Minority Rights in theory and practice
The most sacred of our laws - the Constitution- contains a number of articles that guarantee the rights of minorities to lead a life of dignity and equality. However, to enable us to assess the actual impact of the comprehensive legislation for an egalitarian society conceived by our founding fathers, I wish to flag certain news items that have appeared in the national press in the last two months - cases and incidents that we have read without even raising an eyebrow because they are so commonplace.
The first news item I allude to appeared in a national daily in early March. “Mohammed Amir Khan, aged 32, walked out of Rohtak jail after 14 years in custody. He was accused in 20 terror cases. Courts pronounced him ‘not guilty’ in one case after another. But before he was released, he had lost everything. His father died, his mother got paralyzed, acquaintances deserted them and the family was stigmatized forever.” In this so-called great democracy of ours, there are hundreds of innocents like him who have been subjected to such colossal and unacceptable injustices only because of the religion they profess. Is it any surprise then that when a bomb explodes, cold fear grips the entire Muslim community? In this climate of injustice and oppression, is there any hope that the law-abiding Muslim will be treated fairly and decently which is all that he demands?
Another significant happening last month was covered by only one or two English national dailies, perhaps because it was such a routine affair. I refer to two separate incidents involving plain clothes policemen, who barged into a building in Jamia Nagar in the dead of night and attempted to whisk away innocent citizens for questioning without any authorization. These incidents brought to the fore the terrible discrimination the Muslim has to contend with even in the nation’s capital. The most frightening aspect was that the perpetrators of the terrible injustice are supposed to be guardians of the law. It would appear that the Delhi Police have evolved a new concept of jurisprudence in which in normal cases a person is innocent unless there is some evidence of wrong doing, whereas for the Muslim, the principle is that he is guilty until he proves his innocence beyond doubt. Ironically in both cases, it was the vigilance of the neighbours that helped rescue these innocents from the police predators.
Next, I came across a news item that appeared about a month ago that in Bhavnagar, a doctor belonging to the majority community finalized a proposal to sell his house to a Muslim. However, the sale was not permitted by the neighbours who sat on dharna outside the doctor’s home until he jettisoned his plan to sell. In another recent case in Ahmedabad, the appointment of a Muslim professor to an institution had to be cancelled because the institute was unable to persuade anybody in the vicinity to rent out a flat to him. In point of fact, the Gujarat state government has enacted a law preventing distress sale in areas dominated by another community, clearly with the intention of isolating and segregating Muslims in ghettos. We should not be surprised at what is happening in Gujarat, because right under our nose in the national capital, Muslims of all classes are essentially corralled in ghettos in areas like Jama Masjid, Jamia Nagar, Hauz Khas, Seelampur and a few other areas with dismal civic amenities, due to the fact that they are refused rented accommodation elsewhere. The social exclusion of Muslims in many areas makes a mockery of article 38 which enjoins upon the State to secure a “social order in which justice, social, economic and political, shall move all the institutions of the national life”.
As the home to the world’s great religions, we in this country have always prided ourselves on our tolerance and respect for every religion. Yet we have all read the recent media reports that 10 years after the horrible Gujarat massacre when more than 400 masjids and dargahs were destroyed, most of the structures remain broken, vandalized and defiled to this day. It is reported that one of the pre-conditions set by the villagers in many rural areas for the safe return of the victims from the relief camps was that their places of worship would not be repaired or reconstructed. Despite the strong recommendation of the NHRC, the state has flatly refused to rebuild the dargahs and mosques destroyed in 2002. This has further heightened the feelings of social deprivation among the Muslims.
Even children have not been spared from this all-encompassing trap of marginalization and exclusion. I would like to draw your attention to the news report in The Hindu about two weeks ago about the discrimination against Muslim children in nursery admissions in private schools of Delhi. The educational backwardness of Muslims is seen by social scientists as one of the prime reasons for their alienation and poverty, for which the panacea is inclusive education. But, paradoxically, because of communalization of the public space, Muslims are unable to access the opportunities available, leading to their continuing isolation and ghettoisation. The issue came up in Parliament, and the discussions there touched a raw nerve. The MPs of the BJP responded to this exposé by stating that Muslims should first close down their madrasas if they wished to get into the educational mainstream. Little do these insensitive and hard-hearted men realize that Muslim parents desperately seek an inclusive and secular education for their children and the madrasas are actually the last resort. The tragedy for the Muslim today is that the public discourse, even in Parliament, is imbued with distrust and hate.
I can go on and on about basic human rights, forget minority rights, being flouted in almost every sphere - be it employment opportunities or neglect of Urdu although it represents the very best of our composite culture. However, I wish to mention only one more issue where the high principle enunciated in Article 15 of the Constitution prohibiting any discrimination on grounds of religion has been blatantly abused by the lawmakers themselves. For decades now, there has been a demand for granting SC status to SC Muslims and Christians on par with the Buddhists and Sikhs of SC origin but this issue remains unresolved. This denial constitutes the worst form of State-sponsored discrimination against Muslims and Christians. The Constitutional provisions and amendments, as interpreted by our lawmakers, seem to bear an uncanny resemblance to the philosophy of our home-grown right-wing fundamentalists. The key concept propagated by the leading ideologue of the fundamentalists explicitly distinguishes between followers of “indigenous” religions from those that originated elsewhere. Just a month ago, that inveterate hate-monger, Pravin Togadia, made an impassioned plea for a new Indian Constitution that allows for anyone who converts Hindus to be beheaded. He went on to assert that “we Hindus should include Budhists, Sikhs and Jains because their line of thinking is no different from Hindus.” According to the fundamentalist ideology, Muslims and Christians are foreigners in India which rightly belongs to the religions born here. Tragically, a similar mindset is evident in the denial of SC status to Muslims and Christians while granting this concession to Budhists and Sikhs. The main argument against giving SC status to Muslims and Christians is that SCs who convert to these religions no longer face any social stigma. Nothing can be more untrue. The great Mahatma, who knew this country and its people better than anyone else, had this to say on the subject and I quote: “whether the harijan is nominally a Christian, Muslim, Hindu or Sikh, he is still a harijan. He can’t change his spots from Hinduism so-called. He may change his garb and call himself a Catholic-harijan or a Muslim-harijan or a neo-Sikh, his untouchability will haunt him during his life-time.” Can the Constitution of this great land be “tainted” by endorsing this totally unacceptable discrimination against these minority groups? Let me remind you that Articles 14 and 15 of the Constitution sanctify equality on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth. Despite the noble intentions of our founding fathers, the lawmakers continue to endorse RSS’ thesis of distinguishing between religions born in India from those that originated elsewhere.
The future is frightening, to say the least. The most deviant, anti-minority, right-wing ideas designed to promote bigotry and religious fanaticism are being freely aired in the public space. However, the scariest of all is the indoctrination of the young in the gospel of hate. Apart from the scores of shishu mandirs, we have nearly 30,000 Vidya Bharati schools whose declared objective is, and I quote, “to develop a national system of education which would help to build a generation of young men and women that is committed to Hindutva and infused with patriotic fervour”. It is well known that votaries of “Hindutva” have infiltrated the different institutions of governance, even the army. It may be recalled that the key conspirator in the Malegaon blasts was a serving army man, Lt. Col. Purohit. The Bhonsla Military School in Nasik which was used as a training ground by the Malegaon conspirators continues to flourish, and there are plans to open similar schools in all BJP-ruled states. There are more than 40,000 RSS shakhas across the length and breadth of the country. When one considers that one of the primary missions of all these institutions is to create and breed distrust and hatred of particular minority groups, it is clear that our founding fathers’ cherished dream of universal brotherhood and a secular and egalitarian polity is under grave threat. In fact, a few days ago, at his book launch, Harsh Mander, the well-known social activist and intellectual, lamented the fact that hatred and distrust of Muslims are freely aired in drawing-rooms and offices, so effective and toxic has been the anti-minority propaganda.
In conclusion, I wish to state that this country, by and large, has enacted laws that guarantee the rights of minorities. But as Clarence Darrow, the humanist who fought relentlessly for the rights of blacks in America, famously observed, no matter what laws we pass, unless people are kind and decent and humane to one another, there can be no justice or peaceful existence, for in the ultimate analysis, peace and freedom come from human beings rather than laws and institutions. Sadly today, the country has little of brotherhood or “the Indian spirit”.Only a strong political will can counter the insidious, toxic fumes of discrimination, hatred and unequal treatment faced by Muslims in almost every walk of life. Unfortunately, the so-called secular formation in power seems to think that by granting reservation quotas which will provide jobs for a handful of Muslims, they will have rendered justice to the community. What this country badly needs are political leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru who famously said, “If any man raises his hand against another in the name of religion, I shall fight him till the last breath of my life, whether I am in government or outside.” Till we get such enlightened leaders, the victims will have to depend on intrepid, well-meaning people like you to carry on the fight for a truly egalitarian society. The author, a former civil servant, is Secretary General of Lok Janshakti Party and can be contacted at email@example.com