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Defining India’s minorities

Saturday 14 July 2007, by HASAN*Zoya

A meaningful conception of minorities would include sections of people who, on account of their non-dominant position in the country as a whole, are targets of discrimination and therefore deserving of special consideration.

The Constitution (103rd Amendment) Bill, 2004 to grant constitutional status to the National Commission for Minorities envisages a change in the way minorities are specified. The Cabinet has reportedly approved a proposal (May 2007) to define minorities State-wise in line with several Supreme Court judgments, most notably that in T.M.A. Pai. For the purpose of this legislation, minority will be specified as such in relation to a particular State/Union Te rritory by a presidential notification issued after consultation with the State Government; this will be in addition to the five minorities (Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Parsis) referred to in the NCM Act, 1992. The new approach is not consistent with the understanding developed in the Constituent Assembly on the protection of minorities and the constitutional compact between the State and minority groups.

Although the Constitution does not define a minority or provide details relating to the geographical and numerical specification of the concept, it is clear that the constitutional scheme envisages this to be determined at the national level. Periodic judicial interventions and categorisation has had major repercussions. Over the years, judicial pronouncements have sought to give a restricted meaning to minority rights by limiting them to education and defining minorities at the State level in terms of protection under Article 30 which provides religious minorities the right to set up educational institutions of their choice. The legitimation of a restrictive conception of minority rights can also be noticed, in this context, in the Central Government’s proposal to adopt a State-specific notion of minorities. Supreme Court principle

In the 2002 judgment, in T.M.A. Pai Foundation & Others vs. the State of Karnataka and Ors, the Supreme Court deliberated on the various contentions that the Centre, State, or a particular region within a State may be considered as the basic unit for protection of the right of minorities to set up minority educational institutions, and whether a minority in a State would lose its minority status if within a particular region of the State it happened to be in a majority. The Court has set out the principle that minority status should be determined in relation to the population of the State and not to India as a whole. It ruled that as the reorganisation of the States in India had been effected on linguistic lines, for the purpose of determining a minority, the unit would be the State and not the whole of India. Thus, religious and linguistic minorities, who have been placed on a par in Article 30, have to be considered in terms of the State concerned. Not surprisingly, this issue surfaced again in Bal Patil (2004) and Srivastava (2007); these two judgments have further complicated the question of definition of minorities, as both these judgments relate, for the most part, to definitional issues. Bal Patil questioned the identity of Sikhs as a religious minority while Srivastava ruled that Muslims, by virtue of their numbers, cannot be considered a minority in Uttar Pradesh.

The principal rationale for State-specific minorities rests on the idea that the linguistic reorganisation of States necessitates that they be treated as the basic unit for determination of minorities. As both linguistic and religious minorities are covered under Article 30, both sets of minorities have to be State-specific. The linguistic reorganisation of States meant that, for the purpose of Article 30, linguistic minorities had to be determined in relation to the State because their language was not one of the official languages; other minorities are those whose mother tongue is an official language but who live outside the State(s) where the language is official.

In this sense, the linguistic reorganisation of States has a definite bearing on linguistic minorities because protection under Article 30 is available not only to the linguistic minorities sharing the major languages of the States, but also to speakers of the numerous languages that are not represented by any particular State on its own.

As regards religious minorities, linguistic reorganisation should not really matter in the exercise of their right to set up educational institutions of their choice or seek admission in such institutions or the exercise of other minority rights. In comparison to linguistic minorities, for whom the official language matters, there is no congruence between religious identity and State boundaries. For protection under Article 30, linguistic minorities make claims upon the States rather than the Centre, but this need not be so for religious minorities who are dispersed throughout India and whose identity is not linked to specific State(s). In this context, defining minorities at the State level would limit the notion of minorities, entailing as it does the adoption of an essentially statistical conception of minorities. Thus, a religious group, which is numerically smaller than the rest of the population of the State to which it belongs, would be entitled to be termed a minority in that State even though the group may be numerically in a majority in India as a whole and hence not lacking in power or voice in the decision-making structures. This will doubtless add to the list of minorities and extend the benefits of minority entitlements to these groups, even as it will deny the same benefits to groups that are minorities in accordance with nationally and internationally accepted definitions of minorities. Scope for distortions

Such a State-specific conception of minorities will result in distortions in minority rights. If this rationale is extended, Hindus in Punjab who are a numerical minority there though they are a majority in relation to India as a whole will be entitled to minority protection there as indeed they would be in Jammu and Kashmir, Nagaland, Meghalaya, Mizoram, and Lakshadweep. To take another example, failing the statistical test, Sikhs in Punjab and Christians in the above States will be held to be a majority and consequently deprived of constitutionally sanctioned minority rights. In Punjab, the minority Hindus will be able to set up educational institutions of their choice and apparently Hindus from other States will be eligible for admission to these institutions unless admission is to be limited to minorities domiciled in the State.

By the same logic, Christian students will be ineligible for admission in minority educational institutions, such as St. Stephens College or Loyola College, as they will not have a domicile minority status there. In other words, eligibility for admissions to minority educational institutions will be limited to minorities domiciled in the States, and what is more, some minority community applicants will not be able to avail themselves of minority quotas outside their State(s) because they are not a minority in their own States.

At the heart of the current controversy is confusion about which groups qualify as minorities and regarding the nature of the unit of determination under this rubric. However, internationally, some agreement exists. Commonly cited characteristics that make groups distinctive and expose them to discrimination include religion, language, culture, and gender. There is also a unanimous opinion that the term ‘minority’ refers to a power relationship. In this, the size of a group may bear some relation to the degree of power it wields, but presumably because other factors are also involved in the equation, the relationship of group size is not all that significant.

Contrary to this widely accepted perception of minorities, the Government’s new proposal for State-specific minorities is driven by a statistical or numerical approach. The size of the group is not what should concern our policy-makers or those committed to eradication of inequity, prejudice, and discrimination. This is because numbers per se merely quantify and describe the proportion of a group in a population; they do not tell us anything about whether a particular minority group is powerful or powerless, advantaged or disadvantaged, represented or under-represented. A more meaningful conception of minority status would include sections of people who, on account of their non-dominant position in the country as a whole (not a specific State), and because of their religion, language, caste or gender, are targets of discrimination and therefore deserving of special consideration. The statistical approach disregards the crucial qualitative condition of vulnerability and disadvantage.

The numerical proportion of a population of a particular community in a State, distinguishable on religious grounds, cannot entitle it automatically to minority rights.

The temptation to treat minority educational rights as similar to other minority rights has limited the concept of minority rights to the ambit of Article 30 and to the operational details of administering minority educational institutions at the State level. Aside from matters that fall under the purview of Article 30 protection, on most other substantive issues of equity, identity, and security, religious minorities frequently lean on the Centre in the hope that it is less likely to fall under the sway of narrow sectarian concerns and will be guided by a constitutional vision and philosophy rooted in ideas of fairness, justice, and equity. In the circumstances, defining and confining the category ‘minority’ to States is not the best way forward; it would be far more helpful to recognise the comprehensive character of minority rights, in consonance with the demands of substantive equality, to include them by revisiting the concept of affirmative action. This would be in step with the slew of policies and measures currently under consideration to address the economic, social, and educational deprivation that minorities experience.

(Zoya Hasan is a Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University.)

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