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‘In India, the greater the intensity of religious practice, the greater the support for democracy’

Alfred C. Stepan is the Wallace Sayre Professor of Government at the School of International and Public Affairs and Director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy...

Alfred C. Stepan is the Wallace Sayre Professor of Government at the School of International and Public Affairs and Director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy, Toleration and Religion at Columbia University. He teaches comparative politics and his research interests include theories of democratic transitions, federalism, and the world’s religious systems and democracy. He has consistently argued for looking at the Indian model — be it secularism or federalism — on its own terms, and not just as a departure from the western norm. In the capital on Thursday, Prof Stepan spoke on ‘Rituals of Respect: Sufis and Secularists in Senegal’ at the CSDS. Excerpts from an interview with Vandita Mishra:

As a theorist of democracy, how do you see the upcoming election in the United States?

We have a very tired discourse about what’s possible and what we can imagine for the future. Obama is imagining new things, challenging existing ways of seeing. If Obama is elected president, we’ll have the second chance that we almost don’t deserve.

America has done many bad things. Guantanamo did not receive the outrage it deserved. History will be shocked at how the US squandered opportunities in Iran. By the late 1980s, political figures opposed to the regime had won around 70 per cent of the votes for president and parliament. In Gramscian terms this may have been the fastest loss of hegemony of any revolution in world history. The elected president and parliament wanted to reach out to the US. We were not able to devise a coalition to do so. I hope Obama will have such opportunities. I hope he will not squander them.

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You’ve studied the ethnic unrest in Sri Lanka, and written about how India successfully managed its own ‘Tamil problem’ with accommodative ‘state-nation’ policies as opposed to the Sri Lankan state’s aggressive ‘nation-state’ policies. What do you mean by that?

In the 100 years before independence, there was little or no violence between the Sinhalese and the Tamils in Sri Lanka. This conflict was certainly not overdetermined. It started with the “Sinhala only” tone of the general election campaign of 1956. The bill to make Sinhala the “one official language” of Ceylon was introduced on June 14 1956 and passed nine days later. Tamil speakers could take the higher civil service entrance exam in English, but further tests for promotion could only be conducted in Sinhalese. Suddenly, in one area after another of the state apparatus, there were no Tamils in senior positions anymore. I have spoken to Sri Lankan prime ministers from different parties and all have told me that the decision on language set in motion the present destructive dynamic.

Now look at Tamil Nadu. Our 50,000-persons survey of the five countries of South Asia in 2005-6 tells us that the people of the state rank way above the Indian average in terms of pride in their Indian identity, as well as satisfaction with democracy and trust in government. And yet, they also rank way above the Indian average in pride in their Tamil identity. The data is amazing. It affirms that human beings are capable of multiple and complementary identities.


In politics, it’s very important that the people are given the choice to have, and to exercise, these multiple and complementary identities. For me, the best sites to study this phenomenon have been countries like Spain and India. The political process can also be constructed in a way that leads to polarised and singular identities as in Yugoslavia.

But once you have a war, as in Sri Lanka, and there are war leaders on both sides, it’s hard though not impossible to reconstruct multiple and complementary identities. More than a problem of designing new political institutions, the challenge is to craft informal social arrangements that give breathing space to several identities. Well before the formal creed of secularism, people in many countries had arrived at “rituals of respect” for each other, where they would attend the other person’s ceremonies, investing in a shared harmony.

What challenge does terrorism pose for democracy seen in this way?


One of the challenges is purely empirical. Many Americans think Arabs are the dominant community in Islam. But Arabs are only 21 per cent of the world’s Muslims.

India, which has the third or fourth largest Muslim population in the world, has — with the exception of the Emergency — the longest period of sustained democracy of all developing countries.

We have to look at the achievements of India, and Indonesia and Senegal. And recognise that more than half of the Muslim population lives in countries that are or are close to being democracies. But there is zero democracy in the Arab world. Obviously, the variable they have in common — Islam — cannot explain this. Something else is happening.

In Arab states, the leaders originally chose a form of secularism that was anti-religion. Then when they were failing, they shifted from a religiously hostile secularism to a form of state-sanctioned religion in which they still controlled the resources of religion. In both cases, there is an authoritarian relationship to religion.

You have written about the need to recast notions of secularism, to see the relationship between the democratic state and religion as one of “twin tolerations”. Where do you place Indian secularism?


For many decades the highest quality of democracy is assessed to have been in Scandinavian countries. But all have an established evangelical Lutheran church. So we cannot say, as theoreticians of democracy, that an established church per se is dissonant with the democratic state.

But it would have been totally inappropriate for India to select the Scandinavian model. India has great religious heterogeneity and by Scandinavian standards, a terrific intensity of religious practice. So the unique Indian model was devised — one that recognises all religions, respects all religions, even financially supports all religions. The French idea of secularism based on state hostility to religion and the US notion based on its separation from the state was also not attractive in the Indian context.


India has also overturned the secularists’ prediction and hope ? that the more urban and educated the people are, the less involved in religion they would be, and therefore more secular. In India, data proves the exact opposite has happened — the greater the size of the city you live in, the more educated you are, the more you practice religion.

Do you see a crisis of secularism in India today?


I am horrified by events in Orissa and in Gujarat earlier. But as a comparativist, I must look at the larger frame.

The conventional wisdom is that the greater the intensity of religious practice, the more dangerous it is for democracy. But our data tells us that for all of India’s four major religions — Hinduism, Islam, Christianity and Sikhism — the reverse is true. The greater the intensity of religious practice, the greater the support for democracy. My judgment is that this would not have happened if India had not chosen its inventive form of secularism. Sometimes the state doesn’t live up to it. But in comparative terms, it is a success story.

First published on: 24-10-2008 at 01:07 IST
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