Semantics of tolerance

The disease known as “groupthink” has a curious penchant for infecting the media. The colourful German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle who visited India for the first time this week got a taste of this herd mentality when he was harried by persistent questions on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s assertion that multikulti, or multiculturalism, had “utterly failed” in Germany. The underlying assumption behind the queries was that Germany had turned its back on the enlightened co-existence of cultures and was somehow re-embracing the intolerant xenophobia of a troublesome past.
Mr Westerwelle responded to these fears with admirable intellectual composure. He argued that multiculturalism meant different things to different people and that the concerns in Germany didn’t imply a repudiation of an “open society” but the “free for all” society. Every society, he argued, had its own perception of what is acceptable and unacceptable. What Germany found galling was alternative paradigms of justice and human rights that devalued gender equality and religious co-existence. Mr Westerwelle spoke in code but everyone knew what he was referring to.
It is difficult to judge the impact of Mr Westerwelle’s arguments on his interrogators. Judging from the fact that not a word of his attempt to contextualise Chancellor Merkel’s utterances appeared in the local media, we may assume his replies were either very persuasive or a shade too complex. Either way, it is unlikely to make any impression on India’s liberal, opinion-making industry that is convinced of a larger European drift to xenophobic politics. In the past week, I encountered a Delhi socialite with impeccable “progressive” credentials who boasted that she had chosen to boycott all functions hosted by the French embassy because of the burkha ban; and another editor from Chennai made the hurtful comment on Twitter that Ms Merkel was re-discovering Germany’s Nazi inheritance.
Indians, as we observed during the shenanigans surrounding the Commonwealth Games, are quick to hurl charges of racism and cultural insensitivity on others. Contrary to stereotype, the charge against perceived white supremacist thinking and cultural insensitivity isn’t led by the paan-chewing, Hindi-speaking zealot taking a breather from the neighbourhood Bhagwati Jagran. The prickliest of Indians tend to be those who are English-speaking, cosmopolitan in outlook and professing faith in India’s rich multiculturalism.
As India has grown in prosperity and emotional self-confidence, there has been a marked inclination to paint it as the epitome of authentic secularism, enlightened pluralism and the spirit of fraternity. Some of this gushing self-deification is warranted. Indians do tend to be naturally accommodating about coping with diversity in the public sphere and politics is all about forging alliances at the local, state and national levels. The fears articulated during the Ayodhya movement about an insidious “syndicated Hinduism” making society monochromatic have, in hindsight, proved to be spurious. India has remained delightfully rumbustious and chaotically argumentative as ever.
Does this imply that India can afford to look down with condescension at a Germany that can’t cope with “guest workers” who refuse to either go home or imbibe robust German values?
For a start, the distinction Mr Westerwelle drew between an “open society” and a “free for all society” is pertinent. Following the experiences with fascism and communist totalitarianism, Europe has emerged as a genuinely tolerant society, allowing an unregulated interplay of ideas. This may explain the absolute horror that greeted Ayatollah Khomeini’s murderous fatwa against Salman Rushdie and the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh.
Likewise, there is also a deep abhorrence of any attempt to either denigrate or discriminate against citizens on the basis of race. This is not to suggest that race hate is absent in Europe but that there is a structured intolerance of any organised attempt to make racism respectable. The manner in which the leader of the British National Party, an elected Member of the European Parliament, had his invitation to the Queen’s summer party at Buckingham Palace withdrawn was unquestionably contrived. However, it did indicate the Establishment’s intense unease at rubbing shoulders with a man whose party espouses crude identity politics.
Unfortunately, the threat to an open society doesn’t merely come from those who claim to speak for the majority. The recent rumblings in western Europe have, unfortunately, been triggered by two factors. First, the increasing willingness of a minusculity to challenge a consensual value system, sometimes through terror; and, second, a well-meaning but oppressive political correctness that is often increasingly seen as appeasement of the unacceptable.
At the same time, and it is important to stress this, the reactions to these distortions have, by and large, been restrained. It is only where restraint has assumed the form of outright denial that the majoritarian fringe has grabbed some decisive political space as, for example, in Holland. The increasing willingness of mainstream politicians such as President Sarkozy and Chancellor Merkel to articulate the misgivings of a fearful, silent majority is actually a positive development. By admitting to a problem and, at the same time, shunning extremist and xenophobic ways of coping with it, their interventions have signalled to responsible sections of the minorities the importance of not offending host cultures.  
Since India doesn’t really have an immigrant problem — those who arrive from Bangladesh and Sri Lanka merge seamlessly into adjoining societies — many of Europe’s multicultural troubles leave it unaffected. India has been less an open society than a self-regulated society which is hesitantly making the transition to a more ordered state. The Constitution has been a handy instrument of this shift towards modernity and, by and large, this approach has served the country well. The problems arise when, as in Europe, a substantial body of people (not least politicians) either try to rewrite the rules of the game or take undue advantage of a natural generosity towards minorities.
Without sneering at the Germans, taunting the French and outrightly decrying the Australians, India should imbibe the different experiences of multicultural hiccups with an open mind and humility. Each of these experiences could come to trouble us.

n Swapan Dasgupta is a senior journalist

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