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For the French, “culture” is everything. It encompasses the language one speaks –French of course-; the food one eats-mildewed “blue” cheese; the wines one imbibes and the best of fashion. One Just has to compare the tres chic Christine Lagard-Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund with the practical, stodgy Mrs. Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, to visualize why France was so very different from the rest of Europe.
The idea of “one culture, one people” was peddled by France across its colonies, particularly in West and North Africa to create vast populations who, “in their heads”, were French, not African or Arab. Macaulay’s Minute (1835) did the same in India, except that British “Shepherd’s Pie and warm Beer doesn’t have quite the appeal as French cuisine. No surprise then that in a cruel twist of fate Asian “curry” is the favorite British dish today. This would not have been possible in France.
French culture is emotively attractive. English has to be bit into-like a tough roast- to speak it but one has to swim languorously into French to speak it well. Listen to the French song “je t’aime”; a duet written by Serge Gainsbourg and immortalized by the Goddess of sensuousness- Brigitte Bardot in 1967. Compare this with the somber notes of Don McLean’s “And I love you so” and you will feel the difference between the cold Anglo Saxons and the emotive French.
The French, including the French co-optees- are a warm and loving people with their heads full of wooly, socialist ideals of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. Of course all these ideals are bounded by a narrow regard for “French culture”. Take the case of dress codes. Muslims, who increasingly regard the “hijab” as an Islamic symbol, were not permitted to wear one in public. It is just as difficult to break through the French tradition of a large and inefficient public sector and taciturn trade unions- though we in India could give them a run for their money in this aspect.
Many nations, including the US and India, borrowed the ideals of the French Revolution 1789 but all applied them in a practical manner. Slogans like “we are all one World” sound great in a hippy hangout but are impossible to implement. End goals like Equality are just that. They define a glorious possibility but can never reflect the cruel, everyday reality of power hungry elites, patrimony and dissimilar endowments, as it exists everywhere in world.
The killings in Paris are being explained away as caused by religious, ethnic or economic cleavages. All of the above or any one of these could have been the immediate reason for the killings. But what they have laid bare is that the basic underlying assumption in France that one culture can laminate over all other cleavages is a lie.
A common culture is not enough of a glue to paper over the growing gaps between immigrants and insiders; white and the others; the Muslims (10% of the population) and the majority Christian faith; the educated and aspirational and the hopelessly poor and forgotten. Even Communist China has spectacularly failed in elevating the God of Communist Nationalism as a substitute for religion or ethnicity. This is despite the assistance of State machinery which is at its best in very heavy handed policing. But a Common Culture is surely anathema alongside a belief in Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.
Our deepest sympathies are of course with the French for what has come to pass to their beautiful country. But no Indian can resist the deep sense of relief that despite our poverty; our widespread illiteracy; our linguistic, ethnic, cultural and religious heterogeneity we as Indians have hung together fairly well in relative terms.
This is not to say that minority rights are well protected in India. Nor do we hold that India has done well by its marginalized populations. But for a relatively new State and a less developed economy with deep rooted traditional cleavages, it is a remarkable achievement that we are bound ever tighter by our non-traditional beliefs in democracy; equity in access to public opportunities and freedom of choice in all aspects of life.
India has weathered violence more extreme, that seen in France recently, despite it being directly as viciously and specifically at a particular sect; religion or ethnicity. The reasons why we have managed to do so are ironical.
First, a weak State can be an asset. Unlike France we were never able to become a “Nanny State”. Every Indian knows that if she or her extended family does not look after themselves no one else will step in-least of all the State. This lack of an efficient, impersonalized, State provided social protection is cruel for the poor. But the consequential, pervasive, economic pressure of constantly working to make two ends meet keeps us on our toes. The desperation to keep working reduces the availability of idle human fodder to perpetrate the kind of terror in Paris. The downside is the magnified roles local elites play in shaping opinion due to their economic and political clout.
Second, Indians happily accept that all 1240 million of us we are NOT one big happy family with a common culture. No Indian wants a common, Pan-Indian culture. Indians are used to living and working in an aggressively antagonistic, “non-localized environment”. The French in contrast are more molly coddled and less “internationalized” than us. 25% of Indians do not live in the place they were born and large scale migration is a fact. 2% of Indians live in foreign countries. We have assimilated and adapted to invaders, foreign conquerors and traders over the last 1000 years.
So let’s take heed of what has happened in France and the failure of the “one culture” project of the French. The world is too open; too complex and too integrated today for seeking “autarkic” options.
Culling our traditions to get options for the future is sensible but must have the caution that our greatest tradition has been of keeping our windows open, not tightly shut and making space for anyone wanting to clamber onto the “bus”, which is India.