The term majoritarianism is the new cuss word of the Indian political scene, a derogatory loaded expletive bandied around recklessly by a pompous cabal of intellectuals to demonize the current Indian government as a callous juggernaut that rides roughshod over the rights of minorities. Nothing can be farther from the truth.
But what precisely is the meaning of majoritarianism? Does it accurately reflect the socio-political culture of present day India? Can we honestly identify categorical instances of blatant majoritarianism? Or is it a theory juxtaposed from Western philosophy onto the Indian narrative without relevance to its context by intellectual charlatans hoping to obfuscate the picture in pursuit of a vested agenda?
Majoritarianism is a concept propounded by 18th century European philosophers to alert people to the subliminal dangers of even a seemingly honourable system like democracy. In simple terms, it is a tendency of the majority community to suppress the minority.
John Stuart Mill, the British philosopher used the phrase the “tyranny of the majority” to highlight this repressive urge in his monumental essay “Liberty”: “Like other tyrannies, the tyranny of the majority was at first, and is still vulgarly, held in dread…there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling, against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them…” However, majoritarianism is not a one fits all refrain. Broad generalisations that sweep one and all into a common basket are too simplistic to offer real insight into specific situations. The final product in each case is the sum total of the basic concept, plus the inherent characteristics of the particular people among whom it takes hold, namely their culture and religious philosophy giving it a distinct hue. The inability to discern this defining difference is the greatest pitfall of the anti-nationalist commentariat in India.
For one, to draw a parallel between pre-World War II German nationalism and Hindu nationalism in order to give it a diabolical connotation of majoritarianism is akin to comparing apples and oranges. Fears of a brute majoritarianism may have some validity in homogenised societies like pre-World War II Europe, which lacked a sound spiritual base. But nationalism in the setting of a society that is traditionally non-violent, tolerant and pluralistic like India produces a totally different end product. Majoritarianism in the Indian context means plurality and tolerance.
The projection of Memon’s execution as a majoritarian excess is misleading as religion was not a deciding factor in it. As was the case with the Sikh killers of Indira Gandhi and Hindu assassin of Mahatma Gandhi, Memon’s punishment fit the crime.
Second, dominance is not the sine qua non of numerical superiority. In fact, majoritarianism, in the context of Hindus, is an oxymoron. Hindus, though a demographic majority, are in reality a functional minority driven by dissensions of caste, language and region. Ascribe it to plain timidity or sugar-coat it as an enlightened passivity, either way the Hindu is the poster boy for classic vulnerability. The fact that Islamic rulers and their small coterie held sway over the vast expanse of India for over a millennium is ample proof. The numerical disparity between the British residents and native Indians during the British Raj further lends credence to this assertion: a minuscule contingent of 20,000 ruled nearly 300 million Indians, predominantly Hindus.
To calculate the ultimate impact of demographic inequality, another variable begs interjection into the equation: Minorityism. Minority groups often indulge in their own brand of parochial immoral aggressive behaviour to ostensibly counter the designs of the majority. Kashmir is a definitive example, wherein unsubstantiated fears of being swamped by a Hindu majority prompted local Muslims to ethnically cleanse the Valley of Hindus: an occurrence unimaginable in a majoritarian nation. Add to this the dynamics of “vote bank politics” to appreciate the heightened influence of minorityism.
Attempts to project the execution of Yakub Memon as a majoritarian excess cannot pass muster. Religion was not a deciding factor: the punishment matched the crime, as in the case of the Sikh killers of Indira Gandhi and the Hindu assassin of Mahatma Gandhi — all sent to the gallows. Additionally, only four of 26 individuals hanged since 1991 were Muslims, which further demolishes this duplicitous campaign of disinforwmation that engenders needless paranoia among minorities.
Unabashed minorityism, not majoritarianism, is the bane of India.
Vivek Gumaste is a US-based academic and political commentator.