Hinduism and Democracy: The Transition of India to Democracy and its Implications for Islam

By Kennedy Ricci


Recently there has been much literature about the compatibility of various cultures and democracy. Scholars have argued that Catholicism (Casanova, 2001, p.1047), Protestantism (Minkenberg, 2007, p. 893; Spinner-Halev, 2005, p. 29) and Islam (Casanova, 2001; Tessler, 2002, p. 245) are all compatible with democracy. These three religions comprise the majority of the world’s first and second largest religions by population (Pew Research Center, 2012). For this reason, I have decided to look at the compatibility of democracy and the world’s third largest religion, Hinduism. In examining this compatibility, I have decided to look at the case of India. There are only two countries with a majority Hindu population: India and Nepal (the ARDA, 2005). Of those, both have democracies (though Nepal’s came much later, being formed as a federal democratic republic in 2008 (the ARDA, 2010; CIA World Factbook, 2010); however, I will only have the space here to examine the case of Hinduism in India. Examining this compatibility between Hinduism and democracy in the context of India—both the largest Hindu state and the largest modern democracy—will not only shed light upon the ability of the third largest culture to be ruled by democracy, but will also help test theses put forward regarding the compatibility of Islam and democracy. I begin this examination by looking at the characteristics inherent in Hindu culture and then proceed to look at the development of democracy in India in order to understand what historical influences helped facilitate the transition to a democratic government using theses of democratization from Tilly (as cited in Ziblatt, 2006), Dahl (1971), and Stepan (2005). Finally, I look at the similarities between Islam and Hinduism to explain why we can use the example of India to improve our understanding of the compatibility of Islam and democracy.

There are four very important characteristics of Hinduism related to democracy: pluralism (and thus no central authority structure), tolerance (which also follows from pluralism), the caste system, and the inherent separation of politics and religion. I examine the first three characteristics here, but the fourth one I examine later on in the context of modern India.

First, it is hard to classify Hinduism as a single religion. It is actually a grouping of smaller religions that share similar beliefs, deities, practices, and scriptures, yet have no unified creed, founder, and most importantly, no authority structure (Anckar, 2011, p. 70; Mehta, 2004, p. 111). Because Hinduism has so many small religions, and no unifying authority structure, pluralism is something that is inherent and very relevant in Hinduism. Casanova (2001) argued that this plurality is not something that should be seen as inconducive to democracy; rather, just that any transition to democracy will not necessarily be a unified one (p. 1062). Second, this plurality is also important because it promotes tolerance among each Hindu sect (1); Mehta (2004) stated, “the pluralism of Hindu group life continued to spin such a complex web of crisscrossing cleavages that no single group could hope to dominate, a circumstance indirectly propitious for liberal democracy” (p. 115). Because there was no one or two dominant sects of Hinduism—like Catholicism or Protestantism in Christianity—Hindus first, were very accustomed to differing views, and second, realized that they must make their group’s claims more moderate in order to build power-gaining alliances (Mehta, 2004, p. 115). Anckar (2011) built upon this idea of tolerance: “within Hinduism, tolerance is enhanced by the pluralistic nature of the religion. When every man is allowed to worship his own god and no authoritarian ecclesiastical organization exists, the prospects for democracy should be quite good” (p. 77). The third important characteristic of Hinduism, the caste system, is the only one inconducive to democracy. The caste system is a strict hierarchy of social status that defines what jobs a person can take on and whom a person can marry; thus it restricts each person to interact only with others in his or her own caste. The caste system was legally abolished in 1650; however, it still remains in practice in rural communities (Anckar, 2001, p. 75) and thus plays a relevant, anti-democratic (Spinner-Halev, 2005, p. 37), yet declining role in political association (Anckar, 2011, p. 76). All three of these characteristics are relevant in the democratization of India.

In examining the democratization of India, I have divided the process of democratization into three stages: pre-British Raj (before 1858), India under the British Raj (1858-1947), and post-independence (1947 onward). The latter two periods of democratization are the most helpful to understanding the compatibility of Hinduism and democracy.

I do not have space to extensively examine the first period here, but there is one point that is important. Before the British Raj, India (in the modern geographical extent) was rarely ruled entirely by a native ruler or government. Usually, the only time the entire, or almost the entire, geographic region was ruled under one government was when that government was foreign, such as the Mughal Empire or the British East India Company. This is important because it was actually the British East India Company that not only consolidated India geographically but also culturally (Mehta, 2004, p. 112). The British East India Company tried to respect local customs and use them as guidelines for making laws so as to gain legitimacy for its rule; but in doing so, the Company “caused the standardizations and homogenization of social and religious practices in accord with ancient norms” (Mehta, 2004, p. 112). This standardization of Hindu norms would begin the formation of a national identity for Hindus that would help them in uniting together against the British.

The most important period for India’s history of democratization occurred under the British Raj from 1858-1947. The colonial state provided a backdrop against which organizations such as the Indian National Congress were able to advocate independence and democracy. The Indian National Congress (INC), formed in 1885 by Allan Hume (Bevir, 2003, p. 111; Wolpert, 2011, p. 36), proved to be an important agent in the democratization process. It was through the INC’s efforts that the unconducive aspects of Hinduism were minimized in order to allow democracy to form in India. The INC’s actions fit very well into Charles Tilly’s argument for how democracy is secured. Tilly (2005) argued that “to democratize, a government must do two things: dissolve preexisting societal networks that provide protection; and create new, politically connected networks of trust to link subjects and government” (as cited in Ziblatt, 2006, p. 328). This is where the caste system becomes relevant as the caste system defined and limited the existing social networks for each individual. Tudor (2013) argued that although the Indian National Congress was originally formed to serve the interests of a small urban minority, “congress’s goal of [increased] indigenous representation and the means for achieving this goal through majority voting were constitutive of a limited democratic politics” (Tudor, 2013, p. 257). The INC began to promote increased participation by allying with other social classes as a method to achieve their goal of increased indigenous representation. The INC was able to ally with other social classes because of similar economic and social interests (Tudor, 2013, p. 260) – specifically in campaigning against caste discrimination and untouchability (Tudor, 2013, p. 262). The Indian National Congress opened up representation within its own organization by lowering membership fees, conducting meetings in the Hindi (the most common rural language), and by creating a new system of representation not based on status within the caste, but on election from organizations below (Tudor, 2013, p. 264). This move to dissolve the preexisting social network, the caste system, and create a trans-class political organization that had electoral representation was the first move towards democracy. The Indian National Congress’s efforts to increase representation also signify a shift on Dahl’s scale of inclusiveness and contestation. Dahl (1971) stated that a government that has high inclusiveness—universal suffrage—and open contestation—no restrictions on who can run for office—would qualify as a “polyarchy” (the most democratic form of government in his two-dimensional scheme). Thus we see a push towards democracy both on Tilly’s and Dahl’s scales. The INC was very successful in achieving its goal of increased representation: “in 1937 and 1946, Congress [candidates] took office in most of the provinces after elections in which millions of Indians voted” (Jeffrey, 1994, p. 45). Because of Congress’ widespread involvement in local politics, once the day of independence came, “the Congress Party had established itself as the rightful successor to the British rulers” (Jeffrey, 1994, p. 45). In summary, a realignment of societal organization under a unifying, electoral organization that could embody and represent diverse Hindu ideas and identities started the move to democracy.

Before I continue on to the third period of democratization in India, I want to briefly mention three other beneficial factors that appeared in between the second and the third periods of democratization. The British Raj not only provided the contrasting background on which to promote democracy, but actually also contributed to increasing participation as well: “For reasons often put forward as altruistic, but in fact calculating, [the British Raj] continually extended rights to vote and participate in government” (Jeffrey, 1994, p. 44). Inadvertently, this ended up helping the Indian National Congress. For example, the final piece of legislation to increase participation, the India Act of 1935, resulted in the INC winning the major elections of 1935 and 1936 (Jeffrey, 1994, pp. 44-45). Thus, through the British’s effort to boost their popularity, the British Raj actually ended up contributing to an increase in inclusiveness and contestation. The second beneficial factor was the peaceful transition of power from the British Raj to Indian politicians and officials (Jeffrey, 1994, pp. 43, 46). This peaceful agreement to transfer authority—replacing the need for a violent overthrow of the colonial government—meant that India was able to establish a legitimate and functioning government very quickly. The third beneficial factor was party stability. By comparing the major political parties of Pakistan and India, Tudor (2013) concluded that “parties were significantly more likely to broker regime stability after independence if stable bases of support were institutionalized before the transition to independence” (p. 271). Therefore, because the Indian National Congress was a stable party—it was organized (Tudor, 2013, p. 264), had clearly defined democratic policies and constitutional provisions (Tudor, 2013, pp. 262, 264), contrasted themselves against the British (Tudor, 2013, p. 262), effectively managed a peaceful transfer of power (Jeffrey, 1994, p. 46) and gained legitimate and legal popularity due to the British (Jeffrey, 1994, pp. 44-45)--India was able to have a successful transition to democracy.

The third period of democratization (1947 onward) explains how the democratic government of India was able to subsist. There were two very important factors that contributed to the subsistence of Indian democracy: pluralism, and the fourth important characteristic, the inherent separation of state and religion. Jeffrey (1994) argued that because of the plurality of Hinduism, “competitive democratic politics” was really the only option for the effective governance of such a diverse group of cultures as “it is easier to imagine India fragmenting than it is to imagine India surviving for very long as a dictatorship” (Jeffrey, 1994, p. 46). The problem for a dictatorship is that there is not even enough cultural uniformity within the government to support one single ruler, or even one set of authoritarian policies. Even the army is too diverse to be commandeered by a person from a single group of Hinduism (Jeffrey, 1994, p. 47). Mehta (2004, p. 115), Anckar (2011, p. 76), Sen (1999, p. 6), and Jeffrey (1994, p. 46) all argued that the plural structure of Hinduism is why democracy has been able to continue functioning today. Jeffrey stated this well: “the diversity of languages, castes, and religious practices makes it difficult for any single, cohesive group to challenge the state” (p. 46). Thus, democracy subsists as the only effective government for managing the widely diverse interests within Hinduism. Sen (1999) explained another reason why pluralism has helped. To paraphrase his argument: there has been consternation, and even sectarian violence, but this has been condemned by all other groups, thus preventing violence from being a problem for Indian democracy (p. 6). Sen showed that this plurality is extensive enough to moderate even sectarian violence between two groups. Therefore, this pluralism helps to prevent a radical group from gaining too much power and substantially altering or even overthrowing the government. Stepan (2005) and Philpott (2007) argued that the mutual toleration between political and religious institutions, the fourth attribute, is necessary for democracy to function effectively. The twin tolerations—or what Philpott called differentiation—require that the government and religious communities respect each other’s sphere of jurisdiction. Specifically,

“democratic institutions must be free, within the bounds of the
constitution and human rights, to generate policies. [While] religious
institutions should not have constitutionally privileged prerogatives
that allow them to mandate public policy to democratically elected
governments” (Stepan, 2005, p.5).

The twin tolerations is fulfilled in India for two reasons: the political and religious spheres are fundamentally separate in Hindu culture, and the modern Indian state was founded on maintaining this separation. First, Madan and Juergensmeyer (2005) stated that “in the Hindu tradition, political rule is grounded in the divine cosmos but differentiated from spiritual functions, as set forth in the Law Code of Manu and in Kautilya’s Arthashastra, both dating back to the first four centuries, B.C.” (as cited in Philpott, 2007, p. 517). So even early texts established a differentiation between politics and religion as politics is centered on protecting the world (Law of Manu 7.2), whereas religion is located mainly in the personal sphere focused on the worship of gods (Law of Manu 5.152). Thus this separation of the religious and political spheres left little obstacles for democracy (Anckar, 2011, p. 76). This differentiation was also supported in the modern age: “The modern Hinduism of Mahatma Gandhi and the Congress party have supported differentiation” (Philpott, 2007, p. 517). Second, this differentiation was further, although debatably, integrated into the Indian Constitution. Anckar (2011) argued that the Indian Constitution created a secular state making religion subordinate to state laws whenever they interfere with public order, morality, or health; however, he also argued that it is more of a tolerant state because the state awards equal respect to all religions (p. 77). Philpott (2007) also wrote about the relation between state and religion, noting that India “is founded on religious freedom and a ‘secularism’ by which the state is to remain at an ‘equal distance’ from—but not uninvolved in—the country’s religion affairs” (p. 517). Since the government only gets involved with religious matters if those matters interfere with the rights of others, a toleration and sufficient separation between the government and all religions exist. Therefore, the twin tolerations are fulfilled in India.

There is, however, an ideology prevalent in Indian politics that promotes a government where the political and religious spheres overlap: “a far more integrationist Hinduism, centering on the idea of a Hindu, rashtra, or nation, and the idea of Hindu nationalism, or Hindutva, emerged in the context of nineteenth century Indian nation-building” (Philpott, 2007, p. 517). This ideology is referred to as Hindu nationalism, an ideology that tries to unite Hindus under the idea that they share one descent, a common “Hinduness” (Mehta, 2004, p.118). However, this ideology is seen as a “threat to the democratic idea” (Mehta, 2004, p. 117) because in its attempts to “turn India into an exclusive ‘Hindu nation-state’” (Bhatt, 2004, p. 133) it encourages exclusion and violence towards those not part of the Hindu identity, like Muslims and Christians (Mehta, 2004, p.119). A Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), did gain a majority coalition once in 1998 and when it did the BJP passed laws that discriminated against other religions (Philpott, 2007, p. 517). However, the pluralism of Hinduism once again showed its importance when the BJP was voted out of the majority in 2004 and the discriminating laws they passed were overturned (Philpott, 2007, p. 517). So, while Hindu nationalism does pose a threat to Indian democracy, for now, pluralism has been able to sustain a democratic government.

Finally, in comparing Islam and Hinduism, it is seen that while Islam and Hinduism share many fundamental characteristics, each has had different outcomes in their relation to democracy. As examined before, Hinduism has no authority structure, is inherently plural, and through the declining relevance of the caste system, has begun promoting equality. Islam also has no trans-national authority, is plural, and stresses equalization (Casanova, 2001, pp. 1058-1059). Since Hinduism was able to democratize, it seems then that Islam might also be able to democratize, at least in respect to these qualities. However, there is an important difference, one that may be the determining factor for whether or not an Islamic country can democratize. That factor would be differentiation (or equivalently the twin tolerations): how separated—or integrated—the political and religious organizations are. Similar to Stepan, Philpott (2007) argued that “Democracy, after all, itself embodies differentiation, the mutual and consensual distancing of religious and political authority” (pp. 509-510). India adopts the separatist ideology due to the inherent separation of the political and religious spheres. As Philpott (2007) also pointed out, nearly all Islamic countries are integrationist, which seems to line up with the lack of Islamic democracies (p. 515). The countries that do contain large Muslim populations and that are democratic, like Turkey, do in fact adopt the separationist ideology (Philpott, 2007, p. 516). This similarity of fundamental characteristics, yet difference of democracy seems to be explained well with Philpott’s and Stepan’s understanding of the influence of differentiation and the twin tolerations on democracy. Thus, using the example of India, we gain some understanding about what is necessary for democracy; and indeed, it seems that a distancing and mutual respect between political and religious authorities is something that is necessary for democracy to function. Therefore, separation between state and religion is a requirement that an Islamic country must respect if it wishes to democratize.

In conclusion, it seems that Hinduism is fundamentally compatible with democracy. The Indian National Congress was able to replace the caste system with a new politically organizing network, thereby minimizing the most inconducive aspect of Hinduism. This new network also helped to increase inclusiveness and open contestation. The other characteristics of Hinduism: plurality, tolerance, and the absence of an authority structure, were conducive both in the transition to democracy and in the sustaining of it. Plurality was especially vital in maintaining democracy after independence as it helped moderate disputes within the government. The inherent separation of religious and political spheres was not only beneficial in maintaining Indian democracy, but is also helpful in increasing our understanding of Islam and its potential for democracy. Islam and Hinduism have come to share many of the same fundamental characteristics, yet have taken different paths in regards to maintaining democracy. This difference seems to arise from Islam’s preference for integrationist governments and Hinduism’s preference for separationist systems. Therefore, it seems that Islam could join Hinduism in being compatible with democracy, if it were to separate government from religion. Nevertheless, in regards to India, we can conclude that, due to beneficial fundamental characteristics, as well as the actions of the British Raj and the Indian National Congress, “India has emerged as the United States’ South Asian reflection” (Wolpert, 2011, p. 39).


(1) I want to briefly note here that the claim of tolerance among Hindus can be contested (Spinner-Halev, 2005, p. 37); however this is based on the existence of the caste system, which Anckar (2011) stated is becoming less prevalent. Moreover, Spinner-Halev (2005) wrote about the notion of liberal internal toleration being based on Protestant conceptions, which he argued could not be equivalently applied to Hinduism (p. 48).