India, federalism, multi-national states and democracy

Is India Really a Democracy?

Thanjai Nalankilli

TAMIL TRIBUNE, April 2005 (ID. 2005-04-01)
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International community often refers to India as the most populous democracy in the world. Is India really a democracy? Answer depends on the definition of "democracy". If democracy is narrowly defined as "one-adult-one-vote and party getting the most votes rules the country", then surely India is a democracy. Indian elections are mostly fair and honest.

Such narrowly defined democracy might result in a just and equitable rule for all citizens if the country is ethnically and linguistically homogeneous. But in a multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic, multi-national country like India, such a narrowly constructed democracy could mean discrimination and even oppression of minorities. This is, in fact, the case with India. An equitable democracy in a multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic, multi-national country should include maximum autonomy to each region and a loose federal government with powers limited to the areas of defense and foreign affairs only. Without such a governmental structure, discrimination and even oppression of minorities could happen. In fact, that is the situation in India today. This situation has lead to non-violent agitations initially and then armed uprisings in many regions of the Indian Union. Not only the armed uprisings but even nonviolent agitations are put down with brutal force in India. Can this be called a successful democracy?

Such frustrations of the "limits of democracy" for minority nationalities are felt in Assam, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Tripura, etc. US Congressman Honorable Mr. Edolphus Towns stated the situation in India very correctly when he said, 

"India is a country made of many nations. ... While it maintains a democratic form of government, the principles of democracy do not seem to apply where the minority nations are concerned." (Statement on the floor of United States Congress on October 2, 1998 [Reference: Congressional Record, Page: E1878]).

Leaders of the Congress Party, which spearheaded the independence movement against British rule, understood the need for a federal structure of government for the multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic, multi-national India. During the independence movement, before the British left, senior Congress leaders promised a federal structure with substantial autonomy to regions (states). By the time British rule ended and the Indian constitution was being written, the Congress Party, which was dominated by politicians from Hindi regions and regions close by, changed the tune. Substantial powers were vested to the central government (union government) and only limited powers were allocated to state governments. Aladi Aruna, a veteran parliamentarian, discusses the "un-federal features of the Indian constitution" in Reference 1.

Though no single ethnic, linguistic or national group command majority in the Indian parliament, Hindi speakers and those with close affinity to Hindi culturally and geographically come close to a majority (over 40%) and are able to dominate the parliament with the help of some politicians from other regions. Those who align with the Hindi region politicians change from time to time but Hindi region politicians effectively dominate the central government. This is evident from the many laws and practices that favor Hindi regions in fiscal grants as well as in cultural and linguistic domination through  various government mechanisms including central government job examinations, central government sanctioned schools, radio and television. [Reference 2]

Economic discrimination and cultural-linguistic domination of the Aryan-Hindi region over minority peoples lead to demands for independence or autonomy or devolution of power. People from many minority regions expressed their desire through non-violent protests. Minority regions of Assam, Manipur, Punjab, Tamil Nadu and Tripura could relate how such nonviolent protests were crushed brutally with much loss of civilian lives. This writer could give an account of how the unarmed, nonviolent Tamil Nadu students' agitation against making Hindi the official language of India was put down brutally in 1965. Unable to put down the mass protests with local police or even with police and paramilitary forces brought in from other states, army was rushed to the state. Demonstrators were shot with live bullets in several towns all across Tamil Nadu State, killing un-accounted number of people during the last two weeks of the agitation. Number of people shot and killed would never be known because all files relating to the shootings are said to have been destroyed by the government. The lowest estimate this writer has seen is from a north Indian writer who estimates the deaths in the low fifties. Professor Alfred Stepan of Columbia University (USA) writes, "Police and army troops opened fire in twenty-one towns in the state, arrested over 10,000 people, and probably killed over 100 people" [Reference 3]. There was no judicial inquiry about the shootings. This writer could not think of a single democratic government that would not immediately order an independent judicial inquiry after such widespread shootings and deaths. Is India really a democracy or the concept of democracy does not apply to minorities?

Other minority regions of Assam, Manipur, Punjab and Tripura could relate such shootings too to put down nonviolent protests. Indian Government's strategy seems to be to crush nonviolent mass protests of minority nationalities using maximum force so that such protests would not happen again and mar its image as a successful democracy. When mass nonviolent protests have to be put down by calling in the army (because local police could not or would not do it) in so many geographically diverse regions, is it really a successful democracy in a true sense?

Cowed down by brute force, the general population of each minority nationality resigns to their second-class citizenship status and become the "silent majority" in that region. But a "violent minority" in each of these regions (Assam, Manipur, Nagaland, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Tripura, ...) took to arms and wage insurgent warfare. To put down this challenge, the Indian Government resorts to even more brutal measures and tens of thousands of innocent civilians are killed. Over the years, over 100,000 people have been killed in the name of crushing insurgencies in many regions of the Indian Union. Why does a "democracy" have so many insurgencies, all of them in the non-Hindi, non-Aryan regions? Is there something fundamentally wrong with how "democracy" is implemented or exercised in the multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic, multi-national Indian Union? 

The "silent majority" among each of the minority nationalities may not agree with the methods used by the "violent minority" insurgents (or freedom fighters) but they surely agree with them on the economic discrimination and cultural-linguistic domination of Hindi-Aryan regions and the need to put an end to them. Hindi-Aryan dominated Indian Government's attitude is not to set up a truly federal structure of government and devolve more power to the states but to centralize power more and more. The union government moved education from exclusive state jurisdiction to dual jurisdiction. Appointments of senior police officers, tourism, sports and cinema are some of the other areas the union government has brought under dual jurisdiction or plan to bring under dual jurisdiction. While the plea of the minority nationalities are to devolve more power so that they may run their own affairs, Hindi-Aryan dominated Indian Government is moving the other way, consolidating more and more power into its hands. Can a central or union government that does not listen to the grievances of minority nationalities, some of which number into tens of millions of people with economies bigger than half the member countries of the United Nations, be called a democracy? It may be a beneficial democracy to the dominant ethnic community of Hindi speakers and those closely linked to them culturally and geographically, but it surely is a "discriminatory democracy" to the other minority nationalities.


1. Aladi Aruna, Unfederal Features of Indian Constitution, Mathivanan Publications, Chennai, Tamilnadu, 2001.

2. Who Rules India? (Part I) (by Thanjai Nalankilli), TAMIL TRIBUNE, November 2000.

3. Alfred Stepan, "Federalism, Multi-National States and Democracy: A Theoretical Framework, the Indian Model and a Tamil Case Study", Report, Columbia University, New York, New York, June 1, 2003.

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