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Nation and Its Discontent

Md. Sanjeer Alam

Edited by Rowena Robinson
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2012, pp. 319, Rs. 675.00

VOLUME XXXVII NUMBER 2-3 February/March 2013

The idea of ‘minority’ and ‘minority rights’ has been a matter of intense debates, ever since the modern nation-states came into existence. Such debates have, however, acquired greater salience in democratic states, for ‘democracy, particularly liberal democracy’, as Charles Taylor reasons, ‘is a great philosophy of inclusion’. And yet, democratic states tend to reflect in their activities, though in varying degrees, a majoritarian mindset that seeks to exclude minority groups (ethnic, religious, linguistic and so on) or to assign them inferior position through various ways and mechanisms. After all, democracy in practice is what the majority says it is. In spite of all this, the idea of multiculturalism has gained wider currency in recent decades. With this, the debates on minority rights have acquired renewed vigour and attracted unprecedented attention. Undeniably, the idea of multiculturalism offers spaces for optimism as it goes beyond mere coexistence of different cultures within nation-states, but it is laced with too many theoretical and practical limitations. As a matter of fact, minority groups in the liberal democracies where multiculturalism is an official policy are able or allowed to practice their own cultural or religious norms so long as they do not overtly challenge the dominance of the majority group. In brief, the democratic states are faced with great moral and political dilemmas to reconstruct a kind of civic nationalism that does not marginalize and exclude minority groups and yet it is conducive to modern conditions, deepening of democracy, and strengthening social solidarity. The issues that underlie debates of minority rights are primarily of asymmetric power relations, dominations and exclusions, of discrimination and social justice, of tensions between the notions of modern citizenship and differentiated rights and so on. These broader issues have given rise to a range of inextricably complicated and yet fundamental conceptual and empirical questions. Some of them include: (a) who constitute a minority in the world of overlapping and crisscrossing of identities; (b) what does official recognition of minorities mean?; (c) are minority groups, no matter how they get defined, internally homogeneous, seamless and coherent wholes? And, if no, then is not the idea of minority self-contradictory and intellectually dubious; (d) is the majority-minority construct anathema to the ideals and values of liberalism? And finally; (e) are the tensions between universalism and particularism; between individual rights and special claims; between distinct and equal irreconcilable? These questions assume far more significance in the ...

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