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European View (2007) 6:21–29 DOI 10.1007/s12290-007-0006-6



Democratic India: poor, plural, multi-religious yet tolerant

Dipankar Banerjee

Published online: 12 January 2008 Centre for European Studies 2007

European View (2007) 6:21–29 DOI 10.1007/s12290-007-0006-6 ARTICLE Democratic India: poor, plural, multi-religious yet tolerant Dipankar Banerjee

Abstract India is a highly multi-ethnic society that has been challenged by various conflicts throughout its history and more recently by Pakistan. Nevertheless, India offers evidence for and explains how we as a society and as individuals can draw upon our religious beliefs not only as a source of conflict, but also as a means of coping with diversity and living together in peace.


Multiculturalism Muslim Hindu Democracy Diversity

India Plurality

How does a nation that has the second-largest population in the world and is poor and pluralistic retain its religious diversity, yet survive and even thrive in relative peace? And this in a world that is witnessing a violent ‘clash of civilisations’, fault lines that run between and sometimes within national boundaries? 1 Any search for an answer will have to look increasingly towards values and beliefs within religions as well as to the capacity of the state to forge consensual forms of democratic governance. This is the challenge that India faces today, in common with many other countries in the world. But it is a challenge that India, in spite of its poverty and its diversity, seems to be able to address more successfully than some. While India’s multi-ethnic society, with its enormous diversity, has had problems and internal dissensions that have led to domestic violence, these have not been converted into international terrorism. No member of al-Qaeda was found to be from India, even though it

  • 1 Samuel Huntington’s belief in the likelihood of conflict between civilisations is discussed in his book, The clash of civilizations and the remaking of the World order [7]. This theory may be downplayed in Asia, but seems to be unfolding in the present post–9/11 world.

This article is based on a previous study, Banerjee D, Suba Chandran D (eds) Radical Islam and interna- tional terrorism: Indian democracy as a moderating factor. IPCS/KAS, New Delhi.

D. Banerjee (&) Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, B-7/3 Lower Ground Floor, Safdarjung Enclave, New Delhi 110029, India



D. Banerjee

is home to the third-largest Muslim population in the world. This success has not been entirely without exception. There have been instances of domestic aberrations and internal sectarian and religious violence, but there also seem to be certain strands and values in India that have ensured that, overall, relationships among all communities have remained relatively stable and largely peaceful. India’s population today is well over a billion and is expected to stabilise at 1.5 billion by 2050, long before which it will overtake China as the most populous nation on the planet. India’s population is also very diverse. Initially settlers came to the subcontinent, as we now know, through migration from Africa and Europe and later, over centuries, in successive waves from the west via what is known today as Central Asia and Afghanistan [4, p 2]. When the possibilities of the monsoon winds in the Arabian Sea became known in the first century CE and commerce flourished between Egypt and the Malabar coast of India, other influences prevailed [4, p 44]. Other migrations later came from the east and continued in later centuries. These settlers mainly occupied the rich fertile river valleys, establishing a thriving and prosperous civilisation. The early Indians developed their own set of religious beliefs, which over the years coalesced into Hinduism. Developing within a tradition of tolerance and diversity, Hin- duism was pluralistic, lacking a central organisation and practised differently in different parts of the country. It also allowed space for other religions to develop, such as Jainism, which emerged from within. Buddhism too grew out of this tradition, though as a distinct religion, in the fourth century BCE. Sikhism emerged as a counter to Islam in the Punjab. British rule introduced Christianity in India, even though its numbers never became very large in the subcontinent. At its independence in 1947, India was split into two parts based largely on religion. This was done on the premise, propagated by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, that Muslims and Hindus were two separate nations and since Muslim interests could not be safeguarded under a majority Hindu rule Muslims must form a separate state. The British succumbed to this notion and in their haste to depart they ignored the centuries of experience of living together that was the common heritage of the subcontinent. Thus India and Pakistan were created as two separate nations where earlier there had been one. Pakistan and later Bangladesh (former East Pakistan) have emerged as Islamic republics on the basis of this exclusively religious identity. It was perhaps expected that India’s greater plurality and diversity would again lead to further break-ups. Yet during the last 60 years of indepen- dence, India has not only disproved this notion but has demonstrated that given understanding, tolerance and faith, religious differences can be accommodated within an inclusive, pluralistic nation state. Within this process the legitimate aspirations of religious minorities can be accommodated without necessarily leading to an external, al-Qaeda type of jihadi terrorism. The scope of India’s plurality and diversity is vast. Indian peoples come in many variations of colour and creed, size and shape; they speak in so many different languages, eat such different foods and live in so many different climates that they could be con- sidered to constitute several nations. India has 14 official languages and more than 300 hundred recognisable dialects. There is great diversity within cultural forms. Song, dance and music all have distinct characteristics in different parts of the country. Yet these differences all coexist within a single nation state. Religious differences are one facet of this diversity, albeit in some respects a major one. The breakdown of India’s population by religion is shown in Table 1. Muslims constitute approximately 14% of India’s population today. This makes India with its 150 million Muslims the third-largest Islamic nation in the world after Indonesia and Pakistan. Even


Democratic India: poor, plural, multi-religious yet tolerant


Table 1

Population of India by religious communities, 1961–2001


Religious communities
























































Source: Indian census data available at; accessed on 1 October 2007

though Muslims are a comparatively small part overall, in some provinces they make up about one fifth of the total population. Each major religion constitutes a majority in one or more of India’s provinces. For example, Punjab has a near majority of Sikhs. Nagaland in the east has a Christian majority. The province of Jammu and Kashmir has a Muslim majority. Religion is perhaps not the most important marker of identity for Indians, though this may be debated. Language and caste are other major sources of identity as are sub-castes and various tribal identities. Then there are cultural and linguistic identities. Therefore, a true majority/minority complex is not easy to identify. In turn, these multiple identities across the nation as a whole make it difficult for any single identity to claim dominance over others. This may well have been an important factor in ensuring, first, that there have always been attempts to adjust within these differences; and second, that a sense of tolerance towards others has been fostered. That India is poor is obvious. A century of near-zero economic growth under British rule led to one of the lowest per capita incomes in the world by the middle of the twentieth century. Yet this was not always so. In the year 1700, India had the largest share of world GDP, higher than that of China [8, p 263]. But in independent India, poverty has never been allowed to intrude on democratic rights or affect eligibility to vote. No criterion— wealth, education or social status—is to come in the way of an individual’s inalienable right to participate in democratic governance. It is against the backdrop of this diversity that we will examine two principal features of the Indian environment. One is how religion has attempted to cope with this diversity, and as an example we will take Islam and in particular the influence of Sufism within Islam as an important characteristic of India. The other feature we will examine is the nature and character of Indian democracy, with respect to its ability to adjust to and accommodate the religious concerns of this diverse society.

Islam in India

Indian Muslims do not form a monolithic community; nor do they pursue uniform prac- tices. Region, caste and language play an important role in this variety. Moreover, the nature of Islam’s entry into India and its dissemination varied from region to region.



D. Banerjee

Whereas in South India Islam came with traders from western Asia, in the north it came with conquerors and their invading armies, from what is now Central Asia and Afghani- stan. These invading forces comprised ulema, Sufis, poets, administrators, wazirs, philosophers, soldiers and men of noble birth. But their numbers were small and the majority of Muslims were those who converted to Islam in India. This local Muslim population came from the descendents of low and middle caste Hindus, Buddhists and other faiths, and they retained their pre-Islamic cultures. At the other end of the spectrum was the small minority of the ashraf, descendents of Muslims from Central or West Asia who came to India as conquerors or immigrants. These exercised control over the state and the ulema. To understand how Islam evolved in India it is necessary to look at Sufism, which has emerged as a major aspect of Muslim belief and practice in India. Sufis accompanied the invaders who brought Islam into contact with Hindu priests and saints. This was one of the main reasons for the intermingling of Islam with local traditions and beliefs. Although the Sufis were inextricably linked to Islam and did not reject its formal teachings, the doctrines they promoted emphasised spiritual discovery and cultural evolution rather than a mere repetition of dogma. In their quest they highlighted the spiritual-ascetic tendency of Islam [11, p 118]; Sufi saints and ascetics aspired to experience reality and establish direct communion with God. Sufi orders were named after their founding saints. Chisti, Suhrawardy, Naqshbandi and Qadiri were the main Sufi orders that emerged in different parts of India. These orders adopted teachings of Hindu saints of the Bhakti cult and also used the Hindustani language for Islamic devotional songs. The Suhrawardy order was very popular in Bengal. Abdul Qadir founded the Qadiri order, which influenced a large number of Muslims in South India. Sufi saints such as Khwaja Chisti, Khwaja Bakhtiyar Kaki, Baba Farid and Shaikh Nizam al-Din Auliya opened their respective khanqahs. 2 They left these open to all people, irrespective of caste and creed, to join, and spread the practical form of Islamic mono- theism and philosophy throughout India [1, p 208]. Khanqas in Gujrat, Bengal, Malwa and Deccan were examples of such interaction. This approach allowed more room for intel- lectual and cultural space within Islam and also enabled interaction between Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. There is no doubt that the respective cultures grew in this intermingling and Sufism too developed and became more attractive. In this way, Sufism contributed to the moderating influence of Islam in India. There is an affinity between Hindu and Muslim mystical thought, and this in turn allowed Hinduism to affect the development of Sufi Islam in India. The pantheist monism of the Hindu Advaita Vedanta and Wahdat al wujud of the Sufis are different expressions of the same worldview. For both, the Divine Being is the sole ground of all that exists, which manifests itself as the world, and different manifestations are nothing but various modes of its appearance. The central idea of the Advaita Vedanta—the essential unity of all beings—is also basic to the pantheistic philosophy of Ibn al-‘Arabi and was popularised in the inclusive hama-ust doctrine of the later Sufis [9, p 93]. According to Asghar Ali Engineer, the Sufis even used Hindu idioms to convey their ideas and teachings. He notes that Shaykh Muhammad, a Sufi saint from Maharashtra, titled his work Yogasangraha and used Marathi and Sanskrit rather than Arabic terms [5]. Sufi Islam’s influence on rural India contributed to strengthening the cultural and religious roots of Indian Muslims by intermingling local traditions with Islamic beliefs and

2 Khanqas emerged as centres of teaching, a path to experience reality, to promote a code of conduct and communicate with the Pir, etc.


Democratic India: poor, plural, multi-religious yet tolerant


practices. This prevented feelings of alienation and hostility towards the ‘other’. Sufism played the role of pacifying antagonisms and spreading the message of a virtuous life. The best example of Sufi influence is visible in the Kashmiri civilisation where it is manifested as Kashmiriyat, which can be broadly translated as a ‘way of life’. It was this sense of tolerance and inclusiveness that endowed the Kashmir valley with a special character that has remained to this day, in spite of the enormous violence perpetrated there recently.

The role of Indian democracy

It could be argued that democracy has many deficiencies in the way it functions in India. Even after six decades of independence, the country has not yet provided social and political empowerment to all its citizens, including the minority and undeveloped com- munities. Yet nobody doubts that Indian democracy allows its citizens a degree of participation that provides opportunities for fulfilling their socio-economic aspirations. The Sachar Committee Report, published in 2006, highlighted in particular the prob- lems that Indian Muslims continue to face in India. 3 According to the report’s findings, there is a dearth of Muslims in government jobs, educational institutions and judicial posts. This is especially true in the six provinces of Assam, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra and Kerala, where there is a high proportion of Muslims. Their share in government employment is low and their literacy rate is around 60%, as compared to the national average of 66%. Lack of development, social and economic deprivation, vote bank politics by mainstream parties, lack of leadership in the Muslim community, and the role played by obscurantist clerics have been cited as reasons for the present plight of Indian Muslims. Yet it is equally true that the former head of the Indian state, Dr Abdul Kalam was a Muslim, as have been two other former presidents. The Prime Minister of the country, Dr Man Mohan Singh, and the head of India’s Armed Forces, General J.J. Singh, are both Sikhs; the head of the Congress Party and arguably the most powerful personality in the country, Ms Sonia Gandhi, is a Roman Catholic born in Italy. Therefore, notwith- standing other drawbacks, religious affiliation has not prevented people from acquiring positions of power and authority. As far as Muslims are concerned, there are no intrinsic discriminatory provisions that marginalise them or deny them their potential on the grounds of their being in a religious minority. The following paragraphs will attempt to examine why this may be the case.

The legacy of the Indian national movement

An understanding of contemporary polity, society and the commitment to minority rights in India requires an analysis of the Indian national movement. Despite various attempts at religious mobilisation by organisations such as the Muslim League and the Rashtriya Swayam Sewak and the growing communalisation of the Indian polity since 1930s, the Indian national movement under the Indian National Congress largely retained its secular and democratic character. This was manifested in the various resolutions passed by the Congress, the conviction of leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru and the composite culture of the mass movements launched under Gandhi’s leadership.

3 The Sachar Committee Report may be found at



D. Banerjee

Composite nationalism in India was a product of Gandhian politics. Gandhi blurred the boundaries of religion, equating ‘‘God with Truth’’ and thus providing autonomy to all groups to arrive at their own truths. His politics were inclusive and Hindu–Muslim unity was a central theme of all Gandhian constructive work. Gandhi’s concept of national identity respected religion and moral values as its central components. To counter the divisive and competitive nature of religion-based group politics, Gandhi tried to identify values common to all religions. Furthermore, he sought to develop equal respect for all religions. His goal was to create religious tolerance without ignoring the importance of religious values in social life [12, pp 3–4]. This social inclusion and the economic and political vision that the Indian National Congress provided was responsible for the sweeping support it received in the first-ever State Assembly elections in 1937. Held under the Government of India Act of 1935, it entrenched the principle of federalism in the country. The Congress Party garnered the majority in eight provinces, including the north west frontier province (NWFP) with its Muslim majority, completely defeating the Muslim League. Thus, despite the ascendancy of leaders espousing a communal cause among the Muslims since the late 1930s, the history of the Indian national movement is replete with secular Muslim leaders. The Congress Party deliberately followed the path of inclusion by ensuring that Muslims were accommodated in the higher echelons of decision making, as is manifested by the many Muslim leaders who have been presidents of the Congress Party over the years. The Gandhian mass movements were also a catalyst for attracting the participation of large numbers of Hindu and Muslims, despite powerful communal rhetoric in the country. As the secular fabric of the country deteriorated in the 1940s, with the vociferous assertion of the two-nation theory, the intensifying British politics of ‘divide and rule’ and the growing strength of the Muslim League, these voices, even when they did not prevail, prevented a total collapse of the legacy and values of the Indian national movement. The Indian Constitution was the amalgamation of the values, ideals and aspirations of this movement.

Secular provisions of the Indian Constitution

Secular values and the provisions of the constitution of India play an important moderating role in influencing the minorities, including Muslims. The preamble of the Indian Con-

stitution states: ‘‘we, the people of India having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a ’’

sovereign socialist secular Democratic Republic ...

The words ‘secular’ and ‘socialist’

were introduced by Constitution (42nd Amendment) Act 1976. While the Indian state was secular even before the 42nd Amendment, this amendment made it explicit. 4 The state has not explicitly defined secularism in India, but it has been explained by scholars and is also contained in various judgments of the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court, in St Xavier’s College v. State of Gujarat, stated, ‘‘There is no mysticism in the secular character of the State. Secularism is neither anti-God nor pro-God; it treats alike the devout, the antagonistic and the atheist. It eliminates God from matters of the State and ensures that no one shall be discriminated against on the ground of religion’’ (quoted in

  • 4 The Supreme Court in St Xavier College v. State of Gujarat, stated ‘‘although the words ‘secular state’ are not expressly mentioned in the Constitution, there can be no doubt, that Constitution makers wanted to establish such a state.’’ AIR 1974 SC 1389. See [10].


Democratic India: poor, plural, multi-religious yet tolerant


[10, p 256]). The Indian Constitution is full of provisions ensuring a secular ethos, thereby providing constitutional guarantees to its minorities. These provisions are covered both within and beyond the ambit of the Fundamental Rights. Article 14 states that ‘‘the State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India’’. Under the section on Fundamental Rights, Articles 25 to 28 explicitly discuss the right to freedom of religion. Article 25 states that ‘‘all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess, practice and propagate religion’’. Article 25, along with 26, also ‘‘guarantee the right to practice and propagate not only matters of faith or belief, but also all those rituals and observances which are regarded as integral parts of a religion by the followers of a doctrine’’. 5 Article 27 states that ‘‘no person shall be compelled to pay any taxes, the proceeds of which are specifically appropriated in payment of expenses for the promotion or mainte- nance of any particular religion or religious denomination’’. Article 28 states that ‘‘no religious instruction shall be provided in any educational institution wholly maintained out of State funds’’. Article 30 states ‘‘all minorities whether based on religion or language shall have the right to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice’’ [2, p 135]. Besides these specific provisions under Fundamental Rights, numerous other articles ensure that there is no discrimination in electing officials of the country, from the highest post to the lowest. Religion is not a factor in electing the President, Prime Minister, Ministers, Chief Ministers of the State, Governors, Elections Commissioners, and the Chairman of the Union Public Service Commission, amongst others. Religion is not a criterion for rejecting a person from holding a public post. The Indian Constitution pro- vides these safeguards to minorities to a degree unparalleled by any other constitution in the world.

The functioning of Indian democracy

In spite of its many problems, Indian democracy has played an important role in addressing the concerns of the minority and undeveloped communities. Indian democracy, like that of the United States and France, is based on the concepts of liberty, equality and fraternity. However, the uniqueness of Indian democracy lies in the fact that it is also based on social justice. Besides these principles, Indian democracy is also based on dialogue. It is flexible and constantly in dialogue with every single identity group. Many within the Muslim com- munity agree that despite the nature of the problems within Indian democracy, Indian Muslims enjoy a greater degree of democracy than Muslims of most other countries, even where they make up a substantial part of the population—whether as a majority or minority. Moreover, the fact that the Election Commission operates completely without gov- ernment control and is independent has increased public faith in this vital institution. Since the 1990s, there have been numerous examples of the Election Commission and the Election Commissioners playing an important role in ensuring that elections are free, fair and organised in a constructive atmosphere. This has immeasurably strengthened people’s faith in the democratic process, where their voices can be heard and can make a difference

5 Commr., HRE v. Lakshmindra (1954) SCR, 1005. See [2].



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to their own lives. This has made Indian democracy inclusive, attempting to address the concerns of everyone. This dialogue, with the participation of every sector—whether pertaining to religious, regional or undeveloped communities—is best expressed in the electoral politics of India. The Indian Muslim community with its substantive elite class, therefore, has space as well as faith to negotiate with the state through the democratic process, without needing to support any radical movement.

The role of the judiciary

One of the important contributions of the Indian judicial system, with the Supreme Court at its apex, has been the task of legitimising minority rights and acting as a check on the executive excesses against minority rights. Though criticised at times for its decisions or indecisions, the role of the judiciary in protecting constitutionally guaranteed minority rights has been commendable. An analysis of the Supreme Court judgments since inde- pendence will indicate that the judicial system has upheld the constitutional vision of a secular India. Even though the contours of secularism have not been defined in the Indian Constitu- tion, the prominent Indian political scientist Rajiv Bhargava articulates the view of most scholars that ‘‘secularism in India meant a principled distance of the state from religion, addressing the need for religious and cultural diversity while at the same time, intervening in religious denominations for the tasks of social reform and modernizing traditions’’ [3].The Supreme Court has condemned the misuse of religion in politics in the Bommai Case, and has also initiated a discourse in the larger public domain on the need to reform religious personal laws. The landmark judgment in S.R. Bommai v. Union of India (1996) strongly reiterated the commitment to secularism as incorporating the principles of ‘‘accommodation and toler- ance’’. Justice BP Jeevan Reddy held the dismissal of the BJP-led state governments in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition as constitutionally valid under Article 356 of the Constitution. 6 The Court recognised the misuse of religion to mobilise election votes by the BJP, its close links with the RSS (a banned organisation at the time), the hate speeches, the communal propaganda and the support given by the governments to the kar sevaks as adequate evidence of communalisation of politics by the state. It gave a practical shape to the judgment of the Court in Keshavananda Bharati (1974), which declared secularism as part of the basic structure of the constitution. 7 Besides the Supreme Court, high Courts have also played a significant role in main- taining secularism. The decision of the Bombay High Court in 1989, which set aside the election of a Shiv Sena (a political party in Maharashtra) candidate on the grounds that he and his party used communal propaganda, has been hailed as a landmark judgment [6, p 1324–1325]. The Supreme Court also played an important role in restoring normalcy in Gujarat after the communal riots of 2002. The Supreme Court openly criticised the handling of the post- riot situation in the state by the BJP government. Responding to appeals made by civil- society organisations and the National Human Rights Commission, the highest court

  • 6 This article allows the central government to impose Presidents’ rule in the state on the grounds of breakdown of constitutional machinery.

  • 7 Keshavananda Bharati, 1973, Supreme Court, S.C 1461 (F.B).


Democratic India: poor, plural, multi-religious yet tolerant


showed itself the guardian of minority rights. Thus, despite criticisms of certain judgments by lower courts, the judiciary has largely ensured the genuine redressal of minority grievances and has prevented extra-constitutional expressions of frustration.


This paper has examined two conditions in the Indian context in order to analyse the reality of India and the reasons behind the absence of religion-based international violence. In spite of significant levels of poverty and continued economic differentiation among reli- gion-based groups, the absence of international violence is noticeable and justifies the assertion that the state has done well by ensuring satisfactory conditions for its religious minorities. This is neither absolute nor even perhaps sufficient. But overall, the prevalence of Sufism in Islam as practised in India and the constitutional provisions and their legal implementation ensures that there is no incentive for the Muslim population to participate in jihadi-style international terrorism. Hence the al-Qaeda form of terrorism exported to other countries in justification of imagined wrongs has had no history in India. But there are danger signs. India continues to be a target of foreign-sponsored extremist movements and their regular terror strikes. This leads to countermeasures and responses that in turn may lead to further counterstrikes. There may be dangers of overreaction and the consequent persecution of minorities. External influences may germinate over a longer period. Finally, the global war on terror may not be effective and thus spur other move- ments. These are serious possibilities. But those who wish to implement an overall policy of countering religion-based violence can learn from the Indian model of tolerance for religious plurality, democratic safeguards and judicial activism.


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Dipankar Banerjee is the Director and Head of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, an independent think tank in India.