Debating Difference (2011) was motivated by three larger concerns. First, at a time when Indian political thought barely figured in scholarship in political theory, it provided a normative reconstruction of debates over minority rights and affirmative action in the Constituent Assembly (1946-49). In bringing political thought at India’s founding into into conversation with contemporary political theory debates on multiculturalism and social justice of the 1990s and 2000s, I was also motivated by a second concern. Instead of the standard approach of political theorists, of focussing on the thought of exemplary thinkers– a Gandhi or a Nehru for instance- Debating Difference made a case for taking the Indian Constituent Assembly debates seriously as a field of theoretical reflection in their own right, as a multi-authored, multi-vocal text. Third, I sought to challenge influential contrasts between Western and non-Western thought, as well as elite and subaltern languages of politics that were prevalent in Indian intellectual and political debates.
Looking back at some of the book’s main findings, it showed, first that India’s constitution-makers were ahead of their time in many respects, notably constitutionalizing affirmative action and minority rights within a broadly liberal framework of equal citizenship, much before Western democracies did. In doing so, they developed an innovative, sophisticated, and sometimes contradictory body of public reasoning on the role of the state in relation to ethnic diversity, instituting a framework of limited secularism for instance, which recognized some religious family laws (Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Parsi), and also state-led religious reform. Second, Debating Difference showed that the constitution’s normative framework did not reflect the vision of a single thinker (eg. Nehru or Ambedkar), nor of a small oligarchy (see Austin), nor of the dominant Congress party alone. Instead, the constitutional settlement was the result of the participation of, and debate between, a wide range of political actors. Constitution-makers drawn from diverse religious, caste, tribe, and regional backgrounds had differing and sometimes conflicting opinions and interests, which were voiced and recorded in the Assembly’s proceedings. Nehru for instance, disliked caste-based reservations; these were not Dr Ambedkar’s first preference; yet both leaders reluctantly accepted caste-based reservations, which have since become a key, if controversial feature of India’s political landscape. Third, a normative gap remained in dominant nationalist imaginaries with regard to minority rights. Nationalist concerns regarding national unity and state stability, bolstered by liberal republican concerns relating to the primacy of individual centred secular citizenship, constrained the space for group-differentiated rights. These came to be limited, with legislative quotas for religious minorities withdrawn during constitution-making, which marked a moment of containment in the long career of group-differentiated rights in India.
With the benefit of hindsight, the flaws of the Indian Constitution are readily apparent. Constitutional rights and remedies are hedged by limitations, emergency provisions bestow wide powers on the state to truncate individual and collective liberties. Nevertheless, the making of the Indian Constitution remains instructive, offering lessons on how sustainable agreements can be reached in large and divided polities. Our research in PACT (2022-25) will highlight lessons from Indian constitution-making of comparative relevance, while critically examining its unfulfilled potential for pluralism and democracy in the present.