I am a passer-by in Sweden. Stockholm is a place of transition for me – I came here to gain further experience as a scientist before I start applying for permanent jobs elsewhere, hopefully back in the place of my birth, India. As I spend time talking to locals and keeping up with the news, I see that people feel Sweden is in the process of transition as well: some say for the better, others say for the worse. Of course, the turmoil in Sweden reflects a larger trend which has seen the resurgence of right-wing politics all over the world, including India.
The uncertainty and unrest with regards to immigrants and refugees from war-torn parts of the world into Sweden (indeed, Europe as a whole) rests on two issues – economic (immigrants “taking away” jobs) and cultural (immigrants undermining and/or eroding Swedish values and culture). Both issues should definitely be addressed: my hope in writing this article is to provide a point of view from India, to help inform the discourse on the latter issue.
Why India? Well, one can provide any number of reasons, but I would prefer to make my point by way of examples from Indian history. Due to its geographical location at the centre of the Indian Ocean and its fabled wealth, India has attracted immigrants for millennia, as traders, conquerors and refugees. We have had Jewish refugee communities fleeing from Portugal and Spain, Zoroastrians fleeing the Islamisation of Iran, Buddhists (including the Dalai Lama) fleeing the annexation of Tibet and Muslim refugees from Iran.
Communities of Chinese, East Africans and Armenians have lived in India for centuries. The above list does not even include the conquering peoples of Central Asian and Turkic origin, followed by the more recent colonisation by European powers. In contemporary times, India has become a preferred destination for those I would term “spiritual refugees“. In terms of actual numbers, these communities may be small, but their influence in Indian society has been disproportionately large: To this day, the economic and cultural achievement of some of the communities listed above is a source of envy and respect for other Indians. Note that here I have not even considered the huge internal diversity within India, with its various communities, castes and creeds, which in itself is a daunting subject to explore.
So, do these various immigrant communities maintain their distinct identity? Yes, very proudly. Do they tend to live in areas dominated by their own kind? All the time. Do they marry outside their community? Hardly, if ever. Do they consider themselves Indians? Very much! To the Western observer, steeped in the notion of “one people, one state” – a modern notion, even in Europe: there are vineyards that predate the concept of the Nation-State by a century or two – it must seem incredible that India can function as a modern democracy without much in terms of shared culture and values. In fact, most observers expected the Idea of India to collapse without British “stewardship”; Today, no one would dispute the fact that India is one of the most robust and politically energetic democracies to emerge from the ruins of the Second World War.
It is true however that almost all communities in India, immigrant or not, are wary of each other, and most don't even like each other. However, they need each other to go about their daily life – most Hindus would prefer a Muslim butcher or mechanic over someone from their own community, I would bet my money on a Parsi businessman, and everyone wants to send their children to a Jesuit run school. You don’t have to like each other to respect each other; you don’t even have to respect each other to tolerate each other. If there is any such thing as a universal shared value in the hodge-podge of nations that make up India, it is tolerance. We even tolerate things that we should not – corruption, poverty and exploitation being prime examples. To my mind, these two aspects of Indian society – a dense network of interdependencies, and tolerance towards values utterly foreign to you – have not only kept us ticking, but have also provided the political stability required to build one of the fastest growing economies in the world.
Joy Merwin Monteiro, the author of this opinion piece. Photo: Private
There are two ways to integrate an immigrant: The American “Melting Pot” way, where the immigrant is expected to lose her personal value system in deference to the larger national value system, however defined, or the Indian “Mosaic” way, which allows her to retain her values, which adds to the larger set of national values, while emphasising tolerance as a way towards social stability. The “Mosaic” way was probably best summarised by M K Gandhi:
“I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.”
These are troubled times in the world. Troubled times are also revelatory, since they provide us with an opportunity to look deep within, and decide who we really are. Sweden has been exemplary in its handling of environmental and humanistic issues; I wish the Swedes all the best in their journey ahead towards becoming a truly multi-cultural society.
This opinion piece was written by Joy Merwin Monteiro, who is a climate scientist from India currently working as a post doc at Stockholm University.