The problem

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AN environment of increasing global turbulence – deepening recession in Europe, a veritable collapse of the banking-financial system in the United States, declining expectations of growth in the rest of the world, particularly China – is contributing to enhanced divisions in society, not only reopening old wounds but rekindling conflicts between cultures, religious, nations, ethnic groups, languages, castes and tribes, as also pitting people against the political class across the world. In many ways the situation is reminiscent of the post-recession inter-war years of the previous century.

A common response to these shifts in the political environment is populism – a phrase that accommodates a variety of political phenomenon but, at its core, almost always involves identifying an easy scapegoat as an explanation for all problems – be it immigrants in Europe (especially if Muslim or non-White), ‘others’ in general, or those in power. It is as if once they are exorcized, the world will once again be a better place.

Many analysts use the concept of ‘sectionalism’ to explain a tendency in current Indian politics to divide and appeal to voters on the basis of various cleavages: caste or community, gender, local, territorial, and interest groups. The reference is to initiatives and movements attempting to operate on a ‘sectional’ if not ‘sectarian’ basis, thereby tending to divide and mobilize ‘against’ targets whose selection is justified by reference to alleged negatives – corruption, unfair cornering of privileges or patronage. Unsurprisingly, these initiatives fail to construct real political unity; more disturbing, they often become part of the government or state agendas.

This tendency is not only Indian. Much the same can be seen in Europe. The result is a fragmentation of politics, as new political groups have emerged on the public stage, espousing limited objectives subserving sectional interests and weakening the impulses of liberal, democratic politics. Equally disturbing is the fact that larger and well-established parties, instead of promoting policies which could reconcile conflicting interests by winning support of a diversified electoral base, often fall prey to a similar tendency of promoting the part over the whole.

This similar experience in both the East and West points to a need for continuing engagement, debate and dialogue, both to better understand ongoing developments as also help and empower all those who value cultural pluralism, tolerance, coexistence, cooperation, dialogue and a coming together across cultural differences.

Europe, in the current conjuncture, faces new challenges to a unifying process that has been ongoing for decades. The economic recession, aging populations, a colossal sovereign debt, declining international competitiveness intensifying a search for low-cost labour and so on, exacerbates sectional tendencies and facilitates the emergence of populist nationalism marked by strains of ‘anti-politics’. Organizations and movements like the Five Star Movement and the Northern League in Italy, the Front National in France, the Alternative für Deutschland in Germany, the Ukip of Nigel Farage in Britain, to name a few, share some important characteristics: they not only target a pre-selected ‘other’ possibly because they reject the inclusive nature of liberal democracy, they pit sections of society against each other and, almost always, despite participation in electoral politics, favour ‘anti-political’/authoritarian solutions.

The more the European Union and the euro weaken, the less its citizens perceive themselves as European and feel narrowly national. Equally, those from the better-off countries become less accepting of their tax money being used to help and bail out member-countries of the EU facing greater difficulty, foregrounding not only ‘ethnic differences’ but also classifying peoples as lazy, parasitical and ‘non-virtuous’.

These pressures arising from the economic crisis have negative consequences of reopening/ reactivating old lines of cultural division, increasing both intra- and inter-groups tension and radicalizing atavistic identities, such that many even fear an end to the project of the European Union. In India too – also facing renewed challenges of economic slowdown, rising inflation and unemployment, and deepening inequality – we see similar tendencies. The challenge thus is not only to find new economic answers to the current crisis but also, simultaneously, evolve a fresh understanding of cultural differences, enhance our capacity to respond to community needs while integrating them in democratic life, encouraging reciprocal interest and defusing the threat of racism and xenophobia.

This issue of Seminar draws on an ongoing India-Europe dialogue on pluralism and secularism, understood broadly as freedom to express cultural, religious and other differences in public life. In exploring the sources of pluralism, from the classics of European liberalism to the writings and thought of the founding fathers of the Indian republic, keeping in mind for each group/culture/nation the Gandhian principle that a ‘self-respecting’ community is one which strives to remove its own imperfections instead of judging and targeting others, the effort is to contribute to a politics of tolerance and co-living. At a time in which the spirit of monism and ethnocentricity – from the more moderate to the fanatical – are on the rise, the expectation is that such a dialogue will help temper fanaticism and aid sanity.



* This issue of Seminar carries reflections and conversations made possible by the initiative of the Association Reset–Dialogues on Civilizations (, a non-profit organization based in Italy, which organized a conference in Venice, 18-20 October 2012, the second edition of the Venice-Delhi Seminars, on ‘Cultural differences in times of economic turbulence: Social tensions, cultural conflicts and policies of integration in Europe and India.’ The conference was organized in partnership with Seminar magazine, India Habitat Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia and Fondazione Giorgio Cini, which hosted the conference in Venice. The conference was held under the patronage of the University of Padua. Our thanks to the Nomis Foundation and its President Georg Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza for their support.

Participants at the conference included Stefano Allievi (Professor, University of Padova, Italy), Mani Shankar Aiyar (Member of Parliament, India, former Minister and Diplomat), Giuliano Amato (former Prime Minister of Italy, President of the Reset-Doc’s Scientific Committee), Rajeev Bhargava (Director, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi), Akeel Bilgrami (Professor of Philosophy, Columbia University, Faculty member of the Committee on Global Thought), Giancarlo Bosetti (Director, Reset and Reset-Dialogues on Civilizations), Nina zu Fürstenberg (President, Reset-Dialogues on Civilizations), Peter Ronald deSouza (Senior Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies and the Director of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla), Pasquale Gagliardi (Secretary General of the Giorgio Cini Foundation), Nilüfer Göle (Directeur d’études at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris), Renzo Guolo (Italian sociologist, Professor at the University of Padua), Dipankar Gupta (Senior Fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi), Najeeb Jung (Vice Chancellor, Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi), Sebastiano Maffettone (Professor in Political Philosophy and Dean of Political Science at LUISS University, Italy), Vincenzo Pace (Professor at the University of Padua, Director of the Department of Sociology and Intercultural Studies), Antonio Rigopoulos (Professor in Indian Philosophies and Religions, University of Venice), Olivier Roy (Professor of Social and Political Theory at the European University Institute in Florence), Federico Squarcini (Professor in Indian Philosophies and Religions, University of Venice), Georg Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza (Honorary President, Reset-Dialogues on Civilizations), Roberto Toscano (Former Italian Ambassador to India), Ananya Vajpeyi (Associate Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi, and Senior Fellow with the American Institute of Indian Studies), Michel Wieviorka (Professor at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales and President of the Fondation Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, Paris), Giuseppe Zaccaria (Rector, University of Padua).