Rights And Wrongs

Minorities in South Asia

Neha Dabhade

The Centre for Society and Secularism (CSSS), Mumbai had organized a session during the People's SSARC (PSAARC) regional convergence on 24th November, 2014. The session was called Rights of Minorities in South Asia. The objectives of this session were in the main to understand the nature of violation of rights of minorities in South Asia and create a strong network of organizations across South Asia to consolidate existing or establish new mechanisms to address such violations. Approximately 40 participants from countries like India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh attended the session. The session started with a brief introduction of all the participants present. Then Adv Irfan Engineer, Director of CSSS briefly outlined the purpose of the meeting. He contextualized the discourse of rights of minorities in South Asia by tracing the consciousness of minorities in South Asia to the colonial times where the colonial rulers forced and induced migration of huge populations for cheap labour which would work to their benefit. However this migration changed boundaries and political systems. To further problematize this point he emphasized that this migration rendered majority community in one country of south Asia as a minority community in other country of South Asia. This made, their status more complex. The states perceive the demands or rights of minorities as a challenge to their authority. Though there were some attempts to address the plight of minorities through pacts like Nehru Liaqat Pact, largely South Asia has been a battleground for imperial interests and a theatre of violence and intrigues during the cold war. This sowed the seeds of civil strives and fundamentalism which is a threat to security and peace of the region and especially of the minorities which are already marginalized in South Asia.

Mr Harsh Mander, Director of Centre for Equity Studies, who delivered the keynote address, pointed out to an uneasy state existing between the minorities and governments. Concerns of minorities become complex when one community is minority in one country and majority in another. The minorities though in less numbers, have a deep sense of deprivation. The deepest fracture is based on religious identity. Their concerns or anxieties were highlighted by Mr Mander which can also be the focus or reference points of drafting a charter of minority rights. These are namely—firstly, identity based on religion, language, ethnicity or culture, secondly security which implies freedom from all forms of violence and fear and thirdly development or equity where there is secure livelihood and inclusive development. While elaborating these three, he further explained that the true essence of democracy and secularism is respecting differences and not looking for sameness. This is the distinguishing feature of secularism in the context of south Asia and secularism in Europe where the secularism is synonymous with assimilation e.g. prohibition on wearing turban or hijab in France. Due to oppressive demands of the State and disregard for diversity, people feel safe in a country where their community is in majority. However this condition failed as observed in Bangladesh. What ensures fearless existence and rights of minorities is the space and freedom to have own identity and practice their culture in an atmosphere of respect. The diversity in South Asia has enriched its culture. At the same time there has to be security where the minorities feel safe and live without intimidation or fear. This security becomes more meaningful when it translates into security of livelihood. The minorities which face discrimination and marginalization must be able to have an equal stake in development where they can also participate as an equal member. These principles can create a safe space and thus discourage communal forces to not use religious identity to spread hatred or violence. Everyone must have the freedom to practice any religion one wants or not practice any religion at all. That's true meaning of democracy. Unfortunately in almost all South Asian countries, this democratic space is shrinking where freedom of expression is curbed. Many places like in Burma, secret meetings are called to discuss violation of rights since these topics are very sensitive and any dissent is ruthlessly crushed.

In order to address these issues and protect the rights of minorities in South Asia, Mr Mander suggested that a Standing Committee is formed consisting of members from all the countries of the region. This Committee can take up the task of drafting a charter of rights of minorities in South Asia incorporating the three concerns illustrated above.

In the following session, participants from each country narrated the situation of the minorities in their country. The narratives of minorities in countries as shared by the participants mirrored the concerned raised by Mr Mander. The problem of minorities is political and democratic rights must take into account and reinforce rights of minorities. What aggravates the problem of minorities is aggressive market driven economy which strongly influences the mindset of the middle class. The elite class wishes to perpetuate their dominance at the cost of the marginalized and the minorities. Thus ideologies like capitalism must be attacked which deepens the disparity between the rich and the poor. This results and also reflects lopsided development which is not inclusive.

Outlining the situation in Bangladesh, Mr Moinuddin stated that there are many minorities in Bangladesh based on religion, ethnicity and sexuality. Hijra community is an important community in Bangladesh. Yet minorities are facing problems. It's unfortunate that the Hindu population in Bangladesh has reduced from 27% in 1947 to 10% now. There are instances of forced migration. There are 45 ethnicities which form 1% of the population like Marma and Chakma communities. However some of these ethnicities are becoming extinct due to the threat of Islamization. This is starkly reflected in the case of Chittagong where 97% of the population was of other religions and nationality. Today the percentage stands at a reduced 50%. This is very unfortunate for democracy. Persecution of minorities takes place because the majority supports it. Thus there is a failure on the part of the electorate in electing secular leaders. Democracy is not the rule of majority and thus interests and concerns of minorities too must be represented and found expression through their representation.

K Balakrishnan from Sri Lanka stated that Sri Lankan population consists of 72% of Sinhalese, 12%-13% of Tamils, 8% of Muslims and Indian Tamils for plantations around 7%. Discrimination and oppression is faced by minorities in Sri Lanka on the basis of race, religion and class. That's also the case with Indian Tamils. They find themselves in a relationship of racial inferiority with Sinhalese Buddhists who propagate themselves as racially superior. Even if they are numerically superior there is fear or insecurity about the minorities. Article 29 u/s b in the Constitution and the Citizenship Act denies rights to Tamils. By the Act passed in 1956, Sinhalese was given the status of the official language of the country. Buddhism is the official religion of the country. This plunged the whole country in a long struggle for rights and assertion of identity as demanded by Tamils who felt marginalized. Tamils resorted to violent means to demand that Tamil language should also get official status and recognized. Once again in 1972, the Constitution snubbed the Tamil aspirations. 1983 witnessed an anti Tamil pogrom. The issues of inclusion and power sharing still exist. The State has brutally responded to such aspirations and in turn the Tamils also brutalized the community. Many children were abducted to become soldiers in the war.

The situation in Pakistan too is much nuanced. The minorities have no stake in economy and development. And similarly they are disfranchised also in the bureaucracy. They minorities are not represented in the bureaucracy. There is a quota of 5% in Pakistan for minorities in employment but they are never given posts of high responsibility or rank. They are given the jobs in the less lucrative or priority department of sanitation. The stakes are not equal even in the sphere of housing rights. Women's safety is ignored too. This discrimination invokes a sense of insecurity. This is natural when a community is denied citizenship rights. What makes the minorities more of embattled communities in the country, is the frequent attacks on lives and property. The houses of Christians are burnt. There was a recent incident where a Christian couple was burnt alive in Lahore. Though the civil society organizations were in solidarity with the community and the issue, this issue was not raised in the Senate. Clearly political processes must be inclusive and sensitive to the issues of minorities if there has to be a legitimate channel for their redress. This in a way reflects the biased mindset against certain sections of the country. For instance, the Dalits and aborigines in Pakistan are still a deprived community. When the mass exodus during partition was taking place from Pakistan to India and vice versa, they chose to stay in Pakistan due to the attachment to the land they live on. Only rich people having secure and resourceful lives could migrate out of Pakistan. Disappointed with the oppressive caste system and the inhumane practice of untouchability in every sphere of life, Bhil and Koli communities in Pakistan chose not to migrate to India. 80 lakhs from these communities still live in Pakistan. Like in the Indian sub-continent, equal opportunities or treatment was not given to all in education in Pakistan based on caste. Spitting for lower castes was prohibited. These practices and oppression they believed would end in the State of Pakistan and they would have equality and dignity in this new State. But unfortunately discrimination is still prevalent in Pakistan against Dalits and aborigines. What is indicative of this discrimination is that of scheduled castes amounting to 80% have just 2 representatives from the community out of 10. Political participation of minorities thus is resisted. More seats must be given to minority communities to ensure their proportionate representation in political processes and power sharing.

However in the discourse of minorities and discussions on their rights, it would be rather simplistic and futile to view them as a monolithic populace with uniform needs, experiences and aspirations. Gender, like caste, is a construct or identity which forms a basis for discrimination. There is a disturbing trend that women from minority communities are forced to convert into Islam during marriage. Rapes are common which violate women's bodies and agency. Hence any discussion on rights of minorities will not be comprehensive if gender justice and perspective is not integral to them. Women must be included during planning or implementation of any charter of rights of minorities.

Similar problems are faced by women in India too where rapes and sexual exploitation of women from minority communities is rampant. This was especially disconcerting during the Muzzafarnagar riots. When violence was meted out to the Muslims, the Chief Minister of the State didn't take any action to stop the violence clearly hinting at a governance deficit. Even the MLAs from Muslim community were mere spectators. In protest when some civil society organizations boycotted observance of minority day which is on 18th December, the Secretary in the state wasn't even aware that 18th December was minority day.

To further understand the concerns of minorities in India, Mr Bashir Ahmad from Kashmir made a crucial point. While contextualizing the plight of mmorities in the region he comes from, he explained that Hindu Pandits are a minority in Kashmir. Their exit from the region was unfortunate. This exit was reflective of the large sense of insecurity that prevailed there. Thus minorities within minorities must be taken into account when policies for minorities are formulated.

At the end of the session, Mr Karamat Ali, from PILER, Pakistan and Irfan Engineer summed up the discussions and proposed a plan for future action. In South Asia, colonial powers introduced capitalism which demolished the native culture. On the other hand, a different governance system was imposed which paradoxically institutionalized feudal interests. This has made governance not very inclusive but a tool for politics of the elite. For efficient governance which will protect the rights and spaces of all sections of society, governance must be based on justice and respect for all cultures. Institutional mechanisms which serve as a barrier for discrimination must be strengthened to protect the vulnerable sections like minorities, women, Dalits and adivasis from marginalization.

[source : Secular Perspective, December 1-15, 2014]

Vol. 47, No. 29, Jan 25 - 31, 2015