Fear of Small Numbers, the new book by Mumbai-born anthropologist Arjun Appadurai has received attention across America. He discusses why, in the age of globalisation, opening of markets, free flow of capital and liberal ideas, minorities in many countriesare facing greater hostilities than ever before.
In an interview with Rediff, he argues for "moving away from national loyalties towards urban and metropolitan loyalties, which put a premium on active tolerance and deliberate cosmopolitanism".
One of the basic arguments of the book is that the idea of a majority can create uncertainty about the primary identity of a nation. In the book, I call this the anxiety of incompleteness.
What I mean is that in every nation State without exception, somewhere beneath the surface is the idea that a nation is composed of a single ethnic substance, some kind of ethnic purity -- and the idea of ethnic purity leads to the feeling that only people belonging to that ethnicity should be full citizens in that State.
And in a society like India, this is a huge problem because a certain group, in this case the Hindus, can view themselves as almost completely defining India but not totally. The problem -- the incompleteness -- is due to the presence of other groups, whether you call them minorities or strangers or guests or visitors.
Every Hindu Indian recognises that the land is not completely Hindu. In the book, I argue that this sense of incomplete purity does not necessarily lead to an effort to obliterate the minorities. But in many circumstances, it can lead to that. And we have seen increasing efforts in some parts of India, Gujarat in particular, to obliterate the minorities.
Thinking in the categories minority and majority is something new according to the anthropologist:
I have been interested in census statistics, how populations are actually enumerated. Apart from the question of being weak or subordinate, official enumeration is one of the ways minorities are created in the modern world.
The point here is that the idea of minority and majority was not always a part of human society. Human societies always had different groups; some were larger and some smaller; but the twin categories of minority and majority are modern phenomena.
For him as an anthropologist, he says, it is "painfully obvious that it has become culturally respectable to run down and suspect the Muslim community."
The fear of the minorities is in his opinion "irrational":
I believe that the radical, terrorist voices one hears in the Muslim communities in India are few and small. The average Muslim in India today has this request to the majority community: Give us the room to survive. Muslims in rural and urban India are not thinking of taking over India, but are asking whether they can live there at all.