Upholding a Tradition of Tolerance

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune

PONDICHERRY, INDIA — I was having dinner with a couple of French friends recently when the talk turned to burqas and veils and minarets. A French parliamentary committee had just called for a ban on the burqa in some public places. In Switzerland, a referendum had overwhelmingly approved a prohibition on the construction of minarets.

Our conversation spiraled quickly into discussions of immigration, tolerance, religion and European difficulties with multiculturalism. My friends were defensive. They cited the usual justifications: a sense of cultural invasion, security considerations, women’s rights, the need to uphold France’s long tradition of secularism.

We discussed, and argued, and then I pointed out to my friends that they, too, were immigrants, and they, too, dressed and acted in a manner that probably often offended the sensibilities of people in this area.

I live in a part of India that has absorbed a disproportionate number of Western immigrants over the last few decades. Pondicherry is a former French colony, a seaside town that draws expatriates to its clean streets and parks, easy pace of life and cheap beer. Auroville, at the edge of Pondicherry, is an international city with over 2,000 residents, more than half of whom are non-Indian.

I grew up around here, surrounded by farmers and fishermen whose worldviews are very different from those of the Americans and Germans and French who have trickled in since the 1960s. Life in the villages was — and, to a significant degree, still is — governed by rigid social rules and traditional norms that determine how people act, eat, marry and dress.

Ever since I was a boy, I have seen European women in tank tops and shorts drive motorcycles through villages where women wouldn’t even dream of wearing pants.

Down at the beach, semi-naked tourists sunbathe while fishermen oil their motorboats and women in saris sort through the day’s catch.

The juxtaposition of cultures has often been incongruous, even tense, but I can’t recall more than a handful of instances where it has broken out into overt hostility or cultural jingoism. I certainly don’t know of a time when a government official has proposed a law regulating how foreigners dressed.

It’s true that I live in an especially tolerant part of India, but I think it’s fair to say that India is an especially tolerant country. The Hindu teacher and mystic Vivekananda once said that pluralism was the “backbone of our national existence,” and that India stood for the “grand idea of universal toleration.” He was echoing a widely held view of India as a country particularly receptive to difference, capable of absorbing a multitude of faiths and cultures into its own society.

Indian tolerance has deep roots. The Vedas, a body of texts believed to be around 3,000 years old, proclaim that “truth is one; the wise call it by many names.” The Rig Veda, considered the oldest, similarly teaches that “good thoughts come to us from all sides.”

Indian tolerance has also manifested in the country’s society and polity. The Edicts of Emperor Asoka, who ruled much of north and central India in the third century B.C., are notable for their accommodation of other faiths — proclaiming, for instance, that “all religions should reside everywhere” and that “there should be growth in the essentials of all religions.”

India is also one of the few countries without a history of anti-Semitism, despite the presence of a Jewish community that dates back almost 2,000 years.

Indian tolerance is evident in more recent moral and political thought, too. Mahatma Gandhi, himself a committed Hindu, expressed admiration for Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount and was a strong proponent of Hindu-Muslim comity. Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s first prime minister, was an ardent secularist who rejected the idea that India should follow in Pakistan’s footsteps and create a religious state.

For all its troubles, Nehruvian secularism is still the guiding principle of Indian political life. Its concept of equidistance among faiths, of state indifference rather than hostility to religion, is more benign (and tolerant) than European-style secularism, which positions itself aggressively against religion.

India has its intolerant sides, of course. The country has struggled in recent decades with a Hindu nationalist movement whose more extremist elements have promoted violence against foreigners and minorities. And, for all their acceptance of outsiders, Indians are capable of displaying remarkable prejudice against different castes and classes within the country. Indeed, it’s probably fair to say that Indian tolerance is most evident toward — if not quite limited to — foreign immigrants and tourists.

But today, as the Indian economy surges, as its companies benefit from and become emblems of 21st-century globalization, I can’t help feeling that the nation’s openness, its ability to communicate and work with other cultures, are at the root of much of its success.

Conversely, I can’t help feeling that Europe’s stagnant economies, its sense of decline, have much to do with an attitude to the rest of the world that is defensive rather than engaged, that is expressed as fear rather than curiosity.

Shortly after that conversation with my French friends, I found myself in the fishing village of Periyamudaliarchavadi. At the edge of the beach, with tourists in bikinis and swimming trunks walking by, apparently oblivious to the ancient streets and cultures through which they were passing, I spoke to a 63-year-old woman named K. Rani.

She told me that, 40 years ago, when foreigners first started arriving, she was a little taken aback by the way they dressed. Now, she said, she had learned to accept their ways. “It’s their culture. We should respect it,” she said. “We don’t understand their ways any better than they understand ours.”

Later, I thought of what she had said. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the religious scholar who was India’s first vice president, once wrote that “toleration is the homage which the finite mind pays to the inexhaustibility of the Infinite.” There was something of that wisdom in Mrs. Rani’s worldview: a recognition of life’s complexity, an ability to accommodate differences without needing to box them into a recognizable homogeneity. It is a wisdom that I find general in India, and for which I love the country.

3 Comments

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  1. Dirk Gastmans says:

    While I agree with many points in Akash Kapur’s article I
    have to disagree with the one-sided image of tolerance he
    portrays.

    For one I grew up in the same area at the same time and
    could give a very different account of local “tolerance”. I
    have lived in India now for 30 years so I feel I can
    comfortably give my point of view.

    For most part the people with a dress sense not sensitive to the local norms are the tourists. Most westerners who settle in India make the effort to wear appropriate clothing and respect the culture. Also on the beaches nowadays you will find many Indians in pretty much the same westernized dress style.

    Where is mention of the caste system still prevalent in
    India? A system I would hardly call tolerant and
    integrating! In many villages the Dalit community are still
    physically segregated from the others. In what other country is the word “untouchables” still used today to describe a section of people?!
    (http://ibnlive.in.com/news/dalits-segregated-walled-off-
    in-madurai-village/64511-3-1.html)

    Akash says he lives in an area that “has absorbed a
    disproportionate number of Western immigrants over the last
    few decades”. Where is that different from the communities
    of Indian and other nationalities being absorbed in the USA
    the UK and Europe? Which by the way are much larger in numbers than your 1000 odd foreigners settled in and around Pondicherry! Where
    in India do you have a “Little Italy” or a “Chinatown”.
    Many parts of big cities in the west have become
    totally transformed into areas where shops, restaurants
    even the language on the streets are all from one
    particular culture.

    Politics? Mrs. Sonia Gandhi is the only western person in Indian
    politics and she has got no end of grief for it. The USA on
    the other hand has many Indians in all levels of politics
    and the judiciary.
    (http://www.deshvidesh.com/Current_Issue/Desh-
    Videsh_November_2009/indiansinusplitical.html)
    I have been here for 30 years and can not vote, or be part of the “system”. I have numerous Indian friends settled in the west who get naturalized and integrated in to the system after just a few years (right to vote, work, social security etc…).

    In conclusion I think it is far too soon to say that India has a tradition of tolerance .What remains to be seen is how tolerant it will remain when the immigrant populations start reaching the numbers they have in the west.

  2. Spider J.C. Bulyk says:

    I believe that it is not a matter of a country or culture being tolerant, since this is a mere snapshot of a greater cultural panarama. Rather it is a matter of striving to tolerate. The tolerance of any given culture at any given time is either in growth or decline, the forces for and against always in struggle. It is never static and always dynamic, like a pot on a stove, requiring a constant watchful eye. To tolerate is an active engagement of the human will.

    All four of my grandparents came to America in the early 1900’s from eastern Europe. Although they had all lived within a 50 mile radius of one another in their home country, they only met (and married) in NYC’s immigrant ghetto, the lower east side of Manhattan. Two families were different kinds of immigrants. My father’s parents were Ukrainian peasants who accidentally lived in New York. My mother’s parents were the “new American aristocracy” who accidentally happen to have been born peasants in Ukraine. I grew up in my mother’s parent’s home and they prepared me for life as an active and successful citizen of their new country.

    To my father’s parents, I was never Ukrainian enough, never enough respectful of the old ways, and never fluent enough in the language of Ukraine. To my mother’s parents, I was never fluent enough in English, never cosmopolitan enough, never erudite and scholarly enough, and never hard-working enough.

    My mother’s parents and their daughter and grandson became involved in the local communities and organizations, across religions, ethnicities, and geographies, always striving to be part of their respective developments. My father’s parents were less so, having settled into a community of slavic, eastern European immigrants of like mind, remaining there for their lifetimes.

    When I see immigrants in the US today, I wonder to which end of the continuum they will gravitate, to which set of my grandparents will they be more akin. I confess my own bias. I expect that new immigrants – of any culture – will make best efforts to become part of their new home, to understand it, work at being accepted, and work with new groups to improve and develop it.

    The US is often referred to as “the melting pot”, but I think it is more the case that we are a “Cobbs Salad”, composed of individual chunks and groups rather than a smooth homogeneous bisque. Still I prefer my muticultural US (especially as a born and bred New Yorker) to the more structured cultural classes of many Europeans. Nor is the US innocent as we still have the same debates as the EU about what it means to be “an American”. These debates center around language, around law, around religion, and around acceptance.

    However, I close with the idea that tolerance is quite more easily practiced in an already multicultural society than in a more homogeneous society. Changes in the former are merely one of degree whereas changes in the latter are one of kind. Tolerance in either requires an act of will but is much more difficult in the latter.

  3. pm says:

    This is a challenging question and one that requires better definition and terminology. There is definitely a live-and-let-live quality to indian culture that is qualitatively different from say Iran or Korea. At the same time, we do have sectarian violence on a regular basis – so there are some key ways in which this model does break down.

    We need to understand better the nature of indian multi-culturalism (indic pluralism?). I think it is also present in realted forms in SE Asia – Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and so on. It is quite different from US or French multi-culturalism, these are western models with their own histories and dynamics. So there is some similar and some different examples of this phenomenon out there.

    The topic deserves study from a practical point of view – what are the strengths of indic pluralism, ,what are its weaknesses, how can it be taken forward/modernized and so on.

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