India’s complex ethnic cleavages seem to defy classification as a single ethnic structure. The country is home to more than 1,600 language groups and six major religions. Followers of the Hindu religion are further divided by a hierarchical caste system. In addition, about 10 per cent of the population has been characterized as tribal. Despite this complexity, India is an established democracy and has registered high growth rates in recent years. These outcomes question notions that link ethnic diversity with authoritarian rule and low growth.
A defining characteristic of India’s ethnic complexity is that its cleavages are largely crosscutting rather than reinforcing. For instance, not all Hindus are Hindi speakers and they may be further subdivided into countless castes and tribes. This makes it difficult to mobilize most Indians on a single cleavage, even though the appeal of caste and religious parties has been on the rise.
Niraja Gopal Jayal’s study suggests that federalism and multilingualism have contained conflicts based on ethno-linguistic differences. However, two other cleavages—caste and religion—have been politicized. The discourse on caste divides the society into forward castes on the one hand, and backward and scheduled castes on the other, even though there are five main castes and a large number of subcategories within each. Affirmative action policies that seek to improve the visibility of lower castes and tribes in the public service have encouraged the proliferation of caste-based parties with an anti-Brahmin message. These parties now account for about 15 per cent of the popular vote.
Religion has also tended to polarize Indian society, leading to communal violence. Hindus and Muslims account for 94 per cent of the Indian population. Muslims, 12 per cent of the population and more than 100 million strong, make up the second largest Muslim group in the world. This bipolarity in the religious sphere was politicized during colonial rule and in the run-up to independence, resulting in civil war and partition. Right-wing politicians have lately exploited the religious cleavage. Jayal’s study suggests that the politics of Hindu revivalist parties threaten to convert India into a unipolar state using Hinduism as a vehicle of mobilization. These parties raised their share of the popular vote to more than 20 per cent in the 1990s, and they dominated the 1999–2004 government.
Jayal’s study highlights the potential and limits of redistributive policies in situations of durable inequalities. She evaluates India’s redistributive policies under three important measuring rods: policy outcomes, social outcomes and political outcomes. The relative position of underprivileged groups does not improve on any of these measures, underscoring the need, as Jayal puts it, for “much more determined action from both state and civil society” to tackle social prejudice and material inequalities.
Representing India: Democracy and Diversity
Mapping Diversity in India
Managing Diversity: Institutions, Policies and Politics
Promoting Diversity and Protecting the Vulnerable
Negotiating Diversity: Parties and the Electoral System
Representing Diversity in the Institutions of Governance
Niraja Gopal Jayal
is Professor at the Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University, India. Her books include Democracy and the State: Welfare, Secularism and Development in Contemporary India
(1999), Drought, Policy and Politics in India
(1993) and Democracy in Indi
Representing India: Ethnic Diversity and the Governance of Public Institutions
is copublished with Palgrave Macmillan; hardback, ISBN 1-4039-8612-6, 264 pages, 2006, £50.
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