A flawed minority report

Topics BOOK REVIEW

Democratic Accommodation: Minorities in Contemporary India
Three academics have examined in detail the problem of accommodating minority rights within the framework of the country’s laws and institutions. This is a complex issue, because it is interlinked with minorities’ cultural distinctiveness  along with their socioeconomic disadvantages and backwardness. So the laws and institutions of governance are expected to respond to not only the demands of cultural, religious, linguistic minorities but also harmonise the interests and demands of groups that suffer from socio-economic disadvantages and backwardness. This study appropriately focuses its attention on the complex story of institutions of governance that attempt to reconcile the cultural distinctiveness of groups and problems associated with their historically inherited backwardness. 

The central issue that concerns every plural democracy is the “accommodation” of specific minority groups so that they do not feel left out. The author observes that in India, “Minorities are constitutionally recognised and given clearly defined rights and liberties that are in some cases are greater than those of the majority”. Indian pluralism, thus, is explicitly recognised by the Constitution, which mandates that the cultural diversities of minorities, whether religious or linguistic, will not only be protected but also celebrated. It is possible to see how Jawaharlal Nehru’s dream of “unity in diversity” or M K Gandhi’s “composite nationalism” informed the framing of the Constitution. 

The authors clearly show that dealing with minority demands is difficult because of the claims of multiple minority groups. “Dealing with minority demands requires thinking and bargaining,” they write. The challenge plural democracies face, they add, is “…to develop a public will through a deliberative process which when it prevails is accommodative of the reasonableness of the minority claims”. This is wishful thinking on the part of the authors. In reality, minority claims are contested not only by counter-claimants in majority communities but also by “minorities within minorities”. The Shah Bano case and the controversy over triple talaq within the Muslim community are cases in point. 

Indeed, the very definition of “minority” in a country of millions of minorities has created difficulties. The colonial rulers defined minorities on the basis of religion, depressed groups and tribal groups. Independent India has defined religious minorities as (a) Muslims, (b) Christians, (c) Sikhs, (d) Buddhists and (e) Zoro­astrians. It must be mentioned that even these five categories have “internal diversity” and “minorities within minorities”.

Chapters 3 and 4 — “Politics of minority accommodation” and “Public institutions for minorities” — provide detailed information about the role of Parliament, state Assemblies, the Supreme Court, high courts and other institutions in resolving claims of minority groups. For instance, the Minority Commission of India was created as a non-statutory body in 1978 and gained statutory powers in 1992-1993. The authors observe that “the policy framework as well as the catalogue of state interventions for minorities have evolved and been shaped over time through many claims and the changing public mood in the country”. The list is very long and covers issues such as madrasas, the Urdu language versus the National Educational Policy framework and, of course, “policies of Reservation/appropriation action” for backward classes. 

Thus far, the book is reasonably informative. Then in Chapter 5 — titled “Learning from India” — the authors take readers on a short tour of European history and go on to suggest that these nations could learn from India in terms of dealing with complex problems of minorities and the accommodation of culturally diverse groups in a plural society. In the context of the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections, this observation can only be described as a tall claim. 

More optimistic observations along these lines — “as a polity democratises a new politics of groups and interests will emerge” and “the politics of accommodation is based on recognition of cultural differences” — suggest that the authors  wrote this chapter in a state of absent-mindedness. It is hard to see how they have overlooked the dominant political discourse after 2014, which has comprehensively bid goodbye to the idea of celebrating cultural differences and replaced it with the “one country, one culture” slogan. 

The subject of this study is vital for the future of plural accommodative democracy in India. So it is inexcusable of the authors not to reflect on the changing political context that has created new anxieties among the minorities. The authors have failed to draw the obvious conclusion from their own study: That a certain kind of politics nurtures and nourishes plural democracy and a completely different kind demands cultural homogeneity. Did the authors fail to spot the glaring fact that the ruling party at the Centre did not have any elected Muslim MPs out of the 282 seats it won in 2014 and that the pattern did not change in the 2019 elections? If a significant minority is electorally disempowered by design, the belief that India will always accommodate cultural minorities is a pipe dream.  

Democratic Accommodation: Minorities in Contemporary India
Peter Ronald de Souza, Hilal Ahmed, Mohd Sanjeev Alam
Bloomsbury India, 2011 pages, Rs 1,299




Business Standard is now on Telegram.
For insightful reports and views on business, markets, politics and other issues, subscribe to our official Telegram channel