How can people with different beliefs and customs live together in a pluralistic society with civility and mutual respect? One can think of few more important questions, not just for the world’s largest democracy but for the world itself, in the 21st century. Political scientist Neera Chandhoke takes on this fraught question in a thoughtful analysis that reinterprets and powerfully reworks the concepts of pluralism, secularism, tolerance and coexistence in the context of India today.
Secularism in India, says Chandhoke, is not the same as western secularism: for in India, it has acquired a distinctive meaning ever since, in the context of the bitter communal riots, the leaders of the freedom struggle adopted secularism as a basic principle of democratic polity precisely as a response to the atmosphere of strife.
Chandhoke begins by drawing from the text of the Santi Parva, the book of the Mahabharata in which, after the Great War, the dying patriarch Bhishma, lying on a bed of arrows, teaches the new king Yudhishthira about the responsibilities of a ruler. It is kingly ‘dharma’, says Bhishma, to protect the people. A just and dutiful king should nurture and hold his people together, protecting them from violence, and ruling without bias.
Chandhoke situates the concept of secularism in this conception of justice. Indian society is plural: marked not just by heterogeneity but by deep differences in beliefs and customs, from ways of eating and ways of living, to ways of religious worship. In order to treat all its citizens justly despite their differences, the State must adopt the principle of treating them equally, providing equal protection to all, and ensuring freedom from discrimination to all citizens. These commitments require the presence of an environment of civility and mutual respect, implying fraternity; and in building such an environment, pluralism becomes valuable in itself.
Chandhoke suggests that a transition from empirical plurality to normative pluralism is necessary not just because individuals could be harmed if their constitutive community is harmed, or to enable individuals to achieve their aspirations and full potential while protecting secure access to their constitutive community; but also, and perhaps most importantly, because respecting pluralism for itself adds to the conception of what it means to be human.
The right to freedom of association allows citizens to come together across boundaries of class and ethnicity to strengthen civil society. On the one hand, the realisation of political equality in India and the existence of a vibrant civil society, are laudable successes; on the other hand, deep and troubling inequalities continue to exist in the economic and social spheres.
Against this background, Chandhoke shows that it is the norm of secularism, embedded in the vision of a just society that can enable the transition from an empirically plural society to one that recognises pluralism as valuable in itself. Secularism, or non-discrimination between different religious groups, is thus an integral part of the vision of democracy. As Chandhoke remarks, “To infringe the basics of secularism is to infringe the fundamentals of democracy.”
Rethinking Pluralism, Secularism and Tolerance: Anxieties of Coexistence ; Neera Chandhoke, Sage, ₹895.