Centre for Comparative European Union Studies
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS)
Indian Institute of Technology Madras
  First International Seminar Summary:
"Democratization and Cultural Diversity: Contestation and
Consensus in the EU and India"


The first international seminar of the Centre for Comparative European Union Studies (CCEUS) was held during 13 - 15 December, 2010 at Industrial Consultancy and Sponsored Research, IIT Madras. The seminar was organized around keynote address, plenary sessions, special lectures and presentations by the participants.

This three-day seminar covered a vast gamut of issues under the broader theme of Democracy and Cultural Diversity. We began this three-day seminar on Monday with a lecture by our keynote speaker Prof. Neera Chandhoke who addressed the question of political community. She emphasized the presence of cultural pluralism; that political communities are never homogenous or unified. They are always fragmented and multiple. Cultural pluralism must transcend its cultural dimension and extend to the normative realm. A multiplicity of values in society is both healthy and essential for a democracy to thrive. It is important that this pluralism be non-hierarchical and instead takes on a relational and a dialogic form.

Prof. Chandhoke then addressed the issue of Secularism and its various interpretations ranging from the non-interference of religion in state affairs to that of the state regarding all religions as equal: which of course presents an eternal conundrum. Minority rights are an area of extreme contention and while she fully supported the need to address minority issues, she also warned of the dangers of isolating majority communities and “othering” them. This will ultimately preclude the possibility of dialogue and negotiation, reifying both the “majority” and the “minority” into rigid categories. Gandhian philosophy is one of the frameworks in which this dialogue might be envisioned. Prof. Chandoke spoke at length about the agency of Satyagraha and how it can establish an ethical-moral ground which could then open up a space where both the “insider” and the “outsider” might be able to dialogue and understand the positions of one another. The keynote address then went on to provide illustrations from lived experience where this dialogic process has and has not succeeded.

The presentations by delegates then followed; these were arranged into broader themes such as Cosmopolitanism, European and Indian identities, Multiculturalism and Democratization.

The presentations in the first session - Diversity, Fault lines and Identities dealt with the concepts of identity, cultural diversity and individualism within multiculturalism. Identity was postulated as a problematic and fluid concept and the differences between the construction of European and Indian identities was explored. It was suggested that while the European identity is an abstraction and a fiction without essential proportions, the Indian identity is a result of a long and shared history and is more rooted. There was also an examination of constitutional reforms and methods of reconciling differences among communities and promoting harmony not by forced assimilation but wilful accommodation.

The notion of Individualism being the basis of cosmopolitanism was also examined in this session and it was argued that any conception of a cosmopolitan structure should consider individual as its basic unit. Cosmopolitanism was envisioned as a grand union of autonomous individuals, based on certain universal guiding principles, the most important of all being the mutual recognition of the ‘limits to liberty’. The session ended with a discussion on the problem of integrating minority groups into democratic decision processes. It was observed that cultural fault lines are not necessarily indicative of the minority-majority syndrome. Diversity is not to be destroyed but to be cultivated instead and celebrated as one of the foundational pillars of our systems, and there is no optimal model for democratic systems.

The second session of the day dealt with Cosmopolitan Spaces at large. Several important questions regarding feminism, queer identities, caste and the “urban” were raised. The feminist issue raised concerns such as how the feminist struggle would respond to the call of universalistic/particularistic in the light of cosmopolitanism and structural inequalities especially with regard to gender-based marginalization. The next paper dealt with the queer movement and attempted to locate queer desire within the rubric of democratization. This raised a considerable amount of debate as the paper attempted to grapple with issues of desire and morality and whether these discourses could be adequately articulated within political theory frameworks such as Chantal Mouffe’s Agonism and Gerard Delanty’s Critical Cosmopolitanism. This was elucidated using Julia Kristeva’s concept of the “Abject” and understanding queer desire through the narrative of abjection; thus problematising the notion of Cosmopolitan and Democratic movements. The discussion that followed dealt with basic questions about queerness- its inception and nomenclature, criticisms of the Cosmopolitan framework at large and nuancing the framework of political theory.

Following this was an analysis of the role of traditional civil societies in India and Europe and the role of various caste associations and guilds in south India that have successfully performed the role of effective public sphere but at the same time have negotiated and safeguarded the interests of its members in political and economical sphere without encroaching other groups’ rights. Finally, there was a discussion on cities as geographical and cultural units that allow greater interaction between various caste, class and ethnic groups. It was proposed that flexibility and fluidity, which urban conditions present, are conducive for globalization to thrive; and the city becomes a site for multiculturalism.

The third session was located round the general theme of Democratic Practices: Ancient and Modern. The first paper discussed electoral politics in authoritarian regimes pertaining to central Asia, identifying common trends in how authoritarian regimes use elections as necessary legitimizing devices for domestic and international opinion. It was argued that the beneficiary presidents have followed a Hobbesian logic that power cannot be divided and strong and sovereigns must be all-powerful to protect the state from disintegrating into chaos and anarchy. Following this was an analysis of Democracy and Kingship using a case study based on anthropological field research that focused on one of the royal families in Orissa. The affective elements of monarchy were highlighted, making the point that loyalty to a ruler goes plays in important rule, even when the system has ostensibly changed into a democratic one. The next paper examined the relevance of Plato’s Criticism of democracy, austere in Republic and less so in Politicus and of the attendant criteria for detecting political deviance in contemporary types of democratic states. Plato’s Critical thesis was reintroduced here to examine the soundness of this feature as the basis for the claim to immunity. The session ended with a discussion on how the prospects of the shifting of allegiances economically and politically for Asia and Africa and the prospects of it both positively and negatively for these nations and also the impending role of these nations in the event that the European Union emerges as a powerful block against the existing power block.

The second day of the seminar began with the theme Learning from each others’ Experiences. This session dealt with a range of issues, including those of multiculturalism and the strategies of dealing with minority/immigrant groups, where the presentation addressed the possibilities of integration of foreign/ different cultures, and examined the extent to which a state could intervene to adjust social infrastructure. It investigated whether it is democracy and change from below that makes social cohesion sustainable. This was followed by an analysis and comparison of the European and Indian models of democracy and development and their impact on mutual relations and also the background, as well as cultural, political and international aspects of these issues. The main focus of the presentation was the evolution of democracy and multiculturalism in India and implications for foreign policy and India’s position in international relations and their relations with EU. The third presentation of the session provided an interesting perspective concerning the desirability of Consociational Democracy in conflict regulation in India and look at the different ways by which power sharing takes place among the different identity groups in the country in a comparative perspective, keeping in view the European experience. The final presentation of the session addressed the question of a South Asian Parliament- its viability, advantages and criticisms and India’s role in such a process.

The next session dealt with the theme of Postcolonial Nationalism. The first paper that dealt with Postcolonial cosmopolitanism through a critical reading of James Joyce and Rabindranath Tagore generated an excellent debate on the dichotomy between communitarianism and cosmopolitanism. The idea of the subaltern was examined and there was a crucial point about subalternity being multiple; i.e. a single person can occupy a combination of subaltern and majority position. The paper criticized a teleological view by exploring the afterlives of nationalism in postcolonial protest following the achievement of sovereign statehood. It demonstrated that both cosmopolitanism and communitarianism might perform valuable ethico-political work from a subaltern perspective. This was followed by an analysis of the recent developments in India and the growth of different nationalisms that are at odds with democratic policy. It presented a theoretical understanding of the ‘imaginations’ at work and the ‘utopias’ they seek and the challenges they present to the state, democracy, the nation, the national and the individual self. The subsequent presentation considered the process of democratisation and its consequences in a multi-nation state. It addressed the politics of a nation-state contrasting and comparing India with the United Kingdom. The session ended with a rather optimistic presentation of the success of democracy in India, despite myriad contradictions and conflicts.

The afternoon began with a special lecture by Dr. Alana Lentin who provided an extremely relevant insight into the complexity of multiculturalism and diversity. She pointed out that “good” diversity could very easily turn into “bad” diversity and cautioned against the uncritical celebratory tone of multiculturalism. The war against terror very swiftly debunked the entire project of multiculturalism as illustrated by countries like Germany and France. The ongoing discrimination that undergirds the postracial, anti-multicultural moment is no longer a matter for state intervention, the neoliberal state’s only role being the policing of racialized ‘matter out of place’. The effects of this for the theorization of race, as well as the struggle against racism, is paid attention to in this paper in which, it is argued, neither the well-taken critique of essentialist multiculturalism nor of institutionalized racism are sufficient for making sense of racism in a neoliberal age.

This was followed by another session by the delegates on Minorities in Democracy. The first presentation dealt with the legal aspects of minority policies in the EU and the implications that this has for immigrant and marginalized communities all over Europe. An interesting paper followed this on the case of Gypsies in Europe. It discussed the role of freedom of movement and its relation to democracy, problematising the issues of nomadism and the imagination of a “home”. The next presentation was a provocative and interesting debate on the issue of the veil in France and Kerala. The paper interrogated whether, like the Swiss minaret ban on mosques, the burqa ban was indicative of the cultural clash between the European majority and the growing Muslim population in Europe.

The next session was a discussion on the issue of Democracy and Global Governance. It began with an interesting debate around the idea of a Risk Society as theorized by Ulrich Beck and other sociologists. Using the tenet that science is a fragile territory; illustrated with the case of biotechnology and the production and manufacturing of Genetically modified food. The presentation raised questions such as: How is the (already problematic neo-liberal) attempts at global governance (Sable, 2006) responding to differential assertions of risk by multiple publics (Calhoun, 1992)? How are the contestations to positivist edicts from the WTO (that scientific expertise through risk has the final say in governance of innovation), is affecting attempts of democratisation of technology? This was followed by a presentation, which dealt with the clash of neoliberal ideas and democracy and the potential of Deliberative Universalism in providing an effective alternative. The session ended with a paper, which situated the Millennium Development Goals within the cosmopolitan framework and critically analyzed the evolution of the MDGs in terms of protecting the rights of the deprived and the commitment of the EU in achieving the MDGs. The paper utilized the case analysis of Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, the ‘Education For All’ programme of the Government of India to study its impact on the deprived sections of the society.

The final day of the seminar began with a session, which broadly addressed the issue of Democracy and Social Capital. The first presentation attempted to analyze the concept of quality articulated by EUA (European University Association) and how that can be applied in the context of Indian Higher Education and its quality assurance agencies like UGC and NAAC. The dimensions of grass root acceptance of quality were also explored. This presentation generated an interesting discussion on the question of what defines quality at large and how this could be applied to the Indian context. The next paper critically examined the constitutional principles, institutional mechanisms and policy frameworks, which best reflect the negotiation of the principle of citizenship with cultural difference. This was followed by an examination of what ‘cosmopolitanism’ means for the Indian media and how ‘cosmopolitanism’ is displayed in both the media and the similarities and differences in the concept and approach between the Indian and European media in this regard.

Following this session we had a paper reading of Prof. Riva Kastoryano (who was our initial key note speaker but unfortunately could not make it to the seminar due to bad weather in Europe). Prof. Kastoryano’s paper tried to look at the present context of ‘Islamophobia’ in Europe by illustrating the political process of recognition of minority groups (referring to the Muslim groups in Europe). She illustrated that the sense of alienation depends on many factors like the sense of up-rootment, ghettoization of these communities and the influence of events that happen outside national territories like the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent 'war on terror', do have an impact on these communities.

The post-lunch session and also our penultimate one began by addressing the issue of Indian Nationscape. The first presentation tried to analyze the link between democratization and social milieu. It tried to examine the impact of social milieu on the process of democratization by arguing that the nature of social milieu inevitably has a bearing on democratization; it could constrain or facilitate the process itself. The next paper looked at how the concept of identity is being hijacked by certain self-interested groups who propagate to think in terms of fragmentation rather than towards one national identity – this was illustrated by examples of separatist movements in West Bengal viewed in the light of identity politics, which very often has shaken the basis of democracy. This was followed by a paper presentation attempting to glance through the resurrection of local and regional narratives in European and Indian literary contexts that conforms and confronts political reality of unified cultures and thereby creating models of inclusion and exclusion. The paper also presented certain mythical metanarratives as democratizing processes. The final paper of the session dealt with the issues of caste and class and the barriers they present to democracy. This paper used the specific case of Tamil Nadu to discuss the extreme marginalization and oppression of the sub-altern using archival evidence from the colonial era.

Summery in PDF format

Dept. of HSS IIT Madras India-EU Study Centre Programme