Bobby Jindal, child of Indian immigrants to the United States, once ran for governor of Louisiana. Though he lost a close election, he was a popular, credible gubernatorial candidate; and to the extent that elections in the States are funded with public money, that money flowed to candidate Jindal. What’s my point? That he was treated as just another American running for a state’s highest elected office.
Should he not have been? Should he instead have been greeted, when he decided to run, with a statement of government policy saying, “We expect that immigrants will not expect the United States to accommodate their aspirations to political power; therefore, they and their progeny cannot run for political office.”?
Or take Kalpana Chawla, herself an emigrant from Haryana to the United States. When she began work on the American education that turned her into an accomplished scientist and astronaut, should she have been stymied by another policy that said, “Immigrants must not expect the United States to accommodate their intellectual needs.”?
Of course not. There is something absurd about even concocting these hypothetical policy statements, and by now you are undoubtedly wondering why I’m doing it. After all, Jindal is a citizen of his democratic country, as was Chawla, and that’s all that matters. And that spirit should be all that matters, too, when it comes to deciding—of all things—what books are available in a democratic country’s public libraries.
Yet, in a recent Indian Express column that had some people—well, me—spluttering in disbelief, Jaithirth (“Jerry”) Rao, one of India’s most dynamic and celebrated entrepreneurs, expressed astonishment that British taxes pay for British public libraries to stock books in Indian languages. This is the fruit of misguided multiculturalism, he wrote, promoted by egregious “entitlement-seekers.” He wished that the British government would make this announcement: “We will expect that once [immigrants] are here, they will blend into our culture and not expect Britain to accommodate their cultural needs.”
If cultural needs must run into hostility on this scale, why not Jindal’s political needs and Chawla’s intellectual needs?
Here’s what I think Jerry Rao misses. The presence of Tamil and Bengali books in Britain’s public libraries is hardly the result of multiculturalism gone haywire, or of pandering to those suave scoundrels, the entitlement-seekers. Instead, it embodies something simple: when people immigrate into a democracy, a time will come when those immigrants’ character and needs express themselves: culturally, politically, intellectually—maybe even gastronomically and horticulturally.
Naturally, it won’t happen with the first immigrant. Indian books did not appear in British libraries with the earliest Rajiv Varmas and Sulekha Ramanathans who moved to that country. In the same way, multiculturalists and entitlement-seekers notwithstanding, I’m pretty sure British libraries don’t have books in Yurok, the language spoken only by a few remaining Native Americans who live in northern California. (The irony is that California public libraries stock books in the immigrant tongue, English, and not Yurok.)
But by circa 2005, enough people of Indian origin have come to live in Britain that when they express their needs, that expression is respected, coming as it does from the British citizens they are. And that’s as it should be. Democracies, by definition, pay attention to the views of their minorities. In fact, the essence of a democracy is that its minority voices are heard, and majority rule emerges out of that sensitivity.
Considered this way, Bobby Jindal’s political ambitions are no different from British libraries’ collections of books in Indian (or other) languages. For that matter, neither phenomenon is different from the way pizza has become more American than Italian; or from the way Kalpana Chawla became a NASA astronaut; or from how Parsis practice their own religion in India. Countries built on immigration are like that. That is exactly how immigrants enrich their chosen homes: they bring with them their own history, experience, and culture.
Nor does this apply only to immigrants going to other countries. Within countries also, you’ll find examples of it. The Indian state supports television channels in multiple Indian languages, all broadcast all across this land. Taxpayer-funded universities offer programs in various languages. Why, they even offer French, and that offering could hardly have been dictated by floods of Francophones immigrating into India. Instead, it answers the desire of Indians, few though they are, who see value in French.
Rao observes that all countries have a “hard core of racist yobs,” intolerant of immigration and its implications, and rampant multiculturalism only plays into their hands. Maybe so. But how do you fight yobs? Surely not by caving in to their pet peeve that the parasitic immigrant is forcing the honest taxpayer into unnecessary contortions in the name of multiculturalism. (How different is that from the yahoos who periodically demand that Bombay be closed off to parasitic outsiders?)
The truth is simple, maybe too simple for yobs but true nevertheless: immigrants are taxpayers too, and citizens just as much as the yobs themselves.
And a reasonably responsible British government, responding to resentment over British library spending on Urdu books, would make just one point: Setting up a library means stocking it with books, which means Urdu books as well. You’re in a country where various languages are spoken, and you want a library? Simple: the library will have books in those languages.
That should be simple enough even for yobs to understand.
A computer scientist by training, Dilip D’Souza now writes for his supper in Bombay. His main interests are social and political issues in India.