With the CAA, India Is Hurtling Down the Path of Majoritarianism

History shows us that diversity is best managed through the democratic pluralism and political consensus is essential for the stability of a state.

The Modi government’s insistence on passing and defending the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) ignores several historical facts. In a world of multicultural states, fear of discrimination amongst different communities often sparks domestic and inter-state strife.

Let us recall that failure to manage issues surrounding diversity triggered two World Wars which started in Europe. International experience also confirms the pragmatism of a democratic civic nationalism in reconciling cultural, religious and linguistic differences.

Since most states are multicultural and multinational, the idea that ‘my nation is our state’ is also authoritarian. This authoritarianism is innate in the majoritarian Hindutva ideology.

Internationally, the “majoritarian” nationalism of the nation-state is widely perceived as “bad nationalism” for two reasons.  First, majoritarian nationalism asserts the superiority of the majority community and its dominance over minorities. A state practising majoritarian nationalism ends up alienating several sections of the population and fomenting strife because it fails to uphold individual rights, the legal equality between all citizens and the intellectual and political choices that are innate in the democratic civic nation.

Simultaneously the majoritarian nation-state also violates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) which highlights ‘the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family’ as ‘the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world’.

Second, majoritarian nationalism ignores international experience which shows that the idea of the nation-state, literally implying the alignment of political, religious or linguistic borders, is unrealistic and unviable. Most states are multinational and multicultural. This is largely because the world comprises of more than 2000 “nations”, which have been accommodated into its 193 states. Factors ranging from migration to power politics may explain why.

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For instance, even after Moscow hived off Russian-majority Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, Russians comprised 17% of Ukraine’s population. In the Middle East, some 30 million Kurds are divided between Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria.  The citizens of the peaceful, rich, democratic federation of Switzerland comprise of people from some of the largest European “nations” including Germany, France and Italy.

In fact, there is no monolithic nation or community. Contrary to what its proponents might think, the CAA will not create one. Political, intellectual and cultural identities are not aligned in any country and the ethnic or cultural nation is politically divisible. In India, the recent fracas between the Shiv Sena and the BJP-RSS in Maharashtra confirms these facts yet again. Both profess to be “Hindutva” nationalists and supported the Supreme Court’s verdict in the Ayodhya judgement. But those similar aims have not inspired them to form a coalition government.

The recent fracas between the Shiv Sena and the BJP-RSS in Maharashtra confirms that there is no monolithic nation and it cannot be created. Credit: Reuters

India has something to learn from the experience of neighbouring Pakistan as well. More than seven decades after its birth, Pakistan remains stuck in the ideological rut of the religious nation-state, which keeps it politically divided and prevents it from making progress. Additionally, not even all Muslims enjoy equal treatment: Baluchis, Shiites and Ahmaddiyas have suffered extensive persecution.

International experience also shows us that diversity is best managed through the democratic pluralism of the civic nation. Political consensus is essential for the stability of a state and it can only be forged through democracy.

However, if the elected leaders of a democracy embrace majoritarian nationalism, they restrict intellectual and political participation on equal terms by all communities. In this way they divide the multicultural nation, defile international norms on civic citizenship, and weaken democratic institutions and political consensus.

The CAA has heightened concerns about the strength of political consensus in contemporary India. Some in the ruling BJP-RSS  want to tear the constitution apart and do away with secular democracy altogether which has served as the basis for forging consensus among India’s myriad religious and linguistic groups.

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It is also surprising that with India in the throes of economic decline caused by official ineptitude, New Delhi is going ahead, against all good advice, with the CAA – and probably a National Register of Citizens – which will only continue to divide Indians and weaken their country. Such political moves will also make India look like a ‘copycat Pakistan’ not only in terms of political disunity but economic fragility.

The BJP and RSS avoid such tough questions. Wrongly fixated on the strife-provoking idea of the majoritarian religious nation-state, they fail to realise that India’s secular democracy represents the world’s largest experiment in creating a new nation symbolising the inclusion of all religious, linguistic, caste and ethnic groups on the basis of equality. To implement this inclusion, it has created institutions and mechanisms to resolve differences between the centre and the regions, and the individual and the state.

It is this attempt at inclusive democracy, based on a strong rule of law, that has won India worldwide admiration – despite its flaws and economic problems.

India’s national movement forged consensus among Indians of different communities, regions and classes largely because of the eclecticism and liberal leadership of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. The success – or survival – of India’s democracy has hinged on its civic nationalism.

Secular democratic India has stood out in contrast to the former authoritarian USSR and Yugoslavia, which fared far worse than India economically and failed to resolve differences between their different nationalisms, and between their regions and the centre. The disintegration of those two authoritarian states in 1991 re-established the fact that authoritarian states fail to forge consensus between diverse communities on political, economic and cultural issues.

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Last but not least, advocates of the CAA and the incompetent managers of India’s declining economy should learn that progress is best created and sustained by strengthening consensus between all communities through inclusive democracy. This is confirmed by the outstanding fact that most of the world’s top 30 states in the Human Development Index are democracies.

The international message is clear: a pluralistic, democratic nationalism guaranteeing intellectual choice, equality before the law and human security to all citizens stands the best chance of advancing the progress essential to create a strong Indian state and nation. The CAA should be consigned to the dustbin of history immediately, to make way for a stronger, more prosperous and harmonious India.

Anita Inder Singh is a founding professor of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution in New Delhi. She has been a fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington DC and has taught international relations at the graduate level at Oxford and the LSE.