Posted on February 6, 2011.
By Gerard Best
1.1 billion. That’s the estimated population of India. As I type, there are two days, eight hours, forty-nine minutes and forty seconds standing between the Indian population and the 2011 Census Day. Who knows what the new official population figure will be?
The last time that I tried to fathom the reality of 1.1 billion people was last week Thursday, when I was standing on a bridge in the middle of the 25th Surajkund Craft Mela, looking back at the main entrance and baffled at the ceaselessness of the stream of people continually making their way into the fair. The bridge that I was standing on was surrounded by a forty-acre spread of colourful cultural displays, and almost every square foot seemed already crammed full with people from across India and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries.
How would they all fit, I wondered, although I could hardly hear myself think over the cultural performance that was going on just a few feet away from me. Traditional drums of all sizes rang out in ancient syncopations, as uniformed school girls danced in circles around two male dancers dressed in traditional garb, much to the delight of the gathering crowd of male onlookers, the entire scene an effortless kaleidoscope of flailing arms and rhythmic hips.
The Hyderabad drummers delivered the first of many open air performances that included traditional dances from various Rajasthan, Assam and Gujarat. The array of cultural performances, like the influx of warm bodies, continued all day.
The sheer mass of people got me thinking about the unfathomability (if there were such a word) of populations such as India’s and China’s, which in turn got me thinking about the audacity of a project such as an Indian National Census, or any attempt to go out and count a billion people for that matter. How many of them are here right now, I wondered. In some stalls, the vendors were almost literally heaped atop each other, not unlike the indigenous crafts that they were offering to the constant stream of passers-by, often for quite reasonable prices.
By the time I traversed the first of the Mela’s ten zones, I had seen rugs from Afghanistan, religious paintings from West Bengal, scarves from Tibet, and handcrafted jewelry from Nepal. So this is multiculturalism, for real.
A term as vague as multiculturalism has as many definitions as there are people to define it. And in India, that’s saying a lot!
Most recently, UK Prime Minister David Cameron said publicly that ‘state multiculturalism’ had failed and left young Muslims vulnerable to radicalisation. Cameron’s comments seem to echo those made by Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, last year and reflect a push by many European governments to try to deal with persistent domestic tensions between different cultures through more aggressive “integration” strategies.
There may be something that England could learn from her former colonies in South Asia, though. Like, say, what words like “integration” and “multicultural” really mean. Maybe the UK PM could pencil a visit to Faridabad into his schedule for this week. I said before that there were 1.1 billion ways to define multiculturalism. By the time the new Census is completed, I hope that both the UK PM and I stand corrected.