It’s time for India to choose whether it wants to be a theocracy or a secular democracy, and to solve its communal problem once and for all.

[By Bhanu Dhamija]

India is once again gripped by Hindu-Muslim violence. Communal riots were reported in nine states just in April. As usual, both sides blamed each other and the country’s political parties took their familiar positions. The ruling BJP said the violence was not “major” and the brouhaha was designed to defame Prime Minister Modi, and the Congress decried “peace and pluralism [being] sacrificed at the altar of bogus nationalism.”

Communalism in India is always ready to ignite because it has structural and constitutional causes. The country has a permanent Hindu majority which is hugely lopsided; nearly 80% of the population is Hindu and 14% Muslim. While such an unbalanced ethnic mix requires careful balancing of powers between the majority and minority, India uses a system of winner-take-all majority rule. What makes matters worse is that even in areas where the Muslim population is significant or in the majority, our so called Strong Centre dominates local governments.

Both structural challenges—the need for local autonomy and power sharing at the Centre—were evident even before Partition. As early as 1937, when the British first allowed Indians to form provincial governments of their own, communal cohesion fell apart. Nehru led the Congress party to a big win in elections, but in an attempt to end communal politics he excluded the Muslim League candidates in forming governments. The League’s leader Jinnah responded by declaring his “irrevocable opposition” to any government formed under the winner-take-all parliamentary system. Two years later, Jinnah demanded partition.

After the creation of Pakistan, Indian leaders believed, wrongly, that the communal problem was over and adopted a unitary Constitution with a strong central government under majority rule. And since then, our politics has been driven by communal discord. Hindu nationalists appease Hindus, and the so-called secular parties appease Muslims and other minorities. The majority resents the minorities’ special treatment, while our minorities resent being at the mercy of the majority’s largesse. But as was to be expected, the permanent majority has the upper hand and is now more determined than ever to establish a Hindu Rashtra.

Proportional representation in India would divide our society further

A fix usually recommended for diverse nations is to adopt proportional representation in their legislatures and appoint coalition governments. But as I have argued before, proportional representation in India would divide our society further, increase extremism, produce less qualified and responsive leaders, and place our democracy even more in the hands of a few. Worse, coalition governments are notoriously unstable, as India’s own experience confirms.

Israel, with similar diversity (75% Jewish, 18% Muslim) and under proportional representation and coalition governments, is not a good role model as a democracy. Even after 74 years of independence the country has yet to adopt a written Constitution, or solve its dilemma of being both a Jewish state and a liberal democracy. It administers Muslim dominated areas as a police state. Since its independence, Israel has formed 36 coalition governments, each lasting about 2 years on average.

An even more effective reform would be to adopt U.S. type secularism and that country’s system of government.

India needs to consider other fundamental reforms to solve its communal problem. One approach I suggested was to form a Religious Council in Parliament, giving all religions equal representation. Any legislation touching the religious, ethnic or cultural lives of citizens would need to be approved by this council. India already has precedents for establishing ad hoc bodies, such as the GST Council and the Judiciary’s Collegium. Hindu nationalists need not fear this approach since most religions represented in the proposed council, like Jainism, Sikhism and Buddhism, would be aligned with Hinduism.

An even more effective reform would be to adopt U.S. type secularism and that country’s system of government. America is also a very diverse nation (about 70% Christian and 6% non-Christian, including Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists). The U.S. Constitution bars their government from promoting any religion, establishing a strict separation of church and state. Indian governments on the other hand are free to engage in religious activities. The American system is decentralized, which gives local governments more autonomy. And it separates executive and legislative powers, making it more difficult for the majority to make laws or administer them in ways that oppress minorities.

It’s time for India to choose whether it wants to be a theocracy or a secular democracy, and to solve its communal problem once and for all. Hindu Rashtra is a slippery slope which risks putting the nation into the hands of religious extremists. Hindus, known throughout the ages as wise and secular people, can certainly do better than that.

[Bhanu Dhamija is the chairman and managing director of the Divya Himachal Media Group and the author of ‘Why India Needs the Presidential System’.]

[A version of this article was first published on the website on 11 May 2022.]