Of minorities and majorities

Sarah Joseph

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The issue of minority rights and multiculturalism is high on the political agenda of most states today since most states incorporate a variety of ethnic, religious and other diversities. The problem has become exacerbated in recent decades because of the increased influx of immigrants into the advanced capitalist states of the West and the movements of refugees. Therefore, most states face the problem of negotiating with diverse groups and this is reflected in contemporary political theory. Not only have received theories of rights and citizenship and justice come under challenge but new concepts like multiculturalism have also been generated to address these issues.

The concept of multiculturalism has been discussed in western societies with relation to the problem of incorporating diverse minorities on terms of equality into a nation state in which there is already a reasonable degree of consensus regarding basic liberal values and national identity. But even in such societies concepts like multiculturalism embody diverse possibilities. Multiculturalism promises a deeper understanding of equality and self-determination on the one hand to that which had earlier prevailed in liberal theory. But on the other, it opens up the possibility for conservative interpretations of ascriptive identities and identitarian politics.

When concepts like multiculturalism are appropriated by societies like the Indian, the ambiguities in the concept generate a variety of possibilities which need to be examined in relation to our recent political history and aspirations. I am not raising the tired question of Indian exceptionalism and the need to evolve purely indigenous solutions to the problems of our society, but the need to critically examine the context in which debates about equality and difference have been conducted in contemporary political theory in the West as also in India.



Liberalism and liberal theory have provided the framework within which much of the discussion about minority rights and multiculturalism has taken place. Celebration of social and cultural diversity has always been a liberal value although liberalism has been notoriously ambiguous about how to reconcile values like equality and individualism with respect for diversity. Classical liberal theorists like J. S. Mill traced the origins of social diversity to individual differences of interest and talent. Mills’ essay On Liberty is a classic humanist statement about the need to protect individual rights of expression for the development of individuals as well as the enrichment of social life.

However, the notion of the autonomous individual as the primary unit of social life has come under attack in recent years. The liberal-communitarian debate in western political theory for instance, raised the issue of whether, and if so to what extent, the individual can be conceptualised in abstraction from his/her social linkages. Contemporary liberal theorists like Will Kymlicka have argued that liberalism is not intrinsically antagonistic to the concept of the individual who is embedded in socio-cultural communities. He argues for state protection for community identities and a concept of justice which would take into consideration individuals as well as the communities with which they might identify. Nevertheless, belief in the importance of equal rights and individual freedom remains at the core of liberal theory.

Liberal democratic theory has traditionally maintained that social pluralism should find its expression in civil society while equal citizenship and uniform laws and neutral procedures should prevail in the public sphere. However, in recent years the notion of a neutral procedural state has also come under challenge. The belief that the public sphere could be guided by procedures which are completely ‘colour-blind’ and neutral can be questioned, especially in a multicultural state in which the national political culture is likely to reflect dominant values. Even a state like France, which has explicitly rejected the notion of ethnic nationalism, has a strong sense of its national culture which is the culture of dominant groups, as the recent controversy about recognising regional dialects according to the terms of the EU charter demonstrates.



The claimed neutrality of public procedures in liberal states has also been challenged by feminist and subaltern groups who have had some success in showing up the implicit bias in many procedures. Moreover, neutrality might be considered an alien value by some minority groups in the society. Hence, liberal states have begun to accept the need to grant some recognition to minority groups and to their cultural values in the public sphere.

Multiculturalism is now the preferred term to describe the policies of a nation state in relation to its cultural minorities. The concept of nation state implies that the state is held together not only by sovereignty and common laws and procedures but also by a shared national identity and culture. Attempts to accommodate individual rights as well as recognition of minority communities characterise the multicultural state.

It is generally the case that national political cultures would reflect the values and identity of dominant groups in society and that minorities would be defined in relation to it. A multicultural state would recognise at least limited rights of self determination for minority groups. As such, multicultural policies have been projected as constituting an alternative to the assimilationist goals pursued for long by liberal states. Multiculturalism could also be considered a response to the failure of assimilationist policies.



Much of the recent debate about multiculturalism and minority rights in western political theory has conceptualised the issues in terms of two alternatives – states could either adopt procedural liberalism and equal rights or a politics of difference. The most elegant and influential philosophical discussion of such issues is probably to be found in the work of the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, particularly his Politics of Recognition (1992).

Taylor maintains that the politics of recognition in contemporary societies can either take the form of guaranteeing equal rights and equal citizenship to all members or through a politics of difference. Both strategies can be accommodated within liberal theory, he argues, and both would include provision of basic rights to all and would decry discrimination. Taylor associates the politics of equal rights with procedural liberalism which allows individuals to pursue their own vision of the good life within the framework of state laws. Equal dignity would be interpreted here as giving importance to the similarities between individuals and promoting equal citizenship. Only a limited recognition of difference would be possible here. The politics of difference on the other hand is based, he argues, on the belief that each person has a unique nature and potential to which he/she should be true.

To deny public recognition to a person’s self-identity or to impose a demeaning identity on them would be to harm them. He maintains that a politics of difference should try to provide the conditions in which people can pursue authenticity, and this would include granting public recognition to the groups with which they might identify. Both the politics of equal rights and the politics of difference uphold non-discriminatory state policies although non-discrimination would be interpreted differently in each case.



Although procedural liberalism may have been posed as an alternative to a politics of difference by philosophers like Taylor or Richard Rorty, neither has questioned the importance for their societies of a consensus regarding basic rights for all and a national political culture which would include respect for liberal values such as equality and justice and freedom. Taylor maintains that liberalism need not surrender all its values in favour of an indiscriminate endorsement of minority cultures and other value systems; only that sometimes the goal of cultural survival should prevail in a multicultural state. A politics of difference recognises this, he claims.

This may seem to be a reasonable position to adopt but it leaves open the question of how a state would decide when, and to what extent, to give recognition to other cultures, and it leaves some scope for discrimination in the treatment of different communities. This becomes evident when we examine Taylor’s views regarding the rights of settler communities like the French and British in Canada and the more limited rights he is willing to concede to recent immigrants to Quebec.

The right to education in the mother tongue is, in his opinion, the privilege of the former but not of the latter. This he justifies on grounds of helping French language and culture to reproduce themselves over generations. Since recent immigrants have arrived voluntarily they should be willing to accept the dominant culture. It is this aspect of his theory which has made it attractive to the New Right in France as theorists like Pierre Birnbaum point out (Telos, 1994). One could speculate whether it might not also get some endorsement from right-wing forces in India.



The debate about multiculturalism has not, on the whole, paid much attention to the general economically and socially disadvantaged position of minorities in a society. Liberal states have traditionally preferred to treat inequality in society as between individuals rather than groups or classes and to deal with it through equal rights and affirmative action and welfarist policies even though such measures alone have often not been effective in promoting real equality. This tendency is reflected in the debate about multiculturalism which gives importance to the preservation of group cultures and identities without necessarily exploring the possible links between cultural and other forms of deprivation in society.

Multicultural policies, therefore, usually address issues such as language preservation, right to adopt cultural practices like wearing a turban or veil, holidays for minority festivals, and sometimes even quotas for representation in elected bodies or public employment. But it would be difficult to isolate a purely ‘cultural’ identity for a person since a person’s social location and self-identity would normally be over-determined by a complex, structured pattern of identities which tend to reinforce each other. Therefore, measures to grant cultural protection may be only partially successful in ensuring equal dignity and non-discrimination for members of such communities.



The situation in India is different in a number of significant ways to the situation in western countries like the United States, Germany or Canada. Indian society incorporates a bewildering number of minorities identified by factors like religion, caste, class or region. Moreover, the boundaries of such groups have always been somewhat fluid and overlapping. So diverse is the society that it might be more difficult to characterise the majority than minorities, the efforts of right-wing nationalist groups notwithstanding. However, the quintessential minority in most peoples perception is the religious minority. There is also not the same degree of consensus regarding national political culture and identity as exists in many western societies. In fact, different interpretations of Indian nationalism are competing in the political arena today.

The concept of minorities and minority rights is not new to India. During the colonial period the British considered religion to be the primary marker of difference in Indian society and they evolved an elaborate set of policies towards religious communities. Although over time they introduced some limited democratic institutions and a concept of civil society, community and caste identities were also granted recognition in a number of state institutions like the army, the law and the franchise. The British claimed to follow an even-handed policy towards different religious communities by not conceding priority to any community, not even the majority religious community.



The Congress defended the notion of a pluralist society and a neutral state based on equal citizenship. But although it criticised the British for strengthening communal identities and antagonisms through their policies, the Congress also promised recognition and protection for religious communities and non-discriminatory state policies. At the same time it rejected the British view that India was not a nation and articulated a secular and inclusive nationalism in which there would be equal respect, equal opportunities and equal liberty for all, regardless of their religious affiliations or social location.

This nationalism was grounded, it was held, in the principles of Indian civilisation. Nehru wrote feelingly about the unbroken continuity of Indian civilisation from its earliest days and its inclusive and syncretic character although his description of the shared Indian culture was expressed in somewhat abstract and generalised terms. He opposed ethnic and religious nationalism, even more so after Partition. There were also, of course, opposing perspectives represented in the Congress and in the Constituent Assembly and the Constitution reflected in many places an uneasy compromise on issues like minority rights, a uniform civil code and social justice. Many of these have since become the focus of political controversy.

The Indian Constitution may justifiably be described as secular and multicultural but in a specific way. Difference is recognised but so also are the values of equal citizenship and equal rights. After protracted discussions in the Constituent Assembly, assimilation on terms of equality was offered to caste and class based minorities in the Constitution, but it was felt that to achieve this it would be necessary to recognise caste in the Constitution as a cause of inequalities and as a basis for affirmative action. At the same time, recognition and protection was offered to religious, cultural and linguistic minorities. Equal respect, fairness and non discrimination were to be the guiding principles of state policies towards minorities and no wall of separation was envisaged between state and religious activities.



Following British practice, no special privilege was to be granted to any religious community, not even the majority community, although this has subsequently caused some heartburn and charges of pampering the minorities. But the Indian state has been, and continues to be, deeply involved in managing the ‘secular’ affairs of religious communities being represented on trusts, intervening for social reform, laying down the rules for employment of temple functionaries in some cases, and so on.

The state may not interfere in religious beliefs or practices although the dividing line between what interventions are prohibited and what are permitted is clearly a thin one. At the same time the Constitution guarantees freedom of belief and freedom to profess, practise and propagate religion to individuals. Overall, it could be said that religious minorities have enjoyed a reasonable degree of freedom in India, although there have been exceptions. This was made possible because of a consensus regarding the objectives and provisions of the Constitution for many years.

However, in recent years the entire issue of minorities and minority rights has been foregrounded in the public agenda. The point of entry for questioning constitutional objectives has been provided by challenges to the received formulations regarding national identity and political culture. The Nehruvian consensus began to break down by the late ’60s and many of the provisions regarding minorities which were included in the Constitution are being questioned today.

The Constitution itself was not unambiguous on some of these issues because of opposing points of view but today there is a strong possibility that anti-liberal forces may gain control over the national agenda. In these circumstances it cannot be taken for granted that the problems of minority protection and multiculturalism can be solved only by following a politics of difference and granting more minority rights. A politics of difference which is not backed up by a commitment to equal basic rights and citizenship could be used to repress, rather than protect, minorities.



A strong majoritarian nationalism could define itself by reference to minorities while at the same time threatening their existence. If minorities did not exist it might be necessary to invent them. To avoid repression, a politics of difference would need to be combined with moves to democratise civil society and the state. Therefore, we need to exercise caution about invoking the alternatives outlined in the context of western societies by philosophers like Charles Taylor between equal citizenship and a politics of difference. Equal rights and social justice and non-discriminatory policies may be as important as the recognition of difference for the protection of minorities in India.

Some social scientists in India, whom I have elsewhere described as communitarians, have argued that the serious threats to social tolerance and diversity in India today come either from an anti-democratic, majoritarian, ethnic nationalism or from a homogenising and modernising nation state and the imposition of alien values such as secularism and individualism on Indian society. Such theorists prefer a state which does not claim procedural neutrality and separation of state from religion but is instead guided by an encompassing indigenous culture, although they oppose the interpretations of Indian culture which are being marketed by right-wing forces today. Minorities could be protected, they argue, by the tolerance and modes of coexistence which have evolved in the society over time rather than by a modernising nation state and alien values. The state should be prepared to devolve some of its powers and functions on to communities.



A strength of the communitarian arguments is that they have drawn attention to a certain ambiguity in the characterisation of the national culture and identity in the Nehruvian perspective which relied on a somewhat abstract notion of Indianness and a commitment to modernisation and the hope that communitarian loyalties would in time be restricted, in their expression, to the sphere of civil society. Terms like ‘composite’ and ‘syncretic’ were used to describe culture without clearly specifying what they implied for minority identities.

Today that perspective faces a great deal of criticism but the alternatives which have been put forward are also debatable. A ‘thick’ notion of ethnic nationalism has currently gained some currency. According to this perspective, minorities would have to accept a formulation of national culture in which their contribution is not recognised and either assimilate or accept very limited rights of self-determination. Equal citizenship may not be granted to all, although elimination of minorities need not be envisaged. Even factions within the dominant majority might have to accept limits to their freedom of expression.



Communitarians have opposed both the Nehruvian and the ethnic/ religious formulations, pointing out the weaknesses of both and indeed an important similarity, namely, that both work within the framework of a modernising nation state. But I argue that their own formulation too embodies some weaknesses. For one, they have not given sufficient importance to the need for democratisation of politics and society, invoking as they do a somewhat uncritical interpretation of Indian history and of the kind of inter-group relations which might have existed in the past. They have been reluctant to explore the possibly hierarchical and exploitative relations which might have existed between, and within, groups in the past.

Moreover, they have worked with a notion of bounded, religious communities with which the state today should share some of its powers. However, it seems doubtful that religious or other identities were ever as clearly defined and monocultural as they have suggested and it seems possible that measures such as devolution of some state powers to communities might exacerbate, rather than reduce, inter-group antagonisms in society.

I have argued above that the debate about multiculturalism in western political theory has tended to separate the issue of cultural deprivation from issues of socio-economic inequalities in society, advocating different strategies for each. In fact, in the West it is sometimes argued that cultural politics is replacing class-based politics. Whatever the case there, this is certainly not true of India. Yet, Indian communitarian thinkers have focused on issues of cultural difference without exploring the possible linkages between cultural deprivation and other forms of deprivation. This has led to a somewhat ‘culturalist’ and limited approach to the problem of increasing social antagonisms in Indian society.

It is unfortunate that the debate about multiculturalism and minority rights has tended to work with a reified notion of cultural communities and a monocultural view of individuals. But societies can be multicultural only if individuals are also multicultural. Proposals to recognize and protect minorities should be assessed by reference to this objective. We have a horrifying contemporary instance in Yugoslavia of what happens to societies when the multicultural sense of identity is allowed to disintegrate.



Granting recognition to minority groups without addressing other social and political causes of hostility in society and without emphasising the need for democratisation could possibly increase, rather than reduce, hostility and segmentation in society. Even non-democratic governments could follow such policies though they might be reluctant to grant minorities a place in the national identity or to promote multiculturalism at the individual level. While there can be no easy formula to solve the problems of society, it would seem that states like India would need to pursue simultaneously a range of objectives which would include freedom and equality, as well as respect for the contributions of minorities to a shared national culture.