The Myth of a Liberal India

October 20, 2015 Topic: Society Tags: PoliticsIndiaLiberalism

The Myth of a Liberal India

As the American relationship with India deepens, U.S. policy makers and observers will have to accept that India is not now and has never been a liberal democracy.

The recent spate of public and theatrical “reconversions” of Muslims and Christians must be examined in this context. India is not secular in the sense that the freedom to practice and propagate one’s religious beliefs freely and openly is a basic right protected by the state. Indeed, in the classic understanding of liberalism, this right to propagate one’s religion is considered to be fundamental to other basic freedoms including the freedom of speech. In India, however, five states have effectively regulated (and therefore restricted) religious conversion since the 1960s. In two of them—Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh—a potential convert requires the permission of the state government prior to the act of conversion. Indeed, in December 2014, four Dalits who had converted to Islam in response to caste discrimination were arrested by the police and “reconverted” for having violated Madhya Pradesh’s Freedom of Religion Act.

It is important to note two further points about conversion in India: 1) that the Indian judicial system, including the Supreme Court in 1977, has consistently held that conversion is not a fundamental right protected by the Constitution; and, 2) anticonversion laws (meaning in practice laws limiting the ability of Hindus to convert to another religion but not of members of other religions to convert to Hinduism) have been passed by states both under the (“secular”) Congress Party and Hindu right-wing rule. Support for limitations on religious freedom crosses party lines in India. India is not and has not been for some time a secular country by the standards of classical liberalism: religious freedom, to which the right to convert is fundamental, is not protected in law or practice, and in several states the government has the authority to actually regulate (and thereby prevent) conversions prior to their taking place.


THE HINDU right is trying to impose its agenda of a Hindu India within a context in which the assertion of communal claims on the state is normal. What is different about the network of Hindu organizations called the Sangh Parivar is the precise nature of the group for which they claim to speak. Instead of a caste or tribe or some other group, the Hindu right claims to speak for a Hindu “nation.” The problem that the Hindu right will face in pushing its agenda is not that it flies in the face of Indian secularism (most Indians, outside of certain segments of the elite, probably care little about this). Instead, the basic obstacle to the success of the Hindu right’s agenda is that, in asserting the rights of this “imagined community,” the Hindu right is posing a direct and unmistakable challenge to the countless “Hindu” groups which have already established claims and gained reservations on an entirely different basis: namely, caste and tribe. These groups have absolutely no incentive to trade the concrete rights and privileges they have achieved constitutionally for the intangibles of membership in some group called “Hindu.”

The basic incentives of Indian politics militate against the thousand-plus communal groups abandoning an arrangement that guarantees them at least some portion of the Indian spoils system. This does not mean that the more immiserated classes won’t vote for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or that they won’t accept the social work of the Sangh Parivar. But it does mean that should the BJP actually try and implement the Hindu right’s agenda of abolishing internal Hindu differences (and therefore rights under the reservations system), it will fail electorally. How can it be otherwise? None of the subgroups within Hinduism who have constitutionally recognized reservations will tolerate any attempt to abolish those reservations on the grounds that they belong to a supergroup called “Hindu.”

Indeed, the recent attempts by the Sangh Parivar to turn the BJP’s electoral fortunes into a mandate for their social agenda through public and theatrical “reconversion” ceremonies has taken a typically Indian (and indeed somewhat comical) turn: the Times of India reported in January 2015 that, upon hearing that two hundred Muslim families in Agra had converted to Hinduism in exchange for ration cards (cards that entitle the holder to heavily subsided necessities from the Indian state), 150,000 Dhangars (a pastoralist and therefore “high” caste) threatened to convert to Christianity en masse unless they were recognized as a Scheduled Caste. The Times of India reported:

“We are thinking of conducting a conversion ceremony in Aligarh,” said Bhupesh Singh, a Dhangar and an advocate by profession. “Conversion is the only weapon we can use to get our demands fulfilled.” “There are 2 lakh [200,000] Dhangar voters. We are reaching out to them to convince each family that conversion can be an effective weapon against the administration,” CP Singh, district president of Dhangar Samaj, added.

So here we have a high-caste Hindu group threatening the state government of Uttar Pradesh with mass conversion to Christianity unless they are recognized as a low caste! For the Hindu right to overthrow India’s secularism, such that it is, it will have to first overcome its aliberal democracy. Western observers will have to grow used to the fact that checks on Hindu nationalism come, ultimately, not from secular liberalism, but from corporatist/communalist democracy in which group rights and privileges are the key to how the whole system works. Ironically, the Hindu nationalist project will ultimately fail because of Hindu communalism and its responses to the incentive structures of a communalist democracy.

As the American relationship with India deepens, U.S. policy makers and observers will have to accept that India is not now and has never been a liberal democracy. It is, instead, a communalist democracy that features various groups competing for rank, status and privilege in relationship to the state. The position of religious minorities is and will likely remain insecure. The public culture of the Indian state is unmistakably Hindu. Christian missionaries (especially foreign ones) are, as matter of state policy, discouraged. And Muslims remain and will likely continue to remain a vulnerable, disadvantaged group who expect relatively little from an Indian government formed by either by the Hindu right or the ostensibly “secular” parties of the center and the left. In this respect, the current upswing in the electoral fortunes of the Hindu right is likely to make little substantive difference for India’s domestic arrangements.

Vivek S. Sharma teaches at Pitzer College in Claremont, CA.

Image: Flickr/Pat McDonald