In the Name of Social Harmony: Ethnic Dominance, Rights Limitations and Pluri-nationalism in South Asia

Several Asian constitutions have provisions allowing States to curtail democratic rights in the name of social harmony. Synthesizing literature on rights restrictions, this paper examines how framing social harmony as a rights restriction links social harmony to security, an accepted limitation on rights, highlighting an antagonization of identity politics and security. Social harmony restrictions empower States to safeguard notions of coexistence convenient to elites, portraying dissent, especially identity-based, as a threat that justifies limiting rights. As social harmony cannot be objectively measured, and it is impossible to know if a State asserts that it exists (or is at risk) in good faith, these restrictions are vulnerable to abuse. Relying on the cases of Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, this paper shows how social harmony restrictions can be used to protect the status quo and quell identity movements vital to building and sustaining harmonious, pluri-national democracies.