IN THE WORKINGS of any representative democracy with a written constitution that prescribes a system of checks and balances, there is always a tug of war between majoritarian demands and constitutional safeguards. Since independence, these checks have worked well enough in India for us to forget the overwhelming threat of the tyranny of the majority—something that has enabled the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party government to make a divisive issue of minority appeasement, and make the very intention of the constitution into a negative feature of our democracy. Born of the majoritarian impulse, this regime—the first BJP government to command a clear majority in the Lok Sabha, and to rule more states than any other party—now seeks to institutionalise it.
Over the last year, the noise generated by constituents of the Hindu right—from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh to elements within the ruling BJP itself, such as the member of parliament Giriraj Singh—has often been dismissed as a distraction from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s real agenda. But this spin, frequently echoed on India’s editorial pages, does not take into account that a number of legislative and administrative changes have indeed taken place around India that give primacy to the RSS’s idea of what this country ought to be—one contrary to the vision of the republic set down in the Indian constitution.
In this, the present government is unique. It is not as if the Congress has never been prey to the majoritarian impulse, but the overwhelming presence of Jawaharlal Nehru ensured that the constitutional spirit took root, and in large part prevailed, over the first two decades of the republic. The Congress’s worst departures from this spirit, such as the organised massacre of Sikhs in Delhi in 1984, have subverted the law rather than taking refuge in it.
Earlier this year, the BJP-ruled state of Maharashtra banned the slaughter of cows, as well as the sale and possession of beef. Such laws have been passed before, but never has the basis for them been articulated as an overarching philosophy until now. The union minister of state for home affairs, Kiren Rijiju, who is from Arunachal Pradesh, offered this explanation shortly after: “If Maharashtra is Hindu majority, or if Gujarat is Hindu majority, Madhya Pradesh is Hindu majority, if they are to make laws conducive to the Hindu faith, let them be. But in our place, in our state where we are majority, where we feel whatever steps we take, you know, laws which are conducive to our beliefs, it should be.”
This statement went unchallenged by either the government or the BJP, to which Rijiju belongs. By this rationale, even if an all-India ban on beef is not possible, there should be no problem with such a ban in some states with a Hindu majority, and those who form minorities at the national level can exercise similar privileges in places where they predominate. But even Rijiju’s local majoritarianism sounds liberal when compared to how the BJP works in practice.
Last month, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, the BJP chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, blocked a project to serve eggs in anganwadis, shelters for children, in predominantly tribal areas of the state, where local communities have no dietary laws against them. Following the decision, his principal secretary told the media this was “a sentimental issue with the CM from day one.” This is a lie. Chouhan, in fact, supported a similar project in 2007 in Hoshangabad, a district of Madhya Pradesh where eggs are now omitted from anganwadi meals. Chouhan’s change of heart came not due to his convictions, but because a number of Jain institutions insisted on the ban. Jains are notionally a minority, but a number of them are prominent leaders of the Hindutva project, including Sunder Lal Patwa, a former chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, and Praveen Togadia, who is the international working president of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. This gives Jain bodies a large say in the affairs of the BJP.
Clearly, being a local majority does not help Madhya Pradesh’s tribal people. Chouhan’s decision moved us away from Rijiju’s view, of a kind of situational majoritarianism, and closer to absolute majoritarianism, ensuring that Hindutva ideology prevails over and above any concern for local majorities, let alone minorities.
According to Madhav Sadashivrao Golwalkar, who became the RSS’s second and most influential sarsanghchalak, or head—a man Modi considers his guru—“All such works which help nourishing and strengthening this national ethos are ‘national.’ All such groups who consider themselves distinct from this national ethos and cherish hopes and aspirations in opposition to the national ones and demand separate rights and privilege for themselves are to be called ‘communal’.” The Hindu in Bharat could never be communal, he wrote, because the nation’s “life-values” were derived from the life of Hindus. As such, “The expression ‘communalism of the majority’ is totally wrong and misconceived. In a democracy the opinion of the majority has to hold the sway in the day-to-day life of the people. As such it will be but proper to consider the practical conduct of the life of majority as the actual life of the national entity.”
This is a clear articulation of the BJP’s beliefs, and an idea the party works to transform into fact. Only seven of the 29 Indian states, and one union territory, have a majority population of non-Hindus. In Punjab, the most populous of these, the government has long attempted to legislate against tobacco in line with the Sikh majority’s opposition to it, which is as potent an issue for religious mobilisation as the Hindutva love for cows.
It is primarily the BJP’s opposition to a tobacco ban that has prevented it from becoming law. Last year, the BJP leader Arun Jaitley’s doomed election campaign in Amritsar was run out of an office at a city memorial, the Harbans Lal Khanna Samarak. Locally, the choice raised some eyebrows. Khanna, a BJP leader, was a controversial figure, who in 1984 was assassinated by Sikh militants. In 1981, he led a protest march that began a counter-mobilisation against Sikh fundamentalist demands. The march comprised a mob of Hindus armed with swords, protesting a proposed ban on cigarettes and tobacco. As they went along, they shouted, “bidi, cigarette piyenge; shaan se jiyenge”—we’ll smoke bidis and cigarettes, we’ll live with pride.
Today, more than 30 years later, when Punjab’s ruling Shiromani Akali Dal has no trouble sharing that same election office in Amritsar with the BJP, the sharp divide between Sikhs and Hindus that cropped up in the 1980s seems to have subsided. But in spite of the rapprochement between the two parties, no agreement has been reached on banning tobacco from Amritsar, or Punjab.
Another example, from the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir, is starker yet. There, cow slaughter has been banned since 1932—a fact the BJP rarely acknowledges.
So, in practice, even Rijiju’s formulation is nowhere near the BJP’s real position, which amounts to the party insisting on what it thinks are Hindu interests, irrespective of whether the proponents of these interests are the majority or a minority in any state.
This is the precise danger a republic is meant to mitigate. One of the strongest arguments for such a system is articulated in the Federalist Papers, a series of essays published in the United States in the late 1780s, when the country’s constitution was being framed. The essays are perhaps as close as we will ever get to blueprints for a constitutional republic. In an essay which deals with “The Utility of the Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection,” James Madison, later to become the fourth president of the United States, explains the problem posed to a democracy by what he called a “faction”—a group of citizens united by a “common impulse of passion, or of interest,” even to the detriment of the larger community.
The causes of factions in a democracy cannot be contained, Madison argues; only their effects can. Even that becomes difficult when the faction in question constitutes a majority. “If a faction consists of less than a majority, relief is supplied by the republican principle which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views by regular vote,” he writes. “When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government, on the other hand, enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens.”
The cure to this, Madison declares, is determined by an enlightened body of representatives elected to the legislature, and by the size of a republic. The Indian case poses a peculiar challenge to Madison’s views. The BJP’s core support base consists largely of adherents of Hindutva, and can be said, given recent evidence, to act in a fashion adverse to the rights of other citizens. This group can act as a factional majority, since it has a hold over the party and hence over the government. The parliamentary system has magnified its power, allowing it to act as a majority even though its voters comprise no more than 31 percent of the electorate. In this case, representative democracy has actually strengthened the faction, while the size of the Indian union, though acting as a check, has not been able to diminish its influence.
The reality we now face was a source of great worry to those who framed the Indian constitution. Many of the debates in the constituent assembly revolved around the issue of minorities. The concerns raised were finally reflected in Articles 29 and 30 of the Indian constitution, perhaps unique in the emphasis they place on protecting minority rights. The spirit of the Indian constitution on these issues is best expounded by Article 29(1): “Any section of the citizens residing in the territory of India or any part thereof having a distinct language, script or culture of its own shall have the right to conserve the same.”
Explaining the careful wording of this article, the constitution’s chief framer, BR Ambedkar, told the constituent assembly that “it is also used to cover minorities which are not minorities in the technical sense, but which are nonetheless minorities in the cultural and linguistic sense.” Therefore, “if a certain number of people from Madras came and settled in Bombay for certain purposes, they would be, although not a minority in the technical sense, cultural minorities.” The article would protect the culture, language and script of such a minority, too. “The only limitation that is imposed,” Ambedkar said, “is that if there is a cultural minority which wants to preserve its language, its script and its culture, the State shall not by law impose upon it any other culture which may be either local or otherwise.” The constitution drops the word “minority” from the article and escapes any attempt to curtail its scope through technicalities. So the article clearly extends not just to the rights of national minorities such as Muslims or Sikhs, but also to local minorities such as Hindus in Punjab, or beef-eating Malayalis in Maharashtra.
The practical implications of Article 29(1) are yet to be fully worked out in a court of law, as there have been very few direct challenges to the powers of the government that depend solely on it. But there is no mistaking that by intent it is a direct refutation of what the BJP stands for. The faction that dominates the BJP government has adversely affected the freedoms of a large number of Indian citizens. We should not hesitate in stating that the views that Rijiju represents within the BJP, and the even more extreme ones that are basic to the RSS, are simply unconstitutional.
This story was first appeared on caravanmagazine.in