Chapter 1. Composite Culture and Multicultural Society – Composite Culture in a Multicultural Society


Composite Culture and Multicultural Society1

Bhikhu Parekh

Multicultural societies confront us with a paradox: no society can be held together for long without a broadly shared culture, but by definition multicultural societies do not seem to have one. We therefore either give up on them or find ways of resolving the paradox. In this essay I explore the latter. I argue that multicultural societies need and, under propitious conditions, tend to throw up a ‘composite culture’. I begin with a brief discussion of the specificity of modern multicultural societies, and go on to outline the nature and logic of a composite culture.

Multicultural Society

Culture refers to a shared system of meaning in terms of which people understand themselves and the world and organize their individual and collective lives. It includes views about the nature of the self, its relations to others, man’s place in the world, the meaning and significance of human activities, relations and the human life in general, moral values and ideals, etc., and provides a framework, an intellectual and moral compass, in terms of which human beings navigate their way through life. A society’s culture is embodied in its beliefs, practices, rituals, literature, moral vocabulary, proverbs, jokes, sense of humour, body language, and ways of organizing different areas of life.

A multicultural society is one with a plurality of cultures. It can take two forms. Cultures might be embedded in the lives of relevant communities, and such a society has a plurality of well-defined cultural communities; or its members might be drawn to different bodies of ideas and subscribe to them in different degrees without forming distinct communities. In either case, members of a multicultural society are not all agreed on common ways of understanding and organizing their lives.

Except perhaps the most primitive, every society includes diversity, and not all its members hold identical views on all areas of life. This raises the question whether every society should be called multicultural, and what, if anything, is distinctive about those we call multicultural societies. In a culturally homogeneous society its members share a common system of meaning and significance. Despite their differences on this or that subject, they share a common vision of human life, articulate it in terms of a shared conceptual vocabulary, and organize it on the basis of common principles. The disagreements between them are limited, and they know where and why they disagree and how to explain and come to terms with their differences. Members of a liberal society, for example, disagree about forms of marriage, ways of arranging their personal and familial lives, etc., but they are agreed on the importance of individual liberty and see their differences as expressions of individual choices.

In the case of the multicultural society, different groups of people do not share a common vision, conceptual vocabulary and organizing principles. Their structure of beliefs and practices vary, and so do their values, literature, historical memories, etc., in which their cultures are articulated. They may and generally do agree on a number of things, but they also disagree on many others, and their agreements are often embedded in different views of life. Since cultural communities are generally conscious of their boundaries and know who does and does not belong to them, their differences acquire a degree of importance in their own and others’ eyes that intracultural differences do not. When members of a society subscribe to different organizing principles and moral vocabularies and understand and disagree about significant areas of life, the society concerned is multicultural. Since the extent, depth and basis of cultural differences vary, no two multicultural societies are alike.

At one level, the multicultural society is not new to our age. Many pre-modern societies too included different cultural communities or currents of thought, and disagreed on how to arrange their individual and collective lives. At another level, contemporary multicultural societies are unique. Pre-modern societies were constituted on the basis of a particular vision of the good life, and confined differences to the margins. Minority communities led self-contained lives, had limited interactions with other communities, accepted their subordinate status, and did not participate in the conduct of their collective life. For a variety of reasons, this is not the case today.

The modern industrialized economy makes it almost impossible for different communities to lead self-contained lives. Thanks to the spread of liberal ideas, they demand equality of treatment, and feel that their integrity is violated when they are required to live by values they do not share. The logic of democracy requires that they share a common life, participate in the conduct of collective affairs, and agree on a broadly shared body of moral and political principles. Historical experiences too have played an important part in shaping the contemporary attitude to cultural differences. The Holocaust and the various genocides of the twentieth century have brought home to us the disastrous consequences of intolerance and suppression of diversity. It is also widely recognized that determined minorities cannot be repressed for long. Even Stalin failed to crush them, as did many of the communist countries.

Contemporary multicultural societies, then, are unique in their historical context and ethos. Cultural communities demand freedom of self-expression and resist the dominant community’s attempt to impose its norms on them. The term ‘multi’ has an oppositional significance, and is intended to imply that human life can be understood and lived in several more or less similarly legitimate ways. Cultural communities also seek equality, as is evident in their demands for equal respect and recognition. They do not want to remain confined to the margins of society and seek to participate as equals in the conduct of collective affairs. Since the negative images sent out by the dominant culture damages their self-respect, they critically engage with it and seek to change it. In these and other ways, they turn the liberal ideas of equality, respect for identity, etc., against the liberal society itself, and seek to pluralize it by carving out a respectable place for themselves.

Contemporary multicultural societies should not be confused with what Furnivall2 and other earlier writers called ‘plural societies’. And nor should multiculturalism be equated with, or seen as, another version of the old idea of cultural pluralism. Plural societies and cultural pluralism emphasized the plurality but not the equality of cultures, were concerned with the peaceful coexistence of more or less self-contained cultures rather than their equal participation in the conduct of their collective affairs, and had little interest in mounting a critique of, and radically transforming, the dominant culture.

Conditions of Success

No society can be held together for long unless its members develop a sense of community, of being bound to each other by the ties of a common interest and affection. They are expected to pay taxes that benefit others, to subordinate their personal interests to those of others, to defer their demands in favour of the more urgent ones of others, and to die for their country. They are expected to own and accept responsibility for the actions that their government takes in their name and their interest. They entertain certain expectations of each other, such as that they will obey the laws, pay their taxes, observe moral norms, discharge their share of the burden of collective life, and will not be free riders. They assume that however deep their differences and disagreements, no group among them would do anything to undermine the unity and integrity of their community. All this requires mutual trust, a sense of mutual concern and common belonging.

Historically speaking, almost all societies have depended on the unity of race, religion, ethnicity or culture to foster a common sense of belonging. Although the nation-state is relatively new in history and goes back no further than the nineteenth century, it too has depended on such a pre-political unity to hold itself together. This is by definition not possible in a multicultural society. Some argue that such a society is inherently unstable and should be broken up along cultural lines. Reasoning on the same basis, others argue that it should vigorously assimilate its diverse cultural communities and reconstitute itself as a nation-state. Since neither is practicable or desirable, and since multicultural societies are here to stay, we need to explore an alternative basis of holding them together and fostering a sense of community.

A multicultural society has the best chance of holding itself together long enough to foster a common sense of belonging under certain conditions, of which the following are some of the most important. Unlike the earlier plural societies which could flourish under an empire, modern multicultural societies need a constitutional democracy. Democracy gives its citizens a share in the conduct of collective affairs and a sense of dignity and empowerment. Everyone counts, is valued, and enjoys a basic equality with others irrespective of all their differences and inequalities. A democratic society allows open expressions of discontent and prevents it from festering unnoticed until it reaches a point of explosion. It enables its citizens to put pressure on the government to redress injustices and to throw out the government when it fails to do so or misuses its power. Democracy also requires political parties to form cross-cultural alliances and devise programmes that appeal to all communities. In these and other ways, democracy legitimizes the government in the eyes of all its communities and makes it easier to secure their uncoerced compliance. Even those who do not get their way know that they have been heard and that they are free to continue to change public opinion.

Democracy is open to the danger of majority rule, and the latter takes a particularly ugly and unacceptable form when one community is in a majority and always acts in a cohesive manner. There are two ways of guarding against this. Democracy should be embedded in and checked by a constitutionally guaranteed system of equal rights and liberties. This ensures that whatever the form and composition of the government, certain basic rights and liberties of the citizens will not be affected. It also restricts the range of options open to the government, and ensures that it can be counted upon not to cross certain limits. Second, in a multicultural society, the state plays a crucial role. It is one institution that all its citizens share in common. Its legitimacy in the eyes of all its citizens is a vital collective capital, and nothing should be done to compromise it. Its legitimacy depends, among other things, on its impartiality. The state’s constitutive institutions, such as the police, the armed forces, the civil service and the judiciary, should be subject to a clearly laid down framework of rules. If they were to systematically favour one community over another, those discriminated against would lose faith in the state and either feel alienated from it or take the law in their own hands. Discrimination at the hands of the state conveys to the victims that they are second-class citizens, count for little and do not merit equal treatment. The constitution gives them equal rights, but the state undermines them in practice, and the resulting contradiction is particularly difficult to live with. It is of utmost importance in a multicultural society that laws should explicitly ban all forms of discrimination and place their enforcement in the charge of an impartial and effective body to which all communities enjoy full access.

Democracy cannot be sustained by atomized and mutually indifferent individuals. It presupposes that the majority and the minority are fluid and little more than numerical categories, and that both are bound by ties of common commitment and fellow feeling. These ties ensure that the majority will not misuse its power to oppress the minority and the minority is prepared to accept its rule. The situation in turn requires a flourishing civil society where citizens get to know each other, forge the ties of common interest, cultivate the habits of working together for common causes, and build up mutual trust. There is no stable democracy that does not have a vibrant civil society. National integration is forged out of civic integration and all forms of patriotism have local roots. It is therefore vital to build up intercultural bonds at the local level through neighbourhood associations, integrated schools and colleges, sports clubs, trade unions, local branches of national political parties, charitable associations, chambers of commerce and interfaith networks. These associations bring together different communities in the pursuit of common interests and foster a sense of community. Civic authorities too can do much to develop a strong sense of civic identity that transcends ethnic and cultural differences and forms the building block of the larger sense of national identity.

Composite Culture

Formal legal and political institutions of the state provide a framework within which members of a multicultural society can carry on their activities in an orderly manner. They facilitate but cannot by themselves create a common sense of belonging. They are too abstract and distant to evoke the emotional attachment that every society, especially the multicultural, requires to bind its members together in a reasonably cohesive whole. It is particularly important in times of crisis, when acute conflicts of interest threaten social stability and deeper bonds are needed, to exercise a moderating influence. Furthermore, formal institutions cannot provide a shared moral and cultural vocabulary that members of a society need in order to conduct their common affairs and to carry on their countless formal and informal interactions.

Society, then, cannot be held together by the state alone. It needs, among other things, a common culture. This is where much confusion arises. It is often argued that society needs a singular, unified and homogeneous culture, an idea that lies at the basis of the nation-state. Since such a culture is not available in a multicultural society, the latter evokes despair. The mistake consists in failing to appreciate that a shared culture need not be unified and homogeneous: it could be composite, internally diversified and multiculturally constituted. It is born out of interaction between the different cultural communities that compose a multicultural society and carries the traces of them all. Unlike the homogeneous and allegedly pre-political culture presupposed by the nation-state, such a culture is not given but created, and requires certain propitious conditions. Although it is not easy to theorize or even describe, shared culture is a common feature of many successful multicultural societies.3

Every society has a dominant culture, which is embodied in its major institutions and the beliefs and practices of its members. As new cultural communities appear because of the choices of its members, immigration or the cultural self-assertion by the marginalized groups, the society needs to accommodate them and suitably open itself up. Some of these communities might wish to assimilate into the dominant culture, and they should be free to do so. Others might not. Their forcible assimilation provokes resistance and does not work in the short and even the long run. It violates some of the basic values of liberal society, and is also unwise because cultures benefit greatly from a dialogue with each other. The only prudent and morally acceptable course of action is to give minority communities space for self-expression, encourage a dialogue with and among them, and develop conditions to eventually create a culture which can be embraced by all with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

As members of a multicultural society engage in formal and informal relations in the normal course of life, they come up against each other’s differences. Guided by curiosity, the need to understand each other better, the pursuit of common purposes and the compulsions of common interest, they seek to make sense of each other. They take interest in the other’s beliefs and practices and inquire into their meaning and rationale.

The response could take several forms. Members of one community might find some of the beliefs and practices of other communities morally or otherwise unacceptable. They might see the point of some others that had earlier seemed bizarre, and learn to accept and live with them. They might find yet others different but interesting and experiment with them. Over time, these beliefs and practices may lose their foreign provenance and, unbeknown to members of the community, take roots in their ways of thought and life. These members might positively like some others, consciously integrate them with their own beliefs and practices, and generate new ones. This process of cultural interaction is not confined to ordinary men and women. The creative minds of society are stimulated by cultural diversity, draw on the ideas and sensibilities of different cultural traditions, bounce them off against each other, break down their boundaries, and generate something wholly new.

Intercultural interaction has several important consequences. First, it influences the individual’s attitude to his own culture. He comes to see its contingency: that it could have been, and can be, different. He appreciates that others cannot be convinced that his culture is the best even if he is himself convinced of it, and that his belief has no objective basis. Even when he is convinced that all other cultures are misguided, he cannot establish this to their satisfaction and learns to live with them in a spirit of tolerance. In these and other ways, cultural interaction breaks the illusion that culture is fate, a predicament, or what Amartya Sen4 calls destiny. Such interaction plants self-doubt and creates a vitally necessary internal space for a relatively open-minded dialogue with others.

Second, in situations of constant interaction and living together, it is most unlikely that cultures will remain deaf to each other and that some elements of others will not consciously or unconsciously rub off on them. Interaction weakens cultural boundaries, ideas and practices flow easily across them, and the sharp distinction between what is one’s own and what is foreign becomes blurred. Unless it is dogmatic and totally closed, every culture is also likely to find something appealing in others and to borrow it. For these and other reasons each contains elements of the others, and uses them to prise open their otherwise obscure or incomprehensible aspects. Over time, they internalize bits of each other, develop overlapping features and come closer.

Third, and for our purpose most important, cultural interaction involves contestation and mutual interrogation. The settled beliefs and assumptions of each culture are questioned, including and especially those of the dominant culture. Different cultures approach it from different points of view, stretch it to create spaces for themselves, infuse it with new ideas and sensibilities, and pave the way for a more hospitable composite culture. In the initial stages, the dominant culture carries within it deposits of other cultures, gives them collective legitimacy and accepts them as its integral part. These influences do not however remain passive, and over time interact with, reconfigure and transform it. The resulting culture is necessarily eclectic, constantly in the making, somewhat fuzzy and heterogeneous, but not without shape and identity. It is not a fusion of different cultures, for they do not lose their separateness; not their grand synthesis, for it is loosely structured and heterogeneous; and not even their lowest common denominator, for it might include not only the beliefs they share but also others drawn from different cultures. Rather, it is a loosely related and relatively fluid body of beliefs and practices that has emerged out of the friendly and confrontational interaction between different cultural communities and enjoys a broad cross-cultural consensus. It provides a common pool of ideas which they broadly share and in terms of which they structure their relations and collective life.

Some examples will illustrate the point. Britain’s literary culture was once homogeneous and more or less unitary. In the past few decades, Indian and Afro-Caribbean literature, written in different genres and breaking through the established literary norms, have struggled to find a respectable place in it and are now accepted as an integral part of it. These writings do not passively co-exist with the mainstream literary culture. Rather, they interact with and influence each other and are beginning to create a new literary culture based on, but going beyond, its predecessor. This culture is heterogeneous, plural, capacious, more open and less easily definable than the earlier one. It has a wider range of resources and permits a wider variety of experiments. Although different writers draw on different elements of it, they operate within a common framework.

This is also true of contemporary Britain’s musical and culinary cultures. The former has been profoundly influenced by Afro-Caribbeans and to a lesser extent by Indians, with the result that no account of it is complete unless it includes classical European music, the sitar, jazz and rap. Similarly, any adequate account of Britain’s culinary culture would need to include the traditional as well as the South Asian and Chinese cuisines. As in the case of Britain’s literary culture, South Asian and Chinese communities accept the culinary contributions of other cultures as part of their heterogeneous and plural identity.5

Composite culture plays a vital part in fostering a common sense of belonging. It provides a broadly shared body of beliefs and practices in terms of which its members define and conduct their relations. It lacks the internal unity of a homogeneous culture, but that is its strength in a multicultural society. It allows diversity of utterances while ensuring that they remain mutually intelligible.

Composite culture also provides a wide range of common sources of enjoyment and shared interests. Since it includes the contributions of different cultures, it is also an object of individual and collective pride, the former because every cultural community can see something of itself in it, the latter because it is the community’s collective achievement. The pride in one’s culture goes hand in hand with, and is inescapable from, that in the shared culture. What is more, one’s culture is not the only source of one’s identity, for the shared culture also enjoys that status. Indeed, there is a constant interaction between the two identities, each shaping and being shaped by the other, and in the process coming closer.

This culture has a logic different from that of homogeneous culture which underpins the nation-state. Homogeneous culture is suspicious of, and feels threatened by, cultural diversity, because the latter fragments or dilutes it and competes with it for the allegiance of its members. Homogeneous national culture therefore seeks to assimilate other cultures or confines them to the private realm. In contrast, composite culture cherishes and welcomes cultural diversity. The more the different cultures flourish and interact, the greater is their contribution to their shared culture. The relation between the composite culture and other cultures is one of complementarity, interdependence and mutual enrichment, not of hostility and rivalry.

The emergence of a composite culture requires that different cultural communities should interact freely and as equals. They should not ghettoize themselves and avoid contact with others. Communities might do so for a variety of reasons: they might feel threatened and under siege because of the assimilationist pressure of the dominant culture. An open and welcoming multicultural society is the best way to discourage this perception. Or they might suffer from economic and other disadvantages and lead parallel and self-contained lives that cut them off from the mainstream. A well-considered public policy should address these disadvantages and find ways of integrating marginalized groups. Some cultural communities might be self-righteous, convinced that their way of life is the best and should not be contaminated by contact with others. There is no easy way to deal with them. Closer residential, workplace and civic contacts with others could open their minds to moral plurality and weaken their sense of certainty. The vibrant and questioning ethos of the wider multicultural society should also help. Schools too play a significant role in exposing their children to the riches of other cultures. All this takes time and requires patience and persuasion. Badgering, attacking or aggressively remoulding the community concerned only reinforces its isolation or sense of victimhood.

Since composite culture is vital to the stability and success of the multicultural society, public institutions have a duty to create the necessary conditions. Cultural communities cannot interact as equals unless they enjoy more or less equal power, access to the requisite resources, possess sufficient self-confidence, feel valued and empowered, can count on being heard, and so on. The government has a duty to tackle their economic, social and other disadvantages and draw them out of themselves. It should also encourage and resource intercultural projects, support multicultural artistic, literary and other events, ensure public space to marginalized cultures, and give tax exemptions to organizations and activities devoted to intercultural causes. Since governments cannot be trusted in cultural matters and since the composite culture cannot be officially engineered, government support should be indirect, non-interfering and channelled through independent or autonomous agencies run by those with requisite commitment, competence and sensitivity. Composite culture is also facilitated by, and requires, multicultural education. The latter ensures that children grow up viewing different cultures as their common heritage, feeling at ease with them and acquiring intercultural literacy. In so doing, they both imbibe the composite culture and acquire the skill to contribute to it.

Not all cultural communities contribute equally to the creation of a composite culture. Much depends on their political and economic power, number, self-confidence, cultural resources and ability to relate to the needs and circumstances of the wider society. The long-established culture, which is often inscribed in the society’s major institutions, obviously exercises an enormous influence. Composite culture grows out of a critical dialogue with it and inescapably retains large parts of it. As long as structural inequalities between different communities persist, those at the top will exercise disproportionate cultural power. A genuinely composite culture cannot emerge unless these inequalities are reduced. Although political and economic power are important, they are not always decisive in cultural matters. The Afro-Caribbeans in Britain wield little economic power, but that has not prevented them from exercising a powerful and disproportionate influence on popular youth culture. Despite their greater economic power, Asians have until recently made relatively little impact, largely because they lacked the Afro-Caribbean self-confidence, cultural creativity and ability to understand and connect with the cultural mainstream. As mentioned earlier, things are beginning to change, and their food, music and literature are now part of the British national culture.

A composite culture tends to emerge in some areas of life more easily than in others. Music, dress, the arts, cuisine and literature are generally most hospitable to it. Although more resistant to change, ideas and practices cross boundaries in religion and morality too. Gender equality and human rights, for example, are increasingly becoming part of the migrant cultures in the West. And this is so not just because of social and political pressure, but also because these communities see the point of these values and feel their pull. The hitherto unfamiliar British practices of embracing and hugging each other, showing emotions in public, collective singing and dancing in Church worship, calling on the bereaved and sharing their grief, rather than merely sending flowers and cards, etc., are at least partly due to the cultural influences of the ethnic minority. There is also a good deal of formal and informal interaction across religious boundaries, as is evident in interfaith dialogues and multireligious worship on important public occasions. As a result all religions are beginning to acquire overlapping features, and are giving rise to a highly complex and composite religious ethos and culture.

Composite Culture in India

India offers one of the best examples of a composite culture.6 This is obvious in its cuisine, music, films, dress and the arts, all of which are the products of centuries of interaction among its different communities. Take its cinematic or film culture. Its directors, producers, actors, actresses, script and song writers, musicians, imageries, themes and locations are all drawn from different religious, regional, ethnic and linguistic groups, and they have collectively created a culture in which each of these groups sees something of itself and which resonates with most Indians. Not all of them identify with all aspects of it, and some even feel alienated from some of its aspects. Yet they all appreciate enough of it to understand it, talk about it, judge its products, and know where and why they disagree and how they would like to see it changed. The Indian cinematic culture represents a composite world of ideas that Indians have collectively created, and in which they daily and in their millions renew their multicultural bonds.

The composite culture in India is not limited to particular areas, but covers almost the entire range of human life. What is called Indian culture is not unitary and homogeneous but is a composite culture. It is a work of many hands and contains within it a large range of unhomogenizable diversity. It includes the contributions of the Hindu culture, itself a composite product of the classical Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and other influences, as well as those of Islam, Christianity and secular modernity. These interacting strands of thought, sometimes in tension and sometimes in harmony, have created over time a highly complex and multi-stranded culture within the framework of which different groups of Indians lead their lives.

Most Indians, be a Hindu, a Muslim, a Christian or anyone else, can hardly speak for five minutes without resorting to their Sanskritderived local language, Urdu and bits of English. Their mode of thinking too is multi-conceptual: they draw on the Hindu heritage in some areas of life such as moral and social relations, Muslim heritage in music and romantic love, their secular and western heritage when dealing with civil, economic and political matters, and to a lesser extent Christian heritage in matters involving social service, concern for the poor and non-violence. Sometimes they even draw on all of these heritages in dealing with a particular area of life, as in the interior décor of the house and in architecture.

This composite culture is the collective creation of the major Indian communities. It has no single source or owner, and that is its strength. All Indians see something of themselves in it, some no doubt more than others, and feel uninhibited in embracing it. This is not to say that there are no tensions and disagreements. Some groups of Hindus feel uneasy about the Muslim and Christian elements—just as some groups of Muslims feel this way about the Hindu elements—of their shared culture. The unease, however, is limited in its depth and extent, at least at present, and has not threatened the ways of life and thought of the various communities which have been woven into the composite Indian culture.

The shared culture provides the framework and a vocabulary in terms of which Indians converse with each other. Like all composite cultures, the Indian culture leaves ample space for plurality, and different communities take full advantage of it. Their differences spring from two sources. First, they have their own separate but overlapping religious, regional, and linguistic cultures which are respected by, and interact with, their shared culture. Second, depending on their local cultural roots and biographies, Indians draw on different aspects of their shared culture and interpret and relate these differently. Although they speak a common cultural language, they speak it in different accents and use its resources to compose different but mutually intelligible utterances. With all its limitations, India’s composite culture provides a valuable framework within which its people can explore and enjoy their commonalities and cherish and delight in their differences.

The influence of the composite culture in shaping the self-understanding of different communities should not be underestimated. The Indian Muslim views his religion differently to the way his Saudi Arabian or even Pakistani counterpart does. He values it, even thinks it the best, and yet he is generally not only tolerant but respectful of others. As many commentators have observed, among the Muslim migrants to Europe, those from India are often the least militant, most accommodating, hardly ever likely to be involved in terrorist activities or under police surveillance, and are by and large comfortable with secular modernity. In an affray involving Pakistanis and Indian Muslim migrants to Britain some years ago, the two communities hurled abuses at each other. The former accused the latter of being ‘impure’ or ‘Hindu Muslims’, that is, Muslims contaminated by India’s Hindu culture. The Indians rejoined that the Pakistani migrants were ‘fanatical’, ‘fundamentalist’ and ‘backward’! The openness of the Indian Muslims has highly complex origins, one of which is that they bring to their religion the pluralist sensibility derived from their Indian culture. This is also true of Indian Christians whose reading of their religion is less dogmatic and absolutist than that of their counterparts in some other societies.

Like other stable multicultural societies, India is held together and is able to foster some sense of common belonging among its citizens, not only because of its common legal and political institutions but also because of its composite culture, a salient but significant fact not fully appreciated in India and abroad. Its composite culture is not sufficiently inclusive and interactive, it has only a limited place for tribal cultures and has in recent years tended to marginalize the Muslim contribution. Rather than address these limitations, influential groups of Hindus want to homogenize it and purge it of what they take to be its ‘alien’ elements. Such a step would delegitimize, marginalize and alienate large groups of Indians and threaten the country’s stability. It would also impoverish Indian culture and disable Indians from developing a coherent view of their history. Above all, it would deprive them of a common language to communicate with each other and formulate and resolve their differences.


I have argued here that multicultural societies of the contemporary kind are new in history. We do not have a tradition of discourse or a body of experiences to draw upon, and need to find our own ways of coping with them. I have suggested that equal citizenship, impartial institutions of the state, a vibrant civil society, respect for cultural identity, a composite culture, etc., are particularly important in holding them together and fostering a common sense of belonging among their members.

Holding different communities together in a multicultural society requires considerable political skill and sensitivity. Some of its communities might not feel part of the society even when they have no good grounds for feeling alienated. Those that once did feel part of the society might become alienated for no obvious reasons. And conflicts of cultural identity might spring up in unexpected contexts and take intractable forms. Not surprisingly, every multicultural society is strongly tempted by the illusion that it would solve its problems if it could only organize itself as a cohesive nation-state based on a unitary and homogeneous culture. Unless modern societies outgrow their nostalgic romance with the nation-state, with all its bloody history of internal oppression and external wars, they have no future.