Unformed & Uncivil

Written by Subhash Agrawal | Updated: Jul 31 2003, 05:30am hrs
In India, there appears to be some sort of unwritten societal norm deeply embedded in our psyche that makes its OK to ignore or even overrule the message if you dont like the messenger. This knee-jerk reaction to anything that the Bharatiya Janata Party supports or proposes is reminiscent of a famous Groucho Marx line: Whatever it is, Im against it. In a nutshell, that is the problem with the Uniform Civil Code, and why the whole debate has been hijacked away from sensible people and dispassionate debate: there must be something foul if the Sangh Parivar is demanding it.

The latest Supreme Court pronouncement on the subject was an innocuous and timely warning, but instead, the renewed debate it has spawned has brought forth the usual, if not astonishing, responses from media and people we could have sworn were wedded to secular values from its not the right time to let the people themselves decide. Anywhere, minorities certainly need time to slowly adjust and to evolve organically, but where do you draw the line Is fifty years not enough It is actually rather amazing how anybody who professes to be liberal could even remotely oppose a uniform civil code, the very idea and essence of which, shorn of its sophistry and sanctimony, is and ought to be the following: equal laws and equal treatment for all men and women. Very simple and very clear. Perhaps the first-of-all-first principles, certainly the very first step in assimilation under a national identity.

In the early 1990s, Richard Bernstein, a reporter for the New York Times, undertook a major research project investigating multi-culturalism in US schools and colleges, and then wrote a rather well-known book at the time: Dictatorship of Virtue. His work was a devastating criticism of multi-culturalism and how it was damaging to both nation building and perceptions of equality. Last year, in a rather long essay published in the Londons Financial Times, Andrew Sullivan did the same. In fact, he was heavily critical of European left-leaning intellectuals who forever neglected the problem of cultural assimilation. More recently, Richard Reeves and Jonathan Power have written the same, that is, spoken out in favour of assimilation.

These are just a few. There are many others. I mention these names because none of them is a conservative; in fact, all are well known and acknowledged liberals, who have much disregard for any religious types like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and who, through their writings over the years, have consistently opposed any form of religious or ethnic overtones to laws, government policy or social largesse. In fact, in most developed nations, a growing number of progressive thinkers and just so the reader gets the proper barometer, these are the people who oppose President Bush and the current reign of neo-conservatives with a vehemence are increasingly turning against multi-culturalism and in favour of inter-culturism. The distinction is important: the former creates a multiplicity of separate homogeneous cultures which perhaps can co-exist over a limited period of time but do so very nervously. The basic tenet of multi-culturalism is belief in group rights although multi-culturalists and left-oriented writers deny it which is, ironically, against the very concept of individual rights and humanism that many of the same liberals espouse. Multi-culturism focusses on and promotes differences rather than commonality. On the other hand, inter-culturism attempts to break down group barriers and create a larger national identity with sub-cultural identities feeding into it. It also lends itself beautifully to individual rights and humanistic values.

At another level, the problem of assimilation is compounded by the darker underside of globalisation and technology: changing images, changing self-perception and a whole gamut of mixed identities. There is no denying that a powerful impulse in human behaviour is to identify with ones own kind and to long for roots. In India, this gets amplified with our usual degradation of public discourse and twisted history. But it is precisely because of these conditions that it becomes even more important to evolve rules of society that curb the desire to monumentalise any sort of division and to continuously harp about the glory of past eras. A prolonged form of multi-cultural separation can only be destructive, but we may need to arrive at a post-BJP era to hammer home that message.

The author is an analyst of Indian political and business trends and the editor of India Focus, a political risk report for international investors