In 2002, the Israeli political scientist Sammy Smooha published an article titled “The Model of Ethnic Democracy: Israel as a Jewish and Democratic State,” in the journal Nations and Nationalism. Smooha defined ethnic democracy based on a broad but precise set of criteria. It is, first, the product of ethnic nationalism, a majoritarian ideology that implies a strong sense of belonging and often one of superiority. This identity is also premised on the rejection of minorities, generally perceived as threats to the survival and integrity of the ethnic nation. According to Smooha, although many countries have gone down the road of ethnic democracy, the archetype of this political system remains Israel—a state that endeavours to combine an ethnic Jewish identity and a parliamentary system drawing its inspiration from Western Europe. The two sides of this coin are the Jewish nature of the nation-state and the restrictions imposed on the rights of minorities, primarily the Palestinians.
Ethnic democracy implies two-tiered citizenship, the majority enjoying more rights than the minority, both de jure and de facto. In Israel, Jews have more rights because the state recognises their religion. Hence the Judaisation of symbols of identity: “Israel’s titular name, calendar, days and sites of commemoration, heroes, flag, emblem, national anthem, names of places, ceremonies and the like are all Jewish,” Smooha wrote. But Jewish dominance at the expense of Muslims is also exercised de facto, in contradiction with the law. Smooha added: “Most of the discrimination is, however, rather covert. The extensive use of military service as a criterion for the allocation of benefits is very striking, because most Jews serve in the army, whereas most Arabs do not. … Unfair allocation of funds and provision of unequal services by governmental offices are quite common.” Majority public opinion contributes to legitimising these practices, given that Muslims “are regarded as potentially disloyal to the state and placed under security and political control,” not to mention the fear generated by their demographic growth.
India under Narendra Modi has moved towards this model over the past five years, while exhibiting a specific variant of it. The main difference lies in the lack of any major legal reform, as evident from the fact that the constitution continues to embody the ideals of secularism—and therefore multiculturalism—as well as equal citizenship for all. But while the de jure aspect of ethnic democracy is virtually absent, the de facto aspect, on the other hand, is omnipresent, given the shrinking of minority representation in elected assemblies and the role that vigilante militias play in conducting Hindu-nationalist cultural policing, often with the blessing of the law-enforcement agencies. Of all the minorities, the principal victims of this trend are Muslims, the traditional target of Hindu nationalists.
Muslims have remained on the sidelines of some of India’s institutions since 1947, which led the political scientist Gurharpal Singh to consider that India has been an ethnic democracy from its inception. But this analysis, in fact, holds only for the administration, the army and the police. In elected assemblies, Muslim representation grew until the 1980s, despite extensive regional variations.
A database I compiled with the help of Shweta Bhutada shows that in the 1950s, the percentage of Muslim officers in the Indian Police Service was already lower than five percent, less than half the proportion of Muslims in Indian society according to the 1951 census. While the share of Muslims in the population subsequently rose, reaching 14.25 percent in 2011, the proportion of Muslims in the IPS dwindled, falling beneath the three-percent mark in 2016, and even plummeting as low as 2.5 percent if Jammu and Kashmir is excluded from the calculation.