Looking towards the West
AT dinner the other day, the conversation turned to Gujarat. Which isn't surprising because at breakfast, lunch or dinner and at all the times in-between, every conversation turns to Gujarat.
The lady I was talking to is a very well-known writer and a Hindu. But that's not how I have seen her for so many years; I have thought of her until now as a strikingly attractive woman with attitude, brains and conversation. But times like the present bring out the labelling equipment and people fall into this narrow compartment or that.
"Isn't it about time," she was saying, "that we stopped being pseudo-secularists?"
"Of course," I said, "we should be real secularists."
But that's not what she meant at all. She was saying that we should accept the reality, which is that India is a Hindu state. "So be up front about it," she said. "Let's call ourselves a Hindu state."
This isn't often said. It is hinted at, implied. And those who slip in this thought between the lines for you to read, always then refer to the countries which are our neighbours, and those further afield which are our neighbour's neighbours. Aren't they pretty clear about their identity? Don't they call themselves Islamic countries?
They do, of course. But when you think about it, that's neither here nor there. Why? For two main reasons.
The first is demographic. How many Islamic countries have minorities which are as substantial as ours? There are over 120 million Muslims in India, which is more than in any country except for Indonesia. In fact, that's more than the population of a substantial number of countries. Even Christians in India, supposedly a small minority, add up to 25 million, which is a country in itself.
The second reason has to do with the standards we set ourselves. Should we call ourselves a Hindu nation because some countries call themselves Islamic? In other words, should we aspire to be like them?
Isn't that lowering our sights? Many Islamic countries are feudal, many are tribal, many are despotic and not too many are democratic. A substantial number of them are backward, not just in their outlook but also in important fields like education and in the treatment of women. Many are culturally underdeveloped and often have a poor cultural heritage. So why should we aim to be like them?
We should, instead be looking at countries which are more advanced democracies: How do they integrate their minorities? How do they cope with the inevitable tensions that arise in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious society?
One possible example is the United States. It has two substantial minorities in African-Americans and Hispanics. The problem there may not be of religion but of race and colour but it's still a majority-minority conflict-and-perception problem. The Black population, particularly, has suffered terrible discrimination and still does so in parts of the American South. But starting with the presidency of John F. Kennedy, there has been a concentrated, official effort to end discrimination. This has taken the shape of affirmative action in every conceivable field, particularly education and employment. The process may seem slow (think of the speeches at this year's Oscars), but Kennedy's presidency is, after all, only 40 years old.
What is particularly relevant to us about the U.S. experience is that our own countrymen have an increasingly important presence there. And that presence has become prominent because America does not allow discrimination. England is an even better example, because Indians have reached the top positions in a truly multi-cultural society. These are the models for us to emulate. They will serve our self-interest too, because as both the U.S. and the United Kingdom have experienced, a multi-cultural mix results in livelier and quicker development for the countries themselves.
On the other hand, suppose we do go back to the first proposition. That India declares itself a Hindu state. What will that achieve? Will that be a solution to our problems?
The writer is a noted journalist, media critic and writer.
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