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Published in the 1-15 Aug 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

ISSUES
Minorities and the right to equality

The terms minority and minority rights seem to carry associations of privileging, appeasement and undesirable separatism especially in India where the politics of minority rights during the British period is largely held responsible for partition of the country. Though the concept and the term persisted throughout the Freedom Movement, leading to its acquiring Constitutional status, its unsavoury association got forcefully reflected in some of the speeches during the debate in the Constituent Assembly, to the extent that its removal from the dictionary was sought, as it was considered the creation of the British.

Human rights norms promote the sane vision of a person's or group's right to be different, yet equal. How to translate this motto into a consensus and into a blue print for Constitutional-legal-institutional reforms as well as voluntary social mobilization is a challenge to all those who want to promote diversity in the humanist framework in the region.

The idea got expressed in a less drastic and irrational manner by Dr. S. Radhakrishnan who, while giving approval to the unanimous adoption by the Constituent Assembly of the recommendations on Constitutional safeguards - political, economic, educational and cultural - for minorities on 27-28 August 1947, expressed the vision of future India as "a homogeneous, democratic secular state''.

Radhakrishnan was obviously not implying cultural-religious homogeneity, but was expressing the fear of disintegration in case segments of the polity, especially religious minorities, who had been guaranteed population-based seats in Central and Provincial Legislatures, did not willingly accept the process of integration. It is this fear caused by the shadow of partition that led to the scrapping of the provisions under Articles 292 and 294 for due share of minorities in legislatures - making Muslims, who had been given solemn assurance of fairness and magnanimity by the majority, remain permanently underrepresented in the Parliament and State Assemblies from 1952 till 2004.

Are the sections representing Hindu cultural nationalism prepared to review their position on minorities afresh, and go beyond the slogan of 'justice for all and appeasement of none'? The Hindu right is well advised to ascertain what has really happened to religious minorities in India since 1947, and to what extent it is they who, by demonizing Muslim religion, culture and history, are responsible for denial of equality to Muslims even during successive Congress governments at the centre and states.

Dr. Ambedkar's concluding observations in the Constituent Assembly that minorities should not perpetuate themselves seem to enjoy wide acceptance in the country. Integration of minorities with the majority is viewed almost universally desirable in India, though the connotation of integration may differ from the far right to the left. The other part of his observation that the majority should not discriminate against minorities has however been universally neglected in the country.

What are the implications of non-perpetuation of minorities? Language and to a lesser extent religion are elements of a quasi-permanent identity of a person and so is the cultural/ethnic identity based on language and religion. No sane government - dictatorial, monarchic, or democratic - or majority should expect assimilation of these identity features of minorities, like those of Bangladeshi Hindus and Buddhists, and of Christians, Ahmediyas and Hindus in Pakistan, Tamilians and Muslims in Sri Lanka, and of Muslims, Christians and Sikhs in India, into the majority.

It is this idea of multiculturalism, based on the celebration of diversity, that has gained worldwide momentum under the aegis of human rights movement, which treats a person's ethnic, religious and linguistic identity features as part of her/his dignity, freedom and equality, provided they are not violative of human rights norms.

Under human rights norms, it is the common domain of polity and economy of a country wherein all citizens must enjoy effective equality, for which special measures are required to be taken to remove varying degrees of exclusion and discrimination that minorities are generally subjected to. This is how a desirable integration of all segments of society can be achieved by pursing the policy of making all national institutions reflect the existing social diversity, as far as possible.

In the separate domain of religion, language and culture, the smaller and weaker segments i.e minorities have not only the right to preserve their identity but the State has an obligation to create conditions favourable for preservation of that identity. For example provision of necessary facilities to the Indian Sikhs to visit their holy shrines in Pakistan is an obligation of the Indian State.

The relation between the distinct identities of the majority and minority is a complex one, having numerous facets, depending on the historical context and contemporary situation. One reality about 'identity' is the presence of cherished abiding features and those that are changeable. Who is to be the agent of change of identity? The democratic process of voluntary change by the group through the mediation of free market of ideas and artifacts is a valid one, whereas forced assimilation, like that undertaken by the post-independence Governments in Uttar Pradesh to suppress Urdu script, is illegitimate, requiring Constitutional safeguard and mechanism of redress.

Further there is need for minorities and majorities to interact and share space in the separate domain of identity, for mutual benefit and enrichment. Multiculturalism, has to be supplemented by interculturalism - that is how all cultures have developed. For pragmatic reasons also members of the minority and majority have to know, appreciate, share and absorb identity features of the other.

All these concerns have been taken adequate care of in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging To National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, 1992 and its explanatory Notes by Asbjorn Eide. Fortunately for India, the Indian National Congress which was leading the Freedom Movement conceived of a united nationhood in these very terms, as expressed in its following resolution of 26 October 1937 : 

The Congress has solemnly and repeatedly declared its policy in regard to the rights of the minorities in India and has stated that it considers its duty to protect these rights and ensure the widest possible scope for the development of these minorities and their participation in the fullest measure in the political, economic and cultural life of the nation. The objective of the Congress is an independent and united India where no class or group or majority or minority may exploit another to its own advantage, and where all the elements in the nation may co-operate together for the common good and the advancement of the people of India. This objective of unity and mutual co-operation in a common freedom does not mean the suppression in any way of the rich variety and cultural diversity of Indian life, which have to be preserved in order to give freedom and opportunity to the individual as well as to each group to develop unhindered according to its capacity and inclination.

In India and other countries of South Asia there is a need for developing clarity and consensus on the concept of common domain of citizenship, requiring special measures for non-discrimination enabling minorities to effectively enjoy their right to equality, and the separate domain of distinct identity requiring support of the State for its preservation. Integration, not assimilation, will thus be achieved by a democratic process of official policy of protection of rights and by groups' voluntary mutually beneficial interaction. 

It is in the area of special measures, say reservation of seats in legislatures, that Dr. Ambedkar's plea for non-perpetuation is valid. All such special measures may be subject to review within a time frame. But permanent preservation of cherished features of distinct identity like, say the Urdu script, cannot be viewed as undesirable. It is the majoritarian urge for assimilation, and intolerance based on historical memories of real as well as imagined past, which is the source of present-day conflicts in India.

Human rights norms promote the sane vision of a person's or group's right to be different, yet equal. How to translate this motto into a consensus and into a blue print for Constitutional-legal-institutional reforms as well as voluntary social mobilization is a challenge to all those who want to promote diversity in the humanist framework in the region.

Are the sections representing Hindu cultural nationalism prepared to review their position on minorities afresh, and go beyond the slogan of 'justice for all and appeasement of none'? The Hindu right is well advised to ascertain what has really happened to religious minorities in India since 1947, and to what extent it is they who, by demonizing Muslim religion, culture and history, are responsible for denial of equality to Muslims even during successive Congress governments at the centre and states.

In this regard liberal secular even leftist sections of the political and intellectual class in India have to review their obsession with secular-communal paradigm. By juxtaposing secular with communal, they have rendered any sectional/segmental demand for due representation to appear as 'communal' and therefore illegitimate. These sections have been defending rights of minorities in abstract secular terms, without caring to examine whether the purpose of secularism i.e. equality of treatment by the State is being achieved. On the contrary publication of disaggregated data on minority representation in public services, discretionary appointments and distribution of benefits of the State is considered anti-secular, even anti-national. It has resulted in exclusion and discrimination against minorities hardly ever becoming an issue under the human rights or other secular forums. The institutional promotion of social diversity is no one's concern. It will be a good exercise to ask all institutions, enjoying State support, to publish data on their members and administrative staff to ascertain the percentage of minorities in them. In the National Human Rights Commission's administrative staff Muslim representation is less than one per cent. It is thus neither practising nor preaching the mandate of Durban Declaration and POA 2001 requiring all institutions to be socially diverse. 

Iqbal A. Ansari
iqbalansari2001@hotmail.com
 

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