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  • 8/9/2019 FoFchp_Diversity Redefined Copy



    The Indian Republic: Redefining Diversity

    Balveer Arora

    in Luis Moreno and Cesar Colino eds, Diversity and Unity in Federal Countries , McGill Queens

    University Press, 2010 (in press)

    India is home to a pluricultural civilization whose polity is organized around the founding belief

    of unity in diversity. The framers of the Constitution were acutely aware of the vast range of

    diversity for which they had to construct an encompassing frame, allowing adequate expression

    for diversity while at the same time maintaining the unity essential for national cohesion.

    They viewed with some apprehension the rising aspirations of ethno-linguistic

    communities and their demands for recognition and growing assertiveness in the political arena.

    Chastened by the failure to maintain an undivided India (encompassing both the provinces then

    known as British India as well as the states ruled by Indian princes), and deliberating on the new

    framework in the midst of its bloody and chaotic sequel, they were cautious in their approach to

    the recognition of diversity.


    Initially there was a reluctance to recognize diversity as an ordering principle, a reluctance

    rooted in a fear of excessive federalism. The Founding Fathers sought to create an integrated

    polity for a society that had never been integrated. This was a formidable challenge in a

    pluricultural civilization where the past was never remote, but ever-present. The assertion and

    consolidation of movements with strong regional roots eventually brought diversity to centre

    stage through the political process, and their commitment to democracy compelled the national

    leadership to rethink its policy on the foundations of Indias long-term unity and strength. They

    opted for a centralized federal union.

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    The full force of linguistic and cultural diversities began to be felt even in the early years

    of the republic. The demand for the linguistic reorganization of independent India was

    accompanied by an equally vigorous push for a common language to serve as a lingua franca for

    the union. At a time when predictions of imminent disintegration and collapse of the union were

    rife, political adjustments, mediated by the electoral process, saved the day. The literature on

    Indias fledgling democracy during this period contains many dire predictions of imminent

    breakup through excessive and premature democratization of a poor and illiterate population

    driven by primordial sentiments and lacking the maturity necessary to sustain a diverse union.

    In the final analysis, it was the very operation of democratic principles that enabled the searchfor acceptable solutions and averted the collapse of this federal experiment.

    The rights pertaining to expressions of diversity are contained in various provisions of the

    Constitution, notably Part III relating to fundamental rights. Despite its detailing of freedom of

    religion and cultural and educational rights of minorities, the Constitution remained somewhat

    ambivalent when it came to specifying criteria for the organization of diversity. Although it

    firmly endorsed the respect of diversity in the chapter on rights, it stopped short of detailing its

    institutional articulation in terms of federal structuring. It conferred the power to recognize

    diversity on the Union Parliament and government, but left it to the states to manage diversitys

    socio-political consequences. Accommodation is the key concept that characterizes this

    constitutional approach to diversity, but it has been interpreted as assimilation by various

    political forces, particularly those that insist on mainstreaming minorities. 1

    Nevertheless, the Indian Constitution enjoys a high degree of legitimacy, which has been

    enhanced by the failure of attempts to radically modify its core principles. The judiciary has

    enunciated a doctrine of basic structure that, in effect, limits the right of Parliament to amend it

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    in ways that would alter the founding beliefs of the constitutional architecture. This doctrine, first

    enunciated in the Kesavananda Bharati (1973) judgment of the Supreme Court, 2 emerged

    strengthened from the crucible of the Emergency (197577) and has been subsequently

    reaffirmed with renewed vigour. The accommodation of social diversity is thus an integral part

    of the Constitution. Equity, redistribution, and social justice are other important principles of

    constitutionally sanctioned state policy. 3

    The preamble to the Constitution enunciates justice social, economic and political as

    a first principle before moving to the principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity. In pursuance

    of the commitment to social justice, an intricate system of quotas and reservations in varioussectors, especially in educational institutions, government employment, and representation in

    legislatures, has emerged over the years to promote a more inclusive society. While these

    policies have at times generated political tensions within states, mainly because more groups

    seek entry into categories that confer advantages of affirmative action, they have not produced

    any significant threats to the union as a whole.

    However, not all issues related to ethnic identity are resolved with ease and settled

    amicably. Many antagonisms still persist. This is particularly true of the frontier states of

    Kashmir in the north as well as of Nagaland, Mizoram, and Manipur in the northeast. In fact,

    recurrent militancy has prompted the Union to invest the armed forces stationed there with

    special powers of arrest and detention. Citing misuse, these special powers have been opposed

    vigorously by local populations supported by human rights activists. 4 The situation in Kashmir

    has been compounded by the infiltration of terrorist groups from Pakistan across the border,

    many of which have their roots and bases farther north in Afghanistan. In Nagaland, insurgents

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    continue to demand a greater Naga state, Nagalim , encompassing territories located in

    neighbouring Indian states as well as in Myanmar.

    To counter these movements, the Indian Union has devised a number of strategies aimed

    at increasing the incentives for participation in the democratic electoral process. The

    attractiveness of this option is not immediately evident because all of these states, due to a host

    of historical and geographical reasons, have low levels of economic development. Enhanced

    economic well-being would be a more tangible benefit for the people. However, since

    development processes are slow and uncertain, special-status provisions attempt to reduce

    disparities through fiscal incentives and even direct subsidies, via constitutionally enshrinedasymmetries. Many of these arrangements were initially designated as temporary and transitional

    in order to overcome principled opposition to them. As with the indefinite deferment of the

    official language provisions stipulating the replacement of English by Hindi within fifteen years,

    these asymmetrical provisions are now entrenched firmly and permanently. These arrangements

    were subsequently labelled special provisions to allay apprehensions that they could be

    revoked unilaterally. 5

    Religion and Languages

    The configuration of linguistic, cultural, and religious differences in the country is complicated

    by the fact that the main societal cleavages are both territorial and non-territorial. The magnitude

    of Indias diversity is legendary. There are more languages in India than in any other federation

    on the globe. India is home to all the worlds major religions. Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and

    Sikhism originated on the Indian subcontinent, while Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and

    Islam arrived in India long ago. While Hindus account for 80.5% of the population, Muslims

    constitute the largest single religious minority (13.4%) followed by Christians (2.3%), Sikhs

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    (1.9%), Buddhists (0.8%), and Jains (0.4%). These religious minorities are statutorily

    recognized, and a National Commission for Minorities is entrusted with the task of ensuring that

    their constitutional rights are respected in the states. 6

    Minority rights, as applicable to religious minorities, are defined primarily as educational

    and cultural rights. These are protected by the Constitution throughout the Indian Union, but the

    question of the territorial framework of reference for determining minority status remains a

    relevant issue for the implementation of these rights. For example, Muslims are a majority in

    Kashmir, whereas they are a minority in other states. Similarly, Christians are a majority in

    Meghalaya, Mizoram, and Nagaland, while Sikhs are the majority in Punjab but a minorityelsewhere. 7

    Linguistic diversity is obviously a key element in the debates on the construction of

    unity. Indian languages belong primarily to two major language families: the Indo-Aryan

    (76.9%) and the Dravidian (20.8%). Of the twenty-two Indian languages listed in the

    Constitution, fifteen belong to the Indo-Aryan variant of Indo-European l