Start with the bureaucracy
Cannes Corner: Worth the wait

The real contest for India

A zone of individual freedom competes with a federation of communities.

Our Constitution’s ambition was to convert India into a zone of freedom, to liberate individuals from compulsory identities. Our Constitution’s ambition was to convert India into a zone of freedom, to liberate individuals from compulsory identities.

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 and balancing. The distribution of power should match the distribution of identities. No matter what representatives do, they count as the representatives of a particular community by virtue of ethnicity. The primary mode of politics is balancing; if one community is given something, another community must be given something in recompense. For the ZIF, the primary metaphor for justice is equal opportunity of individuals. The ZIF is suspicious of claims to represent, because it is suspicious that there are unified community claims that can be represented. What individuals do is more important than what group they stand for. In the FOC, the emphasis is on a politics of overt symbolism that can serve the needs of balancing and representation. For the ZIF, the emphasis is on institutions that can protect individual rights.

With these rough contrasts, the intellectual history of modern India looks quite different. Our Constitution’s ambition was to convert India into a zone of freedom, to liberate individuals from the burden of compulsory identities, to create a common citizenship and to give primacy to individual rights. But it made a few compromises that allowed identity to become central to thinking about citizenship. But what the Constitution left as a tension, our political culture transformed into a full-scale advocacy of India as a federation of communities. For example, its conception of Indian citizenship was to think in terms of Hindu plus Muslim, not to think beyond Hindu and Muslim. It was to think in terms of a collection of castes, not beyond caste. And our existing social practice has a deep affinity with this way of thinking. The ZIF does not argue that these identities will vanish, only that they will be largely private matters.

In this framework, the intellectual history of Partition looks different. The debate is often pitched as one between advocates of Partition and advocates of unity. But this is too simple. The key intellectual division is not between those who wanted a united territory and those who did not. The key distinction is between those who wanted a conception of citizenship beyond compulsory identities and those who did not. Many who wanted a united lndia, like Abul Kalam Azad and Gandhi, thought, nevertheless, that India was a collection of distinct communities, which could flourish together. Nehru and Ambedkar wanted to transcend that India. Azad and Muhammad Iqbal may have different implications for the territorial unity of India, but their metaphysics of community identity is more similar. An intellectually underrated figure these days, like Lala Lajpat Rai for example, is actually closer to Nehru and Ambedkar in the way he thinks about finding a conception of citizenship transcending community than his politics would suggest.

The compromises of practical politics and opportunism blurred these intellectual lines and created strange bedfellows. This is a heretical thought. But in terms of underlying positions, in any other world, Nehru, Lajpat Rai, M.G. Ranade, Syama Prasad Mookerjee, Ambedkar, perhaps even Jinnah, would have been in a similar party: looking for conceptions of citizenship that transcended traditional community affiliations and created space for individual freedom. They happened to disagree on whether you could do it in one diverse nation. Gandhi, Azad, Purushottam Das Tandon, Deendayal Upadhyaya, and perhaps Iqbal, would have been in a similar camp: the modernist project as enacting community identities rather than transcending them.

The deep psychological challenge we have to overcome is not the threat of majoritariansim. That threat is easy to identify, at least intellectually. The deeper challenge is that so long as the idea of majority and minority, understood in ethnic terms, remains embedded in our legal and political fabric, and colonises the way we see each other at every step, the threat to freedom and the possibility of conflict will remain. We need to create a political culture that moves from the idea of India as a federation of communities constantly balancing, to a zone of freedom with equal opportunities for individuals. Which political party will prove up to the task?

The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express

Do you like this story