Some months ago, I was talking to a group of college teachers at my university, Jamia Millia Islamia. The occasion was a lecture I had delivered for a ‘refresher’ course which lecturers have to take to be promoted. The subject was nationalism and democracy and after I had said my piece, the chairperson asked for questions.
Though this was a group of historians, nearly all the questions I was asked referred directly or obliquely to the ongoing American occupation of Iraq and more often than not, were critical of America’s stated goal of bringing democracy to Iraq in particular and west Asia in general. One of the questioners was a young woman, articulate, liberal, left-wing, and I wasn’t surprised that her question turned to Iraq. I was surprised, though, by her subsequent remarks. After condemning America for both hubris and hypocrisy, she argued that instead of having Western models of democracy imposed upon them, the countries of the non-West should be allowed and encouraged to find their own routes to it. Iran, for her, was a case in point: a new form of Islamic democracy, alien to the West perhaps, but arguably appropriate for Iran.
I should say here that the woman wasn’t Muslim: her willingness to see Iran as a form of ethno-democracy stemmed not from religious solidarity but a kind of political correctness compounded equally of a legitimate suspicion of American designs on Iraq, a hostility to hegemonic Western definitions of anything, and a sophisticated multi-cultural contempt for the idea that one size could fit all.
Now my understanding of Iran’s political system was that it is a self-avowedly sectarian state (‘Islamic Republic’ is how it styles itself) where an emasculated elected government manoeuvres in a political space defined by unelected ayatollahs. The nearest India ever got to this sort of hybrid in-between state (an authoritarian government in democratic drag) was immediately after the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms which inaugurated a system called ‘dyarchy’ where elected Indian ministers in the provinces were given unimportant portfolios, while British officials and a British governor controlled the real business of governing.
I nearly asked her if, as a historian of colonial India, she thought dyarchy was an appropriate democratic form for Indians, then didn’t because that would have been both aggressive and unfair. I asked her instead if she, as a non-Muslim, would feel comfortable living in an Islamic republic or conversely if she’d be happy for her Muslim friends to live in a Hindu rashtra' The point I wanted to make was that as Indians who had grown up in a pluralist democracy, to make ‘culturalist’ allowances for authoritarianism and theocracy in a neighbouring country was to patronize Iranians and be unfaithful to our experience at once.
As Indians, our attitudes towards other countries should be substantially determined by what we prize in our own. I don’t see how we can criticize Israel’s polity and policies if we think Iran’s doing all right in the matter of representative government. India’s republican experience holds out the promise that a pluralist democracy is feasible in a state demographically dominated by one religious community. Our critique of Israel can’t be founded on our ‘traditional’ solidarity with the Arab world, or nostalgia for a non-aligned heaven when Nasser and Nehru played harps together; it should be based on a scepticism about the ancient revanchism that constitutes Israel’s claim to Palestinian land and a pluralist rejection of the majoritarian Jewish state they built on it.
Muslims electors can’t be equal stake-holders in a Jewish state and a democracy that has two classes of citizens has mutated into something else. Ahmadinejad can point till his arm falls off at Iran’s twenty-five thousand Jews as evidence of the benign tolerance of his Islamic republic, but the Holocaust-denying conference he organized tells us all we need to know of the place of Jews in particular and minorities in general in Iran. The Indian republic as it exists today is founded on the rejection of faith-based nationalism: it is fundamental to our political nature. We should be fundamentalist about this when it comes to the rest of the world: there is no reason that justifies a Jewish or a Muslim or a Hindu state, no extenuating circumstance. Indians should feel no embarrassment in arguing that a bi-national or better, a pluralist state in Israel/Palestine would be the best resolution of that bloody conflict. No anti-semitism disfigures our past, and our practice as an independent nation gives us warrant to argue a pluralist case. Nor should we hesitate in describing Iran for what it is, an intolerant clerical state fronted by a fanatical demagogue. If we’re tempted to make allowances for Iran because the Americans and the European Union are picking on it we should remember that Israel might be a majoritarian state, but it is a democracy where power is exercised by elected politicians, not a cabal of yarmulked rabbis.
But before we use the yardstick of a pluralist nationalism to size up the rest of the world, we should, perhaps, use it to take our own measure. Last week, this column surveyed the dark side of Indian pluralism, the violence wreaked by the Indian state on minority populations in its borderlands. The damage this record does to India’s pluralist credentials is substantial, but even more important as a measure of the republic’s pluralism would be India’s treatment of minority populations in its mainland, so to speak. We now have the opportunity to begin doing this using India’s largest minority, the Muslims, as a test case, thanks to the Sachar Committee’s report.
Formally titled Social, Economic and Educational Status of Muslims in India — A Report, it uses the indicators in its title to compare the condition of India’s Muslims with the country’s other communities: Hindus, Christians, Sikhs and, whenever relevant, Scheduled Castes and Tribes. This isn’t the occasion to assess its conclusions and prescriptions because it is a large report and I haven’t done more than skim through it. But suffice it to say that even from a quick read-through, it’s obvious that Muslims as a community are backward by almost any indicator you care to use. It isn’t a great credential for Indian pluralism.
Perhaps the world needs a Political Development Report on the lines of the Human Development Report to keep nations on their toes. I don’t know which institution would own and publish such a report because unlike the HDR published by the UNDP, this one would be based on political criteria that many of the world’s nations would find controversial. Still, a report with weightages for regular elections, the treatment of minorities, access to housing, education and employment, the absence of discrimination, would produce a league table that would encourage and mortify nations. It would be interesting to see how far up this ranking India would be.