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Federations Magazine Article
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India’s extreme diversity makes pluralism imperative

As the Indian constitutional structure shows,
it is possible to respect cultural diversity without
damaging the nation-state. In multicultural, multiethnic
and plural societies, such as India and
many others, social justice, economic progress and
political democracy can be achieved only
through accommodation of diverse interests and identities. The
system of law and justice derives its legitimacy from not allowing
the need of any one group to overshadow or eliminate the
needs of others. Thus, in India, pluralism melds cultures with
the spirit of liberal democracy.
A country the size of a continent, with an
area of 3.28 million square km and a population
of over one billion, India is the world’s
most plural society: 22 national languages
and some 2000 dialects; a dozen ethnic and
seven religious groups fragmented into a
large number of sects, castes and sub-castes;
and some 60 socio-cultural sub-regions
spread over seven natural geographic regions.
A viable and successful system of government must recognize
these identities and respect and accommodate them. The
Constitution of India has done just that and has become the
best guarantee for a viable and vibrant nation.
Ultimately, it is not just a question of majority/minority in a
plural society; it is a question of social and distributive justice in
a liberal democracy. If democracy is not receptive to various
identities in a plural society, then it remains only a majoritarian
democracy that underprivileges minorities. Since majoritarian
procedures and institutions could disadvantage minorities, the
Indian Constitution has ensured special provisions for the protection
of minority rights as well as balancing group rights with
individual rights.
Territory and ethnicity
The framers of the Constitution were deeply conscious that
India is a plural society, but they were also concerned about the
need for unity and consolidation. In the aftermath of the 1947
partition of India, creating Pakistan and India, such concerns
were natural. It was in that context that a particular type of federal
governance was visualized, which evolved over time into
multi-layered federalism as the way to fulfill aspirations of the
many cultural groups. The socio-economic diversity of the
country made bargaining within Indian
federalism important. Once the decisionmaking
processes were decentralized, the
result was consensual democracy.
The framers of India’s Constitution had
intended the very size and heterogeneity of
the original large states to discourage the
emergence of parochial identities. However,
they left the door open to a reorganization of
states along linguistic lines, which, over time, has produced 28
states and six union territories. Many countries have had difficulty
in maintaining national identity in the face of demands for
autonomy, even secession. Heterogeneous India’s success in
remaining intact is surely rooted in reorganization: the adjustment
of state boundaries and creation of new states – both of
which are the prerogative of the central government. In the last
decades, as India has become less centralized, the politics of
states’ reorganization have changed as well. States no longer
feel they are overshadowed by the central government, nor is
there a feeling of systemic discrimination against the states.
[please turn to page 23]
India’s extreme
makes pluralism
Accommodation of cultures in tune with India’s
spirit of liberal democracy
Prof. Akhtar Majeed is director of the Centre for Federal Studies at
Hamdard University in New Delhi, India.
An “untouchable” becomes Chief Minister of the
northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Mayawati
Kumari, leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party, a
party of Dalits or “untouchables,” took power in
the state after her party’s victory in May.
REUTERS/Vijay Mat hur
OCTOBER | NOVEMBER 2007 Federations
what may be called single-identity states. On the other hand,
the large composite states such as Uttar Pradesh reflect a set of
variables: language/dialect, social composition of communities,
ethnic regions, demographic features, area contiguity,
cultural pattern, economy and economic life, historical antecedents,
political background and psychological make-up and
felt consciousness of group identity. It is in such regions that
most demands have been made for new states, as in the northeast
of the country.
A voice in local governments
In addition to ethnic groups seeking autonomy, there are also
those within the same ethnic group who are sometimes left out
of the political process or the local economy. For example, past
community development programs often could not succeed
due to planning done by bureaucrats and politicians in state
capitals with little or no input from the local communities for
whom the programs were planned. This encouraged dependence
on government resources and undermined self-help. By
a constitutional amendment, a new system of rural local bodies
called “panchayats” and local municipalities was
introduced in 1993. The system provides for a three-tier structure
at the village, intermediate and district levels. Through the
village council, the primary
source of power is now the
village. One-third of the
elected representatives in
these bodies have to be
women, who occupy nearly
one million seats on the
counci l s. Power s and
responsibilities have been
given to the elected local
bodies to plan and execute
economic development
plans. There are district
planning committees that
prepare the development
plan for the district as a
whole, integrating plans
prepared by the rural
panchayats and urban
municipalities. In this way,
the institutions under this
system seek to realize the
goals of decent ral ized
administration consistent
with decision-making by
people at the grass root level.
The importance of territory has been useful in building
upon diversity within nation-states and ensuring that cultural
and ethnic differences do not become the basis for group
inequality. Further, the different groups do not perceive one
another as either inferior or superior. Indian nationhood rests
on developing a societal ethos that facilitates the coexistence
of diverse groups within one country by power-sharing
arrangements. Endorsing pluralism as a value has made possible
the nurturing of both equity and identity in a single political
india [from page 10]
This has led to a situation where demands for states’ reorganization
are no longer treated as a political bargaining lever
against New Delhi, but as an administrative convenience.
The formation or reorganization of states in India has been
based on considerations such as geographical proximity, a
common language, similar usages and customs, comparable
socio-economic and political stages of development, common
historical traditions and experiences, a common way of living,
administrative expediency and, more than anything else, a
widely prevalent sentiment of togetherness; that is, a sense of
Setting the borders of states
The reorganization of states has served good governance by
advancing four criteria:
• administrative convenience
• economic viability
• similarity in the developmental needs of a sub-region
• cultural-linguistic affinity
If an ethnic group is not concentrated territorially, it can
then envisage economic and political gains if it obtains greater
regional autonomy, for
example the earlier demands
for a separate Telengana
state in Andhra Pradesh.
Where regional autonomy in
the form of a separate state is
not a viable strategy, or is
perceived as not immediately
possible, demands
have been made for preferential
treatment, such as
thos e in the s t at e of
Maharashtra for exclusive
benefits for the local residents.
Many demands for
constituting new states have
been based on allegedly
unfair distribution of develo
pme n t b e n e f i t s i n
multi-lingual states, for
example in Assam in the
1970s and 1980s.
Just as federal India is a
composite, plural entity, so
have many states become
cohesive with a plural basis
rather than a single identity. The states are often cohesive political
and administrative units, even though they are based not
on one identity, but on a synthesis of different identities. There
are some states that do claim a distinctive cultural identity;
these states are ecologically distinctive, like Uttrakhand, where
environmental activists in Himalayan communities acted 30
years ago to prevent further degradation of forests. There are
also states that claim to be ethnically distinctive, like Tamil
Nadu, Karnataka or Kerala. In another group, regional identities
have been subsumed under the dominant language, like
Maharashtra, Gujarat or West Bengal. All of these states are
OCTOBER | NOVEMBER 2007 Federations
Women line up with their voter identity cards in the eastern Indian city of
Patna. One million women were guaranteed seats on village councils or
panchayats thanks to an amendment to the Indian Constitution.