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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1999, Vol. 2 No. 2 .


Identities and Rights. Aspects of Liberal Democracy in India
Gurpreet Mahajan

(Dehli: Oxford University Press, 1998)
190pp. Index. Bibl. Hb.: 17.99; ISBN 0-19-5644174.



Democracy in India is under introspection as never before. With the rise of the Hindu right as represented by the Bharatiya Janata Party, the issue of rights, especially of minority rights, has become a highly contested subject. Indeed, the very nature of the Nehruvian liberal democracy is itself at stake.

The aim of this slim volume is to evaluate the experience of Indian democracy within the framework of democratic theory. This is done by looking at issues of citizenship, minority rights, the relationship between religious communities and the state, secularism and affirmative action. There is a detailed discussion of these aspects within five chapters. Recent case law is presented to highlight contemporary developments as well as illustrate the continuing evolution of democratic practise.

Mahajan rejects the reading of India as a formal democracy where the liberal aspects are heavily compromised. Such a reading, according to her, often arises as a result of an uncritical application of a model of European liberal democracy to India. The experience of Indian democracy since 1947, on the other hand, suggests that many aspects are more than 'liberal'. In fact, many of the problems that have bedevilled liberal democracies in Europe, such as group rights, have been imaginatively overcome in the case of India. The distinctiveness of Indian democratic experience, in Mahajan's view, is apparent in the fact that the 'central concepts of liberalism - namely individualism, secularism, the distinction between the private and the public- are either unnecessary or inappropriate for India. Secularism is inapplicable while individualism is undesirable. Besides, the quality of tolerance, that is highly valued by liberals, is an intrinsic attribute of Hinduism', (p23)

Mahajan is quite successful in putting forward the case for the cultural and historical peculiarities of Indian democracy. In the critique of European liberal democracy, however, the emphasis is perhaps too much on the Anglo-Saxon version rather than the continental tradition. Key issues- religious freedom and article 25 (2) - are sometimes skated over or footnoted. A conclusion would greatly have enhanced the clarity of the volume which seems to end abruptly.

Despite these weaknesses this short volume will be keenly read by those interested in democracy in the developing world. It provides an important agenda for the further exploration of Indian democratic experience.


Gurharpal Singh,
University of Hull




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