Published: Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Beyond a permanent minority

Asatisfactory solution to the problem of minorities plays a very crucial role in the formation of successful mega-nations. The factors to be addressed are language, race, ethnicity, and religion. The composition of the mega-states can also vary. The Huns are predominant in China, representing 92% of the population.
India and Indonesia consist of many ethnic groups. In India, for instance, 72% of the people are Indo-Aryans; Dravidians constitute 24% of the population and barely 28% are Hindustani. Indonesia consists of Javanese (39%), Sundanese (16%) and Malays (12%).
Africa faces a major demographic problem with two-fifth of the population being minorities, whereas in Western democracies and Latin America the minorities represent only one-tenth of the population. The erstwhile Communist countries had no visible minority problem, but the myth of a Communist solution exploded with the disintegration of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.
The minority consciousness of race, religion or culture normally crystallises to a feeling of deprivation and exploitation and the belief that there is a permanent majority and a permanent minority. However, the discrimination of the minority is not always a fact of contemporary history; the apartheid regime in South Africa insulated and pampered the white minorities, raising their standard of living to the level of any First World country, while leaving the majority black population deprived.
In an effort to address the problem of minorities, various alternatives — autonomy, self-government or secession — have been tried out in various phases of modern history. The experience of the aborigines in Australia and that of the Indians in North and South America indicates that the process of assimilation can lead to a serious backlash. Through genocide and forced assimilation, one ethnic group tries to gain control over another.
There is now a trend towards reconciliation and integration. It is based on a policy that does not obliterate but accommodates plurality of cultures and ethnic and religious minority groups. The policies of affirmative action and reservations in the United States and India respectively are successful examples of a process of accommodation. External mediation has also been effective in Africa. Within the ambit of one-person, one-vote, institutional protection for minorities has been provided in Zimbabwe and post-apartheid South Africa.
However, by far the most practical solution to the problem is power-sharing. This ensures that every segment of society has a role in the process of taking decisions as also a rough parity in the share of public resources. Switzerland and Belgium are the prime examples of this model.
The concept of sharing power and providing special protection of minorities marks a shift from the first-past-the-post system, which means that a simple majority normally based on a minority of votes polled, leads to a situation of winner takes all. Hypothetically, in such a system, one ethnic group, which constitutes more than 50% of the population can take care of its interests at the cost of the other minority group(s). However, if a constitutional arrangement accepts genuine and not symbolic power-sharing, the minority groups will not feel excluded. And this will minimise the desire to secede. It will also address the problem of minority alienation. Such an arrangement will not create a feeling that there exists a permanent majority or a permanent minority.
There has to be a satisfactory sense of participation and equal opportunities, based on a trust in mutual benefit among all members of society. The decision-making process must guard against possible tyranny of the majority; it must be just. There is need to accept multiple identities of citizens and acceptance of diversity. The question of affluence is an important factor and there is need to demonstrate that democracy is as much a necessity for economics as it is for the body politic.
If the size of the cake grows, as has happened in China, then the basic needs of education, healthcare and infrastructure can be tackled more effectively. It also leads to a majority middle class as has happened in all well-established democracies. In terms of the Aristotelian philosophy, this is the surest stabilising factor for a decent plural society. Similarly, the emergence of a sizeable black middle class in the US has strengthened race relations.
Arguably, if in pre-Independent India there had been a comparable middle class among the Muslims like the Hindus, then composite nationalism would have triumphed over the two-nation theory. The histories of most countries offer instances of conflict and discrimination; equality and democracy are modern concepts. The past should be forgotten and all segments accommodated as in the US, which has had five southerners as presidents in the 20th century.
Transparency in the decision-making process allows different groups to articulate their interests. Lack of such transparency was one major reason for the failure of the Soviet system as even within the Communist Party only 2% of its members had faith in the ideology. The feelings of the minorities in regard to language, culture and religious beliefs ought to be respected. This is an antidote to a feeling of separatism. There has to be a high level of tolerance. The institutions of secularism must be in place with the rule of law and equal access to resource, education and justice.
The minorities also have an important role to play. They must uphold their primary interest but must not demand a much larger share than is due to them. They must protect and enhance their own culture and heritage, but not decry the majority belief structure. That would mean lack of respect for the majority, thereby encouraging majority alienation.
It is no accident that the most affluent countries of Europe — Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Norway — continue to flourish within their own cultures and languages. For international dealings, however, these countries use English as the medium of communication. The Indian middle class strives to be fluent both in their mother tongue as well as English. The minority must also mobilise the international community for support in case of severe repression but such support should be sought only after exhausting all opportunities at home.
Unfortunately in India, the practice of asymmetric federalism and secularism for more than six decades has not been able to create a shared identity that J.S. Mill once described as the “bedrock of democracy.” The collective consciousness of Kashmir was hurt after the hanging of a proven terrorist. However, the Valley was quiet when Kashmiri pundits were driven out two decades ago. No wonder that no national party is a major player in Kashmir. The minority leadership did not protest when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh asserted that the Muslims have the first claim to the nation’s resources … rather than stating that every Indian, irrespective of faith, has the first claim.
This mindset explains the inability of a secular democratic India to move towards a modern version of cooperative federalism from asymmetric federalism, and to change the very idiom of Indian politics from identity and group politics to issue-based politics. This will have to be based on universal principles of reason, individual rights and a framework of consensual politics overriding parochial and local doctrines which move the nation further from the common basis of modern nationhood.

The writer is a retired Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Delhi.

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