Sunday, September 09, 2012

India needs to bring electoral changes to mitigate ethnic- conflict

Amit Singh, Independent researcher

‘Diversity’ is the word describes India in its true sense. With diverse and huge population comes a peculiar ‘strong ethnic ties or ethnic divisions. Due to the linguistic and regional heterogeneity of the population, the constitutional system of the India was made partly federal. Indian political system which was centered on major language groups later suffered the tyranny of the majority and had to adapt to the very strong pressure of the larger language group.  After first post election, the electoral system was adapted to serve the interest of the majority populations of the Hindu. In such system, it was nearly impossible for Muslims to organize their own political parties and to get representation in legislatures (Vanhanen 2004). They were able to get representation through some major parties. In addition, tribal groups and the Dalits had faced same dilemma. They have constitutional safeguards, but, because of the British made/influenced electoral system, it has been difficult for them to get a representation in legislatures through their own parties except some minor development in recent political scenario. 

The Indian party system is more or less based on the caste system; political parties tend to support their ethnic affiliations thus creating an ‘ethnic rift’ in society. This rift in society often takes the forms of ethnic and communal conflict. Further aggravating the situation, parties take caste divisions into account while nominating candidates for elections, in particular, some parties nominate their own caste groups. This has resulted in the emergence of the regional parties formed on the basis of the ‘ethnic nepotism (Vanhanen 2004). Against this background, Caste and other ethnic interests becomes the principal catalyst in the Indian politics.  In response to this situation, Indian democratic institutional structure has evolved and is struggling hard to accommodate various ethnic and minority strivings.

Many aspects of the Indian political system  become adapted to the requirement of the ethnic groups, but not sufficiently in all matters and in all parts of the country, which indicates it has not been possible to solve all ethnic conflicts through democratic institutions, or that democratic institutions are not sufficiently adapted to the requirement of the ethnic rift (Ibid).  Example of the such failure are apparent in the ongoing ethnic conflict in the various parts of India; violent separatist movements of Muslims in Kashmir, naxalite movement in the different parts of the country; occasional communal violence between Hindu and Muslim and to a lesser degree with other religious groups (Christians and Sikh), too; territorial conflicts between language groups (Movement against Hindi in South India); and continual conflict between caste groups, particularly between Hindu and untouchables but also between the upper caste and the other backward castes (Ibid). Not to mention occasional outburst of Shiv Sena and Maharastra Navnirrman Sena against north Indians, runs the risk of dividing the people on the lines of the geographical regions.
Though India’s federal system is struggling to mitigate the ethnic conflict to some extent, however, militancy in Kashmir and seven sister’s states has remained as an unsolved problem.

In order to be more accommodative and conciliatory, Indian political system needs to be made more suitable to ethnic aspirations. The federal system can be strengthened and be made flexible. More autonomy can be extended to the various ethnic groups. The tribal state of Assam would need extensive forms of autonomy. In addition, there is a need to establish an autonomous territorial unit within states for tribal, linguistic, and religious minority. Along with it, electoral system needs to made proportional to the population of the ethnic groups; it could serve the needs of an ethnically heterogeneous society better than the present system. Ethnic conflicts cannot be completely eliminated; however, conflict can be mitigated by providing effective institutional canal for the expression of ethnic demands and competition (Lijphart 1996, Bachal 1997 cited in Vanhanen 2004). Electoral system by providing better representation, can bridge the increasing divide among various ethnic groups. In addition, more channels for the fearless  expression of the repressed ethnic and minority sentiments needs to be created, because only electing the political candidate do not often guarantees the desired development and progress of the ethnic community as have been seen in cases of  U.P. and Bihar.  Inherent conflict ingrained in Indian electoral system/democracy/society, if do not redress on time, India, sooner or later, runs the risk of disintegrating on the lines of ethnicity.

Vanhanen Tatu  2004, ‘Problems of Democracy in Ethnically Divided South Asian Countries’, paper presented at 18th European Conference on Modern South Asian Studies, Sweden. 

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