Pluralism is India’s strength – Let’s not fritter it away

By H K Dua

The Idea of Pluralism has a symbiotic relationship with the Idea of India. Neither can survive without the other.  Unless the two streams of thought flow together and at some point down the line embrace each other, this nation of over a billion people will be in trouble.

Those who fought for freedom under Mahatma Gandhi’s leadership and many others understood the importance of pluralism for national unity which was badly needed after the British raj ended. It was essential for building a new India. It is still needed.

The Constitution our Founding fathers came out with represented a kind of national consensus that underlined the importance of a plural society and a plural polity for an independent India.

Most debates in the Constituent Assembly reflected this national consensus, notwithstanding widespread communal riots and travails of the Partition.  The Indian National Congress and most other parties underlined the importance of the idea of a plural and democratic society and polity. The consensus, with various ups and down, has come to grow during nearly seven decades since Independence and after the adoption of the Constitution.

Lately, voices, however, are being raised by influential people in different parts of the country questioning this consensus. Not only these voices are in effect questioning this national consensus but these are even challenging the basis of the Constitution. This is unfortunate and risky in the long run.

Critics of the constitutional scheme point out that the world “secular” was inserted in the Preamble of the Constitution only in 1976 during the Emergency. Their argument is flawed and does not shake the basis on which the entire constitutional scheme has evolved.       

Not only in the Preamble, but elsewhere also the Constitution underlines the principle of secularism in one form or another, and what secularism, or pluralism really mean in the Indian context.  Challenging the constitutional scheme on the ground that the word “secularism” was added later does not invalidate the entire constitutional scheme which stands on secular and democratic principle.

India is a diverse country, yet over the centuries it has survived as a nation, if not as a nation-State which is of a recent origin in political and territorial terms.

The essence of Indian nation incorporates the idea of oneness of India, despite the diversity of the social, cultural and political fabric of India encompassing hundreds of castes, several religions, languages, and regional variations.These divisions in the Indian mosaic is viewed by positive and forward-looking thinkers as a sort of unity in diversity.

Looked otherwise, these have often proved divisive.  Lately, the concept of unity in diversity is being challenged by those who tend to believe that India belongs to one dominant majority religion, which at best may or may not accommodate those who are minorities in their reckoning.  This kind of thinking is retrograde and certainly does not reflect a forward-looking mindset.

Justifying caste divides as our heritage to be proud of is unhealthy, and perhaps meant to serve the interest of dominant upper caste.  Also, sharp is the gender divide. Regarding women as weaker sex and not as equal citizens of the land reflects discriminatory and archaic thinking, meant to prevent half of our population from contributing to nation-building. Looking selectively back into history and destroying a mosque has not strengthened the idea of a tolerant India but worked against the very concept.  The Khap Panchayats’ sitting in judgement on the rights of young men and women, as also the so-called honour killings, is against the Rule of Law, and abhorent. Discrimination against Dalits is still continuing in many parts of the land  despite constitutional guarantees. The anger of the Tribals who are eight per cent of the population, is leading to Maoist insurgency in Jharkhand and Chhatisgarh and several other areas. The policy-makers need to remember that  social, political and economic tensions that are developing under the surface and above have to be managed urgently.

Alienation of the various sections of the society, whatever the factors like – religion, region, language and caste or gender — from the mainstream leads to anger and in turn to socio-politico disaffection.  Whatever the deeper causes, sectoral alienation and anger sharpen social and political divide  – pushing back the idea of oneness.

Intolerance to dissent also slows down the evolution of a plural polity.  Every citizen or a section of society has the right to free expression and the majority have a duty to listen. Tolerance, a spirit of accommodation, listening to inconvenient truths and a spirit of reconciliation are important for creating a new India – a liberal, inclusive and  plural democracy where the “loneliest and the lost” can hold his or her head high.

India has to be strong — and would require collective will and effort to be so —  where every citizen, irrespective of caste, creed and religion, man or woman, rich or poor, will have to  lend shoulder to the building of a new India,  This would also require broader mindsets, capacity to listen to others’ opinion, even if it is contrarian or a dissenting view.  Dissenting opinion is in nation’s interest. It should not be drowned out, branding it as anti-nation.

A plural polity requires a liberal and plural approach to governance. The executive’s administration should not be encouraged to be partial towards the majority, but be neutral while discharging its legitimate duty. The people’s faith in the administration will grow if it can earn the trust of the entire people, particularly of those who are often ignored and kept out of the pale.  Alienation of a section of people causes heart-burning and anger and encourages a non-participative climate further weakening harmony and national unity. The ”They-and-us” approach will always work against liberal, pluralistic and democratic India.  Unchecked, the socio-political divides will further corrode unity and national harmony.

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*Dua has been editor of several national dailies, ambassador, media adviser to the prime minister, and a nominated member of Parliament. He recently joined the Observer Research Foundation, a New Delhi-based think tank.

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