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Address by H.E. Ambassador Meera Shankar on ‘Democracy and Pluralism in India’ at Columbia University, NY


New York
April 1, 2010

1. I am greatly honoured to speak at Columbia University today, and even more that I do so on the historic occasion of the institution of the Dr. B.R.Ambedkar Chair at the Columbia Law School and 2 Jagdish Bhagwati Fellowships. This initiative adds an important dimension to Columbia University’s long and illustrious association with India.

2. This chair commemorates one of the great leaders of India in the 20th century and one of this university’s eminent alumnus – Dr. Ambedkar. A truly renaissance man, he overcame the extraordinary burdens of social prejudices characteristic of India in the early part of the last century, to become a leading jurist, political leader, a champion of social justice, a prolific writer and a great educationist. He became independent India’s first law minister and the Chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee. He is remembered today as a symbol of social change, as a vigorous advocate of social justice in India and as an architect of the world’s longest and most comprehensive national constitution.

3. The Constitution of India has been described as both a political and social document. It was framed against India’s enormous political and economic challenges and its unparalleled religious, cultural and linguistic diversity; and, it had to meet the test of the values and principles of India’s freedom struggle and the vision and ideals of its founding fathers.

4. The Indian Constitution became an instrument not only for freedom, but also for empowerment; a means not merely to guarantee and protect, but also to transform; a framework to not only accommodate India’s diversity, but to also enable social groups that were on the periphery of society and on the margins of power to participate fully in the nation’s political and economic processes.

5. In the past six decades of India’s existence as a sovereign democratic republic, its two most powerful features have been its success as a democracy and as a pluralist society, not merely in its social character, but also in its political mandate. Both have reinforced each other – pluralism has ensured that democracy is the only viable form of political organization in India; and, the space that democracy provides for pluralism has expanded democratic inclusion and strengthened the unity of India in all its diversity.

6. Respect for pluralism and enduring commitment to democracy can by no means be presumed to be inevitable, particularly in circumstances of underdevelopment. In India’s neighbourhood and further afar, there are many examples of false starts and failed experiments. India’s civilisational tradition of respect for diversity, the far-sightedness of India’s political leaders who had the vision, commitment and patience to build the institutions for democratic functioning and the constitutional framework adopted by the Indian Republic have nourished our pluralist democracy and enabled it to strike deep roots in our soil.

7. Pluralism is deeply entrenched in Indian civilization. Perhaps, it is the pluralism of knowledge, the ancient belief in the possibility of different paths leading to the same goal, in the rejection of a monopolistic view of truth and in the abiding concepts of Vasudhaiva Kuttambakam – the world is one family - and Sarva Dharma Sambhava – all faiths are equal – that has laid the foundation of a deeply pluralist tradition, both in terms of religions and languages, in India.

8. Co-existence and integration of cultures and religions has existed alongside conflict and competition, often as manifestations of political struggles. But, Indian history is replete with powerful examples of efforts to reach above divisions to seek unity in diversity. This was manifest in the great reform movements of Budhism and Jainism which swept across India in the sixth century B.C. with their emphasis on moderation, ahimsa or non-violence and dharma or righteousness. In the 12th to 14th century, it found expression in the Bhakti and Sufi movements, in the great works of the poet Kabir and in the lyrics of Amir Khusro, who wrote in both Persian and Hindi, and whose songs continue to be sung across the shrines of India and Pakistan. It was manifested in the effort of the great Mughal Emperor Akbar to create a new syncretic religion Din-e-ilahi and in the Sikh faith, which combined elements of Hinduism and Islam. And, again, despite efforts to divide them, people of different faiths came together to rise against the British rulers in India’s first war of independence in 1857.

9. The Indian republic is, today, sixty years old. As we look back over these years and the extraordinary changes and transformations that have taken place and are taking place in India, we cannot but admire the wisdom, the vision and the ambition of our founding fathers. Pained by the failure to prevent the partition of India, they were nevertheless determined to create a secular, democratic, republic which would be genuinely inclusive and where every individual and group would have an equal sense of ownership and participation in the making of a better future for themselves and a new India. Through all the enormous problems and challenges of these decades this spirit has not only survived but has grown in strength. If we look at the India of today and compare it with where we were socially, politically and economically when we began, then what we have achieved is truly remarkable and we can take legitimate pride in our success. If we judge the India of today by the yardstick of the ideal society and polity that we had envisaged and would like to achieve then we have to be honest enough to recognize that we still have considerable ground to cover, but we can be reasonably confident and optimistic about the future.

10. In terms of the experience of other societies and nations over the last few centuries India truly stands out. One view has been that democracy can be expected to function and be sustainable only after a certain level of economic development and prosperity has been achieved. The Indian economy has only recently entered a high growth trajectory and it would still be some time before we can achieve the Millenium Development Goals and give all our people a decent life free from deprivation and poverty . However our democratic processes and institutions have, over these decades, become increasingly robust and compare well with the best in terms of political contestation through free and fair elections in which political parties and formations gain and lose political power; a competitive and critical media; and a truly independent judiciary. People in India are now so accustomed to the institutions of a liberal democracy that it is difficult for them to conceive of any other mode of governance. Civil society institutions have emerged which vigorously pursue worthy causes for the betterment of society and the promotion of the public good.

11. In addition to the stage of underdevelopment the extraordinary diversity of India in every sense of the term makes the success of the process of forging a pluralistic and inclusive polity a remarkable phenomenon. India has over a billion people with every sixth human being an Indian; it is home to every religious faith in the world; it has twenty-two official languages and its people are ethnically and in color and appearance as varied as humankind itself. Further there was a hierarchical social order encrusted in the rigidities of the caste system with indignity and inequity for those at the bottom. To many early observers it appeared doubtful whether India would be able to stay together at all because of this extraordinary diversity. Conflicts on the basis of religion, region, language, ethnic identities have been common enough in human history. Partition and the violence and the mass migrations that occurred at the time of independence were a grim example. In the decades since, India has faced challenges on account of each of these factors. The process of democratic accommodation has been a complex task and at times even slow and painful. India has however been successful in creating and providing space for the fulfillment of democratic aspirations based on multiple identities within its larger national Indian identity. It is here that our experience is rich and extraordinary.

12. India was fortunate in having one of the greatest human beings of recent times, Mahatma Gandhi, as the Leader of our freedom struggle and as the Father of the Nation. For Mahatma Gandhi the transformation of Indian society to liberate it from its inequities and weaknesses was as important as its liberation from colonial rule. He clearly saw that the radical changes in the social order that he was pursuing could take place only to the extent that the minds and the world view of people changed. He was therefore a tireless and an extraordinarily effective communicator all his life. Secularism and social justice were the core values of the new resurgent India for which he strived. These values had become so intrinsic to the freedom struggle that in the debates in the Constituent Assembly there was never any doubt that secularism and social justice would be key pillars of the new republic.

13. The Indian state went well beyond the abolition of untouchability and constitutional provisions for non-discrimination to adopt, possibly, one of the first and broadest affirmative action programmes. The provisions in the Constitution for reservations both in the legislature as well as in government employment for Scheduled Castes and Tribes have brought about a peaceful revolution within one generation in terms of political empowerment and the emergence of a new confident middle class from within these communities. The democratic process with free elections where each vote counts and counts equally has strengthened the political forces which promote equity and inclusiveness. Political parties have had to accommodate these aspirations and where they have not done so adequately they have had to cede space to new political formations. The emergence and success of regional parties is a reflection of this phenomenon.

14. Political mobilization on the basis of group identities is normal in democracies. The democratic process in India has led to political contestation on the basis of linguistic, regional, caste and religious identities and this in turn has led to the continuing accommodation of some of the aspirations generated through such political mobilization. While the limits of identity politics are now leading to the Indian electorate giving greater weight to good governance and performance, each phase of accommodation has strengthened the pluralistic and inclusive character of Indian democracy.

15. In the fifties linguistic identities generated the demand for the reorganization of states on the basis of language. Despite apprehensions that this could prove divisive, the reorganization of States on linguistic lines was accepted and this now appears to be only natural. The final political compromise on language became necessary in the mid sixties when it was agreed that Hindi, though the national language in the Constitution, would not be imposed on the non Hindi speaking states who could continue to use their regional language and English as the language for communication with the central government as well as the other states. Ironically this has since turned out to be advantageous to India, with knowledge of English now being an additional asset in the globalised economy.

16. It is common for Indians to be master of at least three languages – the mother tongue, English and Hindi. Electronic and print media in regional languages have thrived as much as they have in English or Hindi. Our system based on a typical fuzzy democratic compromise has enabled people to wear their Indian as well as their linguistic and cultural identities, and enhance, not diminish, the sense of belonging and participation in the Indian state.

17. The concept of secularism, as it evolved in India, entailed separation of the State from religion. The State maintains equal distance from all religions. But, in a rare tradition, India observes public holidays on the main festivals of all major faiths in the country, a symbolic gesture of respect for citizens of all faiths that also brings the whole nation together to mark the faith of its smallest minority.

18. There are two pillars of Indian secularism. One pillar guarantees and protects rights; the other, based on the recognition of the vulnerabilities of minority groups, seeks to create conditions for the minorities to nurture their faith and advance their welfare in the Indian society and economy. In recent years, the Government has launched a number of initiatives to improve the educational and economic status of minorities, through targeted allocation of public spending, scholarship schemes for students; and, increased allocation for infrastructure and industrial development in minority dominated areas.

19. For all the constitutional and legal guarantees, over the last six decades, India’s pluralism has faced numerous challenges both from within and without that exerted considerable pressure on the fabric of Indian society.

20. But what is important is that in each moment of crisis, we have also seen the forces of unity and harmony rise to challenge the forces of division and destruction. We have seen the media report incidents with concern and empathy; citizens respond with compassion; human rights groups speak without fear; and, the administrative machinery respond to restore order and security.

21. Above all, the challenges have been met by the process of democratic politics, which inevitably echoes the inherent pluralism of Indian society and has largely kept extremist ideology at bay. And, for all the debate we have seen on the merits and effectiveness of secularism in India, the minority communities in India have placed great faith in the Indian democratic processes and their legal rights to protect their interests and pursue their aspirations.

22. There have been several novel and innovative institutional developments which are helping to strengthen the democratic framework and give more effective voice to people's aspirations and problems and ensure greater government accountability. Activism by the courts, particularly on public interest litigations, has been forward leaning in defining and upholding the rights of the poorest and the obligations of the State towards their welfare. The reinvigoration of local government in the villages and municipalities throughout the country under the Panchyati Raj Act, which for the first time also included measures to ensure representation of women on these bodies, is laying a strong foundation of grass-roots democracy. Millions of women have been brought into the sphere of public life and governance through this process. On-going debates focus on strengthening the financial powers and responsibilities of local bodies. The Right to Information Act, adopted a few years ago, holds the promise of becoming an effective instrument for greater transparency in governance. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, which has recently been extended to all rural areas, is building a huge safety net to reduce poverty and vulnerabilities in villages across India. The Right to Education Act which has just come into effect and the massive expansion and modernization of the education system planned at all levels would be the key to equipping and empowering people to participate productively in the opportunities opening up with the acceleration of economic growth and the broadening of the Indian economy.

23. As the economy has grown and modernized and as the regions across the country are getting increasingly integrated and inter-linked, the avenues for all groups have increased, though ensuring that growth is inclusive and benefits all sections of our people remains a key national challenge and priority. Nothing reflects the resilience and success of Indian pluralism more than the world of art, music, cinema, academics and sports. Some of the greatest national stars in each of these areas come from diverse religious, linguistic and ethnic backgrounds and they are eulogized and worshipped across the country for their success and their achievements as Indians – nothing more or less.

24. India has not only survived, but six decades later, is a stronger, more united and more prosperous nation. And, our success owes itself to precisely those factors that raised doubts about our survival as a nation-state: our commitment to democracy and fundamental freedoms, despite the extraordinary economic and social challenges that India faced at independence; our federal polity, which has strengthened because of the growing decentralization of decision making; our efforts to nurture India’s diversity rather than seek to build a nation state based on any single dominant language, culture or religion; and, the effort to address disparities and vulnerabilities in society by instituting special mechanisms and schemes for the weak and the vulnerable.

25. We will continue to face our own share of challenges. We have to remain vigilant about the impact of rapid economic development and the accompanying dislocations that it can bring; the consequences of our own transition from a policy driven allocation of resources to market driven allocation, which could potentially accentuate disparities and grievances; the problems of uneven development and poverty, the implications of globalization and the homogenization of aspirations and values; and, the impact of continuing growth in religious extremism and terrorism in our neighbourhood. But, we look ahead with a sense of confidence based on the progress we have achieved, our experiences and the lessons we have learnt over the past six decades.

26. A study of Indian democracy and society is vital not merely to understand the dynamics of what will soon be the world’s most populous nation, but also because there are vital lessons to be learnt for our inter-connected and inter-dependent world of the 21st century, where our intertwined destinies demand a greater sense of co-existence across our diversities.

Thank you. 

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