Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 31, July 18, 2009
Minorities in India
Saturday 18 July 2009, by
The recent spate of attacks on Christians in Orissa and those on Muslims in the present and past provokes one to study the status of minorities in India. But before getting into the details of the issue, which is the concern of the present paper, one needs to understand what one means by minority.
The term ‘minority’ in general refers to a part of the population of a state that is marked off by race or language or religion or some other social characteristic which leads the people of the group to be looked on by the majority as somewhat different or ‘other’ and leads the minority to view the majority as as both different and dominant. In the context of India, the term ‘minority’ encompasses groups of every possible type—racial, linguistic, religious, territorial and in addition groups unique to Indian society: minorities on the basis of inferior caste status. According to Indian official terminology, ‘minority’ has a more restrictive range and refers only to the religious minorities. The official Minorities Commission of India deals with issues affecting the non-Hindu religious minorities. Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists and so on. (Bajpai ed. 2007, p. 145)
India is a home to all major religions known to mankind. Pluralism is the hallmark of our society. This acceptance of diversity is not something new but can be traced back to leaders associated with the national movement and the drafting of the Constitution.
While religious communities were acknow-ledged from a cultural point of view, they were not given official recognition in social and political terms. The reluctance on the part of the government towards any official protection of the religious minorities reflected a more general attitude; its emphasis was as much on national unity. (Varshney ed. 2004, p. 127)
The emphasis on national unity was however not something which gained significance in the post-liberation era. It had a long history. In the 19th century, the moderates had emphasised the idea of unity. This emphasis on unity after the 1920s was advocated by Gandhi in whose eyes, the Indian nation was a collection of religious communities. His views about the national flag are highly revealing in this respect:
Any nation needs a flag… [In the India flag] the white strip would represent the other religious [other than Hinduism and Islam]. It would come first since they are in smaller numbers. The colour of Islam (green) would follow and the Hindu red (saffron) would come last to show that the strongest must protect the weak…And to show that the weak… is equal to the strong, the 3 strips would have the same size. (Varshney ed. 2004,
The progressive intelligentsia represented by Nehru also rejected the notion of a nation based on ethnic feelings or with religious communities as propounded by Hindu nationalists or the Muslim League. (Varshney ed. 2004, p. 128)
In January 1947, G.B. Pant made a revealing speech before the Constituent Assembly, whereby he established a strong relationship between on the one hand, the need for the minorities, and especially the Muslims, to get integrated, to merge with the nation as individuals, and on the other hand, the precondition of this process, the dissolution of the religious communities. By recognising an undifferentiated individual as being the basis of the nation obviously implied pleading for a culturally uniform nation. (Varshney ed. p. 129) The same concern was also expressed by B.R. Ambedkar, the Law Minister in Nehru’s first Union Government and Chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee, in the following words:
Our difficulty is how to make the heterogeneous mass that we have today a decision in common and march on the way which leads us to unity.
(Varshney ed. 2004, p. 132)
In the same perspective, S. Radhakrishnan, who later became the President of India in 1962, suggested that the following be included in the Preamble to the Constitution:
… with a view to develop a homogeneous, secular democratic state, the devices hitherto employed to keep minorities as separate entities within the state be dropped and loyalty to a single national state developed … we must put an end to the disruptive elements in the state. What is our ideal?. It is our ideal to develop a homogeneous democratic state. (Varshney ed. 2004, p. 135)
To concretise the idea of unity, the system of separate electorates, which was considered by a number of Congress members as responsible for the development of the ‘two-nation theory’ that finally led to the creation of Pakistan, was abolished. This was not acceptable to most of the Muslim representatives, who argued that their community should be rewarded and reassured since they had chosen to remain in India rather than go to Pakistan and had suffered a great deal from the post-partition riots. This demand was finally rejected by Sardar Patel, who headed the Minority Committee. He, however, did not oppose to the idea of reservation of seats for the Muslims. This idea, however, was not acceptable to some members of the Minority Committee like H.C. Mookherjee, a Christian leader, and including Raj Kumari Amrit Kaur. (Varshney ed. 2004, p. 132-134)
In April 1947, the Constituent Assembly had stated in an Article:
Minorities in every unit shall be protected in respect of their language, script and culture and no laws or regulations may be enacted that may operate oppressively or prejudicially in this respect.
(Varshney ed. 2004, p. 135)
The Constitution Drafting Committee had rewritten it in the following terms:
Any section of the citizens residing in the territory of India or any part thereof having a distinct language, script and culture of its own shall have the right to conserve the same. (Varshney ed.
2004, p. 135)
The Indian Union which was born with the proclamation of the Constitution on January 26, 1950, maintained the neutrality of the state against the aspirations of the Hindu traditionalists for a ‘Hinduisation’ of the Republic. The debates on the issue of national symbols are very revealing in this perspective. Hindu traditionalists such as Seth Govind Das and H.V. Kamath wanted to call the national flag, Sudarshan. Seth Govind Das wanted India to be officially called Bharat and H.V. Kamath wanted Bande Mataram to be made the national anthem.
The debates that ensued ended in compromises which were mostly unfavourable to the Hindu traditionalists. So far as the naming of India was concerned, after long discussions, it was finally decided to use the well-known formula of the first Article of the Constitution: India that is Bharat shall be a Union of States. Insofar as the national anthem was concerned, Bande Mataram was rejected in favour of Jana Gana Mana, which sings praises of India’s unity in spite of its regional diversity.
The national flag and emblem also ended up avoiding overtly Hindu connotations. The Indian Republic drew on its Buddhist legacy, giving itself both Indian and yet neutral official symbol and thereby ensuring that no single religious community would be able to state claims to them. The tricoloured flag bore the Chakra and the official emblem was the great Buddhist Emperor Asoka’s lion capital. The three colours of the national flag were also interpreted in the following way: the orange strip at the top was a symbol of renunication, the white strip in the middle with the Chakra represented truth and the given strip at the bottom was an allegory of the nourishing earth. The colour of the flag were appreciated by both Christians and Muslims for they viewed it as the best example of India’s multiculturalism. (Varshney ed. 2004, pp. 137-38)
The Constitution of India therefore did provide a space for diversity. Two concerns that were reflected were a) not only every citizen but also all the communities must have a level playing field in every sphere, and b) those who have historically suffered social debility of any kind must be given a constitutional guarantee of protective discrimination.
However, before we look at the guarantees provided to individuals and groups and institu-tional arrangements in the Constitution of India, let us briefly see how the management of diversity was articulated in the Preamble of the Constitution.
The objectives of the Constitution, laid down in the original Preamble, are to give to its citizens social, economic, political, justice, liberty of thought, expressions, belief, faith and worship and equality of status and opportunity. The Constitution also aims at building a tolerant and accommodative society and securing national unity by promoting fraternity assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity of the nation. The Preamble aims to accommodate diversity by guaranteeing every citizen justice, liberty and equality.
However, while the framers of the Constitution were content with unity, later politics brought back an emphasis on integrity too by including ‘unity and integrity of the nation’ through the 42nd Amendment of the Constitution in 1976.
In Part III of the Constitution certain articles are included—Articles 14-18 (Right to Equality), Articles 19-22 (Right to Freedom), Articles 23 and 24 (Right to Freedom of Religion) and Articles
29-30 (Cultural and Educational Rights), to accommodate the diverse groups existing in the country. (Ghosh ed. 2000, p. 133)
The various measures therefore were undertaken to strengthen the idea of unity and also to inculcate a sense of belonging to the nation. But in spite of all the steps undertaken, the minorities have not been able to associate with the majority. The divide between the two continues and in fact with the passage of time it has widened. This provokes one to identify the reasons which have been responsible for widening the gulf between the majority and the minority. Some of the reasons are:
Firstly, as far as the Constitution is concerned, there are certain flaws that prevail in it—
The Indian Constitution and the Hindu Code Bill define Hindus in such a way as to include Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs, the three protestant religious groups. According to the Indian Constitution, all those who profess religions of Indian origin are Hindus. The constitutional expansion hence denies the identity of minority religions as being of Indian origin.
Besides, the denial of identity of minority religions, the identity of even tribals is denied. From 1871 to 1931, the British Indian Census used terms such as ‘primitive, tribal or animist’ to describe the religions of the Scheduled Tribes and to a limited extent those of the Scheduled Castes. The first Census enumeration of indepen-dent India was done in 1951 and those tribals who were not converts to other world religions—Christianity, Islam, Buddhists—were automatically categorised as Hindus. Thus, through a mere definitional twist, the Census authorities of free India appeared to deny authentic religions identity of millions of Indians and thrust upon them an identity which they disown.
If one focuses on Article 25 of the Constitution, it assures not only freedom of conscience but also the right to propogate one’s religion. Propagation of religion may lead to conversion. Therefore, if the spirit of the Constitution is adhered to, the state should not intervene when people convert from one religion to another. While the state in India has never prevented conversion as such, it has intervened in the process of conversion alleging that fraudulent means have been used. The state intervention takes place due to ‘popular pressure’ only with regard to conversion to Islam and Christianity because these religions are perceived and defined as products of conquest and colonisation. In contrast, one does not come across any popular protest or state intervention even when substantial numbers of persons convert from one religion of Indian origin to another. Therefore, it is clear that state intervention is selective. This erodes the meaning of secularism as defined in the Indian Constitution.
The genesis of such discrimination may be traced to the Constitution which declared ‘no person who professes a religion different from Hinduism shall be deemed to be a member of a Scheduled Caste’ denying non-Hindus the statutory benefits that are accorded to Scheduled Caste Hindus.
In addition to all this, one can also see certain flaws in the functioning of the state. The state has intervened to change the personal laws for Hindus, Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs through the Hindu Code Bill and made them uniform. In contrast, the state is hesitant to change the personal laws of minority religions of alien origin although the Indian Constitution is committed to bring about a Uniform Civil Code. One can see a differential policy pursued by the state. If the state has to act as a reformer, then it should play the role vis-a-vis all the religious collectivities.
Besides this, one finds a weakness on the part of the state in dealing with communal riots. It has been seen that either the state is a silent spectator or if it acts, it does not operate in a neutral way. The first way of functioning of the state can well be seen in the case of Orissa which experienced the worst communal outrage in the last week of August 2008. During these riots, the Christian community was attacked: their churches were destroyed, pastors were attacked, one nun was burnt alive and there were reports of gang rape of another. Thousands of Christians left their homes and took shelter in the forest. This violence was confined not only to the Kandhamal district but spread to other districts too, killing, injuring and terriosing Christians and rendering thousands homeless. (Kanungo, p. 16, 2008)
The Biju Janata Dal (BJD)-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) coalition government failed miserably to protect the lives and properties of the Christians. The BJD Chief Minister, despite his secular convictions, gave in to political compulsion. The district police chief was suspended under BJP pressure and the Sangh Parivar was given a free hand to kill and terrorise the Christians minorities. The State Government therefore silently witnessed the death and terror which took 40 lives and made 10,000 homeless. (Kanungo, September
13-19, 2008, p. 18) The lack of firmness was reflected not only on the part of the State Government but also the Central Government.
The second way of functioning of the state is well seen in the February 28, 2002 communal riots that took place in Gujarat. In these riots more than 100 persons were killed in Ahmedabad alone. In Naroda Patia, 80 persons were burnt alive including women and children and a number of women was raped in full gaze of the public. In Gulbarg Society, Chamanpura 40 persons were burnt alive. About 700 hundred mosques and mausoleums were demolished; property worth Rs 10,000 crores were looted or burnt. Hundreds of Muslim families were totally uprooted. (Engineer, 2002, pp. 2-3)
In these riots, the police and the bureaucracy operated in such a way that safe guarded the interests of the majority community, that is, the Hindus. What is worse the Chief Minister Narendra Modi justified these riots and described them as a reaction to the action in Godhra. The honest officers who did not allow carnage in their areas were instantly transferred by the Gujarat Government. (Engineer, 2002, p. 2)
The aforementioned communal riots are just two incidents. But if one studies India’s political history, then one finds that it is dotted by numerous such communal riots. Thus, in spite of many years of independence, India has not been able to free itself of the curse of communalism. If anything, it has been getting worse year after year. According to Asghar Ali Engineer, there has not been a single year in the post-independence period which has been free of communal violence though the numbers of incidents have varied.
The inability to control communal violence leads to the weakening of the faith of the minority in the political system. They see it as dominated by the dominant community. The middle class, especially the elite Hindu middle class, is complacent. The poor and lower-caste Hindu community is silent. This silent majority has no opinion primarily because it has no confidence that its opinion matters.
Certain steps, therefore, are urgently needed to control the menace of communal violence. Some of the measures that can be taken are: Politics has to be separated from the domain of religious divides and more focus need to be placed on agenda of development, employment and equitable growth. The various institutions should function in a neutral fashion and in times of any crisis should act properly to prevent the loss of material and human resources. Besides these efforts, stringent laws should be made whereby the culprits of communal riots are strictly dealt with. What is also needed is that civil society groups, Left parties and secular forces should strengthen themselves. They should become so strong that they can unitedly combat the growth of fundamentalist forces. These various steps, if implemented, will instil not only a sense of security amongst the minority but will also prevent the loss of vast material and human resources. This will not only help the political machinery in diverting its attention to other pertinent issues dealing with development and growth but will also reflect the true secular character of the country. n
1. Engineer, Asghar Ali (2002), Communal Riots in India, www.sacw.net/2002.
2. Ghosh, Partha, ed. (2000), Pluralism and Equality: Values in Indian Society and Politics, New Delhi, Sage Publications.
3. Oomen, T.K. (2002), Pluralism, Equality and Identity: Comparative Studies, New Delhi, Oxford University Press.
4. Kanungo, Pralay (2008), Hindutva’s “Fury against Christians in Orissa”, Economic and Political Weekly, September 13-19.
5. Varshney, Ashutosh, ed. (2004), India and the Politics of Developing Countries, New Delhi, Sage Publications.
Dr Sarabjit Kaur is a Lecturer, University Institute of Legal Studies, Panjab University, Chandigarh.