Sunday, March 13, 2011

Why India is not a 'Melting Pot' or a 'Salad Bowl'

Continued from The Invisible Idea called India

In my last blog post, we had discussed how “intellectuals” moulded in Western experience found it difficult to reconcile with the idea of India. Here I find it apt to quote what the great Indian thinker Rabindranath Tagore had to say on this, something I missed in my last post.

The Nobel Laureate in his very vocal indictment of the Euro-Centric view of history, wrote that the “superstition that history has to be similar in all countries must be abandoned.” In his unmatched poetic style he called these scholars the “people who look for aubergine in paddy fields” (aubergine is a hairy upright herb also called as egg-plant). He added “and when they do not find it, in their frustration they refuse to count paddy as a variety of grains at all." This criticism came more than a century ago. But the obsession with 'looking for aubergine in paddy fields' has continued and many still “refuse to count” India as a nation, as we have seen in the last post.

In this post let us see how this ‘look for aubergine in paddy fields’ manifests in the social and political approaches towards India, by taking up the case of two very popular metaphors used to discuss Indian society. We specifically discuss how the two concepts represented by the metaphors,  the ‘Melting Pot’ and the ‘Salad Bowl’ which have been borrowed from the West and indiscriminately applied to the Indian context have lead to both simplistic and faulty understanding of India.

The Melting pot and the Salad bowl
First a look at these metaphors at the risk of a small digression. The decades leading into the world wars saw a huge influx of populations from different European countries into America. The question of the identity of these immigrants vis-à-vis the already settled Anglo-Protestant majority in America gave rise to two social approaches. The first one saw America as a great ‘Melting Pot’ where people from these diverse cultural, ethnic and linguistic backgrounds would fuse to gain a new identity. Many schools would have rituals where children would jump into a melting pot with their ethnic attire and would come out as “equals” - all of them wearing suits and waving American flags. This symbolism caught the imagination of generations of Americans who were impressed with the sense of a new beginning that it sought based on unity and individual equality. But, it was realized in some time that this ‘integrationist’ approach had become a guise for White Supremacy and Anglo-protestant imposition on other cultures. The people coming out of the ‘melting pot’ were not to be a mixture of the best from the different cultures but were to be moulded in Anglo Protestant culture and were to speak English giving up their native languages. It also became clear that this ‘Melting Pot’ had no entry for African American slaves and also the Native Americans who had been displaced from their lands by force to build a new America.

The Second approach was called the ‘Salad Plate’ or ‘Salad Bowl’, which came about as a reaction to the White Supremacist approach to ‘integration’. The approach also called ‘multi-culturalism’ saw America as a plate that hosted a salad of distinct cultures on it rather than a melting pot that promised to fuse all into one. Each culture was seen as equal and could maintain its distinct identity. America for the ‘multi-culturalists’ was just an aggregation of these distinct cultures.

The Problem with the two approaches
On the face of it both the approaches looked great to start with. The ‘Melting Pot’ approach saw integration of different communities as its prime concern; it promised a new society based on individualistic equality. But in practice it suffered from cultural supremacist tendencies, insensitivity and snobbery towards other cultures. And at a broader level it also disregarded the value of diversity while over-emphasizing on uniformity.

The ‘Salad Plate’ emphasized sensitivity towards different cultures but taken to an extreme it ended up creating unnecessary divisions and promoting segregation. In the recent past this approach has been seen to be fanning Islamic terrorism while keeping the Muslims in Europe away from progressing and from getting into the mainstream. In the last two months, three prominent leaders of Europe, Angela Merckel, Chancellor of Germany, David Cameron, Prime Minister of England and Nicholas Sarkozy, Prime Minister of France have all vocally rejected multi-culturalism, saying it has failed their nations.

The Polarization
There have been heated debates across the world as to which of the above approaches each of the nations should take with respect to its immigrants or minorities. India has been no exception. There are people on both sides of the divide, each proclaiming that India is a ‘Melting Pot’ and a ‘Salad Bowl’ respectively. Ramchandra Guha whose arguments or the lack of it inspired my earlier post belongs to the latter group.

We have seen that both these approaches have their own flaws and also have major gaps between the promise and the practice. As French historian and scholar, Michel Danino writes "There should be nothing wrong in either approach except that they often appear to clash in practise". But there is also a major problem with these in India: they are too simplistic to fit the Indian context and can only be based on superficial understanding of the Indian society and history. They are, as Rabindranath Tagore put it, looking “for aubergine in paddy fields”.

Why they do not fit the Indian context
Firstly, the ‘Melting Pot’ does not fit the Indian context because of its disregard for diversity. India is a nation where diversity exists in every aspect of life – language, religious practices, cultural traditions and ideas. Diversity is the characteristic feature of the Indian society. Any approach of integration that does not take diversity into account and seeks to eliminate all other identities of individual citizens is but bound to fail. Many scholars have pointed out that eliminating intermediate identities between the individual and the state weakens the basis of the civil society and makes an individual helpless before an all powerful state. We have ample examples in the experiments of Stalin, Mao, Polpot apart from Hitler and Mussolini and now Gadaffi where the State became atrociously powerful at the cost its civil society. In India, the inter-mesh of multiple levels of identities have provided a safeguard against regimentation of the kind that was seen in the other nations quoted.

So then is ‘Salad Bowl’ the right approach? Guha and others completely miss the Indian context here when they argue that India resembles a ‘Salad bowl’. Cultural entities in India have been both fluid and dynamic and not as static and unrelated as the salad pieces in the ‘Salad bowl’. Each of the India’s cultural characteristic, its spiritual ideas, languages and religious practices and cultural traditions have originated from common sources, grown distinctly as traditions to be interwoven again between each other inseparably in the process of Indian civilization. While celebrating diversity, it is important not to promote ‘separatism’ that tries to pull strands out of the fabric of Indian society. This is where ‘multi-culturalism’ fails. It fails to understand this intricate interweaving in this fabric called India.

There is also one significant thing about India that both these approaches fail to capture. Both the ‘Melting Pot’ and the ‘Salad Bowl’ are top down approaches: the State as represented by the pot or the bowl is the critical unifying factor that holds in it all the diverse elements; fused or separate. But India’s case is very different: Indian nation is a bottom up structure where the State or the Republic only provides a political unity on top of an already existing socio-cultural connectedness. In fact it is this socio-cultural connectedness that forms the fundamental basis for India’s unity that many Western thinkers missed when they predicted India's demise as a nation.

The Metaphors that represent India better
What metaphors convey an India that is interwoven by a unifying force of a civilisation? What represents the idea of an India that is a bottom-up nation and not a top down one? What signifies the "civilizational objective" of finding "unity in diversity” as Rabindranath Tagore put it?

To be continued...


  1. Nice post. I would still say US is a melting pot. Europe did a lot of multi cult experiments and there seems to be a back lash there.


  2. very well presented..
    Would like to see the conclusion..

    by the way can you guys add FaceBook to follow the posts..Social networking which is in full flow would be key to get greater audience

  3. One, whoever predicted the demise of the nation was not incorrect. India of today is not the India of any past planning or vision. But I guess you knew this. Actually it is hard to believe that India of today is based on a sustainable model. I guess you know this too. So why the article.

  4. @anonymous

    >>>One, whoever predicted the demise of the nation was not incorrect.

    I disagree

    >>>>India of today is not the India of any past planning or vision. But I guess you knew this.

    Agree, it is a product of a complex civlizational process that is too huge to be somebody's planning.

    >>>>Actually it is hard to believe that India of today is based on a sustainable model. I guess you know this too.

    I think you are talking about the economic and social models. I agree. Those unsustainable and simplistic models are borrowed so callously from the West. Till we understand the havoc that rapid uncontrolled urbanization, breakdown of communities, crumbling villages, degrading environment - all of this is creating, till we develop more sustainable economic models, India would remain an unfortunate victim of simplistic theories.

    >>>>So why the article.
    Because I disagree with your first statement which is an unnecessary assertion.

    Would appreciate if you could make your identity known.


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