Does Diversity of India Require Structural Changes to Manage Ethnic and Religious Tussles?

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The Indian party system is more or less based on the caste system and religious affiliations; political parties tend to support their ethnic and religious affiliations/ideology, thus creating an ‘ethnic/religious rift’ in society. This rift in society often takes the forms of ethnic and communal conflict. Our Editor-at-Large. Amit, takes a hard look at the ethnic and religious tussles, deliberating on the beef ban, exclusively in Different Truths.

Darjeeling is burning as demand for the Gorkhaland intensifies; Kashmir has been smoldering since long; growing religious extremism in the country is haunting liberals and minorities – is something terribly wrong with India’s plural accommodative democracy?

I think so.

‘Diversity’ and India is synonymous. India belongs to everyone – cutting across religious and ethnic ties. To accommodate linguistic and regional heterogeneity of the population, the constitutional system of the India was made partly federal. Indian political system, which was centered on major language groups later suffered the tyranny of the majority. The electoral system was adapted to serve the interest of the majority populations of the Hindu. In such system, it was nearly impossible for Muslims to organise their own political parties (even to determine their choices for food) and to get representation in legislatures (Vanhanen 2004).

Muslims were able to get representation through some major parties. In addition, tribal groups and the Dalits had faced the same dilemma. They have constitutional safeguards, but, because of the British made/influenced electoral system, it has been difficult for them to get a representation in legislatures through their own parties except for some minor development in the recent political scenario.

The Indian party system is more or less based on the caste system and religious affiliations; political parties tend to support their ethnic and religious affiliations/ideology, thus creating an ‘ethnic/religious rift’ in society. This rift in society often takes the forms of ethnic and communal conflict. Further aggravating the situation, parties take caste divisions and religious equations into account while nominating candidates for elections. Some parties nominate the candidate from their own caste (or preferential treatment based on Caste) and religious ideology. In recently held U.P. state election, B.J.P. did not nominate a single Muslim candidate, whereas B.S.P. nominated approximately 100 Muslim candidates. Political nominations based on caste resulted in the emergence of ‘ethnic nepotism (Vanhanen 2004), whereas, nominations based only on religious identity have pushed the country to the brink of religious conflict.

Although, Section 123 (3) of the People’s Representation Act of 1951, says, “no candidate or his agent can appeal for votes on the grounds of religion, race, caste, community or language.” Also, Supreme Court has reaffirmed candidates cannot seek votes on the grounds of the religion, caste, creed, community or language of voters[1].

However, in practice, caste and other ethnic/religious become the principal catalyst in the Indian politics. Indian politicians simply have ignored principles set by the Constitution. In response to this situation, Indian democratic institutional structure has evolved and is struggling hard to accommodate various ethnic and minority strivings.

Many aspects of the Indian political system become adapted to the requirement of the ethnic groups, but not sufficiently in all matters and in all parts of the country, which indicates it has not been possible to solve all ethnic/religious conflicts through democratic institutions, or that democratic institutions are not sufficiently adapted to the requirement of the ethnic/religious rift.

Example of such failures are apparent in the ongoing ethnic conflict in the various parts of India; violent separatist in Kashmir and Northeastern states, Naxalite in the different parts of the country; frequent communal violence between Hindu and Muslim and to a lesser degree with other religious groups (Christians and Sikh), too; occasional territorial conflicts between language groups ( against Hindi in South India); and continual conflict between caste groups, particularly between Hindu and untouchables but also between the upper caste and the other backward castes. Not to mention occasional outburst of and Maharastra Navnirman Sena against North Indians, runs the risk of dividing the people into the lines of the geographical regions.

Though India’s federal system is struggling to mitigate the ethnic conflict to some extent, however, militancy in Kashmir and Seven Sisters States has remained as an unsolved problem. The ban on Beef is another serious issue (with the potential of serious religious conflict) affecting, not only the food habits of millions of Muslims and Christians but also the livelihood of millions of Hindu. In order to accommodate cultural concerns of minorities, Constitution of India needs to more accommodative-particularly minorities’ right to choose food and lifestyle.

The imposition of ban on cow slaughter is based on Article 48 of the Constitution of India which reads as follows:

The State shall endeavour to organise agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and lines and shall, in particular, take steps for preserving and improving the breeds, and prohibiting the slaughter of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle[2].

In order to be more cultural accommodative and conciliatory; in above context, Article 48 of the Constitution needs to be changed.

Indian political system needs to be made more suitable to ethnic aspirations. The federal system can be strengthened and be made flexible. More autonomy can be extended to the various ethnic groups. The tribal state of Assam would need extensive forms of autonomy. In addition, there is a need to establish an autonomous territorial unit within states for the tribal, linguistic, and religious minority. A similar treatment can be applied to diffuse the ongoing conflict in Darjeeling.

Along with it, electoral system needs to made proportional to the population of the ethnic groups; it could serve the needs of an ethnically heterogeneous society better than the present system. Ethnic conflicts cannot be completely eliminated; however, conflict can be mitigated by providing an effective institutional canal for the expression of ethnic demands and competition (Lijphart and Bachal cited in Vanhanen 2004).

The Electoral system by providing better representation can bridge the increasing divide among various ethnic groups. In addition, more channels for the fearless expression of the repressed ethnic and minority sentiments need to be created, because only electing the political candidate do not often guarantee the desired development and of the ethnic community as have been seen in cases of  U.P. and Bihar.  Inherent conflict ingrained in Indian electoral system/democracy/society; if do not redress on time, India, sooner or later, runs the risk of engulfing in religious/ethnic conflict at the larger scale.


Vanhanen Tatu  2004, ‘ of Democracy in Ethnically Divided South Asian Countries’, paper presented at 18th European Conference on Modern South Asian Studies, Sweden.

©Amit Singh

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Amit Singh

Amit Singh

Amit Singh is a human security and social justice expert. He is a doctoral candidate at University of Coimbra, Portugal; hold master degrees in history, human rights, and multiculturalism. He is a columnist for several newspapers in Norway and India.
Amit Singh