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Diversity and Democracy in India


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Diversity and Democracy in India
India is perhaps the largest and most plural society in the world where people speak an array of languages and use a wide range of scripts. All the major religions – Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, and Zoroastrianism - have an enormous number of followers in India. India is the world’s most complex and comprehensively pluralistic society, home to a vast variety of castes, tribes, communities, religions, languages, customs and living styles. The People of India project of the Anthropological Survey of India estimated there are nearly 4,599 separate communities in India with as many as 325 languages and dialects in 12 distinct language families and some 24 scripts. Few Indians are not immigrants, most people have come to a particular part from another part, may be from a neighbouring district, state, more occasionally from distant parts of India. Just to illustrate the complexity of culture, most households in India speak two to three languages. The mosaic of identities that constitute the meaning of Indianness is on display on Republic Day every year. The National Anthem emphasizes diversity in a similar manner. The first verse is a series of names of different geographic regions, ethnicities and cultures. India is hailed as Punjab, Sindh, Gujarat, Maratha, Dravida, Utkala, Banga in the same verse. The Indian subject is thus someone who is at once some other thing at the same time.

Pluralism in a society is the presence of more than one cultural identity among its population. It can be of multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-lingual and other multi-cultural categories. Several of these pluralistic traits - and in some cases almost all of them - can be present in a single society. The central question in any discussion of pluralism in contemporary India is how a vast, multi-ethnic country – in terms of religion, language, community, caste and tribe – has survived as a democratic state and society in conditions of not very conducive to the sustenance of democracy - underdevelopment, mass poverty, illiteracy and extreme regional disparities. The discourse of diversity and the policies of the Indian state with institutions both building and being built by social difference provide some clues to the workings of this approach.

At the time of independence it was widely believed that India with its enormous cultural diversity was unlikely to sustain democratic governance and national unity. India had three possible ways of dealing with its diversities and minorities. It could have opted for a strictly liberal strategy, relying on the logic of democracy, industrialization and judicious public policies to integrate minorities into a cohesive nation-state. Alternatively, India could have pursued a corporatist strategy, in which different communities had autonomous status and ran the state as a partnership. The third strategy was to combine liberalism and pluralism, superimposing a liberal state on relatively autonomous religious communities. The Constitution of India institutionalized the third strategy, and its authors hoped that in time minorities would have enough confidence in the Indian state to rely on primarily liberal individualist principles.

Newly independent Indian nation-state was constituted as a sovereign socialist, secular democratic republic. Three institutions translated this into practice: secularism, federalism and planned economy. The enshrinement of individual as well as group rights in the constitutional framework, accentuated cultural diversity and sub-national identity even as similarity and the even-handed treatment of all Indian citizens were declared to be the goals of the new republic. For example, secularism elaborates a scheme of state neutrality through fostering of equal respect of all religions, rather than through denying religion any role, as was the case with secular doctrines in France or Turkey.

India was thus among the first major democracies in the world to recognize and provide for the right of cultural collectivities - diverse religious and linguistic communities living in the country. The Constitution created an institutional structure and principles that would allow diverse people to live together as citizens of India. The Indian state is based on a Constitution whose secular character has been reaffirmed by an amendment to its Preamble. Confronted with an array of demands from various groups, the Constitution articulates a four-fold response to define the constituent elements of secularism. First, the principle of religious freedom, which gives to every citizen the right to freedom of conscience and the right to profess, practice and propagate religion. Second, the Constitution does not recognize the special status of any religion. Third, the principle of non-discrimination on grounds of caste, place of birth, residence or religion guarantees equal citizenship. Fourth, these rights must be subject to public interest and public order, which requires religions to yield to regulation in the interests of social welfare and reform.

Article 25, 27 and 28 guarantee religious freedom. Article 25 provides that "subject to public order, morality and health... all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess, practice and propagate religion.’ Under Article 27, ‘no person is compelled to pay any taxes, the proceeds of which are specifically appropriated in payment of expenses for the promotion or maintenance of any particular religion or religious denomination.’ Under Article 28(3), ‘no person attending any educational institution... shall be required to take part in any religious instruction or to attend any religious worship that may be conducted in such institution". Articles 14, 15(1), and 29(2) guarantee equality of citizenship. Article 29 is the multicultural clause, which allows minorities to conserve their language and culture. Article 15(1) states that the state shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth. Article 16(1) and (2) provide an equal opportunity for all citizens in matters of employment or appointment to any office under the state. Article 30(1) provides that: ‘All minorities, whether based on religion, or language, shall have the right to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice.’

This response was compelled by three overriding factors specific to India. The first was the magnitude of India's diversity. There is no society in the contemporary world with such staggering cultural diversity as India. These numerous diversities had to be accommodated if India was to become a nation. The secular pluralist state, if you will, is therefore, a fundamental condition of nationhood. Second, the partition of India on religious lines in 1947, especially the bloody aftermath of deteriorating Hindu-Muslim relations, made secularism a necessity. The partition meant that Pakistan might become a homeland for Muslims, but India would remain a home for Hindus, Muslims, Christians and others, and though Pakistan was a Muslim state, there were a very large and significant minority of Muslims in India who had to be accommodated within the nation.

In India no unified law applies to all citizens in respect of marriage and divorce. The Indian legal system is pluralistic in at least two ways. It is pluralistic in the sense that there are distinct personal laws for adherents of different religious faiths. A state sponsored system of codified law and civil and criminal courts coexist with a family court system. Compared to non-discrimination policies towards lower castes, the recognition of personal laws, presents a problem, however, as state policies of accommodation end up reinforcing inequalities and hierarchies within the community. The Shah Bano case and the Muslim Women Protection of Rights on Divorce Act, 1986 showed the limitations of Indian pluralism, how the commitment to cultural rights can sometimes endorse practices that violate gender justice as also the constitutionally sanctions rights of equal citizenship. Moreover, recognition of Muslim personal laws, does not guarantee that Muslims will be treated with respect or dignity. More importantly, it does not follow that Muslims should have a right to laws that are unjust to women. All personal laws have to be judged by a benchmark of equality. Generally speaking personal laws deny women the rights that communities claim for themselves in relation to the state, autonomy, selfhood and access to resources. The crux of the problem is the prima facie incompatibility of personal laws with the available standards of justice and equality. We need to consider what are the limits of cultural rights of communities; should these be determined by constitution makers, states or communities; should there be a set of individual rights which can under no circumstances be trumped by cultural rights of communities? Women’s rights must be enforced irrespective of the group to which women belong. The state must enforce the exercise of such rights no matter how incompatible they are with personal law or customary practices of any group.

India’s linguistic diversity is even more bewildering. There are as many as 1,652 languages and dialects spoken. India has 18 officially recognized languages. Within a decade of India’s independence in 1947, the language issue threatened to tear apart the national fabric. Linguistic movements in various parts of the country posed a serious threat to India’s unity and integrity. However, the political leadership showed exemplary political wisdom and foresight by not only recognizing all major languages as national languages, but also creating linguistic states. The Reorganization of States Act of 1956 sets up linguistically homogeneous state units, thereby recognizing the validity of language as a basis for forming a distinct group. India has thus provided an exemplary model for resolving the language problem.

The first reorganization had undoubtedly extended the democratic dispensation by creating many new centers of regional power with autonomous jurisdiction. It corrected the centralising bias of the Indian Constitution. The first reorganization was based on accommodation of ethno-linguistic and cultural communities, which have since then occupied a pre-eminent place in Indian politics and in the Indian model of governance. But that was the only way India could integrate its diversity and its democratic character. While the first reorganization affected the Indian nation as a whole, the second effort at federal reorganization focused on one region, i.e., the Northeast. The first was guided by the need to federalize the union on an identifiable basis. The second was motivated by concerns over national and territorial security in the Northeast. Electoral calculations were no doubt important in the 1970s, but they were not the only reasons for the division of Assam. While the first reorganization breathed life into the governance model of relational control and interlocking balances, the second reorganization sought to protect that design by giving new states a stake in India’s territorial integrity.

As the ethno-linguistic communities are, by and large, mostly territorially rooted, territorial solutions in the form of different degrees of statehood have worked. Statehood and other such demands are predicated on collective or group of ethnic communities. The Indian Constitution makes the conservation and cultivation of such, the fundamental right of every citizen of India. Article 29 (1) says that any section of the citizens of India having a distinct language, script or culture of its own shall have the fundamental right to conserve the same. This means that if a cultural minority wants to preserve its own language and culture, the state cannot by law impose on it any other culture belonging to the local majority. Both religious and linguistic minorities are protected by this provision. The constitution also defines a positive, directional role for the state in this respect. It directs every state (federal unit) to provide adequate facilities for instruction in the mother tongue at the primary stage of education of children belonging to linguistic minority groups, and empowers the President to issue proper direction to any state (Article 350 A)

In recent years, the 28 states of India’s federal system have played a more prominent role in India’s public life. Not least has been their contribution to helping India live peacefully with difference. In a world where armed strife has increasingly taken the form of civil war and ethnic cleansing, India’s federal system has helped to keep cultural and ethnic peace. State autonomy and statehood for territorially based regional/linguistic identities remains the most comprehensive method of political recognition of identity in India, and the key to India’s multicultural federalization. The essence of the statehood demand has always been the congruence between federal political boundaries and the ethno-linguistic boundaries of the people. At the heart of such demands remains the urge for decentralization and autonomy for the protection of identity and for development. The political processes which have accompanied the legal-constitutional ones are often protracted negotiations between the governments (Union and state), and the ethnic movements, and the resultant bipartite or tripartite “Ethnic Peace Accords” are signed, and honoured by subsequent legislation, for institutionalizing peace in the shape of democratic local governing bodies. Given the complex diversity of this vast country, coupled with regional imbalances, social and economic inequalities and mass poverty, statehood provides an institutional framework of autonomy and decentralization which may respond better to the need for development and identity.

On the other hand, splitting up existing federal units and creating new ones is only one of the many strategies that democracies can deploy to contain ethnic conflicts. Over the past five decades since independence, the Indian governments have entered into various ethnic accords (as for example, that between the Rajiv Gandhi government and Sikh and Assamese militants in the mid-eighties), created Regional Councils straddling several state units (as in the Northeast), and constituted district level Autonomous Councils to address the needs of smaller ethnic regions surrounded by competing ethnic communities. Other strategies range from federal arrangement to the inclusion of nationalities based on a layered sovereignty. The special constitutional status granted (Article 370) to include the state of Jammu and Kashmir within the Indian union is an example of the latter. While each strategy has a variable record of ethnic containment, the creation of new state units is easily the most successful one in India.

Over the past fifty years the world’s largest democracy, has developed an affirmative action programme, which by any standards is unprecedented in both its scope and extent. These policies are a system of quotas designed to increase opportunities in employment, education and legislatures for lower castes. In India social inequality goes beyond caste-based discrimination; it revolves around three main axes, which include caste and tribal status, religion and gender, yet, caste remains the crux of reservation policies. The Constitution in Article 16(4) permits the state to make ‘any provision for the reservation of appointments or posts in favour of any backward class of citizens which, in the opinion of the state, is not adequately represented in the services under the state.’ After independence the state, following the dictates of the Constitution, sought to eliminate the effects of historical disadvantage by bringing in reservations for identified Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in governments and legislatures. In Part XVI (Special Provisions Relating to Certain Classes), the Constitution provided for the reservation of seats in the legislatures as also in public employment and educational institutions funded by the state; and for the creation of a body to monitor all these safeguards. These policies reserve government jobs, college and university admissions, and legislative seats for groups officially identified as backward, that is, members of Scheduled in government jobs for the scheduled castes and tribes has to some extent guaranteed their participation in public employment. It has given them an influential presence in national and state legislatures. Though the government’s position was that only these two groups are entitled to reservations, it has been extended to the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in education and public employment since 1994. The rationale of the Mandal Commission (1990) was to break the upper caste monopoly on government jobs and the professions, unchanged by two centuries of modern education and nearly half a century of democracy.

Large sections of Indians, including the most backward dalits, have acquired a new sense of dignity and self-respect, and have used political mobilization and access to the state to assert and promote their interests at all levels of political life. What we have witnessed is a greater inclusion of the lower strata of the people at the local, state, and national levels in a process that can be described as the transfer of power from the upper castes to the lower castes with major political consequences. At the turn of the twenty-first century, lower-caste chief ministers are no longer rare, and at least one national cabinet had almost no upper caste members. The logic of one person, one vote in free and fair elections has put power in the hands of the more numerous lower castes. Strong central governments based on sturdy one-party majorities in the Lok Sabha have given way to precarious coalitions that must cater to state parties in order to survive.

One of the biggest challenges of our time is how do we learn to live in proximity to difference – different skin colours, different beliefs, and different ways of life. How do we peacefully talk to and negotiate with people with whom we may violently disagree? This is not easy but increasingly necessary in the contemporary world with so much movement of peoples, cultures and ideas. In this regard, the Indian experience offers some helpful lessons for diverse societies. The Indian experience shows that a delicate balance has been struck between individual and collective rights, the forces of centralization and decentralization, and the accommodation of diversity and universalism in society. At the same time, the Indian experience also highlights the limits of pluralism and diversity as a state driven approach. The Indian underlines the need to be wary of the idea of respect for all diversities and pluralities when we know that all identities, cultures and communities are not homogeneous or equal and hence do not deserve accommodation. Also neither pluralism nor multiculturalism adequately allow for the fact that identities change and so do group formations, and new identities emerge. The point is that the privileging of difference creates an unbridgeable distance between groups and this stands in the way of equal respect and can sometime sanction exclusion and discrimination. Moreover, when the need for cultural difference becomes an end in itself, it reinforces inequalities and undermines the pursuit of the general interest and common good. Multiculturalism does not address the tension between identity and belonging on the one hand and the requirements of individual autonomy and equality on the other. The crucial question is whether we can claim and justify the right to a way of life on behalf of the whole community and at the same time deny the individual the exercise of the same right. The question is simply this: how much difference is to be defended and when does upholding difference mean that the dominant sections become the arbiters of life of the people. While it is important to reduce the sense of disadvantage and vulnerability, but this must be done in ways that does not erase the possibility of transcultural universals, and not in a way that would replace the power of the state with that of the community.


Zoya Hasan

Jawaharlal Nehru University



Member, India-European Union Round Table


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