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Immigration and the clash of cultures

Immigration and the clash of cultures
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First Published: Mon, Feb 21 2011. 08 48 PM IST
Updated: Mon, Feb 21 2011. 08 49 PM IST
When, as Jawaharlal Nehru said, “India woke to freedom...at the hour of midnight,” there was a dream before the people, a vision of a vibrant, shining India. The leaders of the day extolled the “unity in diversity” that India stood for: born of successive waves of invaders and immigrants who had contributed to the composite culture of India.
Similar mingling of peoples in other parts of the world has given rise to new cultural patterns. The US has been and continues to be the destination of large numbers of immigrants from different parts of the world. It is therefore known as the melting pot of races.
The term melting pot is a metaphor for a place where immigrants from different cultures fuse together and form an integrated society. Ralph Waldo Emerson used the term smelting, which is a more refined process in metallurgy. The term came into general use in 1908, after the premiere of Israel Zangwill’s play, The Melting Pot. Adapted from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, it is the love story of David, a Russian Jew, and Vera, a Russian Christian.
Those who did not accept the melting pot model chose alternative metaphors for what has now come to be known as multiculturalism. This approach, which is also known as “the salad bowl”, permits immigrants to retain their own cultural traits, and the host country accepts their values and practices. In Canada, it is known as la mosaique culturelle.
Multiculturalism was considered an ideal mix of cultures, and in April 2001, the then British foreign secretary Robin Cook spoke of chicken tikka masala as a symbol of a multicultural and multiracial Britain. “The British are not a race, but a gathering of countless different races and communities,” he said. London, he pointed out, is home to 30 ethnic communities and 300 languages.
But soon, this bifocal view of unity in diversity became untenable. Voices of discontent have been heard from different quarters. German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared in October that multiculturalism had “utterly failed”. “Immigrants are welcome. They must accept the country’s cultural norms.” Foreign workers who came to Germany in the 1960s have stayed on and their integration with the host country is one of the key tasks for the times to come. Germany has a Muslim population of some four million. The country needs about 400,000 workers, and Merkel said that newcomers should assimilate into society and learn the German language.
Soon, there was a chorus of voices from world leaders in France, Spain, England and Australia concurring with Merkel. The loudest denunciation came from Britain’s David Cameron, who said that 30 years of multiculturalism had only led to extremism and home-grown terrorism.
He noted that immigrant communities were living as separate communities and not making any attempt to merge with the mainstream.
He specified the measures to be adopted to ensure harmony. Preachers of hate should not be allowed to visit Britain. Immigrant groups should accept the values of free speech, human rights, gender equality and democracy. The British government should not engage with groups that reject these values, and deny them any share of public funding. Bridled by considerations of political correctness, people had accepted a policy of “hands-off tolerance” which encouraged immigrant groups to live separate lives. In words widely quoted, Cameron advocated a “more active, muscular liberalism”. Newcomers should learn English, and schools should teach the country’s common culture.
Having passed the stages of the melting pot and multiculturalism, the nations of the world have to find a new blueprint for coexistence in the future.
VR Narayanaswami is a former professor of English, and has written several books and articles on the usage of language.He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.
Comments are welcome at otherviews@livemint.com
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First Published: Mon, Feb 21 2011. 08 48 PM IST