though not Aurangzeb) observed Diwali and Nauroz, the Parsi new year, and if Aurangzeb banned these, he banned music, poetry and dancing, too, along with the drinking of wine and the consumption of opium. The tradition of different communities participating in each other’s festivals lasted till the early 20th century with Hindus routinely taking part in the Muharram processions. Indeed, it was to wean them away from this practice that Tilak started the Ganesh festival in Maharashtra. It was apparently to emphasise this aspect of communitarian life in India that Gandhi had passages read from the holy books of all the major religions before his prayer meetings.
The belief, therefore, that multiculturalism and secularism mean keeping a distance from religion, if they are not positively antireligious, is incorrect. While secularism implies that the state should be neutral in the matter of religion, multiculturalism in India means nothing other than a joyful cohabitation of people of all faiths. It is obvious that India has achieved this sense of tolerance and accommodation over centuries, going back to the edicts of Ashoka, underlining the essential doctrine of controlling one’s speech so as not to extol one’s own sect or disparage another’s. Seventeen centuries later, Akbar reinforced this ideal. As Nehru pointed out, neither was a Hindu; one was a Buddhist and the other a Muslim, but it was India speaking through them.
That India was a land of harmony where everyone could live his own life was known in the neighbourhood. So, when the Zoroastrians of Persia felt that their religion was in danger from the invading Muslims, where else could they go but to India? And when, 12 centuries later, the Tibetans felt similarly threatened in their homeland, they chose India. It is this essence of every religion thriving in a multicultural polity which is being misinterpreted in the West. What the official group there seems to believe is the need for the virtual obliteration of all religions, and especially the dominant one, so that a nondenominational national personality can emerge. Inevitably, this attempt, which has been described as silly by the British clerics, has led to a backlash in favour of core values.
There is little doubt that the situation in Europe and America has been complicated by the paranoia about Islamic terrorism. But even if this threat did not exist, the racial complex of the whites would have made it difficult for them to accept large numbers of coloured aliens in their midst. Yet, they are fighting a losing battle because borders cannot be sealed in today’s interdependent world. Nor will it be easy either to coerce the immigrants to submit to the compulsions of the core culture or to erase all religions from public life. Both attempts will create tension instead of eradicating it. The best course, therefore, is to worship all the gods with gusto. The writer is a political commentator .