WHAT MAKES INDIA SO DISTINCT? No other country matches the scale of its religious, linguistic and ethnic diversity. India’s racial heterogeneity is exceeded by only a handful of West European and New World countries—the result of, among other factors, colonial-era experiences of conquest, the slave trade and resettlements, as well as post-colonial migrations from the global South to the North. But while systems of exclusion predicated on notions of purity and impurity have been widespread across societies—solidified through kinship networks, status hierarchy and endogamy—nowhere else in the world does there exist a system of such extreme gradations of human worth as the caste system.
India was not the only former colonial country that opted for a liberal-democratic political set-up following Independence. Even so, the enormity of its territorial expanse, population, social diversity and economic backwardness made it unique among democratic states. In the West, universal suffrage was extended to women and all races long after large-scale industrial and economic advancement had taken place. India, under vastly different circumstances, erected a political framework based on democratic principles—and barring the 21-month Emergency, it has sustained this framework so far. It is part of the reason why the Constitution, since its promulgation in 1950, commands such widespread admiration.
But now, almost seventy years later, the country is in the midst of a general election that threatens to return to power an organ of the Sangh Parivar—a group that has, in word and deed, demonstrated its antipathy to the progressive elements that exist in the Constitution. In light of this, it is time to open a more critical debate on the foundational charter of the republic.
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