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Religious diversity and democracy in India

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India is the world’s most complex and comprehensively pluralistic society. Home to a vast variety of castes, tribes, communities, religions, languages, customs, and living styles. The People of India Project, the anthropological survey of India, estimated that there are nearly 4,600 distinct communities in India with as many as 325 languages and dialects in 12 distinct language families. The mosaic of identities that constitute the meaning of Indian-ness is on display on Republic Day, every year. The national anthem emphasises diversity in a similar manner. The first verse is a series of names of different geographic regions, ethnicities, and cultures. India is hailed as Punjab. Sindh, Gujarat, Maratha, Dravida, Utkala, Bengal, in the same verse.
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The central question in any discussion of pluralism in contemporary India is how a vast multi-ethnic and multi-religious country has survived as a democratic state, despite extreme regional disparities and mass poverty. At the time of independence, it was widely believed that India, with its enormous cultural diversity, was unlikely to sustain democratic governance and national unity. India had three possible ways of dealing with its diversities and minorities. It could have opted for a strictly liberal strategy, relying on the logic of democracy, industrialization, and public policies to integrate minorities into a cohesive nation state. Alternatively, India could have pursued a corporate strategy, in which different communities had autonomous status.
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The third strategy was to combine liberalism and pluralism, superimposing a liberal state on relatively autonomous religious communities. The Constitution of India institutionalised the third strategy, and its authors hoped that, in time, minorities would have enough confidence in the Indian state to rely on primarily liberal individualist principles. The newly independent Indian nation state was constituted as a sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic. Three institutions translated this into practise. Secularism, federalism, and a planned economy. The enshrinement of individual as well as group rights in the constitutional framework accentuated cultural diversity, and subnational identity combined with the even-handed treatment of all Indian citizens were declared to be the goals of the New Republic.
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For instance, secularism elaborates a scheme of state neutrality through the fostering of equal respect of all religions, rather than through denying religion any role as was the case with secular doctrines in France or Turkey. India was thus among the first major democracies in the world to recognise and provide for the right of cultural collectivities– diverse religious and linguistic communities living in the country. The Constitution of 1949 created an institutional structure and principles that would allow diverse people to live together as citizens of India. Confronted with an array of demands from various groups, the constitution articulates a fourfold response to define the constituent elements of secularism.
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First, the principle of religious freedom, which gives every citizen the right to freedom of conscience, and the right to profess, practise, and propagate religion. Second, the Constitution does not recognise the special status of any religion. Third, the principle of non-discrimination on grounds of caste, place of birth, residence, or religion guarantees equal citizenship. Fourth, these rights must be subject to public interest and public order, which require religions to yield to regulation in the interests of social welfare and reform. This response was compelled by overriding factors specific to the country. First of all, the magnitude of its diversity, which had to be accommodated for India to become a nation. The secular pluralist state is therefore a fundamental condition of nationhood.
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The second factor that made secularism a necessity for the country was the bloody aftermath of deteriorating Hindu-Muslim relations that led to the partition of India on religious lines, and the creation, in 1947, of two independent countries. Pakistan, to be homeland for Muslims, and India to be homeland for Hindus, Christians, and other religions, while still having to accommodate a significant minority of Muslims.
This video reviews the governance of religion and the accommodation of religious minorities in India, the world’s most populous democracy and one that has grappled with important tensions with regard to religion including several terrorism incidents.
This video is based on the chapter: Diversity and Democracy in India, by Zoya Hasan, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Member of India-European Union Round Table.
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Governing Religion: Global Challenges and Comparative Approaches

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