Democracy, Hindu Majoritarianism and Question of the Socio-economic Rights

Prabhat Patnaik

  The public lecture in the memory of Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer has been organized by the Department of Political Science, Jamia, Millia Islamia in collaboration with the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism (Mumbai) on the theme of “Democracy versus Majoritarianism” on 18th November, 2019 at JMI. The keynote of memorial address was delivered by the eminent left- leaning scholar Prof. Prabhat Patnaik. The lecture was chaired by the leading political theorist Prof. Rajeev Bhragava. The meeting was attended by eminent scholar like Prof. Zoya Hasan, and the senior Congress leader Mani Shankar Ayair, Jamia’s students and the faculty members along with some member of civil society groups. On this occasion, the Head of the Department of Political Science, JMI, Prof. Furqan Ahmad welcomed the distinguished speakers, Prof. Praphat Patnaik, Prof. Rajeev Bhargava, Irfan Engineer, faculty members and students.

While introducing the contributions and works of Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer, Dr. Irfan Engineer (son of Dr. Engineer Saheb) at the outset said that,  Dr. Engineer was deeply committed to promote values like secularism, communal harmony, peace, gender justice and the Hindu-Muslim unity (which seems to be eroding, ever since the present dispensation captured the political power). He mentioned that Dr. Engineer was deeply disturbed when ‘Communal Riots’ took place in Jabulpur (Madhaya Pradesh) around 1960s. Since then he started to think why communal tension and riots used to take place and how can we fight against this kind of inhuman act. In this context, Dr. Engineer had not only produced worthwhile literature but also works as a crusader of human rights activist and promoting the communal harmony. Besides, it was Engineer who interpreted Islam with lens of social justice and gender rights (this is widely known as Islamic liberation theology in academic circles). More importantly, he also took bold initiatives to promote social reform with Muslim community in general and Bhora community in particular.

For that Engineer had faced numerous challenges, and even physically assaulted by the community members, Irfan Saheb added. While discussing gender rights in Islam, Dr. Engineer had consistently argued that the Islam has given equal rights to Muslim women but it was patriarchal and feudal interpretation of Islamic theology done by conservative clergy class have had denied the  gender justice to the women. Finally, Irfan Saheb mentioned that, we used to organize memorial lectures in the name Dr. Engineer Saheb, every year at both Delhi and Mumbai. The first memorial lecture was delivered by the former vice-chancellor of Jamia, late Prof. Mushirul Hasan, and then followed by Prof. Romila Thapar, Prof. Akeel Bilgrami and A.G. Noorani. On this  occasion, (on the behalf of Centre for study of Society and Secularism), Sadia Aziz, a research scholar at the Department of History, Delhi University has been awarded a prize of Rs. 25 thousands for her academic contribution. The paper which has been selected for award is titled as, Mosque, Memory and State:  A case study of Jama Masjid( India) and The Colonial State c. 1857  published in April 2017.

While addressing his lecture, Prof. Paitnaik has talked about the range of issues and problems confronted by the Indian society, ever since the current political dispensation has occupied power at Centre. At the outset, his lecture was historically informed and explained the crisis in the light of historical and social context. Before starting the lecture, Prof. Patniak shared his first encounter with Asghar Ali Engineer, when he was invited in JNU to deliver a lecture in 1974.  He admits that Engineer saheb was very generous, open-minded and a great gentle man. Besides, he was well-known in academic circles and civil society groups for his stand on communalism, Secularism and gender justice at the period. He used to write a critical Column in the reputed academic journal, EPW on the contemporary issues, added Patnaik.

At the beginning of his talk, he has explained the difference between democracy and majoritarianism. Unlike democratic rule, majoritarian regime often maintained existing hierarchical social order.  While citing the arguments of scholar like Prof. Amratya Sen, a noted economist and others, he said that they defined the democratic government in terms of giving importance to discussions, unanimity in arguments and deliberations to arrive at consensus. He also maintained that in democracy, the government supposed to act and behave democratically rather than suppressing the dissenting voices of public intellectuals as done by the present ruling dispensations. The democratic regime must remove inequality and addresses the poverty irrespective of caste, race, religion and ethnicity. In other words, for Patniak, democratic government must not be based on promoting the culture of “tyranny of majority”. While talking about the minority rights, he shared that the government reduced and abrogated the rights of minorities and trying to push a kind of social order to maintain the hegemony of Hindutva forces in the larger public domain. The present regime is a fundamentally an ‘anti-democratic’ in nature, because of its majoritarianism and anti-people policies, as pointed out by him. Historically speaking, minority and majority are a constructed category which is created by the colonial ethnographers through the mechanisms like census. It is a historically untenable to say that majority vs. minority binary was empirically and sociologically were existed in our society before the arrival of colonial rule, as also pointed out by the speaker.

Prof. Patnaik has repeatedly mentioned in his lecture that forget about Muslims, even  the BJP agenda of the ‘Hindu Rashtra’ (Hindu  nation) is not at all the beneficial for the majority of the Hindus. The economic policy of the BJP government is deeply anti-poor and not interested in addressing the material concerns of the general Hindu masses. To put it simply, like colonial regime, the present government is also extremely oppressive and mainly targeting minority groups in the forms of mob-lynching, hate crimes and creating fear in the public sphere. While talking about the current trends of our country, he is not fully persuaded by those who are arguing that under the Hindutva regime, our country is already witnessing the threat of the fascism. For Patnaik India’s contemporary context is different from the 1930s European (mainly when countries like Germany and Italy had experienced fascism) fascism because, there is no inter- imperial rivalry and conflict between the imperial countries. And also this context is quite different from earlier (during 1930s), because now we have reached at the stage of financial globalization, adds Patnaik. But, it’s right to argue that we are witnessing certain characteristics and trends of fascism in contemporary India ever since the rise of hyper-nationalism.

For Patnaik, trends of the fascism are increasing because of continuous attacks on minorities, in the form of mob-violence, lynching and putting those (Indian Muslims mostly young generation) behind the bar for more than decades on the flimsy grounds, said by the speaker. Besides, current regime is also an anti-democratic in nature because through the draconian laws, suppressing the voices of public intellectuals and social activists. It is sad to notice that those Muslim who are arrested allegedly as a suspected terrorist on the false grounds, no lawyers are ready to see the case against the innocent victim, Patnaik added. In a similar way, when JNU’s students who were opposing the Capital punishment (mainly related to Afzal Guru) on the genuine democratic grounds that this inhuman act must be abolished from the statue’s book,  the then BJP regime instead of listening to their voices have made the charges like ‘seditions’ (the draconian act) and called  students as anti-nationals. It is to be noted that most of the democratic countries of the world have had already abolished this inhuman law.

It is ironical to note that with help of big corporate, in recent concluded 2019 general elections, the BJP government had expended several thousand corers of money which is very huge even whole opposition parties, if taken together were not able to expend on the election campaign as done by current ruling party (which is unprecedented in the history of electoral politics,). Some study have estimated that if the government would have save that huge amount of money which was expended during the elections campaign, several problems  would have overcome, for instance, like  recent fee hike which took place in JNU for which students are protesting would have been easily  addressed.

Instead of doing anything substantial to improve the material conditions of poor, the present ruling dispensation is whole heartedly supporting the big capitalist and corporate- financial oligarchy by not taxing them under the false pretext of economic, infrastructural development to overcome the current economic slowdown. To note that, due to the current economic slowdown, (which was started after the GST and demonetization like steps taken by the Modi government) the rate of unemployment is very high in comparison to the last 45 years and in the most of social indicators, like hunger index, HDI, and happiness index, the India’s rank is continually declining. However, for Patnaik, the economic crisis is not India specific it is now witnessed worldwide after the rise of right-wing forces across the world.

While  reflecting on the question of the rise of majoritarian tendencies in our country (ever since the government came to power), for Patnaik context of the rise and growth of majoritarianism lies in the pervasive ‘economic crisis’ precipitated by the neo-liberal capitalism including the unholy alliance of the corporate and the Hindutva forces.  However, by using the draconian legislations and with the help of state machineries like CBI and other agencies, the ruling government is silencing the public intellectuals and dissenting voices that are willing to oppose the government’s anti-poor public policies. For him, even the Indian media and institutions like judiciary are also influenced by the present political regime. As a result, even the apex Court is not able to deliver justice based on the historical facts (recent verdict over the Babri Masjid can be cited here as case in this regard).

In doing so,  the present regime  have shifted the public discourse towards the ‘hyper-nationalism’ (the cases  like  Article 370, Balakot air strikes, Pulwama attack can be cited as examples) and hence, in this  situation, the economic and material questions of the masses have been relegated to the background, speaker added. To explain the tension between hyper-nationalism and anti-colonial nationalism, Patnaik elsewhere writes, ‘hyper-nationalism that has little in common with anti-colonial nationalism, and largely sidesteps the material conditions of life of the people. It harks back rather to a European hyper-nationalism that reached its culmination during the inter-war years”. (See, “Decoding the corporate-Hindutva alliance”, The Hindu, 3 October 2019.)

In this political context, most of the opposition parties whether belongs to secular, social justice and centrist parties (like AAP) are not able to carve out any alternative political space because, they are not able to change the discourse which moves around the hyper-nationalism as mentioned above and put forth the agenda of socio-economic problems confronted by subaltern masses. This point has been explained by Prof. Patnaik elsewhere as well. (See, “Decoding the corporate-Hindutva alliance”, The Hindu, 3 October 2019.)

While talking about how to overcome the current economic and political impasse, unlike the current regime, he outrightly rejected the ideas of neo-liberal capitalism and global finance capital to address said issues. For him, an alternative of the hyper-nationalism and corporate- financial oligarchy lies in the anti-colonial struggle and an inclusive nationalism (to note, this struggle and vision had accommodated everybody and was secular in nature) which had emerged or could be found in the struggle for independence. Unlike European nationalism including the Hindu nationalism, an anti-colonial nationalism was also an anti-imperialistic in nature, underlined by him.

For recasting alternative policies, he cited the 1931 Krachi Resolution on the fundamental and other socio-economic rights. In this resolution, a set of fundamental rights, like equality before the law, freedom of speech, and other rights like, free education and health, abolition of Child labour, protection for agricultural labour, prohibition of drinks and drugs, progressive income tax, universal franchise were mentioned. However, it is sad to note that these sets of rights were only included in the chapter of the Directive principles of state policy (DPSP), but not in the Fundamental Rights (like the Fundamental Rights, the DPSP are not enforceable by the Court and state is also legally not bound to implement these policies as mentioned in the Karachi Resolution in 1931).

For Patnaik, the fundamental economic rights are necessary to improve material conditions of underprivileged masses and economic arrangements must be made to implement it, which is not possible under the neo-liberal capitalist regime, led by PM Modi government. However, today’s state run by the Hindutva forces with help of corporate who wants to maintain the status-quo, will not be really interested to implement these socio-economic rights, as stipulated in the Karachi resolution 1931.

While concluding his lecture, he said that Karl Marx was not interested in the liberal-individualistic rights discourse because, Marx argued not for individual liberation but complete human emancipation. That was the reason; he criticized the liberal discourse of rights in his writing like ‘Jews Question’. However, Patnaik listed five rights which are essential in today’s context and mentioned in Karachi resolution in 1931. These are employments, right to food, universally funded health, quality public education and old-age pension may be around, 3,000 per month.

This could be easily achieved by improving the Tax system (for instance, by only imposing 2 percent on the inheritance tax who belong to 1 percent of our total population but accumulated 50 percent of wealth of our country. In doing so, it is possible to provide basic economic rights, as pointed out by the speaker) and stopping the free flow of capital to the corporate and saving that money for the socio-economic development including the social security. Patnaik put-forth these ideas before the student and academic community to defend the basic rights which was ensured in Karachi resolution. In doing so, we would be able to challenge the discourse which has been created by the Hindu majoritarian’s political dispensation in India. For that we have to also chalk out the tactical and political alliances amongst those who believe in ensuring the basic human rights and committed to protect our secular democracy which had emerged during an anti-colonial discourse and mentioned in the Indian constitution.

While commenting on the lecture, Prof. Rajeev Bhargava has appreciated Patnaik’s thought provoking and intellectually sound lecture and agreed most of the points he has raised. For him, Prof. Patnaik has brilliantly pointed out the tensions between the majoritarianism and democracy and the manner in which the current majoritarian forces are suppressing the democratic voices of people. He added that even though economic rights are very important for addressing the material aspects of life of people, we also have to take into account  cultural and religious rights (generally known as minority rights) seriously in a given political and social conditions.

Prof. Bhargava has earlier said there is need of minority rights to eliminate inequalities and cultural injustice.   According to him, “the entire point of introducing minority rights is to eliminate hidden inequalities and possible injustice. The idea is to give minorities some power to shape the social and political structure so that they too are able to do or get what the majority group routinely procures by virtue of the structural conditions in that society” (See, R. Bhargava, “Should we Abandon the Majority- Minority Framework”?, in G. Mahajan and D.L Sheth (Edited), Minority Identities and the Nation- State, OUP, New Delhi, 1998).

While fighting for the religious rights of minority communities, it is vital to strictly follow the democratic principle and egalitarian norms rather than stressing on hard conservative lines, which can only yield desirable results. He also added that the minority-majority relation is not always remains permanent. These categories are created by the power relations and it will change depending upon the context.  How can define the minority is a difficult and not easy task.  Bhargava also argue that numerical strength is not alone criterion to define who is minority rather the discriminations, exclusion form power structure would be taken into account. In this sense, Indian Muslims can be fit into category of minority and marginalized groups because of political under- representation and exclusion from the lager power structure as also mentioned in the Sachar Report (2006).

However, minority rights must be grounded in the democratic rights rather than based on ‘minoritarianism’.  In a given the present political context, he is in favour of minority rights to address structural inequalities. Hence, Indian Muslim must not be the scapegoat of majoritarianism, added by Bhargava. However, excessive idea of discourse around minority rights is often harden the community identity and create tension between majority and minority communities. In this respect, it is difficult to forge the larger solidarity on basis common shared identity. Like Patnaik, for Bhargava besides, minority rights as mentioned (in the Article 29 and 30 of our Constitution), the common identity around the citizenship is also relevant to address the material deprivations of people at large irrespective of caste, religion and ethnicity. The minority rights as mentioned in our democratic constitution are very important in the context of the possibility of hostile ‘communal majority’ getting into the power through the means of electoral democracy on plank of majortanianism.

To substantiate Bhargava point, it is relevant to highlight here what Dr. Ambedkar had said long ago about the attitude of majoritarian group towards minority community particularly when minority groups demand its due share in the power structure; then the minority community is treated with suspicion. However, when whole power was monopolized by majority community is considered as nationalism not communalism. To explain the hypocrisy of majoritatrian bias towards minority community, long ago, Dr. Ambedkar rightly shown his views in following words,

“Any claim for sharing the power by the minority is called communalism while monopolizing of the whole power by the majority is called nationalism. Guided by such a philosophy the majority is not prepared to allow the minorities to share political power”. (Christophe Jaffrelot and Narender Kumar, “Dr Ambedkar and Democracy”, OUP, New Delhi, 2018, p. 172).

So, Prof. Bhargava concerns about minority rights amidst mjaritarinism are also well captured by Baba Saheb long back.  It is pertinent to note that in 2019 Lok sabha elections, from BJP sets no single Muslim M.P (Member of Parliament) has been elected to address the political under- representations of Indian Muslims. Without the constitutional and institutional mechanisms for ensuring minority rights, the majoritarian rule will be tyrannical in nature; this point is also shared by Patnaik. Even in the European context, there is trends of the rise of the “Soft- majoritarianism”, which generally discourages practices of minority culture and use of religious symbols in the public spaces, added by Bhargava. The ban on burqa in the France can be cited as an example and can be perceived threat to liberal democracy. While appreciating the economic rights proposed by Patnaik, he added that minority rights and protection of their culture is indispensible for a citizen to participate in the democratic deliberations including for material well being.

To sum up the discussion so far, no doubts during their lectures, Prof. Patnaik and Prof. Bhargava both have provided valuable insights to overcome the rise of recent majoritarianism in the public-political domain. Patnaik came up with a conclusion that there is need to forge political alliances and articulate alternative political vision on the plank of secular and democratic socio-economic rights as mentioned in Krachi Resolution in 1931. To realize this goal both speakers, Patnaik and Bhargava have emphasized that there is a need to draw insights from the anti-colonial struggle and inclusive vision of nationalism (duly mentioned in our secular Constitution) which is quite opposite to the project of the Hindu nationalism.

The author is a research scholar at University of Delhi.




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