Minority Question and Democracy

Arup Baisya

The minority consciousness and its interplay with majority recognition and response came into the fore through freedom struggle and the large scale migration at the end of World War II followed by the decolonisation of Asian and African states. India’s response to minority rights through a secular polity was the product of post-independence and post-partition conditions.  

Constituent assembly debate
The post-independence constituent assembly debate on proportional representation needs to be reviewed from today’s perspective to ensure minority rights and empowerment. “Proportional representation was considered unworkable chiefly because of its association with governmental instability, but also because it was unsuited to an unlettered electorate and was even viewed by some as a reinvention of separate electorate. The consensus of the Constituent Assembly was on the third alternative, viz. Reservation of seats (quotas), and these were couched in the language transition. In other words, universal citizenship based on the political equality of individual citizens was the default position; group-differentiated citizenship was a temporary deviation, justified not by the purpose of giving these groups a voice in legislation but for improving their condition of special and economic backwardness through a form of emphatically political affirmative action.” (Partha Chatterjee, Ira Katznelson : 2012 : 129)   But the minority especially the Muslims was kept out of the purview of these rights during constituent assembly in the backdrop of post-partition social milieu. The mainstream political class, this time too, do not have the temerity to address the minority question in the backdrop of present Hindutwabadi milieu.   

Jawaharlal Nehru had imagined an India which is secular by breaking away from an idea of India that is predicated on Hindu cultural nationalism, something which was not only propagated by Hindu revival groups but also by what Nehru believed to be Gandhi’s revivalism. Against the wishes of other Congress leaders like K.M.Munshi and Sardar Patel, Nehru was determined to send a clear signal to India’s minorities that their culture and religion would not only be protected, but also promoted which would produce an idea of India different from the idea of a theocratic Pakistan.

During the constituent Assembly Debate, some of the Dalit members defined their status as a political minority whose defining feature was not their numerical disadvantage but their social and economic backwardness and caste injustices. Similarly, tribal groups never saw themselves as a minority in numerical terms but as distinct people partly shaped by a history of injustices and exploitation by nontribal communities. In the case of Indian religious minorities, both the factors of numerical weakness and overall backwardness were equally applicable.

But the recommendations for political safeguards for religious minorities in terms of reservation of seats in legislature, affirmative action in public employment were soon dropped. In the changed circumstances, Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) were separated from the religious minorities.

The Nehru report of 1928 – produced under the chairmanship of Motilal Nehru – and the Sapru Committee Report (1945) shaped, among other things, the future contour of the minority question in India. Largely right-based and within a broader national vision, the reports provided for reserved seats in legislatures for minority. The report also spoke of the need for creating new institutions to safeguard minority rights.

Abul Kalam Azad echoed this in his famous Ramgarh address in 1940 when he spelt out the Congress’s view that the minorities “Should judge for themselves what safeguards are necessary for the protection of their rights and interests. The majority should not decide this” (Jyotirmoy Tripathy, Sudarsan Padmanabhan : 2014 : 234)

But Vallabhbhai Patel as the Chairman of the Advisory Committee on Minorities, Fundamental rights, etc. outlined the provisions pertaining to minority rights to be included in the future Constitution of India and the entire report of the Advisory Committee which advocated formation of minority sub-committee instead of reservation were incorporated into the Draft Constitution.

From assimilative culture to majoritarianism
The narrative strategies of post-Cold war politics and Indian independence did articulate and construct an apparently stable consciousness out of multiple and contradictory ways of life. The notion of citizenship included religious, linguistic, and cultural differences that a new minority political consciousness was born. This consciousness not only prescribed majority understanding of minority, but also minority understanding of themselves.  

“Being minor did not mean invisibility any longer, rather a celebration of diversity, something that can be made public, discussed, even flaunted. Now it was not minority which needed a responsive system for its protection; rather, it was democratic state which needed minority for its legitimacy.  In short, minority was minoritized.” (Jyotirmoy Tripathy, Sudarsan Padmanabhan : 2014 : 6)  

But the political discourse and the constitutional democratic structure during the birth of new secular Indian state did not adequately address the minority question vis-a-vis vast Indian diversity. “A French sociologist of the twentieth century, Louis Dumont, described Indian society as based on the principle of homo hierarchies in contrast with modern Western democratic society founded on the principle of homo aequalis.” (Partha Chatterjee, Ira Katznelson : 2012 : 13). The Nehruvian modernist approach was compromised with Hindu cultural nationalism based on hierarchical caste division of labour and exclusion of minority from power structure. This weakness in the Indian constitutional democracy formulated at the birth of the Indian state after independence left enough space for communal politics to rise.

The shift to a culturalised politics of recognistion occurred at precisely the moment when neo-liberalism was staging its spectacular comeback. Subordination was construed as a problem of culture and dissociated from political economy. The effect was to leave us defenceless against free-market fundamentalism, which had meanwhile become hegemonic.

Struggles and transitions
After more than three decades of neoliberal globalization of capital, the changing rural landscape and the emerging relation of production have also changed the contour of popular vis-à-vis class struggle. The character of the state will also change in consonance with the conflict of interest that new form of class a la people’s struggle generates. The fundamental role is played by the class and people’s struggle whose field is none other than that of the relations of power, economic exploitation, and political-ideological domination and subordination. The tension these new form of struggles generate makes the state character amenable to change. Democratic character of the Indian state built in the backdrop of post-independence condition cannot be retained without addressing the question of the empowerment of all the diverse identities especially the minorities and the newly emerged wage-labourers which also shapes the nature of the identity struggles. The constitutional democracy that was framed in the post-independence period could sustain its legitimacy and hegemony up to the nineties despite the fact that the question of minority empowerment was not adequately addressed and this period encountered many major localised anti-muslim pogroms. After partition episode, the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992 once again brought the minority question and a new wave of majoritarianism on a national scale. The demolition of Babri Masjid in the pretext of Lord Rama’s birth place created the new national space for Hindutwabadi transcendentalism to establish the ideological hegemony of dominant class and Hindu upper-caste by destroying the popular and diverse perceptions of mythic character ingrained in the mundane affairs of multiple ways of life. The dismantling of organised working class and welfare social structures, emergence of new unorganised wage-labourers as precariats and new ambitious middle class have also created the space for the majoritarian politics to rake up all forms of sectarian and hedonistic cultures. Both extend the scope of fascist takeover of the state through its intervention in the ideological institutions, and emphasise the state’s presence within the relations of production through its role in ideological relations. In this new scenario, State can not only ignore the question of minority rights and empowerment but also make them vulnerable to state repression without evoking the qualm of national conscience.

Minority question and democracy
The all-pervasive minority bashing cannot be combated by the old rules of constitutional democracy, because the new form of people’s struggle can be built on the basis of new ideas on democracy, identity rights and labour rights. Two poles of this struggle in this neo-liberal phase are fascism and new democracy with constitutional democracy in transition.  

The minority question and the democratic character of the state will be decided on the basis of the emerging relations of production which is quite simply are relations of struggle and power. “But the primacy of struggles over the state goes beyond the sphere of relations of production, since there can here be no question of an economic structure that founds struggle in its turn.” (Nilkos Poulantzas : 2014 : 45). These struggles must include the struggle for proportional representation, devolution of power and meaningful federal polity for empowerment of diverse communities vis-à-vis people against the move for centralisation of power. But this alone cannot reverse the gear of exclusion and marginalization under neo-liberal policy drive unless the struggle against privatisation, contractualisation, austerity and for labour rights, social security and workers’ cooperatives are not included in the grand project for an alternative society and state.

References :
1. Partha Chatterjee, Ira Katznelson (2012) : Anxieties of Democracy, Tocquevillean reflections on India and the United States, Oxford University Press.
2. Jyotirmoy Tripathy, Sudarsan Padmanabhan (2014) : Becoming Minority, How discourses and policies produce Minorities in Europe and India, Sage publication Pvt. Ltd.
3. Nilkos Poulantzas (2014) : State, Power, Socialism : Verso p>

May 05, 2017

Arup Kumar Baisya may be contacted at

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