To understand how India is dealing with its minority question, with its fluid majority-minority relationship, it is sometimes useful to look at episodes elsewhere, and extract the principles that are being negotiated in these other societies, which are to govern this relationship. In all societies today, the majority-minority relationship has become a contested one. Minorities are refusing to be integrated on terms that they find undignified and dismissive of their particular cultural practices. In many countries of Europe cultural pluralism is a fact. It has now become a political concern. What had been suppressed, or denied for a long time, has now acquired a voice. Politics is giving it the space for articulation. In what follows, I shall look at a recent episode in Switzerland that has generated, and is generating even as recently as early April, an interesting public debate. We can draw lessons from it for India as we come to terms with our own increasingly contested pluralism.

In the small town of Therwil, with a population of not more than 10,000, in the canton of Basel in Switzerland, a handshake was offered and was declined. Two young boys, brothers aged 14 and 15, refused to shake the hand of their teacher, a woman, on the grounds that it was against their religion to touch a woman who was not a member of their family. Their request for exemption – from a common cultural tradition in Switzerland where the teacher greets each student with a handshake at the start and the close of each class – was accepted by the school authorities. In a gesture of conciliation, and seeking a balance between different norms, the authorities ruled that the Muslim boys would not be permitted (or required) – depending on the reports one reads – to shake the hands of teachers of either gender. They would instead greet the teachers verbally. This was a concession that was made only for them.

When news of the compromise was broadcast some months after the issue had been decided in the school, there was a furore across Switzerland. It was seen as an unacceptable disregard of a settled national cultural tradition. It was held to be discriminatory towards the female teacher. It was regarded as the thin edge of the wedge that would bring, in its wake, more such requests for the accommodation of practices deemed to be morally regressive. If the aim of the school, and of the education authorities in the town, was to integrate the new residents within the wider culture of Switzerland, then this compromise was a backward step. A handshake offered, and declined, became a national controversy.

Political, not just cultural

This apparently small episode in Therwil is being presented as just a local cultural issue, which, in the context of the Swiss federation, should be allowed to be dealt with locally. This is a right demand since there is a federal issue here. The subsidiarity principle – that is if an issue can be addressed by local authorities it should not be addressed by a higher authority – is an important principle in Federal Germany. Recognising this does not, however, detract from my desire to explore the issue since I want to examine it for its implications for plural democracies. Small episodes, such as this, have significant implications for our rules of cohabitation. We have to investigate what these implications are. We need, therefore, to study the episode carefully, and to make fine distinctions while doing so, such that we can distinguish the episode from other similar cases like the wearing of turbans by Sikhs in the US Army (something which has just been conceded), or the non-availability of ham sandwiches at a Muslim bakery (which Charlie Hebdo in its March 30 editorial, "How did we end up here?" has decried). We need to find, in the episode, the general principles for co-living in a modern democracy.

Having set out the objective of our discussion let me therefore respond to some of the arguments made. The first, the integration argument, states that the minority Muslim community must be integrated into the wider Swiss society. This is nothing more than a carryover of the old assimilation argument of French and Portuguese colonialism. It demands that the minority community abandon its practices and become like the majority community, that is, become more French or Portuguese. As Frantz Fanon said, it was a demand to become white.

The colonial project of assimilating the natives (read minorities) into their superior culture, so that the latter can be liberated from their inferior cultures, according to Aime Cesaire, and given the freedoms of European enlightenment, has no more purchase today. Assimilation or integration is no longer acceptable by minorities who instead demand recognition of their cultures as they seek to move the nation towards a new cultural pluralism. This is, they correctly argue, the lesson of history and hence a new Swiss (or French) nation has to be imagined today. The old imagination has outlived its utility. Recognising this fact still requires us to ask whether this new imagination implies an accommodation of any (and all) demands for recognition made by the minority community on the grounds that it is part of their religious practice and essential to their cultural identity?

An overlapping consensus

Which brings us to the second issue to be considered: When are claims for recognition of cultural practices, made by either the majority or the minority community, to be either accepted or rejected on the grounds that they are crucial to defining who they are? Since the politics of recognition has now gained considerable traction, compromising with these practices, it is argued, would result in a weakening of cultural identity.

In the current episode, two such claims are in conflict, that of the majority community to shake the hand of all members of the relevant group, as a mark of equality and welcome, and that of the minority community to decline shaking the hand of a woman who is not a member of one’s family. Keeping in mind the fact that we are seeking the principles of dignified co-living in a plural society, the question we need to ask is whether the solution offered by the school, of permitting the boys to decline the handshake, is acceptable?

I think not. But to make this case we need to make some additional distinctions. We need to first distinguish between self-regarding and other-regarding actions where, in the former case, one’s cultural practices are not the legitimate subject of external intervention whereas in the latter case they are. The handshake is an other-regarding action since it involves a teacher and a student. It is hence a legitimate subject for moral scrutiny. The teacher shaking hands with all students, irrespective of class, gender, race, or ethnicity, is a wonderful practice because it is non-discriminatory. In contrast, declining to shake hands is discriminatory and offensive especially since it applies only to women. In India, such a handshake would be hugely liberating for Dalit children in village schools who have to endure discrimination by teachers on a regular basis. In a Swiss school too it retains its moral significance especially since the action takes place not in a private space, one’s house, where the grounds for the intervention by external authority is weak, but in a quasi-public space, a school. It is the public space that gives an edge to the discussion.

Here all members who voluntarily enter, and join, a mixed community accept that in such quasi-public spaces there will be different cultural practices some of which will clash with others. If we have to create a space where we can all be comfortable, the overlapping consensus of John Rawls, we would need to compromise our individual practices and move towards common practices that are discursively agreed upon without majoritarian imposition. One such principle is non-discrimination. If individual practices are discriminatory then they must be changed. As anyone who has experienced race, class, caste and gender discrimination will aver, non-discrimination must be a core principle of co-living in public spaces.

Constructed essentialism

But what if the practice to be abandoned is central to one’s cultural identity and abandoning it would diminish one’s sense of self. This argument takes us in an essentialist direction, that is, the practice is essential to defining who I am and therefore it must be addressed. The first is to ask whether the practice is merely a community cultural practice or does it also have scriptural sanction. If it is the former then there may be scope for compromise since it emerges from rules made by humans and hence can be changed by humans if the community so decides. This happens all the time in the life of a community. One has only to look at the changing practices of celebrating births and marriages to realise that no cultural practice is cast in stone. Communities adapt and change. Their re-interpretation of practices depends on many factors including local contingencies. This is true for all communities, everywhere.

But what if the cultural practice has scriptural sanction, making it divinely ordained and not a human creation. Here too, the history of communities shows that interpretation of the scriptures is a hallowed tradition and constitutes an important aspect of scriptural revelation. It depends on the elders of the community and on their reading of the political moment. A survey will show that there is no universal practice among the claimed religious community. The essentialism of the religious practice, which is what is being claimed, is not historically sustainable within the larger religious community across the world. It may thus be only the religious practice of the smaller community, which is primarily a cultural not a religious community. We see this in the wide variations in personal laws across the Muslim world and the different schools of Islamic law. So presenting the practice as essential to one’s identity cannot be sustained. The time for the elders to imaginatively interpret the practice may have arrived in Switzerland.

Principles of co-living

The basis to do so is to identify principles of dignified co-living in public spaces. Recognition of difference is one such principle. Non-discrimination and granting respect is another. If difference becomes discriminatory then the recognition given to that different practice must be withdrawn. The practice must be replaced by a non-discriminatory practice. This is the Dalit demand. This is the feminist demand. This is the difference between a veil and a handshake. In public spaces, other-regarding actions, which discriminate must be opposed, even if such practices are sanctioned by religion. These have been the gains of the anti-racist, anti-caste, and feminist movements. We must defend these gains.

Peter Ronald deSouza is a Professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi, and holds the Dr S Radhakrishnan Chair of the Rajya Sabha in India.