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The Struggle For A Pluralist Society

October 01, 2003 14:01 IST

Britain's Conservative Party has done something remarkably, indeed dramatically, refreshing. It has selected Sandip Verma, a 44-year-old woman of Indian origin, to contest the next general election from a seat that was held for a long 24 years by Enoch Powell, the notorious xenophobe, advocate of 'Little England'-style insularity and isolation, and a fierce opponent of immigration.

Powell's infamous warning in 1968 that growing immigration and racial tension would ultimately turn Britain's streets into 'rivers of blood' is probably the single most obnoxious -- and best-remembered -- anti-immigrant remark made by anyone in the West. It so shocked the British public, and even the Tories, then led by Edward Heath, that Powell was sacked from their front benches. (He ended up joining the even more British-chauvinist Ulster Unionists until he died five years ago.)

It is irrelevant whether Ms Verma wins or loses from Wolverhampton Southwest. What matters is that the Tories have followed Labour and the Liberal Democrats in projecting a 'modern' self-image. Putting up an Indian woman whom they describe as 'a candidate of our times,' and who contrasts sharply with Powell's racist profile is their chosen way of reflecting the multiracial nature of today's Britain in their party's parliamentary slate.

This is a handsome tribute to the notion of a multicultural or pluralist Britain, which takes pride in its ethnic diversity, its varied customs and practices, and its ability to assimilate different cultures, languages, modes of conduct, or of attire and food.

It is a sign of the enormous distance the United Kingdom has travelled since the 1970s when white-racist Skinheads would roam its streets, and immigrants, especially from South Asia and the West Indies, would run for cover. Most Third World immigrants then lived in fear -- or in ghettoes. It was hard for them to be recognised as white people's equals. Books like Dilip Hiro's White British, Black British document the systematic discrimination that immigrants experienced in the 1960s and 1970s.

Things have changed greatly in Britain. But it's not as if racism is dead or xenophobia extinct. There is, of course, 'institutionalised racism' in state and society, including important organs like the police, as recent official reports by the police and the Commission on Racial Equality confirm. There are entrenched rivalries and occasional clashes between extreme right-wing neo-Nazi groups like the British National Party and immigrants of colour in certain depressed areas too.

There is Home Secretary David Blunkett's proposal to give immigrants compulsory lessons in British history and citizens' rights/duties. Periodically, the media carry deeply prejudiced stories about 'asylum-seekers.' But what has changed is the content of mainstream public discourse. It's no longer permissible to air one's ethnic or racial prejudices or to demand the exclusion of minority groups from social or political life.

This has not happened overnight or because dominant groups in British society have suddenly become tolerant and munificent. The change is, above all, the result of a long and bitter struggle by the immigrants for equal rights and for citizenship, and against racism. When the racists would show placards saying 'Go home,' the immigrants would turn around and shout: 'We are HERE because you were THERE.'

Later, they became even less defensive, and took the bull by the horns. They declared: 'Our home is London (or Birmingham or Bradford).' This was a frontal attempt to redefine the meaning of Britishness. As novelist Amit Chaudhuri puts it: "It was a simple irrefutable argument. 'I'm British,' they said, and demanded the inalienable right of the British citizen to live in his or her own country in peace. The 'Britishness' that was thrown at them as a challenge became, redefined, an extremely potent counter-reply to the racist."

This struggle had two other important components. One was the assertion by South Asians of their identity as working class people employed in the post office, schools, hospitals and factories. Their fights were hard and long. Among the most heroic struggles was a two-year-long strike at the Grunwick film-processing factory in northwest London, begun in 1976, and led by a diminutive saree-clad Indian woman, Jayaben Desai.

These struggles solidly grounded South Asian immigrants in Britain's social reality. A second component was solidarity with other immigrants, from Asia, Africa and the Caribbean, in their fight for full citizenship rights. It is through such struggles that new bonds and new identities emerged.

That process has not occurred in the United States, home to a much larger number of Indians. The reason is that the bulk of American NRIs are upper middle-class professionals, not working people. They are not unionised; indeed most tend to be anti-union. Being better off than the average White American, they won't fight for equality.

American NRIs are not particularly interested in active participatory citizenship -- as distinct from the Green Card -- unlike their second-generation British counterparts. A majority of them are content to pursue individualistic -- and one might say, narcissistic and even mercenary -- agendas, without a collective sense of commitment.

In Britain, the anti-racist struggle has gradually reshaped the main political parties' attitudes. Labour was the first to respond to it by promoting multiculturalism within its membership and work culture. Asians are a major source of recent Labour victories. Labour has created a number of Asian Lords, including Meghnad Desai, Bhiku Parekh and Nazir Ahmed.

Last year, Ghanaian-origin Paul Boateng became Britain's first-ever black cabinet minister, under Labour. Last year, Pakistan-born Michael Nazir Ali, the Bishop of Rochester, narrowly missed becoming the Archbishop of Canterbury, the top leader of the Anglican Church worldwide. He was nevertheless the leading contender.

The Tories have changed too. Now they officially say they 'celebrate immigration and cultural diversity.' Last year, the party dismissed MP Ann Winterton for narrating a racist joke at a rugby club. The 'Tebbit Test' of loyalty, about which side you cheered in an England vs India or England vs Pakistan cricket match, has now become a complete joke.

Former Tory chairman Norman Tebbit's remarks were roundly criticised in the 1980s too. For instance, The Observer described them as 'infinitely depressing.' But today, everyone accepts that Indians settled in Britain will 'naturally' cheer the Indian side in cricket: you can be both politically British and culturally Indian.

Britons of South Asian origin are now on average better off and perform better at school than Whites. Their cultural distinctiveness is respected. Diwali parties have become more hip and more important in Britain than in India. Tandoori chicken and tikka masala have been declared Britain's national dishes. (It must be noted that they, like 'Balti' cuisine, are not copies of Indian originals, but have their own identity).

Stodgy Englishmen, who once used to complain of 'curry odour' from Indian kitchens, now gorge on the very same curries. Although Indian participation in Britain's armed forces is minuscule, it is growing and accounts for over five percent of new recruitment. Britain's first state-supported Sikh school opened two years ago. Gujarati cultural bodies receive significant local council support.

The good news here is not that ethnic Indians produce numerous success stories, or that Selfridges recently hosted a Bollywood-theme shopping festival, but rather that Britain has become a relatively successful multicultural, plural society. This is a healthy sign of an inclusive, relaxed sense of nationhood. It is particularly welcome when some people in India are still obsessed with false debates about how 'Indian' Ms Sonia Gandhi is although she has made this country her home for decades.

There is a larger lesson here for us. Britain's success lies in universalising citizens' rights and encouraging active citizenship, through participation in public life -- regardless of ethnic origin or religious belief. Implicit here is also a democratic concept of culture and the equality of different traditions as regards their claims to authenticity. It is only when the bulk of the White British, led by the most literate and liberal elements in the community, made a break with belief in their cultural superiority that British society became accommodative and open -- and less insecure and insular. Multiculturalism is a worthy ideal to fight for. It's the best way to tap all our people's human potential.

In India, the greatest obstacle to multiculturalism is Hindutva and Hindu majoritarianism, which places a premium on Hinduness and holds Hindu culture to be superior to all others. It holds that Hindus must prevail by virtue of being a numerical majority. This is a repulsively hierarchical and supremely arrogant idea, which subverts the spirit of the Constitution and the liberal and humane principles underlying it. It rationalises the exclusion of other groups as if they were worthless. And it suppresses the fact that there are as many divisions or fault-lines among Hindus as, if not more than, between them and others.

Majoritarianism is profoundly undemocratic and wantonly destructive of equality and social cohesion. It can only breed hubris or a false sense of pride while negating all that's valid and valuable in India's many plural traditions. It will arrest and reverse this society's evolution and turn it into a cultural backwater, an intellectual swamp, a spiritual cesspool. We must not allow ourselves to be impoverished by it.

Praful Bidwai