India has once again been gripped by Hindu-Muslim violence. Communal riots were reported in nine states in April alone. Both communities blamed the other and political parties took their familiar positions.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party said the violence was not major and that the brouhaha was designed to defame Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The Congress decried the fact of “peace and pluralism [being] sacrificed at the altar of bogus nationalism”.
Communal violence in India has both structural and constitutional causes. The country has a permanent Hindu majority which is hugely lopsided: nearly 80% of the population is Hindu while 14% is Muslim.
While such an unbalanced ethnic mix requires careful balancing of powers between the majority and minority, India uses a system of the winner-take-all majority rule. What makes matters worse is that even in areas where the Muslim population is significant or in the majority, an overpowering central government dominates local governments.
Structural challenges – the need for local autonomy and power sharing at the Centre – were evident even before Partition. As early as 1937, when the British first allowed Indians to form provincial governments of their own, communal cohesion fell apart.
Jawaharlal Nehru led the Congress to a big win in elections, but in an attempt to end communal politics, he excluded the Muslim League candidates from forming governments.
The Muslim League’s leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah responded by declaring his “irrevocable opposition” to any government formed under the winner-take-all parliamentary system. Two years later, Jinnah demanded Partition.
After the creation of Pakistan, Indian leaders believed, wrongly, that the communal problem was over and adopted a unitary Constitution with a strong central government under majority rule. Since then, Indian politics has been driven by communal discord. Hindu nationalists appease Hindus, while secular parties are seen to be appeasing Muslims and other minorities.
The majority resents what it claims is the special treatment for minorities, while minorities resent being at the mercy of the majority’s largesse. But as was to be expected, the permanent majority has the upper hand and is now more determined than ever to establish a Hindu Rashtra.
A fix usually recommended for diverse nations is to adopt proportional representation in their legislatures and appoint coalition governments.
But proportional representation in India would only divide society further, increase extremism, produce less qualified and responsive leaders, and allow few even more control over democracy. Worse, coalition governments are notoriously unstable, as India’s own experience confirms.
Israel, with similar demographics (75% Jewish, 18% Muslim) and under proportional representation and coalition governments, is not a good role model as a democracy.
Even after 74 years of independence, Israel has yet to adopt a written Constitution, or solve its dilemma of being both a Jewish state and a liberal democracy. It administers Muslim-dominated areas as a police state. Since its independence, Israel has formed 36 coalition governments, each lasting about two years on average.
India needs to consider other fundamental reforms to solve its communal problem. One approach that I had suggested was to form a Religious Council in Parliament, giving all religions equal representation.
Any legislation touching upon the religious, ethnic or cultural lives of citizens would need to be approved by this council. India already has precedents for establishing ad hoc bodies, such as the Goods and Service Tax Council and the judiciary’s Collegium.
An even more effective reform would be to adopt the United States model of secularism and its system of government. America is also a diverse nation (about 70% Christian and 6% non-Christian, including Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists). The United States Constitution bars the government from promoting any religion and establishes a strict separation of church and state.
Indian governments, on the other hand, are free to engage in religious activities. The American system is decentralised, which gives local governments more autonomy. It separates executive and legislative powers, making it more difficult for the majority to make laws or administer them in ways that oppress minorities.
It is time for India to choose whether it wants to be a theocracy or a secular democracy, and to solve its communal problem once and for all. A Hindu Rashtra is a slippery slope that risks putting the nation in the hands of religious extremists. Hindus, known throughout the ages as wise and secular people, can certainly do better than that.