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Open spaces

Symbols painted on a mini bus in Rameswaram, Tamil Nadu

This is the 16th issue of Infochange Agenda. A little late in the day perhaps to be drawing our readers’ attention to the masthead. But in case you hadn’t noticed, the open-quotes so prominent on our masthead are intended to signify that each issue of this journal opens a space for dialogue on a particular topic.

The masthead might never be more appropriate to a subject than the one dealt with in this volume of Agenda, which explores the difficult questions raised by multiculturalism: Why are spaces for dialogue shrinking and primary identities -- of race, religion, language, nation -- hardening in a globalising world? What is it that is fuelling fundamentalism, making it so easy for fundamentalists to polarise opinion into either/or, us/them? Is intercultural dialogue the way to realise the power of multiculturalism? And how can we forge open spaces for intercultural dialogue?

The problem with multiculturalism could be, as Amartya Sen points out, that the age-old exhortation to "Love thy neighbour" was all very well when neighbours led more or less the same kind of lives. It’s quite different now, when loving your neighbour means loving the Indian family that lives next door to you in Montana, USA, and insists on drying fish and papads outside your front door. Or if, like Nicolas Sarkozy, you think that the burkha worn by the woman next door to you in Paris is “a sign of subjugation… of debasement” and worse, “not welcome on French territory”.

Difference -- or diversity -- has become a dominating feature of modern life. Wave after wave of immigrants have altered the ethnic and social composition of cities and whole countries. They were encouraged at first, then viewed with indifference, and now with downright hostility, as Lawrence Liang, an Indian of Chinese origin, wryly notes in these pages.

Cultural diversity has certainly piggybacked on globalisation. Globalisation was supposed to break down the restrictive barriers of nation-states and establish a democracy of cultures. Instead, Aseem Shrivastava argues, globalisation has led to the dominance of some -- mostly western -- cultures and the gradual erosion of others. This erosion can be dangerous, he says, for a spurned past persists and lives a furtive life, tormenting people with unnamed anxieties. These anxieties are what John Samuel terms “the sensex of alienation”.

Globalisation has a tendency to include those who have buying capacity, and exclude others who don’t, as Githa Hariharan says in her essay in this issue. The excluded have nothing but ethnic, linguistic and religious identities to prop themselves up with. That’s the main reason why globalisation accentuates cultural nationalism.

It is important to understand, however, that difference and cultural diversity are not by themselves problems. Wherever you look, people with radically different worldviews co-exist, renegotiating their relationships all the time, as Achal Prabhala points out in his article on one multicultural neighbourhood in Bangalore. The State and civil society look upon this neighbourhood as a communal tinderbox, a problem to be solved. In fact, says Prabhala, the Hindu fundamentalists and Muslim fundamentalists, the secularists and the anti-secularists are the problem. Because conflict is not an inevitable by-product of cultural differences. Sure, difference can erupt into conflict. But more often, difference is manipulated into conflict. It is this manufactured form of conflict that intercultural dialogue can defuse or deconstruct, as the residents of Ram-Rahim Nagar, an island of peace in turbulent Ahmedabad, and profiled in this issue, have proved.

Intercultural dialogue cannot change a fundamentalist’s mindset, says Anmol Vellani. The fundamentalist has a polarised view -- if you are not for them, you are against them -- and dialogue is only possible for people who are not so polarised. The fundamentalist will do everything possible to polarise opinion further, “so that the middle ground, where dialogue is possible, collapses”.

“If intercultural dialogue cannot change the fundamentalist’s mindset… what can it aim to do? It can try to ameliorate the impact of what fundamentalists do. One of its purposes, therefore, must be to strengthen the hand or augment the influence of the moderating voices in different societies, to help prevent the middle ground from shrinking further.”

This is an important part of what the Centre for Communication and Development Studies seeks to do -- through the virtual space for dialogue created on, the print journal Infochange Agenda, and Open Space, the civil society outreach programme that facilitates dialogue on identity, pluralism, diversity, rights and social justice in six Indian cities. As Jai Sen observes in the closing article in this edition, the creation, existence, nurturing, and protection of open spaces needs to be seen as the recovering and/or uncovering of our freedoms, our power-to, and our humanity. Open space is a symbol of what is possible, especially in these times of closing spaces. It is up to us to create them.  

Hanging together

Strategies for social cohesion

What the State can do:

  • Guarantee equality before the law and a strong human rights framework, including anti-discrimination measures. This benefits everyone. Human rights abuses must not be excused as “cultural”.
  • Get serious about tackling poverty: people facing cultural disadvantage are often poorer.
  • Fund interaction and mixed initiatives instead of particular religions and communities. Intercultural exchanges recognise that cultures are living, malleable and constantly changing.
  • Open up spaces for cultural literacy. No culture is perfect, and it’s unrealistic to ignore difference and hanker after perfect harmony. By encouraging critical dialogue and learning about the ‘Other’, boundaries can be crossed and new accommodations created.
  • Promote artistic endeavour widely. Artistic expression creates new cultural pathways.

What the individual can do:

  • Culture and society aren’t static. Grow with change rather than sticking to a cherished version of the past.
  • Prejudice is easy but it denies its objects a voice. A more open society needs individuals willing to listen and argue.
  • Recognise the multiple axes of identity -- personal preferences and beliefs, race, class, gender, sexuality. Engage with the individual rather than groupthink.
  • Culture is what you make of it; don’t let fundamentalists dictate otherwise. It’s up to you to decide how ‘traditional’ you want to be, create new hybrids, or profess no culture at all.
  • Bridges are built, they don’t just appear.

    -- From New Internationalist, May 2009

Infochange News & Features, August 2009