Ever since the swearing-in of the NDA government on May 26, the media has been highlighting the under-representation of Muslims in the new cabinet. Muslims make for around 14 per cent of India’s population. However, of the 45 ministers in Modi’s cabinet, Najma Heptulla is the lone Muslim face. Among others representing religious minorities is a Sikh woman, daughter-in-law of Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal. This is a sharp contrast to the outgoing UPA government, which not only had a much larger representation of Muslims and Christians but was also led by a Sikh. Even though the BJP is known to be a Hindutva party, it did not go into elections with a majoritarian agenda. On the contrary, it approached all sections of Indian society with promises of good governance, development and a stable government.
In India, diversity does not just mean a descriptive account of the country’s demographics. It has also come to be a core value of popular politics. There is something different and critical about the value of diversity in the ways in which democratic politics has come to be institutionalised in India. The idea of a modern constitutional democracy was invented in the West. The nationalist leadership that led the fight for India’s independence, in the name of freedom and democracy, had acquired these values from Western political cultures. Large parts of the Indian Constitution, too, were adapted from the constitutions and practices of democratic countries of the West. However, over the last six decades, India and its political cultures have evolved locally. They offer something different and much more advanced than what we see in the West today. In academic circles, Indian democracy has come to be viewed as a distinct model, which could perhaps offer important lessons to other democratic countries of the emerging world today, including the Western world.
Democracy and the bourgeois economy are believed to be open systems, founded on the ideas of freedom, liberty and equality. However, the modern democratic politics of western Europe appeared along with the emergence of nation states. It is within the framework of nation states that most of its practices were institutionalised. Within their territorial boundaries, democratic regimes promised equal citizenship, but nation states were by definition “closed” and exclusionary.
Each nation state in the European context was founded on the notion of a homogenous ethnic and linguistic region. The diversities of dialect and dress, if any, were to be overcome by rapid expansion of a common education system, market economy and effective reach of the state. Over time, national identity emerged stronger, more important than identities of local culture, kinship and community.
The rise of democratic politics and the nation state has followed a very different trajectory in other parts of the world. Of these, India is a very special case. Notwithstanding its weaknesses and failures, it has, by and large, been able to work with democratic institutions over the past six decades. India’s achievements are laudable because democracy is generally believed to survive only in regions with some degree of economic prosperity. A majority of Indians continue to be poor. Despite vast inequalities, the faith that the poor and those on the margins have in India’s political process is quite high.
What is even more surprising and unique about India’s democracy is its diversities: social, cultural and ecological. No other democratic country in the world has been able to engage with such diversities with such success. Unlike countries of the West, the Indian attitude towards diversity has mostly been open. There have always been some who argue for cultural homogenisation, but their influence has only been in the realm of wishful thinking. Even those who coined the slogan “unity in diversity” aspired for unity while recognising diversities. On the ground, regional identities have not only survived but, many would argue, also flourished. This has not come in the way of a simultaneous strengthening and spreading of national identity, of the idea of being Indian. This is not to deny the occasional strong ethnic movement that has contested such an idea.
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How has this been possible? Evidently, through an openness and acknowledgement of diversities, their institutionalisation in the state system. As we know, India has had two kinds of diversities, vertical and horizontal. Interestingly, it has been easier to accept and institutionalise vertical diversities, the diversities of caste and other forms of historically inherited deprivations. The accommodation and institutionalisation of horizontal diversities, those of language, region and community, have been more challenging. But here too, India’s achievements have been commendable. Even in the absence of a clear perspective, India’s democratic processes enabled it to deal with the complicated realities of such diversities. The accommodation of diversities has only strengthened the Indian nation state. These accommodations have given those who represent such diversities a stake in India’s progress.
But accommodations have to be both symbolic and substantive. Representation in the political system is one aspect of this. But it is unfortunate that the question of such representation is reduced to a single religious minority. This not only communalises the discourse of diversity but also reifies the enormously diverse population of Muslims in India.
The writer is professor of sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi