The Tribune - Spectrum


, September 29, 2002

Minority handling: The litmus test of a democracy
Pardeep Dhull

Democracy and the Limits of Minority Rights
by Nalini Rajan. Sage Publications, New Delhi. Pages 237. Rs 260.

Democracy and the Limits of Minority RightsA successful form of government is not known by how it deals with the majority but by the way it treats its minority. All countries in the world have different minorities. Be it the world’s biggest democracy or the largest one, it is the duty of a state to protect the fundamental rights of its citizens, the majority as well as the minorities. It is in this context, the book under review attempts to discuss the relationship between human rights and democracy.

In the first chapter, Nalini Rajan tries to explain the meaning of "human rights" which, according to her, are effective and artificial constructs to neutralise the instrumental use of individuals by others. Claiming that human rights can be effective only in a democracy that is "committed to the principles of equality and pluralism," she lays stress on individual autonomy, which means each person should be allowed to act independently. The problems relating to this aspect, constructivist accounts of human rights, Left-liberal formulation and human rights as natural laws have been discussed at length. The author, however, intends to examine a few existing Constitutional rights in India, which have "proved to be the most intractable, even after half a century of democratic governance in India."


In "Why Democracy Matters," the author first describes the ancient form of democracy and then goes on to discuss where and how the Indian polity falls far short of perfection. Since Independence, Indian democracy has come a long way. From the single-party system predominantly led by the Congress to the multi-party system, it has witnessed many changes. The author sees coalition politics as a clear transition from majoritarian rule and calls it "pluralitarian" rule. In today’s democratic set-up, different parties have different ideologies depending upon caste, religion, region, class, gender, etc. In pluralitarian government, she says, systemic bias towards minorities is likely. Notwithstanding this fact, she agrees that democracy is the least oppressive system in existence and suggests a proportional representation electoral system along with the present system to deal with the aspirations of minorities.

The right to religious freedom has always been a hot topic of deliberation among scholars. It is even more significant in today’s communally charged atmosphere. The author has taken up this issue in a chapter that discusses whether democracy and religion are compatible. First tracing the origin of the term "secularism" to Christianity, she goes on to argue the secularist policy a state should follow and finally concludes that the right to religious freedom should pertain to individuals rather than to groups as "special privileges accorded to religious groups may actually conflict with the interests of individuals belonging to oppressed groups."

On the contrary, in a chapter on multiculturalism, the author has defended group rights for cultural minorities. She says that as cultural rights are based on the principle of the right to equal consideration and respect, the individual in each group turns out to be the primary beneficiary. However, whether minority or group rights promote the economic welfare of the individuals concerned is debatable.

A chapter dealing with environmental issues stresses the need for rights pertaining to the preservation of the ecosystem. The author sees these rights as individual rights in a global context. All over the world, people have been expressing concern about the deteriorating condition of the global environment. The World Summit on Sustainable Development, held in Johannesburg recently, also showed its commitment to reverse the continuing degradation. Apart from problems relating to this aspect, animal rights, smoking-related politics, reproduction technologies and genetic engineering have been dealt with in detail. Gandhian values vis-à-vis ecology makes for an interesting reading. The book also discusses the famous environmental movement Narmada Bachao Andolan that forced the World Bank to support a commission on dams to review all major irrigation projects in the world.

The last chapter, "Towards Greater Federalism," deals with the Indian democratic structure. From time to time, various parties have been raising the demand for the review of the Constitution. Whether India should have its Constitution on the lines of the US-style Federal system is subjected to debate. However, the author as well as most of the analysts find the existing parliamentary system quite effective and suggest a few amendments to make it more federal.

Written in an easy-to-understand language, the book has discussed the latest issues relating to Indian democratic set-up in detail. Students of social sciences and organisations dealing with human rights may find it useful.