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Fog of political correctness

In contemporary Britain, immigration keeps cropping up as an election campaign issue. I am not surprised. Over the years a penumbra of polit...

Written by Jaithirth Rao | June 13, 2005

In contemporary Britain, immigration keeps cropping up as an election campaign issue. I am not surprised. Over the years a penumbra of political correctness has hung over British social discourse. Either from a feeling of post-imperial guilt or simply succumbing to fashions of the time, the British have landed in a trap where the agenda is set by shrill activists who force entitlement claims down the throats of a bewildered society.

We lived in the London precinct of Maida Vale in the mid-’90s. When we moved in, I paid a visit to the local library. The elderly librarian walked up to me, introduced herself. For the record, she was a white woman with an elegant educated accent. She then proceeded to stun me with an unexpected statement. “We have books in Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Gujarati and Tamil. I know there are many languages in India. Which is your language? If you want, I can order books for you in your language.”

My response was something she had never expected: “As a matter of fact, my language, Kannada, is not on your list. But, if you don’t mind my asking, why is the British tax-payer paying for books in all these languages?”

To use a very English expression, she was gob-smacked. She mumbled something about the need to stay in touch with their roots and cultures. She was a charming inoffensive lady. I did not pursue the conversation further.

I later wondered whether I had missed an opportunity to take some easy money off the generous British tax-payer. I could have set up my cousin in Bangalore to send hundreds of Kannada books to the Maida Vale library. It would have been deliciously ironical! For, these days there are hardly any libraries in Karnataka with books in any language, for that matter. It was not always so. Under our beloved reactionary maharaja we had well-stocked libraries in most major towns. But our present progressive rulers seem busy with other matters. Someone should do a survey. I would wager that there are today more Indian-language books in British libraries than in Indian ones!

Immigrants to Britain have gone there voluntarily. Presumably, they liked British society. Hence they went there in the first place. A corollary to that would be that they learn English and hopefully borrow English books from state-funded public libraries. They are, of course, free to buy books in other languages with their own money. But what is the logic of expecting the government to subsidise reading habits derived from their so-called “roots”? Left to themselves, most immigrants would not have asked for it. But if woolly-headed liberal natives of the host country come and tell me that I have a “right” and an “entitlement” to this-that-and-the-other in the name of multi-culturalism and staying-in-touch-with-one’s-roots, then I would be a fool not to exploit their generosity. You could even argue that by being an object of their philanthropic attentions (albeit, not at the personal cost of the liberals themselves, but being debited to the general fisc!) I am actually doing them a favour. How else could they obtain the warm glow of post-imperial-guilt-expiation and earn the accolade of being “sensitive” to other cultures/races/religions/languages and so on. Actually, we could take this one step further in the interests of logic and lucidity. British public libraries should ban Shakespeare. He was not multi-culturally sensitive (he did not know French or Latin, let alone Gujarati or Urdu) and was a “chauvinist” to boot. Did he not use the expression “This England, this demi-paradise”? This is doubtless wounding to the feelings of immigrants. I have a vision of British public libraries stocked with books in Hausa and Serbo-Croatian, Arabic and Sinhala… but English, never!

One can now begin to understand why immigration is a general political issue for many, not just for the usual racist nativists. Britain has had immigrant groups before. The Lombards occupied Lombard Street in London; Cromwell encouraged Jews to settle in England and of course Hitler drove many of them in; the French expelled the Huguenots who found refuge in England. It is true that these were all white folks and the ignorant must have found them literally “easier on the eyes”. But there is another crucial difference. None of these groups received subsidies from the state. None were encouraged to adopt a tone of “entitlement-seeking”. The signal that multi-culturalism can qualify for state sponsorship and even state mandates, does not go unnoticed by the “clients” in the immigrant groups or their self-appointed liberal “padronnes” who mediate between the state and these groups and who themselves become beneficiaries of grants and subsidies. If there is money to be made in multi-culturalism, then we can be sure that it will attract rent-seekers like bees in search of honey!

Incidentally, the same school of political correctness makes sure that granular information — for instance, immigrants from India commit fewer crimes and rarely go on welfare unlike immigrants from Nigeria, Pakistan or Bangladesh — gets little or no publicity! (I’m sorry, I am a chauvinist Indian. I could not resist this!)

There will always be a hard-core, hopefully small minority of racist and intolerant yobs in any society. But if the state insists on indiscriminately supporting asylum-seekers and then spending more money buying special books for them as also making welfare grants to fanatical religious preachers who use multi-culturalism for their benefit, while not believing in it themselves, then you run the risk of converting middle-of-the-road tolerant citizens into immigrant-bashers. I am continuously surprised as to why the British government is unable to make a statement as follows: “Select immigrants are welcome. We will set the selection criteria. Since no one is forcing them to come in, we will expect that once they are here, they will blend into our culture and not expect Britain to accommodate their cultural needs which they are welcome to address privately at their own cost”. This would be an eminently reasonable position that would considerably diffuse the matter.

The writer is chairman/CEO of MphasiS. Write to him at jerryrao@expressindia.com

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