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Multiculturalism and our Democracy

Kumar Padmapani Bora

Multiculturalism is a philosophical terminology that aspires to protect the rights of diverse communities in terms of culture, religion, caste, race, language etc. It is often understood as how to respond the challenges of cultural and religious diversity. It is an acknowledgement of diverse cultural value system, special protection of certain groups in the society, demand for autonomous right of governance. The term ‘multiculturalism’ rejects the idea in which members of minority groups are expected to assimilate into the dominant culture.

Multiculturalism is closely associated with “identity politics”. Gutmanm and Taylor in their studies have said that multiculturalism is closely associated with “identity politics,” “the politics of difference,” and “the politics of recognition,” all of which share a commitment to revaluing disrespected identities and changing dominant patterns of representation and communication that marginalize certain groups.

Jennifer L. Eagan, in his studies, has commented that most modern democracies comprise members with diverse cultural viewpoints, practices, and contributions. For him many minority cultural groups have experienced exclusion or the denigration of their contributions and identities in the past. Multiculturalism seeks the inclusion of the views and contributions of diverse members of society while maintaining respect for their differences and withholding the demand for their assimilation into the dominant culture.

Multiculturalism is not just mere pluralism, where multiple identities co-exist within the dominant cultural framework. It is a way of addressing the issues of past exclusion, discrimination, and oppression in the political system. Multiculturalism seeks the inclusion of minority views and maintaining respect for differences in a democratic system rather trying to make them assimilate into the dominant culture. Considering the minority rights, theorists like Kukathas have argued for leaving minority groups free of state interference for greater tolerance.

Whereas scholars like Will Kymlicka are of the view that mere toleration of group differences falls short of treating members of minority groups as equals, what is required is recognition and positive accommodation of minority group practices through “group-differentiated rights”. “Group-differentiated rights” include exemptions from generally applicable law, assistance to do things and get representation through affirmative action, representation of minorities in government bodies through quota system, recognition of traditional legal codes, limited self-government rights etc.

Political philosopher David A Hollinger, in his book Postethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism” mentions that multiculturalism has been used as an umbrella term to characterize the moral and political claims of a wide range of marginalized groups, including African Americans, women, LGBT people, and people with disabilities.
Multiculturalism possesses challenge to liberal democracy where all citizens are treated equally under the law irrespective of their belongingness to diverse religion, race, culture, and political and economic backgrounds. In the name of equality of citizens, liberal democracy undermines the facts in which citizens are not equal in the society. Multiculturalism believes in larger integration through allowing diverse identities to co-exist.

Political theorist Bhikhu Parekh contends that liberal theory cannot provide an impartial framework governing relations between different cultural communities. He argues instead for a more open model of inter-cultural dialogue in which a liberal society’s constitutional and legal values serve as the initial starting point for cross-cultural dialogue while also being open to contestation.

India is the largest democracy in the world with a civilization of more than 5,000 years old. It is the land of diverse cultures, religions and communities. Indian carry great diversity in their traditions, customs, habits, manners, languages. However, ‘unity in diversity’ has been a constant feature of Indian culture. Young scholar Rochana Bajpai states that India is an outstanding case for the study of multiculturalism. It is home to policies of legal pluralism in religious family law, territorial autonomy for several linguistic and tribal groups, as well as quotas in legislatures, government jobs and educational institutions for caste and tribal minorities.

The framers of the Constitution of India understood the spirit of multiculturalism truly and prescribed a model of multicultural accommodation for wide range of group-differentiated rights within a broadly liberal democratic framework. The Indian Constitution is considered to be a basic multicultural document of providing for political and institutional mechanism for the recognition of country’s diversity.

In India, religious communities receive rights to govern their religious and associated social and cultural practices. All communities receive equal rights to ‘profess, propagate and practice’ their religion. Further, they have rights to establish and manage their own separate institutions like charitable trusts as well as educational institutions. No citizen is denied admission into any educational institution maintained by the state or receiving aid out of state funds on grounds only of religion, race, caste, language or any of them. Such rights are well protected under Articles 25 to 30 of the Constitution.

The Constitution has also given official recognition to the personal laws of various religious communities. Constitutional provisions for autonomous rule for tribal communities and affirmative action in various spheres have further strengthened the spirit of multiculturalism in India. Article 32 of the Constitution provides the remedy to protect individual rights.

India is a multi-ethnic, multi-language, multi-caste, multi-religion country. The inclusive growth of the country depends on the development on all different minority groups, and inclusive growth demands all social groups to get equal access to services and opportunities for economic and social development.

According to scholars like Sreelekha Mishra and C. Bharath Kumar, marginalization of various groups or perceived lack of advantage of these groups is a threat to India. One of the biggest challenges before counties like India is to preserve the pluralistic tradition and to bring the various communities into the mainstream by protecting the spirit of multiculturalism. Building ties of harmony and brotherhood among different religious communities in India is essential to preserve the pluralistic and multicultural values of the country.

Cultural differences should not be a source of discrimination. Public expression of differences needs to be allowed. Identity of a person is shaped by community affiliations, and therefore, citizenship must not imply negation of those identities. Democracy in India demands ensuring equality for marginalized groups and protecting the diversity represented by various minorities. Sustenance of multicultural democracy depends on solutions for political and economic integration of diverse identities where accommodation for such identities are allowed in coming together and becoming equal partners in nation building.

(The writer, belonging to the Indian Revenue Service, is presently working as Deputy Commissioner of Income Tax, Guwahati. He can be reached at [email protected] The views expressed by the writer are entirely personal and not in any way represent the government)