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‘India needs ‘pluralism’, not ‘majoritarianism’’

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  • Published
    19th Jan, 2021

The principled pluralism in India upon which Indian democracy depends may not be dead, but it is ailing badly. As a consequence, India’s future as a liberal democracy appears to be at some risk.


The principled pluralism in India upon which Indian democracy depends may not be dead, but it is ailing badly. As a consequence, India’s future as a liberal democracy appears to be at some risk.


  • India is a land of pluralities. A large country with world’s second largest population, India presents endless variety of physical features, cultural   patterns, linguistic groups, caste and religious divisions.
  • Like many postcolonial states, India was confronted with various lines of fracture at independence and faced the challenge of building a sense of shared nationhood.
  • The partition of India in 1947 was driven by the demand for two states on the basis of the theory that Hindus and Muslims constituted separate nations.
  • While the creation of Pakistan was an affirmation of this idea, India remained committed to the recognition of cultural diversity and the possibility of pluralism despite a large Hindu majority.
  • In many postcolonial states, the response has been to suppress difference in the name of unity, however an attempt was made in India to conceive of the nation as pluralist.

A number of institutional vehicles were adopted to affirm and


Understanding the Concepts

  • Pluralism
  • Pluralism is a political philosophy holding that people of different beliefs, backgrounds, and lifestyles can coexist in the same society and participate equally in the political process.
  • Pluralism assumes that its practice will lead decision-makers to negotiate solutions that contribute to the “common good” of the entire society.
  • A basic definition for Pluralism is that-

It refers to a society, system of government, or organization that has different groups that keep their identities while existing with other groups or a more dominant group. Rather than just one group, subgroup, or culture dictating how things go, pluralism recognizes a larger number of competing interest groups that share the power. Pluralism serves as a model of democracy, where different groups can voice their opinions and ideas.

  • Majoritarianism
  • It is defined as a political philosophy where the majority community is pre-eminent and enjoys primacy, meaning more rights than other communities. 
  • Majoritarianism, in essence, is about a perceived superiority and reclaiming arbitrary space and importance.
  • It is therefore, in a fundamental sense, in conflict with ideas of republic and democracy.

What is the factual reality of the Indian social landscape?

  • The Anthropological Survey of India indicates that our land has 4,635 communities diverse in biological traits, dress, languages, form of worship, occupation, food habits and kinship patterns.
  • The Linguistic Survey of India indicates that apart from the 22 languages in the Eighth Schedule of the constitution, there are 100 other languages and thousands of dialects in the country.
  • As a result, the identity of India is plural and diverse, a consequence of coming together of people with such different social and cultural traits.
  • It is this plurality that constitutes Indian identity expressed in the constitution through the principles of democracy and secularism.
  • Religious and caste divisions have been of enduring significance in national politics, with linguistic divisions becoming less contentious since the 1950s.

Is India really pluralist?

  • Pluralism has been the main feature of Indian society. India is a pluralistic society since its inception. 
  • Plurality is a reality as our ethos and constitution gave equal respect for all faiths or religions Indian society is a plural society and a culture imbued with considerable doses of syncretism.
  • India’s population of 1.3 billion comprises of over 4,635 communities, 78 percent of whom are not only linguistic and cultural but social categories.
  • Religious minorities constitute 19.4 percent of the total. The human diversities are both hierarchical and spatial. 
  • India’s democratic polity is pluralist because it recognizes and endorses this plurality in:
  1. federal structure: Its federal structure sought to contain, with varying degrees of success, regional pressures
  2. linguistic and religious rights to minorities: They have ensured space for religious and linguistic minorities
  3. a set of individual rights: It protects freedom of opinion and the right to dissent.

State forms and Pluralism

  • Historical legacies of state formation in India favour a pluralist polity.
  • In contrast with the history of European state formation, which saw the centralization of power and sovereignty, in pre-colonial India sub-continental empires competed with regional kingdoms as state forms.
  • Sub-continental empires that extended across much of Indian territory date back to the Mauryan empire of the fourth century, and include the Mughal and British empires between the 16th and 20th centuries.
  • These were constrained from within by forms of indirect rule (e.g., the Princely States under British rule) and from without by regional kingdoms.
  • Across varied forms, under both indigenous and foreign rulers, state power in India remained limited in its reach.
  • The segmented and constrained nature of state power was not just a pragmatic concession to the power of local chieftains, but also a principle derived from Hindu religious legal texts (dharmasastras).
  • A society consisting of different social groups was seen as prior to the state and independent of it.
  • The rulers’ duty was to protect and uphold the respective customs and laws of self-regulating social groups.
  • The existence of religious pluralism depends on the existence of freedom of religion which is when different religions of a particular region possess the same rights of worship and public expression.

How Segmented and constrained forms of state power favoured pluralism?

Segmented and constrained forms of state power have favoured the accommodation of societal pluralism in several respects:

  • Respecting internal rules and social practices: The precedence of the moral order of society implied that the state would not seek to impose its preferred vision throughout society, but would respect the internal rules and practices of social groups so long as taxes and revenues were paid.
  • Sense of brotherhood: Furthermore, the social order was compartmentalized, which meant that communities could share “a sense of brotherhood within themselves,” but “were not united to each other by fellow feeling,” even though they were not antagonistic with each other.
  • Incorporation of external group in the order: External groups could be incorporated into this segmentary social order by creating a circle of their own, which existed not so much in open communication with the rest, but in a “back-to-back adjacency.”
  • Asymmetric hierarchy: The caste system epitomized this order of self-regulating groups, embodying a principle of asymmetric hierarchy, i.e., a group that was at the top in terms of ritual status might be at the middle or bottom in terms of the distribution of political power and economic holdings in a region.
  • Unidentified structure of dominance: A social order that was stratified along multiple axes made for greater intra-group diversity than in systems based on a symmetrical hierarchy, but also enabled the endurance of inequality, making it “cognitively more difficult to identify the structure of dominance.”

In sum, long-term trajectories of state forms in India have supported the accommodation of diversity, but within an order defined by hierarchy and inequality, what might be termed hierarchical or segmented pluralism.

What are the drivers of pluralism in today’s time?

  • Sources of Inclusion
  • The Constitution: The Indian Constitution remains a key source of inclusion in the polity.
  • Judiciary: The judiciary have been sources of inclusion, with powers to review legislative and executive actions for their constitutionality.
  • Election: Regular elections to elect governments overseen by an independent Election Commission. Political parties and elections have also served as sources of inclusion.
  • Institutional heterogeneity: Institutional heterogeneity in the political system, with a tension between parliamentary sovereignty on the one hand, and judicial review on the other, has also been a source of inclusion. The higher judiciary in particular has often asserted itself as the main guardian of the Constitution to compensate for its unelected status, frequently challenging the actions of governments and issuing reprimands for their behaviour.
  • Separation of Power: A federal division of powers between the national and regional governments (“centre” and “states”), with significant powers vested in states (including education and health), has served as a source of inclusion.
  • In addition to political institutions, civil society organizations and a free press have been a source of inclusion in the polity.

How Globalization is a threat to pluralism in India?

  • Globalization is a process or set of processes which embodies a transformation in the spatial organization of social relations and transactions, generating transcontinental or interregional flows and networks of activity, interaction, and power.
  • Political boundaries are increasingly redrawn to coincide with cultural boundaries, that is, ethnic, religious, and civilizational.
  • Globalization in the name of integration not only seeks a new configuration of the international system but it also tends to influence the traditional role of the sovereign state.
  • Certainly the process of globalization disrupts fragile societies and disrupts traditional identities.
  • On the other hand, globalization does not necessarily mean homogeneity. Indeed, in some respects globalization fosters and allows for differences.

Challenges/issues to India’s pluralist society

Pluralism has been the main feature of Indian society. However, with the rapid economic development, the diversification of Indian society is currently facing impacts and challenges, mainly from the following aspects:

  • Shifting towards polarization: The principle of secularism maintaining political and cultural pluralism is being challenged by chauvinism and sectarianism, leading to a shift in the Indian society from pluralism to polarization.
  • Shifting towards fragmentation: The development of caste politics and localism has caused the Indian society to change from pluralism to fragmentation.
  • Social disintegration: Challenges facing a pluralistic society are partly due to its inherent nature, so they may or may not be persistent. However, more important challenges and impacts are caused by the social disintegration created by the economic growth. Therefore, these problems cannot disappear with the high economic growth.

Suggestive measures (Guiding Principles)

  • Establishment of a transitional governing body with full executive powers, to establish a neutral environment for the transition.
  • An inclusive national dialogue.
  • A review of the constitutional order and legal system.
  • Commitment to accountability and national reconciliation, and a comprehensive package for transitional justice.
  • Gender equality, protection of vulnerable groups, and provision of humanitarian aid.


To protect the India’s pluralism, it is the duty of the State to protect the values enshrined in the Indian Constitution. The strong motivation for India should be the core values of the Constitution of India, especially pluralism, unity in diversity so that “We, the People of India” will remain as the sovereign and not a particular group or caste. Efforts should also be made to create awareness among the people about the noble values of the Indian Constitution.


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