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Published in the 16-30 June 2005 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

“Minority” redefined

Participation in governance at every level

By Syed Shahabuddin

The Milli Gazette Online 

In our political and social parlance the word ‘minorities’ has become a code word for Muslims, though sometimes it is extended to cover other religious minorities, the Sikhs, the Christians, the Jains, the Buddhists and the Parsis. But we also have linguistic, caste , regional, racial and tribal minorities. What is more important is to underline that any self-conscious identifiable group which may command a majority in the country as a whole or in a state or in a part thereof automatically forms a minority in some parts of the country and in some other States or Union territory or districts or Prakhands or Panchayats. To take the obvious example, the Hindus which form a majority in the country as a whole are a minority in J&K, Punjab and several NE States and in the Union Territory of Lakshadweep and in many districts. Muslims who form a majority in J&K and in Lakshadweep are a minority in all other States and UT’s. Sikhs, a majority in the Punjab and in many districts thereof, are a minority in the country, in all other States and UT’s and districts thereof and in some districts even in the Punjab. To sum up, every majority group is a minority at some level in some parts of the country and any minority group forms a majority somewhere at some level.

To take another example, the Hindi-speaking people do not form a majority in the country but, as the biggest single group, form but a linguistic minority in all other States/UT’s than a majority in UP, Bihar, MP, Rajasthan, Haryana, Uttaranchal, Himachal Pradesh and Delhi. All other national languages except Urdu and Sindhi form the majority group in their home State but linguistic minorities in all other States/UT’s. On the other hand, Urdu and Sindhi form a minority group in all States and UT’s.

Similarly there are many racial and tribal and even ‘regional’ minorities, like Biharis in Maharashtra, Santhals in Assam or Nepalis in Meghalaya, which form minorities practically in all States/UTs and districts.

The situation of ‘castes’ – the characteristic feature of the Indian society – is much more complex. Within the Hindu Chaturvarna system, almost every caste group is a minority in every State/UT and every administrative division thereto. Let us try to comprehend that the terms ‘upper castes’, ‘intermediate castes’ and ‘lower castes’, are sociological terms while the terms ‘Scheduled Caste’, ‘Backward Classes’ and ‘Other Backward Classes’ are constitutional terms to depict an aggregate of castes and sub-castes. The caste with which the people generally identify as upper castes are Brahmin, Kshatraya; Vaishya, Bhumihar, Kayastha, the Yadav, Koeri, Kurmi etc., among the intermediate castes or the Shudras; and, Chamars, Dusadhs etc. among the Achhuts. The ‘Scheduled Tribes’ is also a constitutional term for an aggregate of tribal groups, also called Adivasis. The SC’s and the ST’s, are constitutionally identified as the Backward Classes. Every state has now identified SC’s (largely Achhuts) and ST’s (largely Adivasis) as well as other social groups as Backward Class. They are called OBC’s (largely Shudras).

The country is governed progressively more and more at 4 levels, the Union, the State, the District, the Block and the Panchayat, at which rights of citizens are being continuously determined by elected governments or their bureaucracy or nominated authorities. Travelling down the stricture, the horizon changes from one level to another and every new horizon yields a different picture of the numerical configuration of majorities - minorities.

For example, J&K, a Muslim majority state has districts with a Hindu or Buddhist majority. In these non-Muslim majority districts there are sub-districts – call them blocks, tehsils, sub-divisions with a Muslim majority, and in Muslim majority Tehsil etc, you find non-Muslim majority Panchayats. In those non-Muslim majority Panchayats, one may find Muslim majority villages. Thus, as you go down the ladder of governance, the picture goes on changing. 

Every Panchayat, Block or district or State may thus have a religious or linguistic or racial community or caste which forms a majority or the biggest social group while all other distinct social groups within the same administrative jurisdiction form minorities.

There may be identifiable groups which are widely scattered and form a minority at all levels throughout the country, say, Brahmins or Vaishyas, except in small pockets they may form a concentration and sometimes a majority for historical reasons.

Constitution and Existential Reality
The basic principle of the Constitution is Equality before the Law which is enshrined in Article 14. Thus every citizen, irrespective of his place of residence, enjoys equal rights and is entitled to be treated equally, irrespective of the numerical strength of the social group to which he belongs whatever be his religion, language, race, caste, tribe, or place of origin or of domicile or gender or vocation. The existence of minorities - religious, linguistic, racial, tribal, caste and their collective rights are recognized both nationally and internationally. In fact minority rights are but another facet of human rights.

Existentially, however, there is a natural tendency to treat as the ‘other’ anyone who is different by religion, language, race, caste, place of origin or even vocation. This sometimes creates a situation of hostile discrimination and breeds injustice against an individual or his group. Such discrimination and consequent injustice become more explicit when at a given level, in particular jurisdiction, one group is politically, economically or socially dominant. Numbers matter in a democracy and the minorities have to accept their disabilities, even a state of deprivation, in terms of legal rights or material benefits, as a fact of life. The constitutional and legal problem is how to limit such natural tendencies and to ensure individual and collective equality for the minority groups.

On the other hand, some minority groups at a given level tend to demand special rights or privileges or claim more than their due share of the common resources. Such a quest on the part of a minority group is self-defeating, counter-productive and even provocative of retaliation. 

For proper and humane governance, a minority group needs to be identified in relation to social demography at every level of governance in order that its grievances, sometimes exaggerated and unreal, may be looked into and redressed. Unfortunately, at every level, the majority group tends to deny the very existence of plurality, preaches the virtues of assimilation, assert unconvincingly, that all groups are the same; ‘they are all children of the same mother’; ‘they are equal under the law’; they enjoy equal opportunities; they have equal access to power. These majority chauvinists are not blind. They are self-centred and wish to swallow everyone else’s share and deny their due to the minority groups. Sometimes they adopt the attitude of the Big Brother and silence all expressions of protest and are deaf to all cries for justice and attribute the lower share or lower level of achievement of the minority group to its culture or religion or mindset or due to its inbuilt incapacity or even laziness. Neither non-assertion by the minority groups nor denial by the majority can help bridge the gulf of discontent.

Norms for Participation in Governance
Democratic governance implies political empowerment of all sections of the people i.e. participation in making of laws, in formulation of policies and programmes and in their execution and in controlling the implementation or the administrative machinery and in distribution of the services and the benefits among the people.

In the age of ethnic upsurge and assertion of identify - the demand of PAHCHAN and IZZAT, no group is prepared to abdicate its right, withdraw from the race and deny itself or content itself with less than its due. In a democracy, every social group legitimately aspires to and has a right to due representation in every sphere of governance, including policy-making. Every group demands representation and because there is a symbiotic relationship between the members of a group and its representatives, no group is prepared to abdicate its right to see its face in the power structure.

Norms for Representation in Legislatures and Elected Bodies
Under-representation is a fact of life – giving rise to a sense of deprivation, frustration, alienation, aloofness, separatism. Such under-representation in elective bodies, particularly parliament, assemblies, Zila Parishads, Panchayat Samitis and Panchayats militates against generatory confidence in the system and, therefore, against national integration.

No group has a right to weightage/over-representation. The natural limit is set by its proportion in population in the relevant area.

Present electoral system breeds under-representation for minority groups in legislatures and other elected bodies, specially for those which are widely scattered over a wide area. In a communally charged environment, such a minority group has no chance at all to coin because the majority group will not vote for it.

This situation must be remedied. It can be addressed only by suitable changes in the electoral system – a) by introducing reservation as in the case of SC’s and ST’s; b) or by replacing the present First-Past-the-Post (FPP) system by Proportional Representation System.

Representation in Political Executive 
Composition of government in a democracy is a prerogative of the head of government but the prerogative must be exercised to give a nation a representative, not a sectarian or partisan government. Unfortunately we have not even developed a convention to ensure that the Union or State government or even the Panchayati Raj institutions represent the whole and not a part of the electorate. Most Council of Ministers, say, at the Centre, have had overwhelming representation of one group, say, Brahmins, at the cost of the others.

Sometimes the representation of the minority groups in the government is reduced to tokenism. Not only they are under-represented but fobbed off with inconsequential portfolios or sub-portfolios.

It is time to consider whether the Constitution may be amended to ensure representation of all major groups and regions of the country.

Norms for Representation in Public Employment 
Persistent under representation of the minority groups is a fact of life. No group is genetically deficient. Social bias operates in selection by merit against minority groups and even against small sub-groups within the majority. There is no ideal remedy except Universal Reservation for all groups, in proportion to their population in the zone of selection and their level of backwardness, with strict elimination of the creamy layer except in the general quota.

The Government should, as a matter of policy, post officers belonging to minority groups in departments which are concerned with law and order, intelligence, welfare, programmes, education and health and in administrative units where they form a sizeable section of the population for building confidence. But unfortunately such officers are generally marginalized and assigned to field rather than live posts.

Similarly, there should be due representation of the minority groups in discretionary appointments like Boards, Corporations, Commissions and Committees not on the basis of political patronage but of competence.

Management of Policies and Development Programmes 
Central and centrally-administered Development schemes should either be universal in application or provide quotas for all groups according to social demography of the operational area. This includes schemes for higher and professional education and flow of bank credit. The quotas should be subject to universal criteria for eligibility e.g. minimum qualifications for admission to higher education.

Equitable Distribution of Power, Benefits and Resources
From the above we can draw the conclusion that at every level of governance, it is possible to define the services that the State or the empowered authority provides, the right of the people thereto and the share that is due to each citizen as an individual or to each social group even for mini and micro group.
There has to be a cut-off limit in distribution but the mini-groups and micro-groups can be accommodated through aggregation with a major group of their choice or with several mini or micro groups forming a viable aggregate exceeding the cut-off limit.

Equitable distribution of the social resources at various levels among all social groups call for structural change both in the political and administrative system. But even under the existing scheme of things, it is possible to bring about a degree of justice and equity, at least in case of social services and development programmes, if the State adopts a policy of distribution to ensure that no group however small is ignored or deprived.

Of course no question of distribution arises if a facility or a service or a concession is universally available to all citizens on the basis of factually verifiable criterion e.g. a living pension for the aged person or a widow with no support and without any means of sustenance, or, a mid-day meal for every school student or a bank credit to every unemployed graduate for setting up a self-employment unit or a piece of government land for every homeless family to build a house, or, a primary school for every population unit of 300.

All minority groups face exactly the same problems and disabilities, though a particular local minority group may receive a degree of support from its kin who form a majority in the upper levels or those well-placed in administration or politics. But structural reform can lead to a just distribution of social assets, resources and services and equal opportunity. Erosion of the lines dividing minorities from the dominant majority is possible through universalization and equitable representation. The Minorities Question cannot only be decommunalised but raised above all social distinctions and differences. This will remove social tensions and harmony will prevail if every social group knows the rules of distribution and receives its due.«


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