By Sohini Chatterjee

Edited by Nandita Singh, Senior Editor, The Indian Economist 

Identity is an internalised reality of an individual or a group, which constitutes their most intimate self-perception. In a democracy, it is imperative that the State takes it into account and follows a policy of comprehensive inclusion. However, in the effort towards nation building, States often ignore this pressing need by attempting to homogenize different lived experiences of citizens or a citizen community. The most common misgiving that prompts such homogenization is that if cultural diversities are encouraged, dissident voices will shake the very foundation of national unity. However, history has categorically proven this fear unreasonable and unfounded. Whenever and wherever minorities have felt excluded or neglected, or their existence has been threatened by either fiercely assimilationist projects or by State sponsored neglect, deprivation has caused them to rise up, often in arms, against state machineries. This has made multiculturalism not only a deeply felt need, but also a necessity to foster development and the overall well being of a State. Liberal democracies, despite having recognized this, have often displayed an overt bias of the majority culture, thereby promoting a limited, if not superficial, multiculturalism to keep dissent at bay. Yet, even this has failed to serve its intended purpose. Minority cultural identities have suffered invisibilisation, neglect and deprivation as majority cultures have been allowed to establish their hegemonic supremacy, leading to the creation of a hierarchy of cultural identities within a heterogeneous society. Wherever such hierarchical stratifications have existed, an inflexible system of domination and subordination has disrupted social peace and equality. Thus, it becomes an obligation on the part of the States to effectively dismantle such hierarchical regimes to open up spaces where equality can only be compromised for equality’s sake. It is with the generous help from the State that the minority interests are articulated in the national agenda, following which affirmative actions can be taken to render credibility to multiculturalism. Thus, the significance of multiculturalism can hardly be undermined.

The problem of immigration is most closely related with the politics of multiculturalism. Diasporic narratives often reflect the identity crises of immigrants. They bear the baggage of their unique historical specificity, cultural tradition and ways of life, which are, more often than not, in contradiction with the majority cultural ethos of the country they have settled in, and their difference is manifested in their interaction with the majority. As States pursue assimilationist agendas, such difference is rendered unimportant for purposes of nation building. It usually spells danger. An immigrant, who was not acutely sensitive of her cultural, socio-religious identity in the home country, gains a heightened sensitivity in the face of the threat posed by assimilationist maneuvering. Hence, immigrants have to re-define their identity in a different cultural context. One needs to understand the nuances of identity construction. An immigrant identity is differently constructed in the home country than it is in the host one. An immigrant has to assert visibly her cultural difference to resist the myth of homogeneity that a host country tries to create. In this regard, the need to pursue a “politics of recognition” along with the “politics of difference” is strongly felt. Difference becomes a subject of recognition. As immigrants or minority identities are subjected to frequent, and often deliberate, misrepresentation, subjugation, ostracisation and the indignity of invisibilisation, the “politics of recognition” becomes an effective tool to promote multiculturalism. Through the constant affirmation and re-affirmation of cultural plurality, the politics of recognition tries to destabilise the notion of the ideal citizen as the Caucasian, upper class, and heterosexual male in Western liberal democracies. Mainstreaming of citizen identity is resisted to preclude the possibility of cultural injustices. For this, group or collective visibility of minority identities becomes significant.

Communitarian ideology is often privileged over individual rights to pursue identity politics in a heterogeneous cultural context. However, territorial space to different ethnic/racial/religious minorities cannot be adequate ground to believe a State’s identification as multicultural. As long as in the policies of the State, diverse identity interests do not find articulation, the mere presence of intra-state cultural plurality does not imply multiculturalism. It becomes important to examine how a heterogeneous society deals with cultural pluralisms and what status is afforded to its minorities and their cultural identity. This opens up the dichotomy of cultural diversity on the one hand and multiculturalism on the other. The former does not necessarily follow the latter. It cannot be stressed enough that the mere presence of a substantial minority does not confirm the utility of multiculturalism when they are dissociated from their cultural identity. Thus, cultural plurality, if not validated by the State, loses meaning.

For the success of multiculturalism, secularism is a must. A kind of secularism that promotes tolerance towards all religions within a state.  Religion is so deeply enmeshed in the socio-political life of a State that a secular framework, which tries to invisibalize all religious identities in the public domain to foster a false sense of unity, would prove to be catastrophic. This is especially true for South Asia, and India is one such country. Being a more multicultural state, it does not attempt at homogenizing the identities of its citizens like, for example, the fiercely assimilationist states like France do. On 18th September 1989, three female students were expelled for refusing to remove their hijab in class at Gabriel Havez Middle School in Creil. In 2004, France passed a law banning religious symbols in schools including the hijab and turban. Sikh students were expelled from state run institutions in France for wearing the turban. This left little scope for multiculturalism in the public life in France. France did not stand for individuals displaying their unique cultural or religious identity. The Indian State seeks to harmonize all religions into a peaceful co-existence, rather than exclude all religious differences from public discourse for the sake of a discomforting uniformity. However, in the recent past when the famous Shah Bano case was being widely debated across India, the Supreme Court of India expressed its regret at the Uniform Civil Code remaining a non-justiciable ‘directive principle’ in Act 44 of the Constitution of India. This revealed a homogenizing tendency of the judiciary, which so far has been resisted, since India being a richly heterogeneous society, cannot afford such maneuvering. However, in Pakistan, since the State is monotheistic, assimilationist agendas have often launched violent attacks on minority identities. The French resistance to multiculturalism is different from Pakistan’s resistance of the same. There have been numerous reports of minority Hindus and Christians in Pakistan being forcefully converted to Islam for the sake of an absolute cultural and religious homogenisation. This brand of resistance to multiculturalism does not tolerate religious plurality even in private spheres as the French system does. The line between private and public has been obstinately blurred for the sake of preserving the sanctity of Islam. This is a threat to multiculturalism, and one, that for the sake of one national identity, denies to citizens the liberty of self-definition by imposing on them an identity external to their existence, with the hope that they would somehow be compelled to internalize it.

Multiculturalism is tolerance. It proposes to provide dignity to all citizens regardless of their different shades of identity. However, in the acceptance of uncritical multiculturalism, some grave problems crop up. Liberals argue that primacy of individual rights over group rights is unacceptable. Un-problematized communitarian ideologies can pose great threat to the idea of justice, human rights and women’s dignity. Just because an ideology has been part of the cultural heritage of a community, it may not necessarily be just or acceptable. Communitarian cultural identity has often been found to compromise on individual rights, especially women’s rights. Communities are patriarchal units, which in the name of their unique cultural authority, control women’s bodies and their right to independently imagine for themselves a future they are comfortable with. The individual cannot be made secondary in a multiculturalist debate. That the individual, therefore, has to be made the centre of all discourse and debate, is the most common argument coming from the liberals. However, what constitutes an individual must also be made a subject of scrutiny. Treating the individual in isolation of their socio-cultural moorings is usually a naive attempt, which cannot stand scholarly introspection. This creates a paradox. In a world where organized religions, communities, cultures tend to frequently disrupt peace and stability, the aim of any deliberation should revolve around how to do subvert dominant identities. It shouldn’t be done for the sake of homogeneity, but to create a world where individual destiny is not shaped by the fortune or misfortune brought about by identities. What identity an individual grows up with is a socially assigned truth. How far should it go in deciding not only the individual’s destiny, but also the political structure of a State and that of the international community is a matter of one of the greatest debates of our times. Hence, multiculturalism with all its pros and cons can hardly be ignored.


Sohini Chatterjee is a student of Political Science at Presidency University, Kolkata. Her interest areas include identity politics, Indian culture, mythology, contemporary Indian politics and narratives of diaspora. She identifies as a feminist and believes it defines her more than anything else. Writing is not solely an intellectual exercise for her but a powerful weapon or a magic wand which, she believes, can make the world a better place.

Posted by The Indian Economist | For the Curious Mind