Many Loose Ends

Minority Status: A Hoax?

Ardhendu Banerjee

Since the early days of independence, the word “minority” has played a significant role in the lexicon of Indian politics. The word “minority” is essentially a quantitative term, as evidenced by its Latin root “minor” and its definition in the dictionary as “the lesser part or smaller number.” It was, however, primarily conventional in Indian politics to use it as a plural noun or an adjective. There were several approaches to identifying a minority. The 2011 Census shows that, when it comes to religious minorities, the nation is home to 79.8% Hindus, 14.2% Muslims, 2.3% Christians, 1.7% Sikhs, 0.7% Buddhists, 0.4% Jains,0.7% Others, and 0.2 percent who did not wish to mention them. Based on caste and tribe, the percentages are as follows: 8.6% for tribes and 16.6% for scheduled castes. Based on socioeconomic criteria, the percentage of the backward class is 44 percent, as to the NSSO report 563. The census 2011 also indicates that there are 8.58% of persons are “senior citizens,” 0.03% are “beggars and homeless,” and 0.04% identify as “transgender or other.” In addition, minorities can be considered depending on categories like dwarfs, orphans, or any artistic workers etc, because all are very less in numbers while the population of India is considered.

However, the Indian government announced on October 23, 1993, through a Gazette notification (SO No. 816(E), F No. 1/11/93-MC(D)) that five religious’ communities–Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Zoroastrians (Parsis)–were designated as minority communities. Put differently, India’s secular system granted minorities recognition based just on their religion, disregarding the other criteria outlined earlier.But there is more to this choice than meets the eye; it has a distinct history that merits further consideration.Once upon a time The Constituent Assembly acknowledged minority reservations should be abolished for the nation’s benefit. Sardar Patel advocated for unity, envisioning India as one community, suggesting the dissolution of majority-minority distinctions for long-term harmony (Constituent Assembly Debates on 25 May 1949).Nehru acknowledged minority safeguards in a democracy but cautioned against their potential to isolate minorities and hinder their integration. He stressed the inevitable dominance of majority will in democracy, despite constitutional protections. He warned against minority actions that might convey distrust to the majority, advocating for unity and mutual understanding in the democratic process (Constituent Assembly Debates On 26 May 1949). So that, without a definite definition, the constitution in Articles 29 and 30 made it clear that these two protect the cultural and linguistic rights of Indian citizens, ensuring the conservation of distinct identities and granting minorities, based on religion or language, the right to establish and manage educational institutions without discrimination in funding by the state. It is important to keep in mind that the term “secular” was not included in the Constitution back then.

However, the real debate began in 1958. In the Kerala Education Bill case, the Supreme Court examined if any provisions violated Article 30(1) of the Constitution. It deliberated on the undefined term “minority,” questioning whether it’s based on numerical minority at the national or state level. The Court highlighted the ambiguity, suggesting the need for clarification regarding whether the 50 percent threshold applies to the entire Indian population or to a specific state within the Union. In the D A V College vs State of Punjab case (1971), it was established that the classification of religious or linguistic minorities is contingent upon the specific legislation being challenged. If the legislation pertains to a state, minorities are defined in relation to the state’s population; emphasising contextual determination within the legal framework under examination.Noteworthy here is the inclusion of the phrase “secular” in the Preamble, which was added by the 42nd Amendment in 1976. According to this, not only is there no state religion, but all religions—Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Christianity, and Islam—are equally respected. However, the establishment of the Minorities Commission in 1978 aimed to address minority concerns of inequality and discrimination, promoting secular traditions and national integration. In 1984, the Minorities Commission shifted from the Ministry of Home Affairs to the Ministry of Welfare. In 1988, the Ministry of Welfare amended the resolution from 1978, removing the commission’s authority over linguistic minorities. The National Commission for Minorities Act of 1992 defines minorities as communities designated by the Central Government, granting exclusive authority to the Central Government for such designation. As a result, the Indian government declared five religious’ groups as minority communities through a notification in 1993.

What advantage does this “minority” status offer? The same question was posed by the UPSC in 2011. The correct answer was it can establish and administer exclusive educational institutions and it can derive benefits from the Prime Minister’s 15-Point Programme. Let’s examine the answer. Reservation and minority status are often mistakenly equated, but they are not interchangeable terms. While there’s a widespread belief in this distinction, it’s inaccurate. On 9 December 2015 Shri Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi specifically said in Lok Sabha that, currently, there is no reservation for minority communities in Civil Posts, Services, or admission to Central Educational Institutions as designated by the Central Government under the National Commission for Minorities Act, 1992.So, what extra benefits do minorities receive? Do minorities receive better treatment than the majority in areas like food, water, transportation, health care, education, and so forth?

Indeed, they have the authority to establish and manage their own educational establishments. Then one must ask that, are Ramakrishna Mission schools and colleges, as well as different Vedic schools, unconstitutional? Since everyone in the nation has access to education and religion according to the constitution, what purpose does the term “minority” serve when it comes to separate madrasas or Christian universities and colleges? Does that specific faith guarantee the right to work or study for its members only? On March 24, 2022, Shri Naqvi said in the Lok Sabha that the NCMEI Act, 2014, which emphasises the educational empowerment of minority communities, establishes the National Commission for Minority Educational Institutions without making provisions for reservations for poor minority students. Furthermore, if a curriculum is adopted, it must adhere to a set general framework, like the National Education Policy 2020. If you do not recognise the framework of the curriculum, you will be left behind in various competitive exams. Then where is the relationship between minority status and educational institutions?

Conversely, the remaining 15-point programme makes up a public welfare programme. The government may choose to implement these security measures without labelling certain citizens as religious “minorities”, only if government has goodwill. Because many of these opportunities are available to the majority and the underprivileged masses through different names. So the ‘minority’ status ought to be eliminated since it is unquestionably a means of separating oneself from the core of the country. Labelling individuals as minorities, particularly those born in India, is deemed divisive and likely to fuel hatred and hostility between different groups, questioning the necessity of a minority class in Indian politics. Why then does this title still exist?

It is nothing more than a political party’s election strategy. The party with the most votes wins government in a parliamentary democracy. The BJP received 31.36 percent of the vote in 2014 and 37.36 percent in 2019. By contrast, if one takes ruling and opposition dichotomy, around 69 and 62.64 percent of the votes were cast against the BJP. Alternatively said, the BJP won with a percentage below fifty percent. This was made possible by the separation into multiple religious groupings, castes, sects, parties and other groups. Thus, insofar as the populace is separable, an exiguous-voting party can facilitate the establishment of a stable majority government. So in reality instead of the affection and sympathy that the "minority" had anticipated, they were given a hoax. It is not simple, though, as the "minorities" of today must choose between speaking up for equal citizenship rights and clinging to their status as a religious minority without any special benefit and remaining in subordination.
In 1992, Advani strongly opposed the granting of minority titles. In 2005 the Supreme Court refused to classify Jains as a minority under the National Commission for Minorities Act, citing the T M A Pai Foundation Case. It emphasised that treating minorities based on religion at a national level could undermine India’s secular fabric and exacerbate social divisions. However, on 27.01.2014 Jains notified as minority community by the then Central Government. Dattatreya Hosabale recently brought up this issue to review, though ten years have gone, yet the Modi administration has done nothing about it. The numerical notion has thus evolved into a qualitative concept, or, to put it another way, it has transformed into a singular noun. But one question remains: why?

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Vol 56, No. 51, Jun 16 - 22, 2024