Liberalism privileges the individual and teaches that the state is legitimate when it honors individual rights–including the right to religious freedom. A much older understanding conceives the polity in terms of communities, including religious communities, and teaches that the state has a duty to coordinate relations among them justly. An interesting-looking new book from Cambridge, India’s Communal Constitution: Law, Religion, and the Making of a People, argues that both understandings prevail in contemporary India: a formal liberalism and a practical communalism. The author is constitutional scholar Mathew John (Jindal Global Law School, India). Here is the description from Cambridge’s website:

This book speaks to debates on law, constitutionalism, and the contested terrain of political identity in modern India. Set against the overwhelmingly liberal design of the Indian Constitution, the book demonstrates a tendency in the Constitution and its practice to identify the Indian people in parochial and communal terms. This tendency is identified as India’s Communal Constitution and its imprint on contemporary constitutional practice is illustrated by drawing on the constitutional practice as it addresses religious freedom, personal law, minority rights and the identification of caste groups. Thus, casting the Constitution and its practice as a field of contest, the aspiration to define the Indian people as a community of individual citizens is brought face to face with its antagonists. The most significant of these antagonists is the tendency to cast the Indian people as a collection of communities which this book examines and details as India’s Communal Constitution.

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