Majoritarianism and the (Im)Possibility of Democracy in South Asia

 All over South Asia, the rising tide of majoritarian nationalisms is threatening the rights of minorities and dissenters… Dibyesh Anand points out how the threat is even more fundamental, in that it strikes against the very idea of democracy.


Plurality is integral to the polities in South Asia. Whether the nation states controlling the polities deny, suppress, acknowledge, affirm or celebrate this reality of diversity indicates whether they are serious about the possibility of democracy or not. Democracy is not a number game; it is more than a political system that allows for regular elections to choose those who govern. In addition to procedural majority rule, it is very much about minority rights and about individual rights – such as the right to dissent without fear. The greatest challenge to substantive democracy comes from majoritiarian nationalism because it can replace political majority with ‘identitarian majority’ (a majority defined by a demographic trait); it can attack minority rights and make dissent illegal, politically suicidal and socially costly.

The biggest, most lethal threat to the idea of democracy in India is posed by majoritarian nationalism in the form of Hindutva. Contrary to the apologists for Modi, BJP and RSS, the election of Hindu nationalists to power is nothing but a weakening of democracy.

RSS is an extremist organisation that consistently promotes a notion of Indianness that excludes Muslims and Christians from the body politic by arguing that they are foreign religionists since their ‘punyabhumi’ (holy lands) lie elsewhere and hence their loyalty is forever suspect. Modi and BJP are electoral-political manifestations of RSS ideology. What explains BJP’s continuing promise to build a Ram temple in Ayodhya and to offer refuge in India to persecuted Hindus from elsewhere in the world? Is it not against the Indian Constitution to make India primarily a Hindu land where Hindus are represented as natural citizens?

Modi’s refusal to acknowledge the massacre, the pain and the suffering that Muslims were subjected to during his Chief Ministership in Gujarat in 2002 is integral to the Hindutva’s politics of reducing Muslims from equal citizenship to subjecthood. Muslims may be able to buy peace under BJP rule but only if they demand no rights and no dignity and only if they acknowledge Hindu supremacy over India. If they assert their citizenship rights against everyday bullying, pervasive discrimination, draconian anti-terrorism laws that disproportionately target Muslim men, and impoverishment, they will be told, directly or indirectly, ‘why don’t you go to Pakistan?’.

Rhetorical and actual violence against religious minorities is constitutive of Hindu nationalism. A victory of BJP on its own will not lead to the end of electoral political system in India but it will certainly accelerate further Hinduisation of the polity, rightward shift in discourse, marginalisation of minorities and persecution of dissenters, and thus pose the most severe challenge ever to the idea and possibility of India as a secular pluralist polity. That this idea of India was never uncontested or that it did not prevent the brutalisation of ethno-national peoples like the Kashmiris or Nagas in the periphery and tribal peoples in the heartland should not be forgotten. Yet, this idea did offer space to those who wanted to invest their hope in India. Hindutva attacks that very space and seeks to Hinduise the polity and saffronise the tricolour of Indian civic nationalism.

The problem of majoritarianism in South Asia is not confined to India. Pakistan, the so-called ‘land of the pure’ has been under constant struggle over who is pure and who is not. Ahmadis and Shi’ites who played crucial roles in the creation of Pakistan have found themselves to be excluded, bullied and persecuted over time. Amongst Sunnis, not all Sunnis are seen as equal part of the Pakistani citizenry as Pashtuns, Baloch, Sindhis, and Kashmiris are sidelined by Punjabi chauvinists who use their dominance of military, political and civilian institutions to present their own interests as national interests. The Taliban remains both an ally and a mortal enemy of the Pakistani state. Blasphemy laws are used primarily to target Christians and Hindus and keep them completely excluded from positions of power. Pakistan, as an Islamic Republic, remains a site of contestation among various actors, including those who struggle over who is a better Muslim and whose identity must dominate everyone else’s.

Myanmar, along with Sri Lanka, serves as a caution against facile generalisations about Buddhism as intrinsically non-violent. Teachings of the Buddha and the purported role of Sangha to promote Dharma and ‘the welfare of all sentient beings’ have done very little to temper Buddhist chauvinism in the two countries. Buddhist monks have been rather active in promoting Sinhalese and Burmese nationalisms that are exclusivist and majoritarian. The well-publicised recent persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Burma had plenty of apologists in the Sangha in Burma. Appeals from the international community including non-Burmese Buddhist leaders like the Dalai Lama fell on deaf ears as the military junta deliberately stoked the violence in order to neutralise Aung San Suu Kyi’s charisma. If she spoke against Buddhist monks, she would have gotten international praise but lose vital support of many Buddhists; if she did not, she may get support of the monks but witness a dent in her credibility as an internationally respected democratic figure. She chose the latter.

Ethno-religious majoritiarian nationalisms that privilege a certain identity as the norm and render other identities as subservient or inimical within different bounded communities make the principle and practice of democracy impossible in South Asia. There can be no democracy where minorities do not have equal citizenship and where dissenters fear for their safety. Whether the majority of the population in any of these countries will subscribe to– or get seduced by–  majoritarianism or whether they will resist the temptation  and work for the possibility of real democracy is one of the greatest challenge of our times.

Dibyesh Anand is the Head of the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Westminster, and an expert on China, India, Tibet relations. He is the author of ‘Tibet: A Victim of Geopolitics, The Politics of Fear’, and is currently working on a book on China-India border dispute.

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