Interview: Impediments to Democratization in India
On the eve of the 75th anniversary of India's independence, Sabir Siddhartha Gaffar, a rising young face in Dalit and minority politics in West Bengal, said 'there could be no ethnic, communal or religious division in a democracy. Any kind of division is detrimental to democracy.'
In my conversation with him online, he said, one thing is to understand clearly that 'the Indian Constitution, which was adopted in 1949 and went into effect the following year, defined India as a sovereign democratic republic, but not a secular one. That only occurred, after much contestation in 1976, as a result of the 42nd Amendment to the Constitution, which described India as both secular and socialist.'
According to Sabir Siddhartha Gaffar, 'India’s understanding of secularism involves equal respect for all religious communities, as opposed other forms of secularism that call for the strict separation of religion and state. The Indian Constitution supports legal equality of all citizens, regardless of their religion or creed, and prohibits discrimination based on religion.'
Expressing concern over the recent persecution of Dalits and minorities, Sabir said, 'We condemn and protest all forms of extremism and intolerance in India in defense of democracy and secularism.' He also added that the Indian democracy, which was once considered remarkable in scale and duration, has been weakened by the rise of xenophobic nationalism and threats to religious minorities. Although these trends were evident in the past, they have dramatically increased amidst the growth of Hindu nationalism and authoritarian political culture in central and state levels.'
Sabir Siddhartha Gaffar, Kolkata based leader of Dalit and minority communities of West Bengal, clearly pointed out that 'the protection of democracy and religious freedoms are closely inter-twined. Because India is home to the world’s two major religious communities—Hindus (just under 80 percent of the population) and Muslims, 14.2 percent. In addition, Christians represent 2.3 percent; Sikhs, 1.7 percent; Jains, 0.4 percent and Buddhists, 0.8 percent. India’s social diversity has created the foundation for pluralism.'
'Of course demography alone cannot explain India’s pluralism and democracy. But Indian democracy has survived against the odds. Compared to other large, multiethnic democracies, post-colonial India has an independent judiciary, universal suffrage, and a free and lively press. In some respects, its democracy has become more inclusive. People with more varied identities form parties, vote, and serve as political representatives. The Indian political class has become more diverse with respect to gender and caste', he added.
However, he concluded the conversation saying 'there are several impediments to democratization in India, beginning with poverty and class inequality. Neoliberal reforms have accelerated growth but also deepened class, regional, and rural-urban divides. Social inequities compound class inequality. About 26 percent of Indians and 31 percent of Muslims live below the poverty line. Political power is highly centralized and the state has often been repressive towards political dissidents and religious/ethnic minorities.'