February 25, 2017

India: Democracy makes majorities | Dipankar Gupta

The Times of India - February 25, 2017

Democracy makes majorities: How India’s Hindu “majority” is an outcome of Independence and constitutional process

Pakistan’s new Hindu Marriage Act prohibits polygamy among Hindus, but can it reel the big fish in? There is no parallel law yet, nor is there one in the making, that would restrain Muslim men to monogamy in Pakistan. Paradoxically then, while the majority of Pakistanis is still bound by undemocratic norms, the minority there is relatively liberated. In Pakistan, Hindu men can have only one lawfully wedded wife while Muslims can have as many as four at a time, though only a fraction of the population is willing to chance it.
This has often promoted the belief that Hinduism is democracy friendly and citizenship enabling. While it is true that both the Hindu Marriage Act (1955) and the Hindu Succession Act (1956) were great achievements of independent India, it is also true that their passage through Parliament was heavily contested, with not a wishbone at work. Traditionalists, inside and outside Congress, strongly opposed these bills and it required a huge effort by Nehru and Ambedkar, among others, to see them through.
This much is well known. What is, however, not equally appreciated, and fully baked into our brains, is that the Hindu “majority”, such as we know it to be, is actually a creation of these post-Independence laws. Before they came into being, not just marriage, even inheritance and guardianship norms differed from place to place, from community to community in India. In some cases, succession was governed by the Mitakshara system, in others the Dayabhaga; and each had dashboards flashing different schools.
Nor could one ignore the many matrilineal communities that had to also conform to this newly minted uniform standard. The Delhi high court in two recent judgments, one in 2015 and the other in 2016, overturned Hindu tradition yet again and brought about a greater consolidation of the majority. It first decreed that a Hindu mother could be the single guardian of her child and later also allowed a woman to be “karta” in a Hindu Undivided Family unit.
Where then were the Hindus before the mid 1950s, other than a scattered lot with diverse customs? The community we consider to be in overwhelming “majority” today is an outcome of these laws and did not predate them. The “majority”, in other words, is a creation of liberal democracy – from the many came one, under the watchful eye of the Constitution. Therefore, the first government of independent India deserves a further credit: it not only created a majority, but also tamed it. This is an enormous task that easily frightens many new nations, but India was different.
The first job then in democracy and citizenship making is the creation of just such a “majority”, and this is rarely ever a gift bequeathed by tradition. Instead of being shamefaced about this majority, we should celebrate it as a laser-focussed republican moment. The Hindu of independent India is a new creature and, in strictly legal terms, its personal code is a creation of the present. A good democracy alters many aspects of tradition to create a “majority”, and there is nothing so unusual about this.
Just as Hindus had to be disciplined before they could become a “majority”, so also were Christians in the Western world. There is simply no majority culture that emerged out of any democracy that has not been burnished and moulded by the concerns of citizenship. What we know as Italy today was a powder keg of viciously divisive forces; the Sardinians against Bourbons against Sicilians, and all of them against a unified nation-state. Yet, for a long time now they have all been Italians.
Likewise, Quakers, Presbyterians and Methodists are presently part of the Christian majority in Britain, but a little over a hundred years ago they were classified as “dissenters”. Consequently, they were denied government jobs; they could not even earn degrees from Oxford or Cambridge. All of this sounds unreal today as these sects are now chartered members of the Protestant “majority” in the United Kingdom. Since then there has been further progress. In 2013 a new law was passed that even allows a British monarch to marry a Catholic. This enlarged the Christian majority from just being a Protestant one, erasing completely the memory of the 1780 massacre of Catholics.
A similar process took place in America when, post World War II, Jewish people began to be considered as “white folks”. Till the 1920s, Jewish students were discouraged from entering elite educational institutions in the United States. Perhaps, World War II brought home the wisdom to conservative Christian establishments that Jewish talent would be hugely beneficial to America’s well-being.
Taken together this should easily expose the myth of a pre-existing “majority” in a democracy. If, at times, it appears as if the majority has to do little adjusting, leaving the burden on minorities alone, then that is an optical illusion. This conclusion overlooks how a good and vibrant democracy has long been at work to merge hitherto disparate groups and sects, to form a majority. If democracies, step by step, by incessant crafting and cajoling, create majorities, the same methods must be put to work to merge those who still see themselves as outliers and minorities.
After all, a majority is known by the minorities it embraces.