WATERLOO: Immigrants in search of lands of opportunity accept social dislocation as the necessary price. The rites of passage can be rough and traumatic. The most attractive option for migrants is to be given the choice instead of being forced to assimilate or remain an ethnic.
There is a distinction between being an immigrant and an expatriate. Immigration is the psychological opposite of expatriation. By being officially hostile to assimilation, a country compels newcomers to be expatriates rather than immigrants. Multiculturalism can be a subtle policy instrument in the hands of the elite for maintaining their distance from the new pretenders. Separateness is maintained, there is no cross-contamination, caste purity is not polluted.
The multicultural ethic can also be unconsciously patronising. Expatriates come gift-wrapped in a cloak of exotic mystery. The discreet charm of the newly arrived is not allowed to fade by assimilation, but preserved in the multicultural mosaic. Exotica becomes embedded in their permanent identity. Encouraged to hang on to their identity of origin rather than melt into their identity of destination, they become the "nowhere men": people who can celebrate a claim on both lands without having a true home in either.
By contrast, people arriving in the great American melting pot quickly learn the trappings of the American way of life.
Many different racial, cultural, linguistic and religious groups live in the US and manage to retain their distinctive identity. Individuals are free to choose between identities of inheritance and adoption. Over generations, the distinctive traits of their culture of origin are eroded as they assimilate into the dominant culture.
American society suffers from many ills. But when American minorities demand rights, they demand rights as Americans. When Indians launch agitations, they make claims on the state based on sectarian identity such as castes and minorities. If India persists on the path of caste and religion-based quotas and politics, it need look no further than Lebanon and Sri Lanka to see what the future holds. These are policies of national disintegration, not social cohesion.
I never ceased being an Indian though I have passports issued by Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Let's deconstruct this. My wife is sixth-seventh generation Irish-Australian. We took our sons once to the original cemetery in one of South Australia's pioneer settlement towns. As they scrutinised the fading writing on the tombstones and recognised their maternal ancestors' names, we could almost see them register, mentally and emotionally, that they had roots in Australia. I subsequently moved to a professorship at the Australian National University and we owned a house in Canberra. One son transferred to a school there. Australia is my sasural or nation-in-law. Should or can one think of it as a foreign country? Is India foreign for Sonia Gandhi?
When leaving India in 1971, Canada was my first overseas destination. I earned my MA and PhD degrees here, met and married my wife, and our elder son was born here. We have returned after three decades and may spend the rest of our lives here. Our elder son came back to Canada in summer 2007 for the first time since we left when he was just two years old, and we made an intensely emotional (for him) trip to the city of his birth. Is Canada foreign to us?
Emotionally, home is where we grow up in our family of birth and where we raise our own family after marriage. I was born and grew up in Sitamarhi, Bihar, went to boarding school in Lucknow and Hazaribagh, and to college in Calcutta. My family by marriage was raised in Dunedin, New Zealand. These are where the overwhelming bulk of my two sets of family memories are concentrated. Foreign lands? Not even in death, I would wager.
This is why it has always been so galling that, contrary to the common practice of western and other countries - Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka - India's laws forbade dual citizenship. In this sense, the much-hyped Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) card is a fraud. It neither confers citizenship nor bestows the right to an Indian passport. All it does is give a lifelong visa and the right to purchase and hold property in India. Big deal. I can visit most countries without needing a visa at all and purchase property in many countries without any hurdles either.
During almost a decade with the UN, my national identities were subordinated to my UN status. I had a fourth, diplomatic, passport. Useful in developing countries, it was an extra complication in most western countries where any one of my three national passports assured a smoother experience with border control officials. Yet my identity as an international civil servant was very real to me.
India has one of the world's most complex, advanced, adaptable and successful models of power sharing arrangements and tolerance of diversity. Occasionally there are setbacks and minority-directed atrocities, as against the Sikhs in Delhi in 1984 and against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002. There is also merit to the L K Advani argument that Hindus are often treated like second class citizens in their own country. Most recently, the case of Taslima Nasreen shows the worrying appeasement of minority fundamentalism in the name of protecting secularism.
These aberrations notwithstanding, India is an exemplar par excellence of cultural diversity, social tolerance and political pluralism. Long may it remain so.