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Indian Journal of Federal Studies

"They" in Plural- Multi Cultural Societies

 - Akhtar Majeed

[ It is by distinguishing 'us' from 'them' that social groups promote their perceptions of superiority over others. Prejudice arises out of mistrust that, in itself, is a result of ignorance and lack of awareness about others. The absence of social interaction between groups and ethnic segments of a society forces the numerically small and socially weak groups to adopt a self-imposed apartheid. Prejudice against a community is transformed into violence by constructing the image of the latter as a threat and as an enemy. People, in the civil society, may be prejudiced against some groups, but they inflict violence on the latter when the state---through its actions or inactions---provides legitimacy for such acts. No civil society can become brutal unless there is a tacit approval by the state. ]

With the shift in the climate of a large number of countries towards the Right, Neo- liberalism has come to be crowned as the reigning ideology. There is far more interest in the governing circles about the feel-good feeling among their own classes than the fate of the poor. But then, democracy means what the Elite decide is democracy. It is, therefore, not surprising that the Elite are as ever blaming "Them" for the decline in the fortunes of the nation.

Violence in itself is an old phenomenon in plural societies. But all along, even those who have propagated or participated in such acts have declined to own such acts, blaming instead the 'outsiders' who had somehow penetrated their society and indulged in violent acts. What is new is the absence of any remorse on the part of many who encourage or participate in violence. Rather, there seems to be some sense of achievement because it is felt that 'they' got what they deserved. This brutalisation of society should be a matter of concern to everybody because a liberal democracy cannot afford to lose its values in a plural society without endangering its very existence. The power of the state emanates from its control of civil society through the politicisation of cultural nationalism. Then, the state confers a legitimacy to the culture of the dominant groups in the civil society and provides protection to the action-plans of those groups on whose support the state depends for its own legitimacy. People, in the civil society, may be prejudiced against some groups, but they inflict violence on the latter when the state---through its actions or inactions---provides legitimacy for such acts. No civil society can become brutal unless there is a tacit approval by the state.

In a plural nation, both the majority and the minority(ies) need the "other" to build-up and consolidate their own identity and interests. "Pampering of the minority" and the "discrimination by the majority" serve this purpose. It is by distinguishing 'us' from 'them' that social groups promote their perceptions of superiority over others.

Prejudice arises out of mistrust that, in itself, is a result of ignorance and lack of awareness about others. The absence of social interaction between groups and ethnic segments of a society forces the numerically small and socially weak groups to adopt a self-imposed apartheid. This is amply reflected in the (non) relations between the Whites and the others in several of the British cities like Bradford, Burnley and Birmingham. Avoiding contacts with others cannot be an effective way of protecting one's own identity and culture. The insular existence (---self or forced) results in communication gaps, developing prejudiced perceptions that the immigrants in Britain or the minorities in India were being "pampered". On the other hand, accepting differences, and thereby respecting multi-culturalism, is a basic principle of a liberal society.

A couple of years back, the British Foreign Secretary celebrated Chicken tikka-masala as a symbol of British multi-culturalism! Not only it trivalised the issue, it over-looked the fact that a racist can actually enjoy a curry with a pint and then go out and 'give it to them' There is no link between what people eat and their behaviour towards the people with whom that particular food is associated with. The Mughlai 'Roghan josh' is a dismal failure in cooling off the 'josh' against the community that introduced it, in India. Just like the chicken tikka-masala is hardly a shield for the South Asians against the blows of the skinheads in Britain. And it is not just the (conveniently called) 'lunatic fringe'. The Conservative Party chief in Britain had blamed the rising crime on immigrants who were accused of undermining Britain's Anglo-Saxon society which was in danger of becoming a foreign land. Another great Conservative leader and Prime Minister, Winston Churchill had said in 1937: " I do not admit that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these peope by the fact that a stronger race, a high-grade race, a more worldly-wise race has come in and taken their place" [ 1 ]; and this racial superiority was expressed not just by Hitler but also by one who fought him: "Take up the White Man's burden / And reap his old reward/ The blame of those you better / The hate of those ye guard" ! Racial superiority is expressed through de-humanising of the others and even denying their existence. About the Palestinians, successive Prime Ministers of Israel had this to say: Palestinians do not exist (Golda Meir); Palestinians are two-legged beasts (Menachem Begin); Palestinians are grasshoppers who need to be crushed (Yitzhak Shamir); Pelestinians are drugged cockroaches in a bottle (Ariel Sharon). All of this echoing Hitler describing the Jews as bacteria, parasites, viruses and non-human creatures. What happens is that " they are depicted as wicked, lazy, backward, conniving… Stereotypes, a mark of the plural, is assigned to them.: they are this, they are the same" [2].It was not just the Klu Klux Klan of the years gone but the President of the United States who, in 1886, had said about the native Indian population that " I don't go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians but I believe nine out of ten are, and I should't inquire too closely in the case of the tenth". The Governor of California at that time, Peter Burnett, had the distinction of proclaiming that "a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the races until the Indian race becomes extinct". A century and a quarter later, another U.S. President affirmed the primacy of the American nation-state over the collective will of the United Nations. After the defeat of Turkey in World War-I, General Allenby declared in Jerusalem that the Crusades were now finally completed, and the French commander declared in occupied Damascus "Nous revenons Saladin! ( we are back, Saladin). They were expressing the same sentiments echoed 83 years afterwards by the U.S. President that the war in Iraq was a 'crusade' between the good Americans and the bad Arabs. [ 3]. After the end of the Cold War, the "enemy" was no longer recognisable but, between the two Gulf Wars, the confusion ended. Similarly, in India, while some represent the 'moderate' face of extremism--- they being the right men in the wrong parties--- the lower cadre of the same parties are allowed to commit any excess on the people and the constitutional framework. Their attempts to destroy the nation's ethos are rationalised and explained in their being the "lunatic fringe".

It is always beneficial for extremist parties to present one of its own sections as moderate and the others as 'lunatic fringe' who are out of control and, therefore, pardonable. The real purpose of this out-of-control-group is to establish the credibility of the group/ party as a whole. A street don also has to establish his credibility and, therefore, goons are occasionally sent to beat up those who are reluctant to pay the protection money. Just as everyone has to be kept frightened on the road, and globally (by the hyper-power), the "other" in a plural society must also learn to fear this lunatic fringe, must also learn to exist subservient to "our" values and way of life. Prejudice against a community is transformed into violence by constructing the image of the latter as a threat and as an enemy. The other is always depicted as a threat to our identity and dignity. Regimes--- whether authoritarian or democratic--- use the mass media for propaganda. Noam Chomsky, in his various writings, has highlighted how neo-liberal capitalism creates the accumulation of power and freedom for some and erosion of power and freedom for the others. [4] It is again a question of we vs. them. Since we can afford the 'commodities' such as education, clean neighbourhood, human rights, justice, freedom etc., we have a right for these. 'They' cannot afford it, hence they have no inherent rights for the same. We have a right not only to all the above but also the freedom to do virtually anything in the name of justice, righteousness, making right the wrongs of others from the past, etc. While we are the movers and shakers of history, they are the moved and the shaken. With de-humanising the opponent, it is far easier to see them as having no legitimate rights and then any atrocity is considered justifiable. Not only the Other is seen as evil, more often we project our own faults onto our opponents--- while 'they' are aggressive, 'we' only retaliate. We first convert the opponent into the enemy, then dehumanise the enemy and all this psychologically makes it acceptable to commit the types of atrocities such as those that occurred in Rwanda, Cambodia, Yugoslavia, Sri Lanka, Kurdish areas of Turkey and Iraq, former East Pakistan and India's Gujrat.

In many societies, culture has not been just an instrument for, but a source of, revivalism and chauvinism. In many of the events mobilization was made through the sustained development of perceptions of threats to 'our' culture from 'them'. The way assertion of cultural nationalism is attempted invariably makes it assume a fascist form. In all hierarchical societies, culture is used as a political weapon by the elite to defend their privileges. [5] The masses may be in the vanguard to fight such street battles but what are actually sought to be defended are the prerogatives of the upper strata which might otherwise have been under threat from the equality of law and state action. This is true for the Serb who is busy cleansing, for the Muslim fanatic who is busy in issuing death fatwas, for the Hindu militant busy in destroying mosques, for the White American who wants no blacks in the neighbourhood, for the German who is burning the homes of the gasterbeiter, the French school principal who does not want students with a scarf covering their heads, and for the follower of Le Pen who wants a France pour les Francais meet. The apprehension is created among the masses that 'they' are exploiting 'our' resources and marginalising 'our' identity. The people are first told they ought to be ashamed of their present pitiable condition and then frighten them about a worse future, for which some group is identified and targeted. The hysterical use of the historical myths serves that purpose well. Just as the antiquity of 'our' mythical traditions are nationalist-construction, the denial of 'their' traditions is also a construction. It becomes ticklish when one's historical heroes are the foes of others. It is even easier when these 'others' are culturally distinct and visible and can be easily blamed for our failures. Cynical manipulation of people's sentiments is intended only for political advantages but the expost facto invention of traditions can be a political strategy for winning elections but not for nation-building.

When state-legitimacy is sought to be acquired through nationalism, the state institutions get over-extended and can justify their effective control over all spheres of social life only through a uniform nationalism. Any flourishing of diversities can only be frowned upon. If the society is plural, whereas the nation-state is supposedly uniform and unitary, potentialities of strife and frictions are all too obvious. Such diversities then, on their part, see the state as conceptual visualisation of institutions of control --- institutions which seek legitimacy in the name of the unifying nationalism. When these diverse social groups see the state as too intrusive, too over-bearing and too invasive, then they search for areas and spheres that need to be left out of state-control. Feelings of us-versus-them and ethnic manifestation assert themselves to provide those avenues to a people that are either not available or denied under the all intrusive, all-controlling nation-state. This is what has happened recently in some of the West European societies. Imposing a ban on religious symbols cannot ensure greater integration among people without religion acting as a barrier. Instead, if people are forced to abandon such symbols of identities, it will only exacerbate communalism. Further, there is an inherent assumption in such attempts that interaction is hindered by religion. A religious person---and/ or a person using religious symbols (such as headscarf, yarmulke, cross, turbaned long hair, paste on forehead, etc)---- need not be an extremist. It is difficult for a minority group to identify with the stated principles of 'liberty, equality, fraternity' of a country if the same ideals are denied to them. No Republic can be 'secular' if it is not 'social', if the material needs of its disparate citizens are not met.. That is the underlying failure of European economies to provide for the poor immigrants. The need is not to target the values of others but to abandon the stereotyped images about others. The Constitution of India is a guide wherein secularism does not mean anti-religion but is associated with respect for all religions.

In a plural society, the 'national culture', which is equated with "our" culture, cannot be just majoritarian but has to reflect streams of all the constituents of that plural-national society. A wedge between a majority and the minorities is intended to strengthen the support-structure based on 'majoritarian nationalism' consolidating in the name of nationalism. In this mind-set, a majority (us) can be rejuvenated only if a permanent wedge is created between it and the minorities (them) . This type of 'renaissance' is more a political assertion than a religious or cultural nationalism and is a direct threat for the survival of a plural multi-cultural state. A culture based on the invented traditions cannot help nation-building because it can only create divisions in the process. If political institutions are molded to serve particular interests then there is a direct threat, not for minorities alone but for democratic institutions. Use of state machinery to serve particular social groups and/ or social sanction for the same, at the cost of the general social welfare, cannot be a substitute for a national culture strengthening nation-building. Culture cannot be an instrument of domination over the minorities and cannot be used as a form of social protest to consolidate power-base.

If state institutions are forced by mobilized social groups to disturb inter-group balance, in their favour, and if political leadership and the bureaucracy start taking sides between social groups, then neither the interests of democracy are served nor a good governance is possible and, to top it all, the balance between state and society is disturbed. The viable guarantee for the future of democracy is the blending of democracy, pluralism and rule of law. Problems are bound to increase if some are denied opportunity for meaningful participation. Then they find other means and ways to do it. Such denials are in fact intended to felicitate concentrations of power in selective and identified hands. In the private concentrations of power, interests of everyone else are incidental and inconsequential. These unaccountable concentrations of power are the real decision-makers in social, economic and political fields, and all of this is designed to undermine popular sovereignty. The design is to silence any critique of the distorted developmental priorities, the tendency to circumvent democratic procedures and to undermine institutional accountability. They want a compliant state for themselves and a powerful one for the others.

Communal identity is always ascribed to others as 'we' are not guilty of that, we only react. In fact, 'Communitarianism' need not be identified with communalism. It is when communitarianism looks at the 'other' with suspicion and hatred that it becomes communal. It is when this 'other', they, are identified as the cause of the decline in the fortunes of 'our' community that the basis of communalism is established. It is when irreconcilable political interests dominate inter-community relationship that communalism is constructed. Otherwise, as in the Constitution of India, the community loyalties should be viewed as various levels of a wider national loyalty, crystallizing themselves at different gradients with different sectional interests, which in their totality are the best interests of national integration. It is when attempts are made to crush these identities that national integration is jeopardized.

Those who claim to speak on behalf of the Nation demand a genuine proof of belonging from the minorities who see a question mark about their loyalty permanently hanging above their heads. As vote-banks, in India, 'they' are the Migrants, the Muslims, the Dalits, the Sikhs, the Bengalis or Biharis in Assam and the 'Madrasis' in Maharashtra; in Pakistan, they are the 'Muhajirs' or (were) Bengalis before 1971; in Sri Lanka they are the Tamils. On the other hand, "we" are the nationalists, out to seek redressal of injustices meted out to our nation

In the traditional hierarchical order, like the Indian society, discrimination has been a fact. But it is hardly acknowledged as what it actually is. Explanations and rationalisations are based on the arguments of ability, competence and performance. [ 6] And, often, the blame for all this is also placed at the doors of the discriminated…….. 'they' do not want to avail of educational opportunities, 'they' like to live in their ghettos and do not want to socially integrate, 'we' would like them to advance but unfortunately 'they' themselves do not so aspire, and so 'they' are not able and competent and then they whine about discrimination ! So, in the name of merit and efficiency, discrimination continues. [7 ] The bankruptcy of ideas is reflected in agendas that are designed for political and electoral gains by first enhancing people's racial and religious prejudices and then playing on their fears of the Outsider. Expressions like sentiments, faith, feelings, asmita (pride) emerge out of the created sense of aggressive and combative nationalism. Those who do not agree with the tenets of this exclusivist nationalism are obviously out of it and, by definition, are anti-national. Samuel Huntington was off-the-mark in arguing that civilisations are composed of homogenous cultures, because numerically, ethnically, culturally and politically the majorities and minorities in societies are specific to circumstances, and culture is as malleable as the politics that informs it [8]. No doubt, peasants in Bangladesh and Indian state of West Bengal have many cultural commonalties just like the Bhadralok (intellectuals) have commonalities on the two sides of the Indo-Bangladesh borders. But do the intellectuals on both the sides have any pronounced commonalities with the peasants on both the sides? This is as true between Poland and Germany's eastern parts as it is between the Panjabs of India and Pakistan. But, then, Huntington's clash of civilisations involves inevitably a world of double standards, in which people apply one standard to their kin-civilisations and a different standard to others. And that is the real cause of the 'clash'. The Western neo-conservatism not only believes in the Huntingtonian philosophy of the 'West versus the Rest' but wants to ensure a perpetual economic and strategic superiority over the latter for the safety of the future. But any student of realpolitik would know that the only result of such civilisational clash would be ethnic cleansing or terrorism. And when a non-State actor does this it is terrorism but similar acts by a State, or some groups with the State-backing, are ethnic cleansing.

Segregation of minorities within urban ghettos occurred due to a perception of adequate security within the ghettoised confines. Communal riots first ensure that the minorities are driven out of localities in which they might have lived all their lives or for generations. Calculated campaigns to picturise anti-minority incidents as 'exaggerations orchestrated by them and their friends' ultimately make people insensitive to such incidents. Then, it is this 'other'---- who lives away from the civilised part of the city, who has only the identity of being anti-social, who is not and cannot be part of 'our' mainstream society----who is considered a threat for our values and our way of life. This 'other' needs to be taught a lesson that his survival is a charity that depends on the level of his subservience to 'us'. While culturally losing their identity, the minorities are increasingly becoming politically marginalised. But, as the Constitution of India shows, it is possible to have both equality and identity; and there is no reason to trade-off one's identity for constitutional equality.

The question of a minority-identity is not just a matter of one's choice but the label of others as well. While minorities make efforts to establish their ethnic identity, the majority inadvertently strengthens the minority separatism by constantly reminding them, in innumerable ways, that they are a minority. As a consequence, a great amount of ethnic-separatism among the minorities in India is generated because of treating various minorities primarily on the basis of their religious ethnic affiliation and identity. Community consciousness has often been transformed into communalism, in India, due to outside—the—community interventions. Such interventions ('attempts to reform' !) only add to dormant apprehensions and consolidate existing fears, among the minorities. Minorities are generally touchy about symbols of their ethnic- cultural identity and they hold on rigidly to all their distinctive possessions in an attempt to preserve their identity, particularly if the demand to change such identity comes from outside the group. The motive at the back of such demands appears to be the political denigration of the minorities leading to political submission.

It has always been easy, in all the societies, to charge any group with betrayal if it has dared to question the status quo of privileges and disadvantages. Non-conformity of the marginalised and the disadvantaged has always been equated with disloyalty. If a group is not subordinated to power, its very existence is first over-looked and then denied. The dominant- majoritarian group easily diverts mass discontent into nationalism inspired by fear of threats from the 'others'. The starting point, like in Ba'athist Iraq and contemporary USA, is to establish a "national security state" as an alternative to democracy.

Europe had tried to 'appease' fascism in an effort to 'tame' its militarism and extremism. It was hoped by many a democratic parties that cooperation with the fascists would rub off some democratic ideas on the latter. That the memories of that failure are an eye-opener is proved by the violent European opposition to an Austrian coalition sharing power with the remnants of fascism. That type of perception has yet to take roots in India. For very transitory spoils of office, even the communists and former socialists in India have closely shared in the governance with out and out fascists. It is clear that the pernicious doctrine of fascism did not die either after the European holocaust or the Gandhi assassination. If the new enemy in Europe is the immigrant, in India it continues to be the minority. At both the places, diatribe also continues to be against giving equal rights to 'them'.

A pompous self-importance is reflected in the assertions that 'we' gave rights to our minorities. Who are these 'we' that gave rights to 'them'? A Constitution, which provides for the rights of all the citizens, is given by "We, the people" to the people. The minorities are not outside a nation and it was not as if some in this nation graciously conferred some rights on the former. Ultimately, it is not the question of 'We' versus "They" in a plural society; it is the question of social and distributive justice in a liberal democracy. A Constitutional framework provides for accommodation of plural interests because national integration is considered a pre-requisite condition for social justice, economic progress and political democracy.


  1. Statements of Churchill, and subsequent statements of Israeli Prime Ministers are referred in Arundhati Roy's lecture at the Lannan Foundation, Santa Fe (New Mexico, USA), 18 September 2002.
  2. Albert Memmi, The Colonizer and the Colonized (Beacon, Boston 1995), p. 79.
  3. Edward Said, in his work Orientalism (1978) has explained why Western culture could not be comprehended without understanding its links with imperialism, with concentrations of power and knowledge. That comprehension would explain why the West sneers at the Orient and why it believes in the sub-humanity of the native Americans, the Afro-Americans, the black-Africans and the Arabs. Most traditions of cultural nationalism tend to become narrow because of their belief in the dogma that other traditions are inferior. They tend to forget that nothing is more difficult than looking into the mirror.
  4. Similarly, Binnas Toprak ("Samuel Huntington's Vision of the Future" in Journal of International Affairs, V.3, N.4, March 1996) has questioned the logic of treating imperial domination of some countries on the plea of a clash of civilisations: " The US involvement in the Gulf had the altruistic motive of defending a Western value, i.e., a nation's right to sovereignty, although even the most apolitical among the world's public knew that the US forces were there to defend oil interests. The French involvement in Algeria, the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt, and the Arab-Israeli wars are regarded as examples of conflict between the West and Islam… The similar contention that American reaction to Japanese investment is due to the difference between the two civilisations is outright absurd, especially since the Japanese seem to be interested only in exporting their goods rather their codes of civilisation…. (Further), the problem with Huntington's vision of civilisation is that he takes the 'us' within one civilisation to be homogeneous". In fact, there is a commonality of interests that cuts across the so-called civilisational boundaries. Ted Robert Gurr has describes Asian societies as homogenous with neglible minority proportions whereas the European societies are considered heterogenous. If aspects of 'minority discrimination' are overlooked then the way a majority is created is also overlooked. Perhaps that may explain much of the ethnic-cleansing in Rwanda-Burundi and Serbia (Ted Robert Gurr, Minorities At Risk: A Global View of Ethnopolitical Conflicts (USIP, Washington DC 1993).
  5. G.Ezorsky (Racism and Justice: The Case For Affirmative Action, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991) has exploded the myth that for a colour-blind society, colour-blind policies are needed. He explains that colour-blind policies (or secularist policies of the Indian brand) put minorities at a disadvantage :" All else being equal, colour-blind seniority systems tend to protect White workers against job- layoffs, because senior employees are usually White; and, likewise, colour-blind college admissions favour White students because of their educational advantages. As in the Constitution of India, pre-existing inequalities first need to be corrected before social injustice is sought to be corrected. As a U.s. study shows ( M. Bowler, "Women's Earning: An Overview", Monthly Labor Review, December 1999, pp 13-21) Black people continue to have twice unemployment rate of White people, twice the rate of infant mortality, and half the proportion of those who attend four years or more of college. And this is in spite of affirmative action.
  6. Lippi-Green ( English With An Accent, Routledge 1997) has pointed out that the myth of the function of language is to rationalise existing social order. It is possible, for those in power or on a higher social hierarchical scale, to stigmatise others for their colloquilised language. A group can be ostracised on the basis of linguistic impurity though the real reason--- which may be politically incorrect to acknowledge--- would be its caste, colour, gender, religious affiliation, social-economic status etc. No matter what their popular base and mass appeals, regional leaders would be spoken of as " the likes of…. And….", because 'they' cannot easily converse in the language that is used by 'us'.
  7. Even enlightened political leaders also suffer from the stereo-typed mindset of prejudices against the socially deprived. A former Chief Minister of a large Indian state, who was otherwise credited with several Human Development Initiatives, said about a tribal people that state projects to provide them with education did not have impact on their 'criminal instincts' ( The Telegraph, Calcutta 31 July 1998).
  8. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (Verso: London, 1991); Dru C. Gladney, Making Majorities (Stanford, 1998); John Grey, Post Liberalism: Studies in Political Thought (Routledge: New York, 1993).


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