India needs pluralism, not majoritarianism

Religious and linguistic diversity are integral to the growth and development of our society. We must preserve them
The majority principle militates against federalism. After all, to deny states and its people their own language is tantamount to erasing their cultural identity(SHUTTERSTOCK)
The majority principle militates against federalism. After all, to deny states and its people their own language is tantamount to erasing their cultural identity(SHUTTERSTOCK)
Published on Oct 27, 2019 10:55 PM IST
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New Delhi | By DK Giri

“A lie does not become the truth, wrong does not become right, and evil does not become good, just because it is accepted by the majority”; a profound statement made by American pastor and author, Richard Warner. This should make us rethink the principle of majoritarianism in our political and social lives.

Majoritarianism is one of several mechanisms of decision-making in a democracy. It does not legitimise or sanctify every action and reaction. If we are not cognisant of this basic premise, our notion of majoritarianism will lead to denial of the genuine rights of many — those smaller in number, leading to further injustice in society.

Let us examine the hypothesis that the indiscriminate use of the majoritarian principle leads to domination and prejudice. Before that, let us also disabuse ourselves of the concept and construction of a majority, which is purely contextual, issue and space-specific. In India, everyone is a minority depending upon the context. Hindus are the minority in Kashmir, Brahmins in Tamil Nadu, non-Christians in Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya and of course, Muslims, Christians and Parsis in the whole of India. If we look beyond India, in South Asia, Muslims are a minority in India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bhutan, but they are majority in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Maldives. Likewise, Buddhists are minority in all South Asian countries but are a majority in Sri Lanka. If we take other signifiers such as language and ethnicity, there will be a different majority-minority dichotomy.

From time to time, depending on the issue, the political majority is constructed as well as deconstructed. For instance, a new majority was constructed against the Emergency in 1975-77. Again, during the Bofors scandal, VP Singh built up a majority. Since 2014, a new majority has sprung up on “daring and decisive governance” and nationalism. This majority may disappear and new ones may emerge.

To test the hypothesis, we take up two issues: Language and religion. Recently, a controversy erupted when it was thought that the home minister suggested that Hindi be made the single national language to unite the country. Though he categorically clarified he was not suggesting the imposition of one language and had encouraged all languages, the debate continued for a while.

The majority principle, were it to be applied, in the Hindi case, militates against federalism and the denial of rights to several states and their people. The Constitution says, that India is a Union of states, and many states have been constituted on the basis of language.To deny states their own language is tantamount to erasing their cultural identity. Second, it is impractical and needless to translate English into Hindi until we generate our knowledge structures and enough material in indigenous languages or even Hindi. So, the majority principle here is untenable.

Religion is another area where the majority principle has often been misunderstood. Articles 25 to 28 of the Constitution state that every citizen has the right to practice and promote their religions peacefully. And yet, we have witnessed religious riots in the country on several occasions.

Hence, majoritarianism should be replaced by pluralism which promotes peaceful coexistence of diversities through the spirit of accommodation as well as solidarity. India has served as an exemplar of multicultural democracy. Let us not deny ourselves that uniqueness with a narrow and limited mechanism of majoritarianism.

DK Giri is the secretary general of Association for Democratic Socialism, New Delhi
The views expressed are personal
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Wednesday, October 27, 2021