Narendra Subramanian

Nation and Family: Personal Law, Cultural Pluralism, and Gendered Citizenship in India

The recognition of the difference in religious personal law is in tension with aims to reduce inequalities, promote individual liberties, limit and change the public roles of religion, and treat various religious groups similarly. Discourses salient among ruling elites (specifically, nationalist discourses, understandings of religious and other cultural traditions, and visions of the forms of modernity appropriate for a society) and features of state-society relations (the social bases that governing elites have and aim to build) influence how states address these tensions. The inclination of the majority of India’s political elites to build broad social coalitions, and to modernize society in ways that accommodated the important roles of religion, ethnicity and the joint-family, led them to introduce gradual reforms in the various personal laws based on the relevant group¹s traditions and initiatives.

Neither minority recognition nor the promotion of constitutional values shaped personal law policy. Policy-makers focused their visions of the modern Indian family on Hindu law alone as they equated the Hindu, the Indian, and the secular-modern. The equation of the Muslim, minority difference, and resistance to modernity led them not to change the minority laws until the 1970s, and to thereafter introduce more limited changes in these laws than group opinion and tradition enabled. The imagination of the
nation, its constituent groups and cultures, and its deepest inequalities through asymmetric engagement with the various religious groups shaped other aspects of Indian multiculturalism as well, and weakened efforts to build inter-religious understanding and reduce durable inequalities.

Narendra Subramanian studies the politics of nationalism, religion, ethnicity, gender and race, primarily in India. His work explores the role of identity politics in political mobilization, electoral competition, public culture, and public policy; the functioning of democracies amidst social inequalities with long histories; and different ways in which policy-makers and citizens
attempt to resolve the tensions between official secularism and the significant presence of religion in public life. He is Associate Professor of Political Science at McGill University. His book, Ethnicity and Populist Mobilization: Political Parties, Citizens and Democracy in South India (Oxford University Press, 1999), explored how mobilization behind language and caste banners strengthened democracy in parts of India. He is completing a book manuscript titled Nation and Family: Personal Law, Cultural Pluralism, and Gendered Citizenship in India, which examines the personal laws specific to the religious group, as sites in which official nationalism, multiculturalism, secularism, and citizenship were formed. A new project of his compares the effects of enfranchisement on the socio-economic status of India’s lower castes and African-Americans, focusing on two regions of particularly high ascriptive inequalities – the Kaveri delta in southern India and the Mississippi Delta in the southern United States. Subramanian received his B.A. from Princeton University, and his M.A. and Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

This lecture is co-sponsored by the Global Legal Studies Center and the South Asia Legal Studies Working Group and is part of the lecture series on  “Role of Law in Developing and Transition Countries” with support from the Division of International Studies, The International Institute and Global Studies.