ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Multiculturalism as Ideological Mantra

Multiculturalism, Liberalism and Democracy edited by Rajeev Bhargava, Amiya Kumar Bagchi, R Sudarshan; Oxford University Press, 1999; Rs 595, pp 433 (hard bound).

Multiculturalism has become an indispensable starting point for scholars trying to problematise the question of nationalism, stability, equality, social justice and democracy. The study of multiculturalism has acquired pre-eminence broadly in the following context. First, this category has become important in the context when certain Marxist categories are considered irrelevant for understanding changing reality at the national and international levels. Secondly, even categories that belong to the liberal framework are considered inadequate for grasping this reality. Thus an emphasis on democracy, citizenship and rights has become important for understanding an ever fragmenting social reality and has also given rise to the discourse on dissent and difference. Constant transnational migration has contributed to this fragmentation of social reality. Third, in the Indian context, indeed even in global context, the attempt by dominant groups to homogenise different socio-cultural sub-groups has led scholars to focus on communitarianism and multiculturalism. It is in this context that this book edited by three distinguished scholars is a response.

The introduction by Rajeev Bhargava is unusual for three interrelated reasons. Firstly, Bhargava introduces the papers of different scholars by offering a theoretical canvas that helps to familiarise the reader with the contributions in the volume. Bhargava’s critique of communitarian logic is close to Akeel Bilgrami’s and Javed Alam’s. Quite correctly, he warns readers that if the communities are left to some communitarians they might turn authoritarian, an important warning in the face of the recent attack on Asgar Ali Engineer by the Bohra community leaders or the VHP, Bajarang Dal and the RSS attempts to police the cultural life of Hindus. Javed too criticises the communitarian logic on the ground that it lacks egalitarian motivation. Akeel Bilgrami’s criticism operates at a different level, because communities may not have an internal reason and hence will have to negotiate with the help of an external reason, e g, the moral state. Given the reactionary nature of the civil society, Bilgrami’s argument appears to be much broader than Partha Chatterjee’s and perhaps M S S Pandian’s, both of whom would refuse to ascribe such responsibility to the state. Secondly, Bhargava registers a note of disagreement with many of the papers. For example, he takes up cudgels with Bilgrami on behalf of Rawls. The disagreement is precisely over the interpretation of political liberalism by Rawls. Bhargava argues that many interpretations, including Bilgrami’s might be mistaken because they fail to see the Rawlsian answer as a two-tiered doctrine with distinct justification apposite to each level. The Rawlsian answer, for Bhargava, involves four distinct moves. Its elaboration cannot be pursued here. Suffice it to say that Bhargava urges Bilgrami to take these four moves into consideration. Finally, the self-reflective introduction does not hesitate to show the limitations of the volume. In the introduction Bhargava says “If I were to single one important issue that has been inadequately discussed in this volume then surely it is the collective memory, the problem of confronting the past, a confrontation that goes beyond cerebral engagement” (p 52). Bhargava does not hesitate to mention the uncomfortable fact that societies remember their heroic deeds but supresses the memory of collective injustice. But, the question that is posed here, contrary to Hobbes, is whether complete dehistorisation possible. Victims are unable to forget injustices; to Bhargava victims of history need to forget just about as much as they need to remember. People who carry deep resentments and grievances against one another are hardly likely to build a society together.

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