Majority, Minorities & Democracy

Democracy is defined as ‘a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system.’ It is inherent in this definition that any government formed in a democracy will invariably be as per the bidding of the majority population represented by their elected agents (representatives) that they vote for. The majority population, as referred above, will invariably be the sum total of the electorate which will include both majority and minority communities. However it may also be right to say that both, majority votes and majority of the representatives, would belong to the majority community. This will invariably be the case where the percentage of the majority community is very high as in India since Hindu population forms over 80% of the total population of the country. In short, demography of the country will always play a major part in elections in any democracy and India is no exception.

The above may lead some to presume that since a democracy relates to majority, the rights and interests of the majority will be protected automatically while those of the minorities may or may not be protected. This is not a right interpretation as it is inherent in a democracy that rights of all must be respected and protected as long as rights of others are not infringed upon. This will include rights of the majority, minorities, individuals, absentees, and common rights of all put together. In view of this it may be judicious to state that ‘democracy is an elected government by the majority where the rights and privileges of all, minorities included, are protected with the will of the majority’. The last part of this statement ‘with the will of the majority’ may tend to ring alarm bells in the minds of the minorities and some overtly liberal people who are far removed from realities of life. However there is no cause for the same. All that it means is that since in a democratic government all rules and laws are made by seeking the approval of majority of elected representatives in the parliament, any legislation pertaining only to the minorities too will need the sanction of the majority of the elected representatives. Approval of majority population is thus implicit in a democratic process and therefore the statement ‘with the will of the majority’.

It will be myopic to assume that minorities will be at the mercy of the majority in a democracy. If that were true then democracy would not have been the preferred choice in most of the developed nations of the world. Democracy in its larger sense assures a state of society characterized by formal equality of rights and privileges for all. These rights and privileges will be common to all citizens of the nation. However in exceptional cases some sections of the society, normally the minorities, may wish to seek some special rights and privileges due to various reasons like religion, social or economic backwardness, historical or even geographical location may prompt such a need. In Indian context, application of Muslim personal laws, reservations in jobs and educational institutions, grant of privy purses to erstwhile royal families and tax exemption for citizens belonging to selected states are some of the prime examples of special rights and privileges accorded to different sections of the Indian society for various reasons. The point to note here is that all such concessions were conferred on the minorities with the will of the majority based on various legislations approved in the parliament. It therefore stands to logic that the same can also be withdrawn or modified by the will of the majority by passing suitable legislations if there is a need to do so in the larger interest of the nation as a whole.

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It is also very pertinent here to understand what constitutes a minority and what are the implications involved. Should it be based on head count or religion or should it be based on other parameters like economic status, cultural differences, caste or colour? Minority status based on head count alone should never be a criterion since that is purely an arithmetical exercise which does not take into account the actual status and needs of a community. If religion is considered as a criterion then all it implies is that the minority can practice its religion the way they wish to. If it is culture then the concerned community may wish to pursue its traditional culture as in the case of some tribal communities in the country. In all fairness in the twenty first century we have come a long way and today caste and colour should never be the criteria for deciding a minority status. It just does not stand to logic. Finally should economic status be used to define a minority? What needs to be understood here is that religious and cultural classification cannot be deemed to automatically include concessions like reservations in jobs, educational institutions or other economic benefits. Such concessions have to be granted selectively to deserving sections of the society purely on need base to ensure their social upliftment and economic development. Economic and social development has to be viewed as a universal need across the whole society. In short, there can be no selective economic or social upliftment. It has to be based on uniform criteria for every citizen of the nation irrespective of religion, culture, caste or colour. Minority or majority has no role to play in this.

In India today a multitude of criteria are used to define a minority depending on political expediencies and this has corrupted the whole system to no end. Whatever be the criteria, every minority wrongly assumes that economic and other benefits are also theirs by right. Another aspect that has become the bane of Indian minority system is that once any concession is granted it is assumed to be forever and irreversible, repercussions on the majority notwithstanding. Without a doubt the political leadership over the last six decades in the country has to take the blame for these aberrations. It has to be understood that any concessions granted to a minority have to be time bound and cannot continue for perpetuity. This is mainly for three reasons. Firstly as the social and economic status of any society (or part thereof) undergoes change for the better it has to join the main stream of the nation and become self reliant. Secondly it is important to realise that the cost and other implications of such concessions have to be invariably borne by the majority population of the nation. Thirdly any concession, if given for too long, can only make an individual or society weak since it makes them dependent on the same reducing their will to compete on an equal footing with others.

In a democracy it is important that the minorities must have confidence in the elected government which by default means the majority population. Minorities are free to push their cause for specific matters that may be of interest to them but its outcome will invariably depend on the majority will since the government of the day is in power because of the majority. A democracy will invariably ensure that such rights are protected for the minorities. However it is also equally true that this will be so as long as such rights do not infringe on the rights of the majority or become a hindrance in the growth of the majority. Thus while democracy puts the onus of safeguarding specific rights of the minorities on the majority, it also charges the minorities to ensure that special rights granted to them do not clash or infringe on the rights of the majority. This may sound a bit harsh but its veracity cannot be doubted. The problem starts when either of the two, majority or minorities, forget their responsibilities but assert their rights. This results in clash of interests between the two societies. In such situations distrust, violence and fanaticism take root causing further harm. It is also no secret that some selfish political, religious or other community leaders may tend to exploit such a situation for personal interests or to settle personal scores without any concern for the nation or the society. This normally results in hate politics where majority and minority communities are forced to draw lines and encouraged to do so by their leaders. The forced exodus and killing of Hindu Kashmiri people from Kashmir in late eighties and early nineties is a case in point. The 1984 Sikh riots is a prime example in this regard where political leadership pitted Hindus versus Sikhs that resulted in an avoidable carnage. The Godhra train burning and the riots that followed in Gujarat thereafter is another apt example. The Muzzafarnagar riots two years ago too were in the same category though not of the same magnitude. All these blots in the nation’s history can be attributed to hate politics between minorities and majority that were fanned by political or religious leaders for their vested interests. Invariably such instances in history result in polarisation of votes which, to say the least, is detrimental for a healthy democracy.

In India democracy seems to have been turned on its head. Over the last four to five decades, while the government is elected by the majority, it is the minorities that seem to be dictating terms on how the government should function. Democratically elected governments by the majority have forsaken the majority in their quest to appease the minorities. The majority seems to be at the mercy of the minorities since most political parties and their leaders seem to be vying with each other to be on the right side of minorities. To make matters worse, it is indeed alarming to see how for the sake of vote banks, politicians and successive governments have also cleverly carved minorities within the majority. Terms like Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST), Backward Classes, Other Backward Classes (OBC) and Dalits have been used as tools to create minority groups within the majority. India and Indians have been divided in the classic mould of the age old British policy of ‘Divide and Rule’. Sections of Hindu society have been pitted against one another. Is it any wonder that different communities, clans and ethnic groups within the Hindu fold are also demanding special privileges like reservations in jobs and educational institutions without any concern for rest of the Hindu society? Today it has become fashionable and lucrative to be classified under minorities and backward classes. Affluent communities like the Patels in Gujarat are demanding reservations; Jats and Gujjars in Rajasthan and Haryana are all demanding backward class status.  India is home to world’s second largest Muslim population and yet they want the minority tag that includes economic and other concessions.

In today’s politics of polarisation, a Hindu has been subdivided in to a Jat or a Gujjar, a Brahmin or a schedule cast, a tribal, a Yadav or an Ahir, a migrant or son of the soil and many such fragmented groups. Then we have geographical divisions like North Indian and South Indian apart from the subgroups created on basis of languages like a Bengali, a Tamilian or a Punjabi and so on. On the other hand a Muslim, irrespective of which part of India he lives, whatever be his economic or social status or the sect that he follows is always referred as a Muslim only. There is no obvious division of the community and this gives them an inherent strength. It may be worthwhile for political leadership of all denominations to pause, think and realise what harm they are doing to the overall Hindu society by fragmenting it. That day may not be far away when the 17-18% Indian Muslim community (about 180 Million) may emerge as the single largest cohesive group. Such a scenario may change the very basic structure of our Indian nation. It is a dangerous trend and if we do not wake up to this threat now, it may be too late before one may realise it. It is also a well established fact that Islam and democracy do not go hand in hand. A true democracy has to be divorced from any religious interference and this is not possible in an Islamic society as can be seen world over. It may not be wrong to say that India will be a democratic nation only as long as it has a Hindu majority. It is time that our educated elite, thinkers and other intellectuals show courage to realise this rather than ignore it. Hinduism’s acceptance and tolerance of other faiths is an established fact that is acknowledged world over. If anything this may be perceived as a historical weakness by some. Our intellectuals will do the nation proud by presenting Hinduism in its true light rather than following the pseudo secularism path of running it down based on some isolated minor incidents here and there. While intellectuals are free to question and criticise the government, societies and communities, their bigger task is to develop greater harmony and synergy between communities that can be used for betterment of the nation as a whole. Unfortunately most of them fail the bigger test since that calls for greater effort but gives less publicity and recognition.

In conclusion all that needs to be said is that India as a nation can be proud of its democratic tradition that has served the nation well since independence despite some hiccups from time to time. However it is time the leadership realises that we need to do some course correction so as not to tinker with the basic principles of democracy. Majority will must find due recognition in governance and at the same time minorities must be looked after. Wellbeing of one cannot be at the cost of the other since that will be counterproductive. To enjoy the rights and privileges that are guaranteed by a democratic government, all citizens have to remember and execute their responsibilities too. For the nation to move forward it has to be understood that what is good for the majority is not necessarily bad for the minority. Religion and culture may differentiate minorities from majority, but economic and social goals should be common for all across the nation as part of ‘inclusive growth & development’.

Saroj Chadha, an engineering professional, is a successful entrepreneur. Having retired from the Indian Army after having served for over 23 years, he has also been a consultant for leading Indian and Multinational electrical companies. He lives in New Delhi.

6 Comments

  • Only in recent decades has the Country seen a respite from riots,the rise of a plurality of voices,a resurgence in identification with the Country’s size &a pride in its achievements.However,even if Modi is credited with some of these aspects,there is no reason why we must permit the return of fears and terror under the BJP, that were earlier unleashed by the Congress during Emergency and Sikh riots.Development loses value and steam in a slowing world,and all that will matter is Peace and harmony within.We must,as informed Citizens of a new age,rise above Politics and defy Fascism unleashed by the Saffron brigade.A Govt permanently at war with vast numbers of its own people under various guises must be defeated even at the pain of no development taking place.A new imperative for the India narrative is to seize opportunity provided by BJP’s loss in Bihar,&strenuously expose BJP/RSS’s antediluvian social engineering theories,even by thwarting Modi-brand”Puppy-under-the-wheel”development

  • Alex, I agree with you regarding all of us rising above politics and achieve peace, harmony and development across the board. However I do not subscribe to your view of Fascism unleashed by RSS or that Modi believes in ‘Puppy under the wheel’ development model. If you analyse dispassionately there are more provocative statements by others than RSS and BJP put together. All put together are still too insignificant to cast an effective shadow on our large and very tolerant nation. This is not justifying any narrow minded anti harmony actions by RSS or BJP functionaries at any level. But I do believe that more is made of these than they actually deserve. Yes one does wish top BJP leadership could condemn these in more stronger terms than is being done presently. But one thing we have to concede to Narendra Modi – his nationalism and commitment to development cannot be doubted as is his personal integrity and honesty. And that is saying a lot, particularly if one looks back and sees what this nation has gone through where nationalism seems to have lost its identity. At the cost of sounding prophetic, I think by the time Mr Modi’s government finishes its term, the nation will be clapping in unison at the efforts and results of his team.

  • Frankly, I am aghast at some of the statements made in this article- that the minorities subsist on the will of the majority, that what is good for the majority is ipso facto good for the minority, that governments are elected by the majority community, that the majority can withdraw whatever concessions have been extended to the minorities anytime they want, that the consolidation of the Muslim population poses a danger to India, and so on. The underlying thesis appears to be that in a democracy, particularly in India, the minorities will have to learn to depend on the largess of the majority.
    Nothing could be further from the truth. We have a Constitution and a Judiciary which ensure that the ” will of the majority” shall always be circumscribed by the law and will not be allowed to run amock. It is now well established that no majority in Parliament can alter the basic structure of the constitution, and time and again the Supreme Court has enforced this. There is a difference between a Parliamentary majority and sheer majoritarianism- the former is a democratic concept, the latter is abhorrent to all civilised nations and jurisprudence. This article’s tenor appears to be in favour of the latter, which disappoints me. The true test of a nation is how it treats its minorities- religious, cultural. linguistic, social, economic, gender. Fortunately, the Indian voter has shown time and again that he will not allow this country to trod on the path of majoritarianism- the BJP/RSS combine has been trying this for the last sixteen months but has been made to lick the dust in both Delhi and Bihar. We need to return to the days and values of Nehru and Vajpayee.

  • As expected – ‘will of the majority’ phrase has raised the heckles. Unfortunately it is true but some of us not ready to admit it. I have clearly stated that in a democracy rights and privileges of all are protected. assuming majority will run amok is extreme short sightedness. It has not happened in India so far and not likely to happen in future, more so since education will be more wide spread and so will be the understanding of democracy. Ajay seems to have missed the whole essence of the article wherein it is said that both majority and minorities have a role to play in as far as rights, duties and responsibility is concerned. Problem occurs when either of them fail to do so. No where has it been said that Majority can make or change rules at will, it is understood there is a constitution and law of the land too.
    To deny that majority in India has been neglected at the expense of minority appeasement is like running away from the truth unfortunately it has become a national pastime now to shy away from truth. Also it is equally true that no concession or special privilege can be for ever when it involves monetary advantage. I am sure Ajay knows many IAS families who have generation after generation usurped reserved seats in the IAS on some quota or the other. Does it make sense for an IAS officers ward to be given ST privileges? Obviously not but it is being done and surely we need a mechanism to check this blatant misuse of a privilege granted.
    I do understand that Nationalism is often a difficult trait since convenience and vested interests overtake the same. That is exactly that we need to avoid and while I have a lot of time for Nehru, I am afraid this was not one of his strengths.

  • You seem to be back-tracking now, Saroj ! The issue of repeated use of reservation benefits by successive generations of SC/ST families is indeed a valid concern and one which should be addressed, but it is not something limited to the IAS alone- its a wider anomaly. Please do get over the IAS bashing mentality- it blinkers one’s vision and objectivity!

  • Come on Ajay, this is not IAS bashing, just a very common example that highlights the point under discussion. I think we need to be more open and broad minded in discussions.
    And I have not backtracked. I have just tried to clarify my thoughts that you seem to have misunderstood. I still maintain what I have said in the article since I believe it is the hard truth and reality that many of us purposely try to brush under the carpet. Where is the doubt that any law or rule made in favour of the majority or minority has to have a majority vote in Parliament as long as it is within the constitutional realms? If this is true then what I have written is surely true too. Thank you for the discussion and opinions.

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