The Bangalore International Centre (BIC) organised a Talk on “Democracy and Pluralism in India” on 27 June 2006. The session was moderated by Dr Girish Karnad, the renowned playwright, Writer, actor and Director The lead speaker was Dr Ramachandra Guha, the eminent historian who is known for his writings on environment, historical, social and political issues. Introducing the moderator and the main speaker, the Director of BIC, Mr. P R Dasgupta stated that both of them have so many glittering facets that they cannot be straightjacketed into any stereotypes. Dr Guha, who has also taught at the Indian Institute of Science, University of California at Berkeley and at Yale University, spoke with pride and passion on the diversity and democratic fabric of India and analysed some of the threats to both.
The entire talk was peppered with interesting anecdotes from democratic India’s history. Dr Guha started by drawing parallels between the three cornered contest between communism, fascism and liberal democracy in the West and the extreme right and left wings in India, with liberal democracy wavering uncertainly between these. While the activities of the right wing are well documented by the media, he warned that we need to be cautious about the lesser known left wing extremism.
What Pluralism means to India
Dr Guha drew attention to the three distinct aspects of pluralism that make India different from other countries – pluralism of faiths, pluralism of language and pluralism of knowledge. Expanding on the first, he said that it is something many of us cherish. India is the only country that states its secular nature in its constitution. Dr Guha highlighted in this context the soaring idealism of Late Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi who encouraged secularism strongly at a time when India was a newborn nation rife with religious conflicts. Today, when religious conflict is rearing its ugly head every now and then, Dr Guha felt the need for a Nehru at the state level, who would take quick decisions to maintain peace and Gandhi at the level of civil society who would foster goodwill among the people.
Talking about linguistic pluralism, Dr Guha pointed out that it is something that we do not discuss because we have done very well on this front and take it for granted. Delving into his vast knowledge of Indian history, he explained how India got formally divided along linguistic boundaries despite initial resistance by Nehru, which far from being divisive, has actually strengthened Indian democracy. Quoting a right wing Sinhalese politician, who in response to Solomon Bandaranaike’s call for downgrading Tamil and making Sinhalese the official language of Sri Lanka, said, ‘2 languages, 1 nation. 1 language 2 nations’, Dr Guha said that had we not reorganized states on the basis of language, we would have had 1 language and 16 nations. Acknowledging leaders of the southern states who have been instrumental in protecting the diversity of languages in this country, he related some humorous anecdotes of unsuccessful attempts at imposing Hindi as the official language.
Dr Guha lamented our poor record in relation to pluralism of knowledge. Despite having a wealth of folk and classical knowledge, our overwhelming focus on the knowledge provided by modern science and the government enforcing its ‘official knowledge’ on the development agenda might prove to be detrimental in the long run. He stressed on the need to work towards true pluralism of knowledge.
Pluralism and Democracy
When pluralism flourishes, culture flourishes and people of different faiths, languages and knowledge flourish together. Pluralism is therefore the essence of our democracy. Dr Guha said that the survival of Indian democracy is a miracle and that it has confounded the theorists of political science. Paying tribute to the architects of the Indian democracy – Patel, Nehru, Gandhi, Ambedkar and Tagore – he said that democracy is not about achieving Utopia but to move ahead in a manner that is least imperfect. It is unfair of our Indian intellectuals to keep pulling down Nehru and others, who have built the moral and social fabric of independent India. Dr. Guha brought the house down when he observed that in spite of all its warts, democracy survives in India and we do have general elections regularly, whereas Pakistan has “elections for generals”. He concluded the session with an appeal for caution against left wing extremism (not to be confused with our democratically elected communist parties), which is as much a threat to democracy as right wing extremism.