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Above: Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy at an iftar party in Bengaluru/Photo: @CMofKarnataka/twitter

A PIL before the Karnataka High Court forced the Karnataka government to withdraw an order ensuring that the chairmanship of the body remained the exclusive preserve of Muslims

By Stephen David in Bengaluru

In a major move, the Karnataka government on January 28, 2019, withdrew its earlier order which stipulated that only Muslims could be appointed as chairperson of the state minorities commission. The withdrawal came just four days before a PIL challenging a 2017 notification, which stated that the top post in the commission was only for Muslims as they comprised the largest group among the six communities officially listed as minorities, was to come up for hearing.

Following this, a division bench comprising Justices Ravi Malimath and BM Shyam Prasad closed the PIL petition, filed by a lawyer from Shimoga, that had questioned the government’s order justifying the appointment of only Muslims to head the minorities panel.

In the revised order, as per Sub-section (2) of Section 3 of KSMC (Amend­ment) Act 2011, the state government said that the Commission can now have a chairman who can be picked from the six constitutionally guaranteed minority faiths—Christian, Jain, Buddhist, Parsi and Sikh, apart from Muslims.

The Karnataka State Minorities Commission (KSMC), an independent body established in 1983, has had chairpersons from the Muslim community largely because of their numerical strength in the state: around 13 percent of the state’s around seven crore population. Other minority communities’ population is less than two percent. The 2011 census figures for Karnataka show that the Muslim population (12.91%) in Karnataka is much higher than the other communities—Christian (1.87%), Jain (0.72%), Buddhist (0.72%), Parsi (0.1%) and Sikh (0.05%). Despite the skewed figures, representatives from the non-Muslim minority communities were applying pressure on the government for representation as chairpersons.

“The government should have opted for a rotation policy and could have thus avoided the matter going to court,” says a Christian clergy leader. “The new move of the state government is a welcome development, that persons from other minority faiths will get to occupy the chairman’s seat, though the primary motive for the government must have been the vote-bank factor.”

The charge of minority appeasement is a hot-button issue, so successive governments did not touch it. But JD(S) leaders—both former Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda and his son Karnataka Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy—have been vocal about backing and supporting candidates from the Muslim communities. The current minorities affairs minister, Zameer Ahmed Khan, has been a close friend of Kumaraswamy, although he is from the Congress party.

The KSMC was set up with the aim “to preserve secular traditions, promote national integration, undertake effective enforcement and implementation of all the safeguards provided for the minorities in the Constitution and in the Central and State laws and also to evolve sta­te policies and schemes in this regard”.

The Commission enjoys statutory status and is vested with powers under the Commissions of Inquiry Act, 1952. The KSMC Act was amended and the most important amendment was Karnataka Act 13 of 2016 which conferred Powers of Civil Court on the Commission. It is meant to work as a liaison bet­ween the public and the government, and be a forum for ventilating grievances.

The Commission has eight members, including a woman representative. Among other functions, it has to examine the working of various safeguards provided in the Constitution and in the laws passed by the state legislature for protection of minorities.

These include making recommendations for implementing the prime minister’s 15-point programme; conducting studies, research and analysis on questions of avoidance of discrimination against minorities; making a factual assessment of representation of minorities in government undertakings, government and quasi-government bodies and in case representation is inadequate, suggesting ways and means to achieve the desired level; making recommendations for ensuring, maintaining and promoting  communal harmony in the state; looking into specific complaints regarding deprivation of rights and safeguards of minorities and taking up such matter with the appropriate authorities.

In May 2018, a sub-committee of the Nat­ional Commission for Minorities (NCM), looking into whether Hindus could be granted minority status in seven states and one Union Territory (UT), especially in the North-east, had said that “Hindus cannot be granted minority status at the national level due to Constitutional boundaries”.

The NCM had set up the committee based on a plea filed by BJP leader Ashwini Upadhyaya, whose petition on the matter was rejected by the Supreme Court in November 2017. The apex court had directed him to approach the NCM.

This petitioner had argued that in the absence of “minority” status to Hindus in these states and the UT, benefits meant for minorities were being given to the majority community in an “illegal and arbitrary manner”.

According to the 2011 Census, Hindus are in a minority in Lakshadweep (2.5 percent), Mizoram (2.75 percent), Nagaland (8.75 percent), Megha­laya (11.53 percent), J&K (28.44 percent), Arunachal Pradesh (29 per cent), Manipur (31.39 percent), and Punjab (38.40 percent).

The NCM had set up a three-member committee—headed by its vice-chairman, George Kurian, a BJP leader from Kerala—on the question of granting minority status to Hindus in seven states and one UT. Announcing the findings, NCM chairman Syed Ghayorul Hasan Rizvi had told the media that “since the Cons­titution mandates minority status to be granted to only six communities, there can be no further alteration in that. However, states are at liberty to implement their own minority classification”.

The Constitution has not defined the word “minority”; it refers to “minorities”, based on religion or language, and the rights of minorities have been spelt out there in detail. Six religious communities—Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Zoroastrians (Parsis) and Jains—have been notified in the Gazette of India as minority communities. The prime minister’s 15-point programme for the welfare of minorities is an overarching programme, covering 24 schemes and initiatives of 11 different ministries/departments. In order to ensure the benefits of the schemes flow equitably to minorities, this programme stipulates location of a certain proportion of development projects in minority concentration areas. It also provides that, wherever possible, 15 percent of targets and outlays under various schemes should be earmarked for minorities.

Whether heads roll to accommodate members of other minority communities or not, the Karnataka government’s move to tweak its rule is a major step that may see members from other minority groups as chairpersons in minority commissions throughout the country.

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