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Minorities and democracy

Par Siddhartha Deb
Publié par Clifford Armion le 17/01/2014
In 1916, the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore delivered a series of lectures that would eventually be collected into the book, Nationalism. Tagore was writing in the glow of his own celebrity (he had just won the Nobel Prize for literature) and from within the heart of the crisis engulfing the modern world, two years into the slow, grim war that had converted Europe into a labyrinth of trenches covered over with clouds of poison gas.

Siddhartha Deb

all rights reservedBorn in north-eastern India in 1970, Siddhartha Deb is the recipient of grants from the Society of Authors in the UK  and has been a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Studies at Harvard University. His latest book, a work of narrative nonfiction, The Beautiful and the Damned, was a finalist for the Orwell Prize in the UK and the winner of the PEN Open award in the United States. His journalism, essays, and reviews have appeared in Harpers, the Guardian, the Observer, The New York Times, Bookforum, the Daily Telegraph, the Nation, n+1, and The Times Literary Supplement.

 

 

 

 

In 1916, the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore delivered a series of lectures that would eventually be collected into the book, Nationalism. Tagore was writing in the glow of his own celebrity (he had just won the Nobel Prize for literature) and from within the heart of the crisis engulfing the modern world, two years into the slow, grim war that had converted Europe into a labyrinth of trenches covered over with clouds of poison gas. For Tagore, this was the tragic but inevitable outcome of a social calculus that valued efficiency, profit and, especially, the spirit of us versus them that bonded together the inhabitants of one nation and allowed them to go out, conquer and enslave other people, most of them members of no nation at all.

Some of those subjugated, or those who had narrowly escaped being subjugated, like Japan, had begun to form themselves into nations in the European model. This was beginning to happen in India too, at the time a restless colony of the British empire, but Tagore was critical of this responsive mechanism. “I am not against one nation in particular,” he said, “but against the general idea of all nations.” Against this logic of “the great menace of nationalism,” Tagore emphasized the spiritual; he was, after all, an eastern mystic. But he also argued that nationalism was a menace because it favoured unity over diversity; because it understood diversity, the presence of diverse races or ethnic groups, as a weakness. It was indeed a weakness, he said, if seen in terms of a perpetual war of some against all, of winners striving to keep their place above losers. Yet such an approach, Tagore said, would lead only to Armageddon. He wanted instead the future of humanity to be one of “reconciliation and mutual help,” of “interminable co-operation” rather than “interminable competition,” of the ability to place oneself in the position of others who might seem, or indeed be in some sense, different or alien.

We know, with hindsight, what came of Tagore’s dreams. Not just in Europe, which had other future wars to fight, but in America, which Tagore had hoped would pursue, as a young, energetic civilization, that path of reconciliation and harmony, or in India, which Tagore thought might be equipped to follow that same path because it was an old, diverse civilization, a place capable of singing not just of victory and conquest but also “the poetry of a defeated people.”

We know what has become of that dream now that Europe, and India, and America, and China, stand on the podium of winners of the world, each with different claims to its unique greatness and each with a remarkably similar approach to the dissenter, the migrant, the minority figure, the outsider. In France, the Roma schoolgirl deported last month; in China, the Uighur minorities suspected of being separatists; in the United States, the ongoing pursuit of Edward Snowden; and in India, the rise of Narendra Modi as potential prime minister, a man under whose watch a brutal pogrom against Muslims took place in 2002. All of this raises the question: Is 2013 really 1913, with cellphones?

But if the twentieth century saw a climax in the global capitalism that had broken open the non-western world for Europe and its settler colonies and brought Europeans into contact with these others, a contact that now included immigration from the colonies into the metropole, such processes have only accelerated in the new century. The question of minorities arises with special vehemence, therefore, in nations trying to limit the presence of and entry into their own spaces of diverse others at exactly the same moment that they project their own military, economic, technological and cultural dominance into the societies of these outsiders. The immigration holding cells overflow in exactly those countries where the stock exchanges hum with news of the holdings of their corporations abroad. The counterpart to the deported schoolgirl is the global businessperson, most often a white man, striding through the long, shiny corridors of an airport (usually kept clean by a member of a minority group), who may pause in his masterly walk to choose from an array of global cuisine, consumer goods, and culture. For him, the world is truly round, leading back always to himself.

Against this, I would like to assert that the minority figure, the political dissenter, the illegal immigrant, have to be understood not just as good for democracy but as the very basis of it. Because until that generosity and solidarity with the others, with all those minorities who together actually make up a majority, comes into being, one does not have a democracy. What one has, that system or party or leader ratified by a majority of the people, by the volk, unifying a small section of the earth, that is simply a nation. It is only when the nation understands itself as a collective of minorities in a world that is also a collective of minorities, that we begin moving some way towards democracy.

Pour citer cette ressource :

Siddhartha Deb, "Minorities and democracy", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), janvier 2014. Consulté le 23/06/2018. URL: http://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/civilisation/commonwealth/minorities-and-democracy

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