The real but unarticulated battle in India is not between secularism and communalism, as conventionally understood. It is a battle between two different ideas of India: Is India a federation of communities (FOC) or a zone of individual freedom (ZIF)? In our political culture, the idea that India is a federation of communities has become almost inescapable commonsense, in a way that poses a great threat to liberty and distorts our intellectual culture. Both ideas rest on variants of the idea of toleration, but their underlying logic is different. We often confuse the two. Here is the core contrast in the two ideas of India.
On values, the FOC places primacy on group diversity. The ZIF places primacy on individual freedom. It values diversity, but as an outcome of free individuals exercising their choices. It rests on the intuition that the same moral rights that groups claim, namely that nothing should be imposed on them that they could reasonably object to, should be applied to all individuals within the group as well.
On toleration, the FOC is compatible with segmented toleration: each group has its rightful place, so long as it stays in its rightful place. This has been the traditional Indian conception of toleration, peculiarly ill fitted to an age of mobility and competition in the same spaces: different groups will inhabit the same workplace, intermarry and so on. The ZIF recognises that the challenge is not protecting community identities; it’s protecting those who breach them.
On citizenship, the FOC is premised on differentiated citizenship. What rights you have in particular areas depend on your identity. This applies not just to areas of personal law, which are outside the purview of common deliberation. This extends to matters like the right to administer institutions. The degree of autonomy an institution is allowed in education, for example, depends on its identity, not functionality or financial relation to the state. The ZIF is premised on common citizenship as much as possible, and on the idea that rights and identity must not be as closely aligned as in the FOC.
The two differ in their approach to identity. The FOC is enamoured of identities. Our legal identities are in part mediated by compulsory group identities. Our social and political interactions are premised on inescapably slotting people into identities; individuals are this caste, that religion and so forth. There is no escaping this identity. The ZIF acknowledges that people should not be targeted for being who they are. Occasionally, an axis of deprivation structured around identity may need to be addressed. But it finds suffocating the constant need to slot individuals into compulsory identities.
The two have different approaches to justice. In the FOC, the primary metaphor for justice is representation continued…