Monday, October 3rd, 2022 09:57:04

Majoritarianism, Pluralism and Democracy

By Prof. Sushil Kumar
Updated: June 24, 2022 10:06 am

The demolition of illegal structures at Jahangirpuri in Delhi and elsewhere is being inter preted by opposition parties as aimed at advancing majoritarian dominance, which in the given context, means the dominance of the Hindu majority over the Muslim minority.

Such a response is more an expression of desperation than opposition to a routine application of law. But, more importantly, it pushes the discourse of majoritarianism to the centre stage.

Was the government led by Jawaharlal Nehru ‘majoritarian’? For liberals, it was a consensus-based government and not a majoritarian government. This assessment did not have the support of the parties on the Left. Anti-majoritarianism thus had its origin in post-Nehruvian politics. It was not just a discourse led by those liberals who were eager to ground Indian politics on liberal values. On the contrary, they played real politics aimed at denying post-Partition Hindus the right to sovereign nationhood. This right was already bestowed on Muslims.The Muslims were accepted as a nation but Hindus were denied this status.

The Hindus were shown their place in the estimation of their own leaders, and in relation to Muslims as well. So, anti-majoritarianism was driven by the fear of a possible roll-back of liberal democracy for consolidation of Hindu power.Reference could be made to William Galston’s book Anti-Pluralism: The Populist Threat to Liberal Democracy, [Yale, 2018]. The book posed the problem as one of tension between populism and majoritarianism.In India, the articulation of anti-majoritarian politics was evidently a camouflage for opposition to a political role of the Hindu majority. Anti-majoritarianism had a past also. It served the interests of foreign rule over India – the rule of a few over the many. For more than a thousand years, the foreigners, Muslims and Christians, who came as invaders or as smart traders or both, ruled over India.

The foreigners legitimized their rule through a rather derogatory assessment of the Hindu community. The Hindus were declared as incapable of self-rule. The aim was to declare Hindus as naturally disposed to rule over them by non-Hindus.For them, this was clearly signalled by the divisions among Hindus. For this reason, their incapability for democracy and self-government was almost proverbial. The colonizers staked the legitimacy of their rule on such a reading of existential reality.

Every imaginable social practice was shored up as evidence of social fragmentation. It was read as leading to a moral call for subjecting Hindus to order and freedom. The anti-Hindu propaganda projected Hindus as objects of pity needing help.

So strong was the motivation of Hindu detractors that even functional divisions aimed at facilitating everyday living were seen through arbitrarily crafted lenses and described as structural categories revealing the Hindu society as a stratified community and structurally divided within itself.

Social sciences made no small contribution towards it. Anti-majoritarian liberal politics went a step further by treating these divisive social categories as constituting a popular base for organized political action. Democratic politics dug these divisions deeper and deeper. No wonder, India’s liberal democracy oozed out anti-majoritarian, anti-Hindu flavour. Democratic politics of debate and discussion drew sustenance from such divisions. This was the trend even today, a legacy of Muslim rule and colonial practice.

The intelligentsia also invented disciplinary stuff, theories and their likes in support of Hindu diversity. With Hindus constituting more than eighty per cent of the population, the focus on pluralism as an essential condition of democratic success could be characterized as a little stretched and even misleading. Still no effort was spared by collaborating scholars, both Indian and foreign, to invent fissures within the Hindu community along lines of real or imagined differences, or those caused by modernizing public policies.

The impact on India’s political culture could largely be attributed to social science study and research. School text-books and sociological research were designed to instill into the minds of people everywhere a shared belief that Hindus denied freedom, equality and dignity to lower social orders. Thus, a highly motivated and exaggerated situation obtaining within the Hindu community was constructed to colour the public sphere.

The dalit studies were a case in point.The social theory emerging in the West for organizing empirical study in non-western locations, especially India, was now available for drawing an empirical profile of Hindu social institutions. While discussing “caste Hindus”, a comparative picture of social inequality across communities was not presented and so the studies were consciously anti-majoritarian and in substance anti-Hindu.

There were majorities elsewhere too. But, the pervasive anti-majoritarianism witnessed in India was not there. In India, it fed on anti-Hinduism of the elite whose members practised the master stroke: ‘local but foreign’.

Anti-majoritarianism could be traced back to Muslim invaders who ruled over India for over a thousand years and never treated Hindus as their equal. Rather than fighting it out, Hindus stepped backwards.Was it not cowardice?

What role did the social sciences play in this drama? Populist politics was harnessed for turning the Hindu majority into mutually antagonistic fragments.This ended up in transforming majoritarian democracy into a pluralist democracy. Populism was here understood as a form of public communication which inclined on the interests of the people as opposed to those of the elite. Such polarized public communication generated possibilities for communication technologies to present a given reality in different and even in contrasting ways. The reality was now open to representation as ‘anti-rational, post-fact, and post-truth’. Each of these forms was differentiated from others, not in content but in the effect it produced. The media thus had vastly different options in making its strategic choices. Diverse images of reality were now available to it.

The media effect was very negative. It went for a downward slide in disciplinary rigour in such areas of study as political communication, journalism, sociology, political science, cultural studies, international politics and relations. It was evident all over. Scholarship was eventually reduced to writing narratives. It was no longer an achievement on a scale of scholarship; it was eminence in narrative writing which set one scholar against the other. The net result of it has been to boost populist reach to such a level that even an ordinary act of routine demolition of illegal structures in Delhi comes under the shadow of populist politics. Rather than advancing democracy, it reveals the vulnerability of democracy to populism.

Rule by non-Indian foreign invaders, beginning with Muslim invasions in the seventh century, could be sustained only through a populist political culture focussed on opposition to Hindu majoritarian rule. This amounted to populist legitimation of ani-Hindu sentiment in India’s politics. This led to denial of political self-determination to the Hindu community.

Political self-determination continued to be denied to it even after independence. For this reason, state – identity was barred from conflating with the Hindu identity, even though the society was massively a Hindu society. Opposition to Hindu majoritarian rule became a desirable norm among liberal and cultivated Hindu and non-Hindus. They shared this liberal position with academics and intellectuals such as James Madison, John Stuart, and De Tocqueville.

But such descriptions of the liberal state did not reconcile with the complexity of politics– the complexity which defines the sphere of state action today. Economic management and development, together with the compulsions of national security, constantly re-defined the state-society relations.

The opposition to majoritarian dominance produced an echo of anti-Hinduism. But it was an all-India phenomenon and left local and regional contexts out of its purview. Muslim majoritarian politics at local levels was not blamed on Islam. Foreign rulers , both Muslim and European, generally downgraded Hindus. Take the case of James Mill, who, as an employee of the East India Company, wrote a voluminous The History of British India. According to him, Hindu never enjoyed a high degree of civilization by European standards and dismissed even its legendary accounts of their ancient civilization. The Europeans, according to James Mill, treated everything Hindu as suspect.

No different were the views of his son, John Stuart Mill. He regarded ‘benevolent despotism’ as the way forward for Hindus – in other words, rule by superior people who belonged to a more advanced stage of society.Prejudice against religious difference was never so filthy. Why did Hindus accept these views? Why did they let their political leaders [and educators] go un–punished?

Indian Renaissance, in the nineteenth century, reversed the trend and turned popular opinion in favour of Hindus.The exposure to the eighteenth century world of rationalism, classicism and enlightenment fired Hindu imagination and led to far-reaching changes at all levels of individual and collective life. Sanjeev Sandal’s The Indian Renaissance – India’s Rise after a Thousand Years of Decline, [2008] describes the impact as re-awakening of Hindu community. Several other scholars and intellectuals joined him in celebrating Hindu re-awakening. Girilal Jain wrote full-page articles in The Times of India which were later put together under the title The Hindu Phenomenon [2018].The illustrated Weekly also came out with a Special Number on ‘Why I am a Hindu?’

The Hindus’ response was appropriate and encouraging. They formed associations such as Brahmo Samaj that visualized a greater public role for Hindus. Other communities had confidence in Hindu leadership and extended full support to them in pursuit of common interests.

Religious diversity also did not have divisive effect on Hindu-Muslim relations. The Hindus too favoured a neo-inclusive approach for relating other religious groups to Hinduism defined by its soft beliefs and practices. But social historians pulled this rather high-flying romantic fantasy to the ground. Difference and diversity again have surfaced within Hinduism and across it. This has opened a vast space for self-righteous modernizers who opposed Hindu nationalism as a relevant political option. They seek again to counter Hindu neo-inclusivism, inspired by Vivekananda’s Hindu universalism, by fostering Muslim exclusivism. No wonder, the face-off in Jahangirpuri was anti-Hindu.

All this could at best be treated as an ill-conceived politics.


By Prof. Sushil Kumar

(The author is retired Professor of Jawaharlal Nehru University)

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