Minority Rights, Vote Banks, and Private Armies

By N.V.K. Murthy

Unfortunately in India, a combination of minority rights, vote banks and private armies have wreaked havoc in the political and social life of the country.

In recent years, the rights of minorities have been recognized the world over as a necessary bulwark of any democratic society. In fact, liberals talk of the undemocratic nature of a rule by the simple majority. This is based on a recognition that in any given society there is a multiplicity of interests and it is not always easy to decide which interest is paramount and therefore must be enforced for the good of society. That is why, in many countries where the chief executive is elected, one is not elected unless one obtains more than fifty percent of the votes polled. If there are more than two candidates in an election, there are several rounds of elections before only two are left in the fray at the top, and the one that gets the majority of votes in the last round is declared the victor. Likewise, where there are more than two political parties, election to legislative bodies is on the basis of proportional representation. This ensures that the opinions and the interests of all the parties are represented in the legislative body.

But, where such safeguards are not available, as in India, the various minorities have to depend on the patronage of the larger parties, who, in their selfish interests, espouse the cause of these minority groups to only gain their support and their votes. This leads to parties nursing vote banks and displaying unprincipled support despite ideological differences. The Ram Janmabhoomi agitation and the ultimate tearing down of the Babri Masjid, a relic, is a classic example of the tragic consequences of pursuing vote bank politics. The whole area of the Babri Masjid had been taken over by the archaeological survey of India and they had formulated rules for regulating visitors to this monument. These were being followed for long years without any trouble. Instead of continuing this practice, in order to win over the Hindu vote bank, the party in power had permitted Hindus limited access to part of the Babri Masjid area for offering prayers, and the disastrous consequences are well known.

In another case where the Supreme Court had upheld the right of a divorced Muslim woman to alimony, the same party in power, this time to win over the Muslim vote bank, had the law changed to ensure the sanctity of the Muslim sharia law. Thus the religious right took precedence over a basic human right.

Very often, vested interests resort to extra-legal methods such as a show of force to safeguard their welfare. This naturally leads to maintaining and training private armies to use whenever necessary. From evidence that is available during the last six decades and more of free India, almost all the parties across the political spectrum have used these private armies. So, recently, when some of the senior BJP members seemed to be shocked when the home minister made a reference to the private armies being trained by the RSS, one could only be amused. Starting with the assassination of the father of the nation, Gandhiji, to the numerous atrocities against the Dalits, the murder of the famous artist Safdar Hashmi, and to the burning of a Christian missionary in Orissa — all these have been the activities of organizations like the Bajrang Dal and other violent groups owing allegiance to various political parties.

Once a nation decides that it will become a democratic one, there is no place for violence in decision-making. All the parties which believe in a democratic constitution, must not only eschew force but condemn it and fight it, otherwise they will be contributing to the weakening of the democratic fabric of the nation, and ultimately destroying it.

Over the years there has been a growth of a mindless multitude of political parties. I say mindless because if a party is formed on a principle, one can understand it. However, when a party is formed with no guiding principles, and is instead centered on a personality, this should not be encouraged in a democracy. The best way to solve this problem would be to have an expert committee of sociologists, political scientists and economists prepare a list of authentic minorities with distinct interests which deserve protection from majority oppression. These minority groups would mostly be distinguished on the basis of religion and ethnicity, and would be represented in legislative bodies on the principle of proportional representation.

While the constitution should recognize minority rights, it should be made amply clear that human rights have predominance and no other right can claim priority over basic human rights on the basis of being ethnic or religious. More than anything else there should be a commitment on the part of civil society to educate the public on these matters. For the last six decades or more that India has been free, all the political parties have been concentrating on capturing power through fair means or foul. Unless they put an end to this squabble for power, they will only succeed in ruining the country and throwing away the glorious gift of freedom that our forefathers have given to us by their sacrifices.