India:  Multi-religious democracy and its challenges


by Asghar Ali Engineer

The Western pattern of democracy was evolved in mono-religious societies.  Almost all European countries had mainly Christianity as the sole religion with a sprinkling of Jews living in ghettoes, and having no franchise. Thus there were no challenges of living in multi-religious society. In India too, multi-religious society was not a problem for centuries and Indian society never saw any inter-religious tensions, let alone violence.

It was only when British rule was introduced based on a policy of divide and rule followed by democratic measures involving competition between the elites of the two main communities that resulted in not only inter-communal tensions but also a division of the country. The challenges of a multi-religious society are indeed grave, if governance is not based on principles and values and cooperation rather than competition.

The western countries also had to face these challenges in the post-colonial era. They termed it multi-culturalism and pluralism. Though in principle they did accept pluralism and multi-culturalism, they could not avoid inter-racial and inter-cultural tensions. Earlier racism in the west was directed only against black Africans but in post-colonial society, against Indians and other coloured people, and now it has emerged as anti-Islam and anti-Muslim also.

We in India simply imitated the British model of a parliamentary system though the British model was evolved in a mono-religious setting. Tensions emerged immediately.  Communal riots in the nineteenth century were a result of not only British divide and rule but also of the anti-communal rhetoric of indigenous political and religious elites.  Even the Shuddhi and Tablighi movements reflected inter-communal hostilities. There were no such movements in the pre-British Moghul period. The two communities enjoyed an almost cordial relationship. What went wrong?

As soon as it became evident that the British were going to introduce a limited democracy, the competition for power began, and the elites of the two communities began to make demands for more and more power in the name of their respective communities. Thus, in a way religious pluralism which was our strength all along, became our political weakness. Our politics was now based less on principles and values and more on the vested interests of the two elites.

Also, there were other problems. Democracy in India did not evolve over a period of time along with the necessary de-feudalisation of the society,  but as a result of introduction by the colonial rulers, in a way that didn’t take the interests of various groups into account. Thus, the very foundation of democracy in India in its early colonial period was flawed. In Western countries, on the other hand, it evolved over a period of time and as a result of long drawn struggle, be it in England or in France, or some other European countries.

But the leaders of the freedom struggle like Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru and Abul Kalam Azad, studied the western model of democracy and principle and values on which it was based and adopted them to suit our conditions. They understood the values of individual freedom and distancing state from religion and religious beliefs and hence realized the value of secularism in a multi-religious society.

But there were certain contradictions in those principles and our socio-religious reality. In western society as a result of a long struggle, and as a result of industrialization and the emergence of a bourgeois class, individual freedom developed on a sound foundation. But, there was no such social basis in India for individual freedom. An individual in India is bound by many shackles and cannot easily break caste and communal bonds.

In India even today, after several decades of freedom individuals rarely make individual decisions.  An individual is more a part of his caste or community and takes collective interests or collective pride into account while making political decisions.  The West had long overcome these obstacles to individual freedom.

Our constitution is based on individual, not on collective rights except in the case of certain collective rights of minorities. These individual constitutional rights and collective bonds, often collide with each other producing caste and communal tensions or even violence. This is the social basis of communalism in India. The politicians are well aware of this contradiction which they exploit to the maximum extent possible.

When elections are due, politicians switch to caste and communal mode. Certain parties and individuals have ‘perfected’ this art. For example Bal Thackeray of Shiv Sena, Advani and Narendra Modi of BJP have become adept in exploiting communal sentiments. BJP through Advani and Narendra Modi apply Hindu rhetoric as Jinnah applied Islamic rhetoric in pre-partition days.

L.K.Advani evolved Ramjanambhoomi rhetoric to bring BJP to power by stirring Hindu sentiments among a large section of Hindus and Narendra Modi, evolved a Gujarat model of his own by provoking an anti-Muslim pogrom in 2002 and getting a two-third majority. In the current elections in Gujarat (2007 Assembly elections), he first raised developmental issues but switched on to communal rhetoric the moment he realized this may not ensure his victory.

Gujarat, under the leadership of Narendra Modi, has not only been completely polarized between Hindus and Muslims but is emerging as a pro Fascist state. When communal rhetoric is stretched to its extreme, this danger is bound to emerge. Many political thinkers and analysts are pointing out that this is a moment of serious reflection for BJP itself. Narendra Modi, by using communal rhetoric to its extreme, has now emerged as the supreme leader, much larger than party itself.

News reports point out that he takes his own name almost once per minute throwing aside party and party programme. The BJP leaders encouraged him in his communal rhetoric and celebrated his ‘new model’ to win elections and now are paying for it. The BJP will find it very difficult to forestall Modi if he wins elections this time too. At least in Gujarat, BJP will be sidelined and Moditva, rather than Hindutva, will reign supreme.

In a parliamentary democracy, no leader can be allowed to emerge larger than life. Mahatma Gandhi, a great man by his deeds, also had the humility to understand the importance of the principles of democracy and the value of people’s participation in the political process. He did not project himself and his ego in politics as Narendra Modi is doing. Narendra Modi thinks he alone can save Gujarat, he alone can guarantee the security of Hindu Gujaratis, he alone can ward off terrorism (by killing innocent people be it in communal violence or be it in fake encounters). No party, no principles, no ideology, is important.

Such behaviour is totally destructive of all democratic values. Of course communal politics itself is destructive of all democratic principles.  The example of Pakistan is also before us. It was founded on communal politics and could not find stability till today. It could not even remain united and fell apart in 1971. It is now experiencing increasing communal and sectarian violence and its rulers often cater to US interests, rather than those of Pakistan and Pakistani people.

Gujarat today appears to be the counter-part of Pakistani politics in India. Mere elections don’t make it democratic.  BJP, allowed Narendra Modi to win elections for it in Gujarat through mass murder in 2002. Now Narendra Modi is beyond the party’s control. He is trying to emerge on the Gujarat political scene as supreme. People wear his mask, people take only his name, and his supporters are hardly concerned with BJP or Party programme. His BJP colleagues are revolting against him and challenging him.

Narendra Modi Emerged as supreme only as a result of the communal politics of BJP and the more he oppresses minorities, the more support he gathers. Even if Modi is defeated in this election (the possibility of his defeat is there, but no certainty) there is no guarantee that he will be really cut down to size. His image will remain larger than life among his supporters and believers. They will definitely work with greater zeal to see him again in power.

The main philosophy of democracy is that no leader can be larger than people. It is true we have sustained parliamentary democracy for six decades with short interruption (in the form of emergency) but we have still not developed democratic culture and democratic ethos. We cannot develop democratic ethos and democratic culture until we find proper balance between individual freedom on one hand, and, our collective identity, on the other. We are still swayed by collective identity at the cost of individual freedom. It is still very difficult to achieve this balance.

Mahatma Gandhi had very well understood this need for balance between collective life and individual freedom and hence his emphasis on inter-religious harmony and democratic rights. Nehru and Azad too were not far behind and repeatedly talked about unity in diversity and understanding the value of working out this fine balance. Communal rhetoric appears very attractive to some politicians but nothing is more destructive of our country and society than this rhetoric.


Centre for Study of Society and Secularism
(Secular Perspective December 16-31-07)