The promise of India’s secular democracy by Rajiv Bhargava

Excerpts and Ideas by Nivedita Ram

It is true that modernity originated in the west.

It is equally true that it has migrated to non-western societies.

Any non-western social formation has responded to western modernity in any of three ways. There is a layer of largely unaffected, non-modern system of practices, as well as a layer of a thoroughly westernized, modern system. In addition, there is a distinct layer of local modernity.

Something that started out as western can be transformed responding to the specific problems of non-western societies and by being nurtured in local context. It can become distinctly different, both from its western counterpart and from anything found within indigenous traditions.

A federal state is one where some matters are exclusively within the competence of certain local units- states or provinces- and are constitutionally beyond the scope of authority of the national government, and where certain other matters are constitutionally outside the scope of the authority of the smaller units.

Federalism in India means something different from what it means elsewhere. This is simply because like secularism, federalism too has evolved differently in societies with a different cultural background. The deep diversity of India and the absence of strong centralized political structure has made a profound difference to the kind of federalism developed and needed in India.

Five Features of Indian Federalism:

  • The distinctive historical pattern of its emergence
  • Its cooperative nature
  • Its assymmetrical character (articles 370 and 371A)
  • Its demos enabling character (unequal representation)
  • Its context sensitivity, particularly its relationship with contextual moral and political reasoning.

Origins of Indian Federalism

At the time of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb who ruled between 1665 and 1707, pre-British India was divided into 21 administrative units or subas, some of which coincided with a single distinct sociocultural region while others incorporated several. Even ancient Indian empires were divided into janapadas or territorially bounded communities based on an admixture of culture, dialect, geographical location, social mores, and political status. Ancient Indian literature refers to six natural regions with 165 janapadas.

Under British colonialism provinces were the result of ad hoc and completely arbitrary process of annexation, largely multilingual and multi ethnic. In many cases people speaking the same language were broken up to form parts of different provinces. Power was centralized and always in British hands.

The Indian National Congress, the main protagonist of the freedom struggle recognized the potential of relatively stable ethno linguistic territorial ideas. The channelize this potential and use it exclusively for an anti-colonial struggle, it evolved an organizational frame work for their integration into a newly imagined political community. The Pradesh a democratic ethnically sensitive alternative to the colonial province was the basic territorial unit of a new federation. Language was to be the organizational basis of each Pradesh. Thus, sub national linguistic identities were recognized and given their legitimate due.

The Congress recognized that not only the struggle for Indian nationalism had to be pursued along federal lines but also that a responsible representative government of the future needed a linguistically organized federal state. The Cabinet Mission plan in 1946 envisaged a very weak center in a confederation like arrangement.

This system of states based on the absorption of ethnic identities into a larger civic identity proved inadequate. It began to fall apart when it was forced to encounter mass politics. Demands were immediately made by regional and ethnic leaders for autonomy and the sharing of political power. The issue of linguistic states became the focus of popular agitation. The 1953, the state of Andhra Pradesh where a large number of Telugu speaking people live was created. In 1954 a States Reorganization Committee was set up. States were reorganized in 1956. It took another mass agitation to divide the province of Bombay into Maharashtra and Gujarat. In 1966 Punjab was reorganized into 3 units: the core Punjab suba, the new state of Harayana and Himachal Pradesh. Several new states were carved out in response to popular agitation including states of the north east, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh and Uttarkhand. India is now a multi lingual federation. Each major linguistic group is politically recognized and all are treated as equals.

Linguistic Federalism

Given the vast size and diversity of the country however, federalism in India was less a matter of choice than of necessity. India has 8 major religious groups, at least 15 major language groups and about 60 socio cultural cub regions with distinct sub national identities. Besides, India also has one of the largest tribal populations in the world.

The current form of linguistic federalism in India depends as Paul brass demonstrated on 4 formal and informal rules:

  • The Indian constitution does not give any state the right to secede, therefore it can suppress such demands by force. Eg. Whenever a linguistic group dropped its secessionist demands as the DMK did in Tamil Nadu in1960s, the Government of India has made concessions and even granted statehood.
  • The state shall not accommodate the religious principle of state organization. Eg it took a long time for Punjab to be reorganized along linguistic lines because the creation of a Punjabi speaking state was believed to be a cover for a Sikh state.
  • The mere existence of a distinct language group shall not be sufficient for the formation of a separate political sub unit of the federation. It had to find political articulation and have the backing popular will.
  • Finally, the reorganization of a province was unacceptable if such a demand was made by only one of the important language groups in the relevant area. Eg. Madras was reorganized because it had the backing of both Tamil speaking and Telugu speaking peoples but Bombay had to wait for a long time because it was backed only by Marathi speaking people and not by Gujarati speaking people.

There is in effect a hierarchy of official statuses in the languages and mother tongues of India. Hindi and English are the official languages of the union. The various regional languages are the official languages in the linguistically reorganized states. Finally, there is a 3rd level. Consisting of the languages listed in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution without official status in any state.

The Indian Constitution obliges every state to provide adequate facilities for instruction in the mother tongue at the primary stage of education to children belonging to linguistic minority groups.

In contrast, many of the states have pursued discriminatory policies towards their internal minorities and the center had been unable to protect such minorities. Eg. Urdu is learnt by only 1 in 4 Urdu speakers in UP and there has been a decline in Urdu newspapers as well.

Its Cooperative Nature

The framers of the constitution embraced what later came to be called “cooperative federation”. Instead of building walls to separate the independentjurisdictions of distinct authorities, such as center and states, more power for one does not mean less power for the other, both governments can have ‘more’. Moreover the constitution could be federal or unitary (only one authority) according to the requirements of the situation.

Its Assymetrical Character

Kashmir has been a test case of India’s linguistic federalism and in particular of how assymetrical it can be. For example, the accession of Jammu and Kashmir to then Indian Union was based on a commitment to safeguard its autonomy under Article 370 of the constitution. This is the only state that is governed by its own constitution. This asymmetricity has always been contested by homogenizing forces that are opposed to any kind of autonomy for the people of Kashmir.

Its Demos Enabling Character

In India, the size of the state’s population is a relevant factor in the number of seats it has in the upper and lower chambers. States with relatively small populations, cannot block the democratic concerns of states with relatively larger populations. This makes Indian federalism one of the most demos enabling in the world.

Its Context Sensitivity

A context sensitive conception of federalism encourages accommodation- not the giving up of one value for the sake of another but rather their reconciliation and possible harmonization. This accommodation may be accomplished in at least two ways: by placing values at different levels; and by seeing them not as belonging to water tight compartments but as sufficiently separate so that an attempt can be made to recognize a value within its own sphere, without frontally confliction with another value operating in a different sphere. This way of thinking which is at once ethical and contextual, is the heart of the development of the idea of federalism anywhere. It was certainly at the heart of the constituent assembly that resulted in a constitution that appeared both federal and unitary. It was this fruitful ambiguity that paved the way for the deepening of Indian democracy via linguistic federalism.

The Indian Experience

The Indian experience shows that whenever the center has been non-manipulative, has treated politicians and people of regional states with respect- indeed whenever regions identify with the center and genuinely participate in governance at the federal level- the entire polity works smoothly and peacefully.

The second lesson to be drawn is that democratic functioning and an accommodating spirit towards multiple communities and their multiple values is the only way to make a federal system successful.

Finally, it must be recognized that even within the same polity, different communities have different, sometimes distinct needs.

In a diverse society with different levels of economic development and variable historical traditions, assymmetrical treatment is the only way of realizing an appropriately interpreted equality.

From: The promise of India’s secular democracy by Rajiv Bhargava