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The Indian Express carried a series of articles recently about group identities and rights in a liberal democracy. Ignoring the by now familiar inanities about a much-analysed politician from western India, it was interesting to note that no author had bothered to address a most important construct: the nation. Fashionably considered archaic in some circles, the nation has nevertheless shown an uncanny ability to persist. The omission is even more striking considering that the context was Indian, a state whose fractured nation-building project has been unnaturally complicated.

What is a nation? Simply put, it is an imagined political community that is inherently limited and sovereign. It is a product of subjective consciousness, a human collectivity that regards its common identity as the basis for preserving or claiming some sort of political-territorial self-determination. Usually based on ethnicity, language, and/or religion, few nations – France and the United States to borrow the authors’ examples – have formed themselves on civic values. The core of being American is loyalty to the US Constitution, upon which all oaths are sworn. Similarly, the French view the Declaration of the Rights of Man as equally sacrosanct. As a result, there exists a concrete container of abstract ideas which defines what it is to be American or French. The French Revolution threw open the gates to all – including Jews – who swore to uphold the ideals of the French state. Similarly, hyphenated identities such as Irish American, African American, or Muslim American have one thing in common – American.

The United States and France both serve as role models for the Indian state. However, one should also remember that both states have had a rather turbulent experience forming their civic national identity. The First French Republic sent troops into the Vendée to persuade them into the French hexagon; US laws on immigration, slavery, and extermination (not to forget internment) shaped the US experience. Today, the French have no hyphenation as immigrants are expected to assimilate and genuinely become French. Immigrants can choose to remain ghettoised in their original communities and that would hardly devalue their citizenship, but they’d not be able to embrace the fullness of their adopted land.

However, as an immigrant nation with no past to speak of, hyphenated identities evolved naturally in the United States as there was no parent culture for immigrants to assimilate into. Unlike France which had an explicit declaration of rights and an implicit expectation of participation, the United States only had an explicit demand of loyalty to the constitution.

India’s nation-building project lacks what both France and the United States possessed, at least to a far greater degree – corruption-lite institutional stability. From the very outset, the principle of equality before law was sacrificed by holding a constitutional article on uniform civil code in abeyance, separate marriage acts, and quotas (now even in promotions) for socially hindered people based not on their condition but on their birth; India’s infamous First Amendment introduced restrictions on free speech that have been used selectively, and religious institutions are viewed unequally by the state. As if the illiteracy of the masses upon independence was not a sufficient challenge for a democracy, the inherent inequality of the Indian state has hindered a genuinely secular and liberal polity from arising.

What makes minority rights in India a problem is the nature of the rights demanded. Modern nationalism demands that a citizen’s highest loyalty be to the nation-state. To that end, education is a nationalist process of inculcating in children a sense of statehood. The US Pledge of Allegiance, or India’s National Pledge are a reminder of the republic citizens owe their devotion and loyalty to, not their social groups. Groups in India, however, demand rights that place them above their fellow citizens. For example, polygamy is allowed in India only for Muslims but no one else; this is not the case in the United States’ hyphenated paradise. Ironically, many Hindu jatis also practiced polygamy but that was prohibited under the Hindu Marriage Act. In divorce proceedings, though US courts take Islamic law under advisement, judgments are made by the state. In India, Muslim men are allowed the “triple talaq” even by text message. No reminder is needed of the Shah Bano case wherein the Indian government sacrificed women’s rights on the altar of vote bank…erm, forgive my cynicism…minority rights.

This is not just a matter of marriage laws. Pilgrimage subsidies, exemption from some laws (Right To Education being the most recent), retention of quota privileges despite religious conversion, and the differential treatment by the government of a Salman Rushdie or Kamal Haasan on the one hand and MF Husain on the other flaunt the positively differentiated status of minorities in India. Clearly, the modernisation narrative of the nation-state gives too much credit to homogenisation while it overlooks antagonisation and heterogenisation, and in India, the latter may have a slight advantage. The Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, Jewish-Americans, Chinese-Americans, and Indian-Americans have no such advantages – many of them were even banned from immigrating to the United States until the 20th century.

The inequality that is sold in the guise of minority protection creates strong resentment. The famous capuchin monkey experiment conducted in 2003 by Franz de Waals and Sarah Brosnan demonstrated that “[p]eople judge fairness based both on the distribution of gains and on the possible alternatives to a given outcome…They respond negatively to previously acceptable rewards if a partner gets a better deal.” Similarly, in a democratic society, people may “hold emotionally charged expectations about reward distribution and social exchange.” Differentiated, arbitrary, and unjust rewards for the same work have a strong destabilising effect on a society.

Paris is a lovely city. Its reputation as the capital of world culture is richly deserved. Its opera houses, art galleries, museums, restaurants, and concert halls are an absolute delight, as are the novels and music churned out in the Francophone world. Despite this, there is no denying that the French nation has a strong white, Catholic past. In no way does this deny others from joining the French nation, secure in its culture and open in its embrace of newcomers. India does not have this luxury – its cultural past is undeniably Indic, and though foreign belief systems were internalised, they remained distinct in their weltanschauung from native structures. To say so, however, is seen as “communal” and “saffron.” It is this denial of the Indic tradition that makes the national enterprise weak, and it is this weakness that evinces a panicked reaction of homogenisation. History requires a subject, and while our topics may change – monarchs, states, class, individuals, identity groups – the silent space of reference occupied by the nation is always implied.

It is not out of necessity but desire that a multicultural country like India should nurture its various groups, not only for peace and stability but to also preserve the richness of its diversity. India need look no further than itself to understand the sense of fullness that multiculturalism offers. Yet state-sponsored group identity is not the solution; nor should groups seek to place themselves above their countrymen. For groups to feel secure in their collective identities in a liberal democracy, two things are needed: 1. a strong sense of nation that is based on equality, and 2. a liberal democracy. India has neither yet.

This post appeared on Tehelka on February 18, 2013.