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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 1 New Delhi December 21, 2019 | ANNUAL NUMBER

Transcending Pluralism: A Threat to Democracy

Saturday 21 December 2019

by Suranjita Ray

A pluralist society is characterised by heterogeneity, diversity and multiplicity in caste, culture, customary practices/traditions, religious belief/faith, language, thought, opinion and understanding. Such diversities and multiplicities coexist and live in harmony contributing to consensus, equilibrium, oneness and togetherness in society and in the nation. However, it is undeniable that there are also occasions when these differences have/can become divisive that result in growing hostility, incoherence, conflicts and cleavages leading to increasing polarisation in society. Intensification of hostility that leads to hatred and violence consequently impends social harmony, justice, equality and eventually unity.

By privileging the narrative of difference as the root cause of conflict, disharmony, and disunity, we see that the ruling class has led its campaign for universalism as a great unifying force.The hegemony of their ideology has campaigned for ascendency of cultural singularity which underscores prejudice and bigotry against a large section of society. Despite the political strategies to divide the people that led to a series of policies which had a polarising effect, the ruling class’ performance is legitimised by upholding its vision of a majoritarian cultural nationalism rooted in the Hindu tradition. While the crucial issues, that are central to the right to life of the ordinary people, are no longer espoused in the political debates, the slogan of a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ has been successful in capturing the imagination of the common citizens. What is worrying is that despite the disturbing economic slowdown, increasing unemployment rate, and growing communal disharmony, we do not see much disillusionment or political unease in contemporary times.

Defending Universalism as a Force of Unity

Since the state is not a unified or monolithic entity, its characteristics, ideology and func-tioning can be understood in the context of time and space.The transition from conventional pluralism to neo-pluralism explicates the changing nature of the state and its complex and multi-dimensional relations with the society at the local, regional, national and international levels. The state has transformed from a weak and passive/neutral state to a far more active and strong state acting as a referee between the competing groups, and to that of a broker-state which is powerful enough and negotiates (brokers) between the vested interests of these powerful groups. It formulates policies that satisfy some of these groups while at the same time reflect the concerns, interests and ideology of the state officials.

The conceptual and empirical shifts in the state since their more orthodox or classical formulations has also seen transitions of liberal democratic politics pregnant with serious implication for the citizens across societies. The state has always remained a powerful institution making its people realise its relevance. Despite the fact that institutions are more important than the individuals, it is always the individuals leading the institutions that have played a significant role in either building the institutions and legitimising its significance or distorting it.

The centralised tendencies of the leaders in the past, in particular in the 1970s, as well as in the present times, imposingly strengthen the theory that the ‘leaders know the best’. It is the leaders of the ruling class who alone as representatives of a majority of the citizens have the exclusive power to decide what is in the interest of the nation and in it lies the interest of its citizens. The state’s power to control not just the situation of law and order but also the social, economic, political, cultural and moral aspects of life as the ‘custodian of consensus’ has often seen its increasing interventions to end hostilities in the larger interest of society which is referred to as public interest. While it is the conviction of the people on the representative character of the state in a democracy that builds the political and moral responsibility of the citizens to abide by what is in the nation’s interest, the leaders have made/make all possible efforts in convincing and manufacturing consent of large sections of the society on the credence that there cannot be a conflict between national interest and public interest.

A hyper-nationalist campaign on universalism which asserts dominance of cultural unity in the name of national security has contributed to developmental politics, popularised through the slogan sabka saath sabka vikas sabka vishvas to build solidarity and togetherness. This has been able to generate enormous political capital for the government. The hegemonic role of the ruling party as a Hindu-Hindi party to homogenise Indian culture and tradition through its ethnocentric Hindutva campaign has led to legitimisation of hierarchies of a particular caste, community, religion and language. The regressive idea of one nation, one religion and one language, has provided sordid support to several rhetorics of hate crimes against a particular culture, religion, caste and linguistic/regional community which are reprehensible. The re-emergence of ideological politics and re-establishment of the doctrine that ‘leaders alone can perceive what is in the interest of the nation’ has resulted in the domination of political leaders and partisan objectives in policy sectors.

Defending universalism as a force of unity has led to assertion and dominance of the voice, opinion, thinking and belief of the powerful sections of society, giving no space to dissent/differences of opinion and thinking. This deludes one’s understanding about unity. ‘Unity amidst Diversity’ is about giving space to differences, disagreements, dissent and tolerance that strengthens a democratic state which not only represents such diversities but also strengthens a democratic political culture that prevents a polarised situation. A polarised society creates conditions when people stop listening to each other thereby escalating bitterness and discord. (See also Bhargava, 2019: 11.) Therefore, any universal or objective understanding and interpretation of unity and oneness undermines its essential characteristics.

Targeting Diversity as a Cause of Disunity

Diversity, which has been embedded in the social, economic, cultural and political history of a democratic pluralist society not only expands our understandings of unity but also enhances cohesiveness, solidarity and stability. In fact, a comprehensive understanding of unity and oneness makes it significant to understand the everyday experiences of diverse thoughts, beliefs, values, norms, customs, traditions and practices. Despite the fact that the idea of the Constitution that guarantees liberty, equality, freedom of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship is deeply ingrained in our democratic culture, the Home Minister’s statement on immigration and language policy in the recent times has generated widespread anxiety and fear amongst people/community of a specific faith/religion and language.

The compelling strategy for mainstreaming the culture and religion of the majority has contributed to a sense of insecurity of the minorities which indicates a regressive society that will dismantle public interest and unity in the long run. By declaring people as non-citizens on the basis of religion, the National Register of Citizens has targeted the Muslims who are Indians but do not have the documentary proof of birth or citizenship. Alongside, the secular character of citizenship is under threat due to the proposed amendments to the Citizenship Act. Disenfranchising the un-preferred individuals/groups/communities is not just a violation of the Constitution of India but also the idea of a Nation. The contours separating the state and religion is muddled to an extent that the secular character of the state needs to be contested.

While a democratic state should be conscious of maximum achievement of social values and minimum sacrifice of such values which are arrived at through negotiations and deliberations, the latter has little space given the negative role played by the state in developing and protecting the rights of minorities. The state is strong enough and many a time brushes off the demands and need of social constituencies that it disagrees with. Therefore, to argue that the state is representative and responsive is not just less than convincing but also often misleading as major empirical studies reveal that the privileged sections of society, who consolidate authoritarian populist power, take control over the narrative of public interest and various communities and groups have no impact on the outcome of the policy-process. The elusive achhe din has seen the failure to protect the individual and group/community rights to privacy, choose, bargain, contest, decide, autonomy, self-determi-nation and dignity that have ruptured the social fabric and plural ethos of a pluralist society.

Can such a narrative of universalism used for political ends sustain for a longer period given the experiences of denial of freedom, liberty, identity, self-respect and dignity which are not just a threat to pluralism and democracy but also to humanity? Pluralism stands for humanism, tolerance, integrity and justice. The discriminatory role of the state in undermining and contesting the collective consciousness of the minorities in the name of universalism is the most ill-deserved act in the history of democracy. Public interest cannot be subjected to the majoritarian perception and insight. Majoritarian nationalism is not only intrinsically divisive but has also contributed to alienating major sections of society as the ‘others’. The shrinking space for conversations has seen insistent subversion of democracy and pluralism. The alacrity to target diversity as a menace to unity not only disgraces pluralism but also threatens a democratic culture that gives space to diversities and differences which are fundamental in strengthening a democratic state.

Beyond the Binary Approach

We see the beginning of a new age of uncertainty which has become certain. It is important to understand the need to create conditions to strengthen a democratic state which is expected to be responsive and sensitive to the multiple views, thoughts, perspectives, understandings, beliefs, faiths, practices, needs, demands and rights of its citizens. While national security needs to be prioritised, the minorities of a nation should feel equally secured and confident to express their views and live without fear and helplessness. It is significant to harmonise societal and cultural contradictions by moving beyond the highly sectarian and narrow vision of public interest. The true meaning of unity is to believe in its quality of togetherness that is possible by acknowledging common humanity amongst us which cuts across our gender, caste, class, religion, region and ideology. (See also Sundar, 2019: 11.) Universalism is not essentially an aptitude for equality and justice.

Therefore, it is precarious to be trapped in the binary approach which believes that universalism results in unity and oneness while differences/diversities lead to division, conflicts and therefore disunity. This contravenes the legacy of human civilisation. Distortion of the legacy of celebrating a shared culture and history will deconstruct the social and human values in society. In today’s troubled world, values of pluralism, such as cultural, linguistic and religious diversities and inclusiveness are most essential and will continue to remain on the people’s agenda of democratic societies. Rethinking strategies and policies to reach beyond the narrower understanding of economic survival to restore self-confidence and dignity of the majority of common people is therefore imperative. It is vital to confront and counter the long history of social, economic, cultural and political oppression by espousing contours of pluralism and democracy and reiterating its core values.


Sarukkai, Sundar (2019) ‘The Meaning of Oneness in One Nation’ in The Hindu, September 26, p 11.

Bhargava, Rajiv (2019) ‘The Importance of Listening Well’ in The Hindu, September 24, p. 11.

Suranjita Ray teaches Political Science in Daulat Ram College, University of Delhi. She can be contacted at her e-mail: suranjitaray_66[at]

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