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Managing Ethnic Diversities

Harsh Sethi

By Ayelet Harel-Shalev
Cambridge University Press, New Delhi, 2013, pp. 497, Rs. 895.00


The fact that foreign scholars find it difficult to decode the Indian experience of living with, negotiating and managing the multiple challenges of citizenship and rights in arguably the world’s most diverse ethnic and religious environment without, in the main, sacrificing the tenets of procedural democracy, comes as no surprise. Nevertheless that, despite unpropitious beginnings (a bloody Partition), and an insecure neighbourhood, the country has managed to hold on to in some measure principles of secularism and religious tolerance and stave off episodic demands to recast its basic premises, is. Few modern nation states can claim an equivalent record, despite higher per capita incomes, lower ethnic and religious diversity, and longer histories as Republican democracies. Where this book strikes a different chord is in the comparison of the Indian and Israeli experiences of managing ethnic diversities, despite the obvious differences in the two situations.   How do nations comprising religiously and ethnically plural societies—dominated by an ethnic majority—sustain the framework of procedural democracy? More specifically, is there a common denominator underlying these countries’ control mechanisms? Ayelet Shalev argues that non-consociational, divided democracies can sustain their political regimes by developing legal rights that embody some degree of autonomy for minorities but without (emphasis added) allowing them significant access to state power. Or, to state more sharply, the political formula is positioned on the continuum between power sharing and control without actually submitting exchusively to either of the two limits. In bland, abstract terms, few can quarrel with this proposition. After all, no state, particularly a democratic one, can hope to keep significant sections of its population which feel discriminated against in political, cultural, religious, linguistic and economic terms quiescent for any length of time through primarily a strategy of control. Ensuring a buy-in is essential, and this all societies/states do through a multiplicity of arrangements—constitutional/legal rights, ensuring group rights in specified spheres, schemes of economic redress and so on. Faliure to do so, to the relative satisfaction of disgruntled minority groups, results in strains and conflicts, both violent and nonviolent, and in extreme cases, attempts at secession. It is also well-recognized that demands for secession are likely to escalate if the group in question constitutes a majority in a territory on the borders of a state. India’s experiences with the Mizo and Naga populations in its North-East or with the Muslim majority province of the ...

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