Multiculturalism is not just a statement of fact, it is also a value. It cherishes cultural diversity and envisions a society in which different communities forge a common identity while retaining their cultural provenance. When modern democratic societies embrace multiculturalism they demonstrate a deeper and more profound egalitarian impulse within them than the mere presence of plural cultures. Multiculturalism acknowledges the existence of diverse communities, but what is more important is that it accords positive value to the collective identities of all ethnic communities. It pictures a society which is characterized not by multiple cultural solitudes or endemic cultural strife, but by communities living together and participating as equal partners in national political life.
As such, multiculturalism represents a new kind of universalism – one where integration of individuals into the state is not predicated on a total disengagement from particularistic community ties. Rather, people are included into the nation state as members of diverse but equal ethnic groups. And the state recognizes that the dignity of individuals is linked to the collective dignity of the community to which they belong.
This radical redefinition of a democratic polity makes multiculturalism a normative value that is applicable as much to the modern liberal democracies of the West as it is to modernizing polities like India. Contrary to the general expectation, community identities have not dissolved in market economies or liberal democracies. No society is so completely modern or homogenized that collective group identities cease to be of relevance to its members.
The democratic citizen remains simultaneously embedded in a variety of particularistic ties. To believe that he is a deracinated individual, unconstrained by previous loyalties and identities is to grossly misread the human condition. Given this reality, multiculturalism endeavours to initiate policies that allow citizens to maintain their cultural distinctiveness. It sustains cultural diversity and helps in the forward movement of societies by engendering a broad-based acquiescence which is not thwarted or prejudiced by religious or cultural intolerance.
If multiculturalism and democracy appear together in history then this coexistence is neither fortuitous or accidental. Only democracy can reach out and explore formats of interaction that presume equality and respect. It is this concern for equality that precludes the possibility of democracy being ever associated with majoritarianism – either of the political or cultural type. The dangers of political majoritarianism are by now widely accepted. They have become an assimilated ingredient in the metabolism of modern democracies. Multiculturalism adds to this awareness by sensitizing us to the dangers of cultural majoritarianism. In particular, it points to the way in which cultural majoritarianism disadvantages minorities, alienates them, enhances conflicts between communities and limits self-understanding.
Remedying minority discrimination does not involve an act of benevolence on the part of the majority towards the minority. What is needed instead are policies that ensure full and equal membership to all communities within the state. This may, at times, require special consideration or even collective rights for vulnerable minorities who have been the victims of forced assimilation or exclusion. Group rights may also be given to preserve the diverse minority cultures against homogenization by the nation state. They must not therefore be regarded as, or confused with, policies of appeasement and containment of minorities.
All forms of special consideration and group rights have nevertheless to be justified in a democracy. Since rights granted to communities may not only fulfil expressive identity needs but also their instrumental power needs, what rights are granted to whom and under what circumstances has to be carefully examined in each instance. Further, as some community rights clash with and restrict individual rights, it is equally necessary to see whether special rights for minorities guard against cultural majoritarianism or uphold existing structures of domination within the community.
In India multiculturalism came along with the inauguration of democracy. In this respect India is quite unique. While our Constitution, with great foresight, allowed for universal adult franchise, minority protection and positive discrimination for the historically deprived, India still has a long way to go. The constitutional emphasis on inter-group equality justified special consideration for segregated communities and minorities, but it left the agenda of intra-group equality unattended. Consequently, cultural community rights could be appropriated to protect structures of domination and patriarchy.
Besides, in the context of an underdeveloped economy where resources are few and the claims on them many, and from diverse quarters, collective identities are often mobilized for political and economic gains. This is why identities have taken on a very potent form in which the concerns of multiculturalism have been transformed into policies of appeasement and containment. Problems of this nature which have emerged in the context of economic unevenness and underdevelopment make it incumbent to be ever vigilant of special group rights that are either demanded or given under the banner of multiculturalism in India.
Confronted with challenges of this kind, it is necessary to remind ourselves what multiculturalism does and does not represent. First and foremost, multiculturalism is not just the acceptance of diversity and multiple solitudes without a common public agenda. Second, multiculturalism is neither a gift of liberal democracy nor an optional policy within a democracy. It is not as if a democracy can choose to be multicultural or not. Every democracy must necessarily be multicultural if the democratic and liberal temper in it is to survive. Far from being an option, multiculturalism actually gives democracy its health and vigour. Finally, multiculturalism is not only about inter-group relations but also informs relations within a community. Respect for other cultures is always premised on first respecting the individual citizen.