5 Lessons for Norway from India’s model of multi-culturalism

What can Norway learn from India ? Well, not much, some would argue. Norway is among the richest countries in the world while India is home to more poor people ( 421 million poor people)  than the entire continent of Africa put together[i] (400 million).

Despite the obvious and glaring differences, there are similar challenges  that both the countries face, and this was accentuated with the most recent terror attacks by a Norwegian, who claimed to be anti-immigration and anti-Muslim; and was acting to protect Norway from Marxism and Muslim takeover. In essence, both countries are dealing with issues of multiculturalism and co-existence of people of different religions, ethnicities and cultures.

The solution to managing this conflict lies at both the rhetorical as well as pragmatic level. To deny one and focus on the other would be foolish.

I will argue that India has done a remarkable job of managing this diversity  and Norway has lessons to learn from India.

Though examples of extreme violence exist in India – think back to Gujarat in 2002 when more than 2000 Muslims were killed by Hindu fanatics to avenge the attack on a train and more recently, the Mumbai terror attacks; the fact that such incidents are few and far in between and India has survived as a secular state, protecting the rights of the minorities speaks quite highly of the state itself. As a Muslim, who has lived in India for over 26 years I do think that India has done a good job, though it can do better.

Here are 5 lessons that I think Norway can learn from India, a secular, democratic republic and the world’s largest democracy today.

  1. Institutionalize multi-culturalism – Going back to its formation as a nation, in 1947, when India gained independence, we made it a constitutional duty to uphold and protect the various religious, ethnic and other diversities that existed. The myth of  “India”, a nation with so many multitudes required that this idea be protected.  In the 16th century, Mughal Emperor Akbar had brought back the notion of  India as a nation and the British had taken over this after him, but to bring together  those 500 plus princely states and hold them together required this framework of tolerance and embracing of complexity.
  2. Promote and celebrate diversity – in every way possible – The example of India’s currency note is often used to illustrate just how complex the country is and how many languages are used. If you turn around the note and read the number of languages, you will see about 15 languages. These are all “official” languages of the various states, not to mention the hundreds of dialects that exist. There is some wisdom in adopting this notion. One can see this in every aspect of daily life in India – from Bollywood, Cricket to even an office setting.
  3. Provide space for dissent, but crack-down on extreme ideologies – While the democratic framework allows for dissent and airing of opinions, there must be a crackdown on extreme ideologies. All said and done, there is a judicial process that is followed in most cases of violence in India. It may be  faulty, slow, inefficient, but cases of violence and right wing activity are monitored carefully in India by the CBI and other agencies. This can be emulated in Norway too.
  4. Have a vision and stick with it – Going back to the days of formation, the visionary leaders – Nehru, Gandhi and Ambedkar all visualized a nation that would be home to all people, not just of one race or religion. It was as much a choice as accepting the ground realities. The vision of India that emerged was a product of this reality and the leaders were wise enough to acknowledge it and embrace it – at great risk to their own selves. This notion seems to have prevailed several decades later.  Norway can come up with a vision which is bolder, stronger and more compelling than what it has today, which embraces minorities and immigrants more strongly and sends out a message to the right-wing groups on all sides of the political spectrum that their ideologies will not win.
  5. Don’t let the state become militarized – As a reaction to 9/11 the USA became more militarized. The Department of Homeland Security was established and civil liberties curtailed. India is also responding to terror attacks quite predictably with such draconian laws as POTA which until recently made life hell for minorities.  Thankfully, we are not an entirely militarized state and this is a great achievement. The pacifist nature of India society has kept the country from going to any extremes.

India’s model of secularism is also very interesting. It is not the sanitized “keep the religion out of public space” sort, that Europe seems so obsessed with. The secularism that India practices is one of embracing all religions equally – at least in the public sphere. Legally too, each religious group is allowed to practice its own low, for marriage, divorce and other civil issues. This seems to have worked largely well.

Though big debates like the uniform civil code and other issues which take this notion to one logical extreme are still being debated, at least on a day to day basis one sees that the state has kept secularism within limits and religion is accorded its special place, keeping in mind its special place in peoples’ lives.

I do believe that India has much to offer to the world, and Europe and its nations in particular, as the continent battles with the rise of the right-wing.

Though not perfect, India continues to uphold the secular ideal and to a large extent guarantees the right of minorities. It is this spirit that Europe should look towards for inspiration.

MENASA ?

The Acronym dictionary defines MENASA as – Middle East, North Africa and South Asia.

When you google it, MENSA throws up. Not a very smart acronym, this one. But try harder, and you will find the definition for it.

A new acronym. A fad. A smart ( and pretentious) way to club together groups of countries ? Well, that depends on the way one looks at it. But to me, this makes sense.

According to a few important reports that came out recently, this region will define the future of the world – the key argument being one of demographics and also resources. The one that i read in some depth is the one by the management consulting firm Mc Kinsey. If one observes the ongoings in the MENA region, with the Arab Spring, this seems like a far-stretched argument.

But let’s take the long-term view. Social change takes decades, not months and weeks ( often the time-span that traditional media uses as a frame of reference).

The arguments for MENASA can be summed up as :

A recent report by Mc Kinsey pointed to the demographics as well as the wealth of human resources in the region – which are full of entrepreneurial zeal ( refer:http://www.menasaforum.ae/partners/official/files/Perspectives%20on%20MENASA.PDF).

The region is set to generate nine per cent of the world’s total growth in gross domestic product in the next 10 years, up from its current five per cent share. And during this period it is slated to achieve real growth rates of six to seven per cent. The western economies have stopped growing or are experiencing deceleration, while the economies of MENASA continue to grow.

McKinsey estimates cumulative financial inflows from hydrocarbon exports in these countries could exceed $9trn by 2020.

India, Pakistan, Egypt and Turkey account for 92 per cent of the region’s population.

We also see that the widespread use of English in India, Pakistan and Egypt and French in Morocco, coupled with these countries’ significant pool of skilled people and the relatively low labour costs, make them attractive destinations for companies looking to outsource support functions and value-added services such as legal and accounting services. This is already happening in a big way and will continue to grow in the years to come.

But isn’t all of this fantastical thinking, in the absence of democratic institutions and also recourse to law and strong contractual systems ? This is a valid argument, especially when one reads of businesses suffering due to lack of transparency as well as red-tapism and corruption.

But with the growth in economies and greater demand for transparency and better systems, things are bound to change. In India, there is the Right to Information Act ( RTI), which is being implemented in several states, and has made the government more accountable.

Similarly, the Arab spring is bound to bring in better systems, which are more robust and responsive to the citizen’s needs.

I am inclined to believe that this region is where the action is. Despite the funny acronym, there is reason to believe that this is where the future lies.

Achieving world-peace through inner peace – Dalai Lama

On the western lawn of the US Capitol Hill, this Saturday,  people celebrated something very unique : Peace. With the spiritual leader Dalai Lama leading the dialogue, it turned out to be one of the most inspiring talks that I have heard in a long time. His key message was this : We can achieve world-peace through inner peace, and that compassion and love for one another is not only good; but also essential for our own personal success. The talk  was part of the Kalachakra celebrations in the nation’s capital.

Drawing on his own experiences in exile and early childhood, the Dalai Lama kept the  audience spell-bound with his insightful words of wisdom.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu sent in his recorded message saying : “ The Dalia Lama empowers you to celebrate peace. He also teaches us that each one of us can create peace, one person at a time. When this happens, there is a ripple effect. And when millions and millions of us take this step, no power in the world can ignore it”.

Re-affirming the fact that we are all human beings and that commonality should bind us together, he asked us to reflect  more on our actions;  and joking with the young ladies present in the audience, he said : “ Those of you who  wear cosmetics, please also focus on “inner beauty”, which is far more important than external beauty”.  He also pointed out that all religions focus on peace and harmony. Islam, Christianity and Buddhism and any other religion focuses on these values.

“When there is inner-beauty, there is happiness, and the relationship with a person lasts, if not; there may be companionship for some time, but eventually it will fall apart”, he said.

“My second commitment as a human being is to achieve harmony. I firmly believe that all humans have the same potential to achieve peace. We are all gifted equally”.

The Dalai Lama also praised the United States for its democratic values, freedom and individual liberty. “Your forefathers promoted freedom, democracy and rule of law. Now, we are bearing the fruit of that, and I am able to speak with you freely here”. He also urged people to talk “heart to heart” without any barriers.

“Concern for others is the key. Trust brings friendship. A genuine smile which conveys this love and affection can transform our relationships. Too much of a self-centred attitude does not help . We are social animals and we must remember that our success and happiness depends on others. I have been speaking with several  “mind scientists”, who point out that anger kills  a man and those who are compassionate end up not only living more fully, but also more happily”, he added.

He pointed out to the global issues facing us : Global warming, Conflicts and financial crisis and said that the 20th century was one of violence and it is time we make this 21st century one of dialogue. In the remainder of his speech, which kept the audience spell-bound, despite the sweltering heat, he shared tips on maintaining a calm mind, living objectively without fear and as one with everyone around us.

I must admit, I went in a skeptic, and came out a believer.