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J Veeraraghavan
Director, Bhartiya Vidya Bhawan, New Delhi

Through most of 19th and 20th centuries, the dominant paradigm in western societies was that citizens of foreign origin and their children, (who are born “National citizens”) must assimilate themselves and adopt the ways and values of the dominant culture of the society. In a striking way the concept of the “Melting Pot” in the United States exemplified this paradigm, as USA had not only the largest number of immigrants but also from a wide diversity of cultural origin.

However, towards the closing decades of the 20th century and the beginning decade of the 21st century, there was a large scale shift towards the paradigm of cultural pluralism. UNESCO’s thinking and its Education Report to which Dr Karan Singh had made a significant contribution emphasized the importance of using education to promote the values of living together, which implied understanding, tolerance and respect for different faiths and values, the ideal of cultural pluralism.

But of late there is a reaction against this paradigm. Faced with alienation and terrorism of certain sections within their own society the Chancellor of Germany had declared sometimes ago that cultural pluralism had failed and one must go back to promoting the core values of European civilization. The present British Prime Minister expressed similar views. No matter how tolerant and respectful one is for differing life styles and values, the argument is that you should subscribe and act according to the core cultural values of the society you live in. This implies that cultural pluralism has its limits and should not be allowed to subvert history, tradition and constitutional values and culture of a society. Respect for minority rights and cultures require that minorities respect cultural values of the society they live in.

This means that dissent should have its limits. But the question is who will define these limits and how will this be imposed? An example from the field of politics will show that “pluralism” rather than “core values” will succeed in the long-run. One should not get impatient with violence, terrorism, hatred spewed by some groups and abandon cultural and religious pluralism in haste.

The example I refer to is the debate in the Western societies as to whether communist parties could be allowed to exist legally and fight democratic elections. It used to be argued that since they do not believe in democratic elections, they should not be allowed to fight elections just as you will not allow a team to play a game, unless it subscribes to the rules of the game.

What if, it was asked, the communist party won in a democratic manner and then abolished democracy itself’?

However, experience shows that the democratic ideal of allowing all parties to function, including those who oppose democracy has paid off in the long-run and the communist parties are no longer virulent and violent promoters of revolutions as they once were.

But one could point out that with the Naxalite terrorist’s democracy does not work. Here again it is only democratic tolerance and patience that can be expected to bring them back to the art and practice of learning to live together. There is no other long-term alternative, unless one believes in “exterminating” the wrong doers and wrong thinkers.

In other words, there is no option in politics to democratic pluralism. Similarly, there is no option in the practice and propagation of religions, to religions and cultural pluralism, which implies right to follow one’s own religious ways and even lack of any religious way.

It is our faith in people that allows us to permit all kinds of values even though some lead to violence and hatred and poses problems for law and order. It is our faith that people will reject violence and hatred and however misguided, will sooner or later return to civilized ways. Impatient strong administrators as well as charismatic political leaders who see opportunities for counter mobilization against violence will not accept this view. But political statesmen understand that the alternative to democratic pluralism is one of constant struggle, violence and counter violence.

Democratic and religious pluralism as well as certain limits thereto are in accordance with the charter of human rights. This is well brought out by Bingham in his book, Rule of Law, where he quotes the Human Rights Act UK (1998) which gives effect to the European Convention on Human Rights. He specifically cites article 9 of the convention of Freedom of Thought Conscience and Religion which includes the freedom to change one’s religion or belief and also the right to manifest that religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance. But the Convention also provides under Article 82 that such freedom is subject to “community exception”. According to Lord Bingham when you put your belief into practice in a way that impinges on others, limits may be imposed, if prescribed by law and necessary for democratic society and directed to one ‘of the specific purposes (national security, public safety, economic wellbeing of the country, prevention of disorder or crime, protection of health or moral or the protection of freedom of others)”.

It is not so much by law, however necessary, but by deeper reflection and education through various religious leaders and institutions that one can secure freedom of religious faith as well as interfaith harmony. All religions and faiths teach compassion, performance of one’s duties and simplicity in life. But there have always been individuals and sections of society who pursue goals of wealth, power and glory and have used “religious” faith in support of their indefensible actions. It is the inability of religions to prevent use of religion for secular material goals (of wealth, glory and power) to which they are fundamentally opposed that has created doubts about cultural and religious pluralism.

If religious freedom and faith have to be fostered, (that is, what we mean by religious pluralism), it is the duty of all religions to examine why their adherents have fallen prey to the materialist goals of the 20th  and 21st centuries and subverted the basic values of simple living, honesty and compassion and why their adherents are so keen to kill and terrorize other human beings; why they accumulate wealth by fraudulent means; why they are so keen to adopt ways of life that destroy the environment and poison the very Earth, air and water which our children need for healthy living.

It is for every religion to examine why faith is so weak and how it can be deepened? And if every religion looks deep within itself, it will find respect for all human beings, all living things and nature itself as reflection of God at the root of all faiths. Instead of a shift in cultural and religious pluralism, what we need is a deepening of cultural and religious values in our society and a turning away from the excesses of materialistic paradigms of the 20th century.

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