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Published in the 1-15 May 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Dilemmas of democracy
By Asghar Ali Engineer

Democracy in a multi-cultural, multi-lingual and multi-religious country like India poses difficult problems and dilemmas not easy to resolve. We began to face these dilemmas much before independence. Different castes and communities make demands, which are often difficult to accommodate. Also, some castes and communities from ages have been holding disproportionate power and they are not easily persuaded to give it up and accept more egalitarian set up which democracy seeks to usher in. 

Before independence also two serious problems arose when still democracy had not been fully ushered in. These problems arose in anticipation of the enactment of full fledged democratic structure. The Muslims demanded their share in power under the leadership of M.A. Jinnah and so did the dalits under the leadership of Dr. Ambedkar. While the latter’s problem could be resolved by giving them reservation the Muslim problem could not be as it was far more complicated and involved many complex issues not to be discussed here. As a result of non-resolution of the Muslim problem our country was ultimately partitioned.

Both problems remain in different forms and many more have arisen during the course of working of democracy during last more than half a century. India is a bewilderingly diverse democracy and several castes and communities bracketed with major castes and communities are splitting into their own autonomous groups and making their own demands. The backward classes and castes had not asserted their separate identities during independence but began to make their own demands once democracy began to deepen during course of time. 

Kaka Kalelkar Commission was appointed to meet their demands and then Mandal Commission and after deferring decision for their reservation for several years the Central Government had to announce implementation of Mandal Commission in 1990. Its implementation threw Indian society into turmoil, as the upper castes were not prepared to give up their privileges so easily. What happened after enforcing Mandal Commission is now matter of history.

Several castes and communities still feel that they are not getting their share of power and government jobs as compared to tiny number of upper caste privileged groups. Similarly the minority communities like Muslims feel that they have been given a raw deal. When these castes and communities assert themselves for justice the upper caste and class privileged groups cry foul and begin to say national integration is in danger. And more so, if those making demands, happened to be Muslims. It happened in earlier decades of our independence. When in early sixties some Muslim leaders after the Jabalpur riots in 1961 formed Majlis-e-Mushawarat across political parties it was seen as great danger to national unity.

But during eighties when dalit leaders across party lines came together it was thought to be the only way to solve dalit problems. Anyway this is only a side point. What we are trying to drive at is that democracy in a diverse country like India creates certain problems, which pose dilemmas for ruling classes and ruling parties. Before independence Muslims and dalits had demanded their share but now several castes and communities are making their demands. Earlier caste-based parties did not exist. Today several caste-based parties are coming into existence. 
Earlier regional parties did not exist and all India parties used to be voted to power. The only regional party, which asserted itself during sixties was in Tamil Nadu. Now several regional parties have come into existence and only alliance of these regional parties can form a government at the Centre. No single party can rule over India. It is all because functioning of democracy brings more and more awareness among people of diverse origins and they begin to assert their respective identities and organise themselves.
In the North east earlier only Naga problem existed right from pre-independence days. After seventies Assam problem erupted and then in almost all seven states of North East experienced armed struggle. Thus on one hand we desire national integration and greater national unity but on the other, under democracy more and more people agitate and even demand separation apparently causing disunity. 

This is because democracy cannot work without justice and justice denied under democracy agitates people and in extreme cases they begin to demand separation, thinking justice would never be done under the present dispensation. Kashmir also remained quiet for some time after independence but the Kashmiri youth took to arms under similar assumption. The youth loses patience earlier than others. In entire North East too it is students and youth who took to arms.

The right wing communal forces further aggravate the problem of religious minorities. The Jan Sangh thus for years condemned assertion of any religious identity and demanded that all Indians should have only one Indian identity and should not assert any other identity. Whenever Muslims asserted their religious identity Jan Sangh (and later BJP) condemned it strongly. Regional identities though not condemned as strongly as religious identity, was disapproved of. Tamil identity too appeared separatist.

Only the North Indian Hindu identity was considered as the core identity and symbol of Indian unity. All other identities either disapproved of or strongly condemned. The Jan Sangh (and later the BJP) was merely an upper caste North Indian party. It had not penetrated into south or had extended its base among the low caste Hindus. It is only during eighties that it realised its upper caste north Indian credentials cannot see it in power. It then exploited the Ramjanambhoomi issue to entice low caste Hindus to its fold and thus could widen its vote base.

However, during that decade the BJP, though apparently cast away its communal garb and had taken oath on Gandhi’s Samadhi for secularism, became much more stridently anti-Muslim in order to garner Hindu votes of all castes and classes. For the first time it adopted stridently anti-Muslim Hindutva agenda i.e. imposition of uniform civil code, construction of Ram Temple in Ayodhya and removal of Article 370 granting Kashmir a special status. The BJP itself called it a Hindutva agenda to attract more and more Hindus in its fold by inciting anti-Muslim feelings.

As a result of this anti-Muslim politics the BJP which always swore by ‘patriotism’ and akhand Bharat (united India) created greater degree of social disharmony and tried to weaken the unity and integrity of India. And all this to reach the seat of power. Thus democracy can be misused greatly by vested interests. Democracy demands, as pointed out above, justice to all sections of society and using majoritarian anti-minority discourse a serious attempt was made by the BJP leaders to perpetrate injustice against religious minorities reducing them to second -class citizens.

In Gujarat too the BJP, under the leadership of Narendra Modi, a hardcore Hindutva demagogue, planned to organise anti-Muslim genocide in 2002 using the unfortunate Godhra incident in order to create anger among all class of Hindus to win the assembly elections and he won those elections with overwhelming majority. Thus democracy was seriously misused by the Hindutva zealot to retain power in Gujarat. The central BJP leadership, at that point of time, not only approved of this genocide but also began to say that the Gujarat model would be repeated in other states.

But the BJP was rebuffed in Himachal Pradesh and lost elections very badly and they forgot all about the ‘Gujarat model’. They began to re-think their strategy. Now the BJP has come full circle and is trying to woo the very Muslim minority its leaders had despised all along. They had used hate propaganda to come to power all these years. But again it was the strength of Indian democracy that hate politics lost all its appeal specially in U.P., which was part of the Hindu core nationality.

The rise of caste politics in U.P. and emergence of Dalits and Yadavs as great political force, seriously weakened the upper caste Hindu political appeal and the BJP, going against its core agenda had to strike an alliance with the Dalit party of Mayavati. Even this alliance proved to be riddled with problems for the BJP and it could not rise to a significant political force in U.P. The Muslim vote in U.P. is crucial for any political party. The Congress lost its primacy in U.P. as it lost both the Muslim and Dalit vote. The Muslims began to vote now either for the Smajwadi Party of Mulayam Singh or Bahujan Samaj Party of Mayavati.

Ironically the BJP is wooing Muslims in this coming general elections as there is no other way out for it to come back to power. It has enticed some Muslims into its fold and is apparently diluting its Hindutva agenda. It now says it would construct Ram Temple through negotiations with Muslims and the uniform civil code will be brought as a measure of gender justice, not as an anti-Muslim measure and has quietly dropped the issue of removing Article 370 from its agenda.

Let us hope that the BJP sincerely realises (not merely as an election winning stunt as it appears to be doing today) that it cannot in any case rule over India by antagonising a minority as large as Muslims numbering over 13-14 crores. Even the bloodshed like the one in Gujarat is possible once in a while and reconciliation with Muslims is the only solution.

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