In theory,democracy may mean government of the people,by the people,for the people. But from the history of democracies,it is evident that in multi-cultural,multi-racial or multi-ethnic societies,to start with,democracies are,at best,government of the majority,by the majority,for the majority. At times,they even degenerate into mobocracy,under the watch of a partisan state. Democracies self-check,evolve and mature only to the extent they show fidelity to the inviolable universal principles of human rights,civil liberties,constitutional governance.
Indian democracy is no exception. At its best,majoritarianism remains the rule,irrespective of the party in power. For proof,read the report of the high-powered Sachar Committee for abundant evidence of institutionalised discrimination against the countrys Muslims. At its worst,there is state-complicit,even state-sponsored,mob terror unleashed on Indias religious minorities. The most gruesome examples of these are the targeting of Muslims (Nellie,1983; Bhagalpur,1989; Bombay,1992-93; Gujarat,1992 and 2002),Sikhs (Delhi,1984),Kashmiri Pandits (J&K,1989),Christians (Kandhamal,2008).
Any honest appraisal of Ashutosh Varshneys articles in these pages (Modi needs a Vajpayee,December 25,2012 and Why India must allow hyphens,February 13,2013) must factor in this grim reality of Indias nascent democracy. Far from doing so,intervening in the great debate triggered by Varshney,first Harsh Gupta and Rajeev Mantri (One versus group,February 13,2013) and then the BJPs official spokesperson,Nirmala Sitharaman (The tyranny of hyphens,February 20,2013),misread or misinterpret others arguments and shoot off at tangents in their eagerness to promote the BJPs prime ministerial aspirant-in-chief,Narendra Modi. Sitharaman even makes the fanciful claim that Varshneys arguments violate the Constitution.
If Varshneys ideal democracy is a salad bowl where carrots and cucumbers,tomatoes and turnips retain their distinctive identity but together make for a wholesome treat the ideal for Gupta,Mantri and Sitharaman is the melting pot. In the vocabulary of political science,the former is called integration that celebrates diversity,the latter assimilation of the minority within the majority. Varshney points to American democracy as a good example of the former,France as that of the latter. Nowhere does Varshney portray the US as heaven on earth. This does not stop Sitharaman from enumerating Uncle Sams imperfections to trash Varshneys preference for colourful social salad over monochrome soup. But she is silent on whether her Sangh Parivar would like the French model replicated in India: no gods and goddesses,no puja paath,no trace of religion in schools,police stations,train stations,banks,government offices.
What is Hindutvas offer: secularism or cultural hegemony?
Deliberately or otherwise,Gupta and Mantri misinterpret what Will Kymlicka,the Canadian political philosopher and leading proponent of multiculturalism,means by external protections (which he supports) and internal restrictions (which he opposes). Stated simply,the former means protecting minorities from majoritarian hegemony; the latter grants to minorities the right to culture so long as they do not trample upon the rights and liberties of individuals or minorities within minorities. The Gupta,Mantri and Sitharaman trio take serious issue with the Indian Muslim males right to multiple spouses. Kymlicka without doubt will agree with them,and so do I. The unjust,anti-women Muslim Personal Law must go. Yet,who else but cultural nationalists would reduce a debate on minority rights to the polygamy issue?
As for the rights of religious and linguistic minorities to establish and administer educational institutions,the threesome might wish to note that they are embedded in the fundamental rights section of the Constitution and are part of the universally recognised external protections that a civilised democracy assures to minorities to preserve their language,script,culture. Who would dare deny to the Gujarati-speaking in Mumbai,for example,the right to run their educational institutions?
Were Kymlicka addressing the Indian reality,like Varshney,he too would focus on the main story: the twin malaise of institutionalised discrimination and the rampant culture of impunity (whereby perpetrators of mass crimes go unpunished). Understandably,such an approach does not suit Modi loyalists,for doing so would bring the Modi problem into sharp relief. Two examples should suffice.
Institutionalised discrimination: Having accepted the findings of the Sachar Committee and pledged to implement its recommendations,the Union government has made a miserly start through a scheme of scholarships to students from minority communities. The scheme is being implemented across the country for the last few years. The Modi government,however,doggedly refuses to implement it,claiming it amounts to minority appeasement. A division bench of the Gujarat High Court ruled that a scheme for affirmative action is not unconstitutional. The Modi government,most likely,will appeal in the Supreme Court.
Culture of impunity: In her end-August 2012 judgment delivered in the Naroda Patiya carnage case,Judge Jyotsna Yagnik sentenced 32 persons to life imprisonment. Maya Kodnani,a BJP MLA in 2002,was singled out for 28 years in prison as the judge found her guilty of criminal conspiracy and of being the kingpin of the worst carnage of 2002 (97 killed). Could Modi,chief minister and home minister of Gujarat since 2002,have been clueless about this when he appointed her a cabinet minister in 2007?
In the case currently before a magistrates court in Ahmedabad,Zakia Jafri,survivor of the massacre at Gulberg Society,claims Modi and 61 others were also part of the conspiracy. Notwithstanding all the development claims of Modi and his supporters,the dead of Gujarat 2002 must be accounted for. Way to go for a civilised democracy.
The writer is co-editor,Communalism Combat,and general secretary,Muslims for Secular Democracy