Lord Bhikhu Parekh acquired that distinction last week. At a prestigious meeting and dinner in the Attlee Room of the House of Lords on 24 March, a volume of 14 essays written by eminent political philosophers from all over the world was presented to him. The elegant volume of nearly 400 pages titled Multiculturalism Rethought is edited by Dr Varun Uberoi and Professor Tariq Modood and published by Edinburgh University Press. The essays in it discuss Parekh’s life and work and salute his contribution as a political philosopher and public intellectual.
As usual on such occasions, the evening began with a panel discussion of the book. It was chaired by Lord Giddens, one of Britain’s most distinguished sociologists and ex-Director of the London School of Economics. The panellists included Baroness Onora O’Neill, Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission and past president of the British Academy, Professor John Dunn, an internationally celebrated Professor of political philosophy in the University of Cambridge, and Professor Michael Kenny of the Queen Mary College of the University of London whose work on cultural diversity is widely acclaimed. Each of them highlighted different aspects of Parekh’s work, showing why it deserves to be honoured as well as where it needed to be taken further.
The dinner that followed included not only eminent political philosophers but also Lord Morgan, Lord Grocott, Lady Gavron, Baroness Royall, Lord Raymond Plant and Lord Noon.
In his speech Professor Parekh said that he would not claim that he deserved the honour, as that would be both arrogant and wrong, or that he did not deserve, it as that would question the judgement and wisdom of those who had edited and written for the volume. All he could do was to accept the honour with humility and deepest gratitude.
He began by expressing his profound gratitude to Dr Uberoi and Professor Modood for initiating the volume and seeing it through its various stages. They, especially Uberoi, had done far more than could be expected of any editor. He also thanked those who had written for the volume, and many others who had shaped and guided his intellectual life. He particularly thanked those who had critically commented on his work over the years and contributed to his intellectual growth, In the Indian tradition, he said, one owed a great debt to one’s critics for forcing one to define one’s views clearly and testing one’s commitment to them.
A debt of gratitude was owed also to one’s enemies, for precisely the same reasons, who therefore at the deepest level were no longer seen as enemies. His life, he said, had been a struggle, beginning in a small Indian village with a poorly equipped school and a family in which no one had completed high School education. He had learnt important lesson, which he shared with the audience, and warned against equating career with life. He narrated his associations with great British intellectuals. In particular he remembered Sir Isaiah Berlin who said to Parekh after his return from India that he was struck by the fact that no two Indian faces looked alike and that some such as Nehru’s had Roman features.
In his reply Lord Raymond Plant, an internationally acclaimed Professor of Philosophy and Jurisprudence at Kings College, London who had done his doctoral research under Parekh’s supervision, saluted him as a scholar, a teacher and a fine human being. Parekh, he said, had a wonderfully acute mind and great human warmth and had shaped his capacity for analytical and critical thinking.
Lord Parekh is the only Indian political philosopher and one of the very few Indian academics to receive such a remarkable distinction. Professor Modood, a distinguished professor of sociology at Bristol University and internationally recognised for his great contribution to the study of ethnicity and religion, explained why he and Uberoi had planned the volume. Parekh was a remarkable political philosopher who had published major books on several great philosophers and concepts and contributed greatly to political philosophy including a theory of multiculturalism. Parekh was also an excellent example of public service and intellectual public engagement. He had been a member of several government and non-government commission and influenced the ideas of ordinary citizens, policy makers and intellectuals. He had been a guide and inspiration to many, which is why so many eminent scholars from different parts of the world had so readily agreed to contribute to the volume.