ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Religions, Democracy and Governance

Spaces for the Marginalised in Contemporary India

This paper examines the dynamics of religion and democratic politics by looking at political mobilisations of marginalised groups in Punjab and Maharashtra. It argues that even when religious identity remains the bedrock of social life and individual experience, democratic politics brings out new configurations and alignments, in which neat boundaries of religious difference are occasionally blurred or overwritten by other identities. The Indian experience also reveals that religious groups are not homogeneous. While political mobilisation tends to unite them as communities with common interests, development policies have invariably disaggregated them, reinforcing the internal divisions and diversities within religious communities.

India’s Independence came with the Partition of the subcontinent. The creation of Pakistan – a separate homeland for the Muslim population – and the communal violence that followed the “transfer of populations” drew attention to the presence of strongly etched religious identities and communities. If Partition made it difficult to ignore the concerns and demands of these communities, it also pointed to the violence that might ensue as they sought recognition of these identities or protested their nonrecognition and made claims on that basis. A crucial issue facing independent India, then, was how to deal with these communities and their concerns. It was clear that religion could not be restricted simply to the private domain, but in what way should religion and religious communities be accommodated? This was the crucial question upon which the unity of India and theviability of her democratic system depended.

The Constituent Assembly deliberated at length on this issue and eventually devised a framework that neither adopted the American model of secularism, which separated religion from politics completely, nor followed the path of many other countries in the region, which endorsed and privileged a particular religion. At thetime of independence religious communities, particularly minoritycommunities, needed assurance that they would be equal partners in the emerging democracy, and would enjoy the freedom to pursue their religious and cultural way of life. However, members of these communities also had development-related concerns and these surfaced time and time again, sometimes through popular ground-level mobilisations and sometimes through initiatives by the government in office.

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