Shaped by India

Print edition : November 16, 2012

Arvinn E. Gadgil, Norway's Deputy Minister for International Development, during an interview in New Delhi on October 8.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

Norwegian Minister Arvinn Gadgil's politics is shaped by his early experiences in India.

ARVINN E. GADGIL was one Norwegian child who heard the Indian national anthem sung as a lullaby. For this 32-year-old Deputy Minister from Norway, it was perhaps his earliest association with India. My father is a terrible singer but he knew one song, and that was Jana Gana Mana, which he used to sing every night when I went to sleep. I remember asking him what it meant and he would explain the meaning of the song. That was close to a physical relationship with India.

For Gadgil, born to an Indian father, a first-generation immigrant in northern Norway, and a Norwegian mother, this was the beginning of his long association with India, an experience that he says has helped shape both his thinking and personality.

Gadgil became a State Secretary, that is, a Deputy Minister, for International Development in April. His appointment was seen by the world as an effort by the Norwegian government to reach out to the 13.1 per cent immigrant population in Norway. It was viewed as a fitting response to Anders Breiviks shocking assault on Norwegian multiculturalism last year when he killed 77 people in the twin attacks in Utoya and Oslo. In September, Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg appointed Hadia Tajik, a 29-year-old Muslim woman of Pakistani origin, the new Culture Minister.

A member of the Socialist Left Party of Norway, Gadgil sees his Indian background as one of the most influential factors in what he does today. Recently in New Delhi (on October 8 and 9) for an international seminar on energy access, Gadgil recalls the experiences that influenced him the most during his formative years: My father was the first brown person to be in a northern Norwegian city, far above the Arctic Circle. It was a very homogenous society then. When I think back, he was very much a person of two worlds and that affected me. During my childhood, we would go as often as we could to India. In the 1980s, travelling was expensive and we used to save for at least three years to come to Maharashtra, where my grandparents and other relatives lived.

As a 12-year-old in 1992, around Christmas time, I have a clear image [of me] standing on the roof of a house in Juhu, Bombay [now Mumbai]. Hordes of people were running with hand-made torches and tyres above their heads. It was one of those terrible riots in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition. At that time, I realised India was a very different world from what I was used to. My uncle whom we stayed with was married to a Muslim. Her brothers office was completely destroyed and burnt to the ground. My uncles office was looted. I could never understand at that time how this was possible. The magic with India is that you can never come to India and leave without more questions to answer than when you arrived, he tells Frontline.

That was the first time, Gadgil says, he realised that India was very different from Norway. We are from a generation that does not have memories of Partition. But I knew the importance of an independent nation from my grandfather. He was one of the first Directors of Air India. He told me that it was much more than just a job. A flag-carrier airline was symbolic of independence and power. The most hi-tech thing that you could do [at] that time was flying in the sky. For India to be able to show that we could run it with Indian engineers and [Indian] people was an extremely important point to make. Ever since, I knew that I will have a continuing relationship with India, and that is why I decided to come to India for high school in Pune in 1997. As a Deputy Minister now, I have the opportunity to meet India as a foreign actor, have a professional relationship with India, and at the same time I feel very intrinsic to Indian culture, he says.

Intellectual growth

Gadgil, despite being a Norwegian citizen, remains empathetic to immigrants problems. Not because he thinks he is one of them but because he knows what his father went through. My father decided to come to Norway after his marriage. He immediately got a job but was also physically assaulted. And yet, he decided to stay with my mother. But I feel that northern Norway was much more tolerant than the south as it is surrounded by three countries and houses the Norwegian adivasis, the Sami people, he says.

His exposure to India at an early age also contributed to his tolerance, and also his choice of being part of the Norwegian socialist party. When I compare Norway and India, the first thing I always remember is never to generalise Indian culture. It is much easier to generalise Norway. One of the most important facets Amartya Sen shows in his book The Argumentative Indian is a culture of intellectualism in India. It is a very rich aspect of Indian society and has a pronounced impact on civil society movements. Norway, too, is vibrant but it doesnt have a wide variety of political actors. Extreme inequality is what differentiates India from Norway the most. Norway is much more equal though the scale, of course, is completely different. Bombay has three times more population than the whole of Norway, he says.

Gadgil went to an international school in Pune where he recalls his first engagement with Indian politics, which he considers the second most important experience in his life after witnessing the riots in Mumbai. The Shiv Sena was at its peak at that time. It was opposed to the opening of an international school in Pune. The government used to cut electricity and water supply to our school, and we had to protest actively to restore them. In a way, what happened helped me understand Indian politics. In 1998, during the Kargil war, I saw four fighter jets flying from the Air Force base in Pune. That feeling of being in a country gearing towards war will never leave me. It was a situation of contrast for me because I saw the war from a school where 94 of the 100 students were of different nationalities. While I accepted the contrast, I also knew that there were other solutions than the populist war rhetoric that had gripped Indian politics that time, he recalls.

Gadgils continuously evolving comparative perspectives, honed further by higher education in the London School of Economics and Political Science, have helped him in his life as a politician. While comparing Norway and India, he tells Frontline that Norway has a better social security net than India.

But we have to remember that the evolution of the Scandinavian welfare system did not come about without a conflict. It came about after a constant conflict of interests; it is still evolving. It is a brave ambition in India, but I think it is possible. The key to it is to realise the value of common ownership: that every human being has the same value and this has to be reflected in all the institutions of the state. The social security sense in India is different, though not in terms of materiality. In Norway, you never bring a family member to the hospital, but in India, you almost never go to a hospital without a family member. The culture of how people involve themselves in the lives of others is completely different here. Family as a unit is very strong in India, and Norway, perhaps, has to learn this aspect, he says.

In Norway, a large number of ageing people get food, housing and other welfare benefits but what they lack is human contact. That aspect is much stronger in India, he adds.

Problems facing Norway

Fifty per cent of the young people in Spain are out of jobs. It is a very worrying trend. For me, the present crisis in Europe is not a financial one or a crisis of markets. It is a human crisis. To call it a financial crisis is misleading. Norway, so far, has remained unaffected. But it will have its cascading effects. If the oil demand goes down, we will have to increase interest rates. And then, in an economy like Norway, which banks so much on oil and gas, it will be a huge problem as we take a lot of debts. So, our main concern is to understand how we fit into this present crisis. We are still managing it by investing in offshore activities and technology, says Gadgil.

While he is concerned about the economy, he is also worried about the fading out of political movements in Norway.

After the Anders Breivik episode, the immediate response was one of shock and disbelief. But extremist trends started around 10 years ago when, suddenly, the vibrant anti-racist movements of Norway disappeared. It was no longer fashionable to be an anti-racist. My parents, I remember, spent a lot of their free time in protesting against racism and [for] having a multicultural society. Clearly, a few people are exposing the weaknesses of our system, he says.

To manage to go from curiosity to suspicion about immigrants and not the other way round is very easy. In government, we need to find [out] how policies influence decisions in public life and everyday life of people, say in schools, workplaces, etc. We need to make formal structures in such a way that minority groups can participate. Creating informal structures is not in the hands of the government. But policies will eventually have an impact on how society functions in the years to come. That is our biggest challenge. We are not successful right now, but the challenge is to engage immigrants in political life, says Gadgil.

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