The minister’s statement shows an abysmal misreadings not only of the constitution but also of own party’s manifesto.
By Jagdish Sagar
Najma Heptullah, the new minister of minority affairs, started with some fireworks: “Muslims,” she said, “are not a minority”. There were enough of them, she felt, and her real problem was to increase the number of Parsis. Under questioning, she backtracked: “Till I get guidance from the prime minister (PM), I will not draw a roadmap for my ministry.” Admittedly, then, she was just shooting her mouth off. That controversy has fizzled out now, with the PM’s speech replying to the debate on the president’s address.
But the minister already had a roadmap, if she’d read her party’s manifesto: “It is unfortunate that even after several decades of independence, a large section of the minority, and especially Muslim community, continues to be stymied in poverty. Modern India must be a nation of equal opportunity… . India cannot progress if any segment of Indians is left behind.”
The manifesto backs up that powerful statement with a solid “to do” list for the minister that she could (pending further guidance) have got started with: Ensure access to education and jobs without discrimination, modernize madrasa education, promote Muslims’ livelihood and entrepreneurial opportunities, improve Waqf Boards, ensure a peaceful and secure environment, curate the Muslims’ rich heritage and culture, promote Urdu, and much more. The president’s address contained a brief summary and the PM’s reply to the debate put passion into it.
The manifesto is consistent with that: “BJP believes that in India’s ‘Unity in Diversity’ lies India’s biggest strength. We cherish the depth and vibrancy that the diversity in Indian society adds to the nation. BJP is committed to the preservation of the rich culture and heritage of India’s minority communities; alongside their social and economic empowerment.” Muslims, with reason, are the only minority referred to specifically; the manifesto promises to “curate” the Muslims’ “rich heritage and culture”.
The best construction one can put on Ms Heptullah’s out-of-the-box loud thinking is that she wanted Muslims to think of themselves as being like everyone else. But, then, how many people think of Muslims as being like themselves? Do more, or fewer, people do so than in the past? Few in India, with its youthful population, are likely to know that Rajasthan, Bihar and Maharashtra, respectively, have had chief ministers named Barkatullah Khan (1971-73), Abdul Ghafoor (1973-75) and Abdul Rehman Antulay (1980-82). It wasn’t a big splash at the time, but would be unthinkable today.
Coming back to the legal and constitutional issue, the National Commission for Minorities Act doesn’t identify any specific minorities: it leaves that for the government to notify and, in 1993, the government notified all the main religious minorities, in demographic pecking order starting with Muslims and ending with Parsis, but leaving out Jains. In Bal Patil & Anr vs Union of India, the Supreme Court dismissed a petition to add Jains to the list. But it did not strike down classification in terms of religious minorities, it merely suggested: “The Commission instead of encouraging claims from different communities for being added to a list of notified minorities under the Act, should suggest ways and means to help create social conditions where the list of notified minorities is gradually reduced and done away with altogether.”
Identifying minorities by religion, to give them a leg up, is thus not to be a permanent feature, but is permissible as a transitional one. Ms Heptullah’s job, like the commission’s, is to help create conditions under which notified minorities can be deleted from the list, not shorten the list by fiat. It’s a no-brainer that under foreseeable conditions Muslims would be the last off that list and Parsis the first. On Muslims, those now in power already had a daunting credibility gap to traverse, and are visibly trying to do just that, but the new minorities minister hasn’t been helping.
Finally, there’s nothing in the act or the constitution (or in common sense) that could justify singling out a religious community for help simply to multiply its population. Most would agree that Parsis are our most law-abiding, productive and deservedly prosperous community. They’re an asset and it is saddening to see their numbers diminish, but there isn’t anything the government should atry to do about it: they are people, they are not zoo animals.
When Laws Decree
Nevertheless, reading between the gaffes, Ms Heptullah did actually raise a couple of serious questions: who are the minorities and what is proper for the state to do for them?
In Pakistan, a minority is anyone the Government says isn’t a Muslim. But ours is a secular state in which we don’t pigeon-hole people by their religion. It’s no accident that the constitution nowhere defines a “minority”; where used, the term has a specific mea-ning in a particular context.
* Article 30 gives “all minorities, whether based on religion or language” the right to establish and administer their own educational institutions and still get the same government aid; for this purpose, Muslims are obviously a “minority”. But no other fundamental right is specifically for minorities identified by religion. The religious freedoms guaranteed under Articles 25, 26, 27 and 28 are for everyone, even foreigners, while they’re in India. (Not even the Sikhs’ religious right to carry kirpans, included in Article 25, has anything to do with being a minority or even a citizen.)
* Article 29 gives any “section of the citizens”, not specifically a religious community, the “right to conserve” its “distinct language, script or culture” if it has one.
The distinction between “script” and “language” is real. Apart from its script (and the inherent cultural baggage of this or any script), Urdu is arguably a variant of Hindi sharing a common syntax and colloquial vocabulary. Today, the BJP manifesto is right to include Urdu among its priority Muslim concerns but within living memory (if you’re my age) Urdu wasn’t particu-larly Muslim; especially in spoken form it was the lingua franca of Bollywood and North India.
Early in the last century, Mahatma Gandhi favored Hindi as a “universal national language for India…with the option of writing it in Persian or Nagari characters” and requiring everyone to know both scripts. Two scripts for variants of the same language isn’t new: Malayalam has been written in the Arabic script; Konkani in the Devnagari and Roman scripts. Further afield, the relationship between Serbian and Croatian is something like Hindu and Urdu.
A religion, then, can’t own or be specially identified with, a “language”, at least not a modern spoken language. What about “culture”? Beards or burqas, turbans or kirpans are more obvious (if optional) religious markers than language, but are they markers of any essentially different “culture”? “Culture” is a chameleon word. But, anyway, Article 29 requires India to be multicultural, and seems to leave it to sections of citizens, self-identified, to themselves know whether they have their own distinct culture and what that culture is: a religious group thus can be a “section of citizens” under Article 29, though only to preserve its culture.