Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Some thoughts on a 49% (or 4.9%) view of democracy

Last week, I’d mentioned the Majority and its role in keeping a democracy healthy.

Our rulers are decided by a majority vote. It could be just 51%. This is frustrating for the 49% who voted against. But still, elections are a much better way of deciding power struggles than building armies and turning each others’ homes into crematoria.

What, then, happens to the 49%? 

If your representative loses, the assumption is that your values, your financial interests, your ethnic group have a smaller chance of flourishing.

In a country like ours, an electoral minority is often confused with a caste or a religion, but it could also be a tribe, a region. It could be any group that will not be able to influence decisions on the strength of its numbers.

But if you keep feeling neglected or exploited, you begin to look for ways to create a fresh electorate, one where you are not such a minority. Hence, new states. Like Telangana. Or Gorkhaland. Or Uttarakhand. One of the reasons people who live in remote hill villages demanded a separate state to be carved out of Uttar Pradesh was that they were never heard in faraway Lucknow.

Sometimes, people find that a geographic separation has not worked out. So, they make demands that are directly linked to an ethnic group. In Chhattisgarh, for instance, there were reports from a World Adivasi Day function held recently, that many adivasis felt they’d be better off with an adivasi Chief Minister. Yet, in a state where adivasis are not a numeric majority, this is difficult.

As for minorities, well, there’s a majority even within the minority. This group always finds itself trampled upon by those who claim to represent them. You might survive (depending on your wealth and education) but you find yourself constantly pushed into the minority corner, unable to participate in law-making.

Eventually, you’re going to ask what these words should mean to somebody like you -- nation, independence, culture, law.

Consider linguistic minorities. Hindi became the national language because it was the single-largest language in India. Rajasthani, Bhojpuri, even Bhoti-speaking people found themselves swept under the carpet of ‘Hindi’.

Governments correspond with barely literate citizens in a language that even I am flummoxed by although I’m firmly, fluently Hindi-speaking. Those who do not speak the Hindi that a ‘Hindi-speaking’ state uses are not even acknowledged, forget being included in consultations with officials.

Or, consider how India got saddled with marriage laws that were followed only by upper-caste Hindus. Or why there is so little room for the wisdom of communities who lived quite happily (am assuming a lot here, but happy in the marital context being construed to mean a system that is tolerated and passed down over generations) through different marital practices, including polyandry.

Songs, sexual freedom, history, progress - everything can be held hostage under this heavy blanket of ‘majority’ or ‘mainstream’. Hundreds of millions among us must abide by someone else’s morals, someone else’s ideas about prosperity, someone’s version of the truth, because the minority view will be crushed. And those who do the crushing will escape, unpunished.

The majority or mainstream turn arrogant if they stay powerful for too long. They speak in the name of ‘all’, take liberties with common resources, or hurt others. This is possible because their representatives protect them, in lieu of electoral fealty.

Does this hurt the nation? 

Well, that depends on who gets to define ‘nation’. If the idea of India belongs to each citizen in equal measure, then yes, it hurts. To be a free citizen is to have the freedom to live by your values, legally practice your culture, but not be allowed to impose this on anyone else, not even on your family.
First published here.

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