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Defining minorities and their uses in India requires a change of thought

Muslims in India ought to have the status of a ‘smaller majority’. It is from such quibbles that policies for social justice can flow

columns Updated: Mar 18, 2016 21:03 IST
I don’t suppose the ministry of minority affairs has any business with the question of banning ‘Sikh Jokes’. It doesn’t seem to have attracted the support of Sikhs, who, as the late Khushwant Singh did, see laughing at oneself as a sign of cultural maturity.
I don’t suppose the ministry of minority affairs has any business with the question of banning ‘Sikh Jokes’. It doesn’t seem to have attracted the support of Sikhs, who, as the late Khushwant Singh did, see laughing at oneself as a sign of cultural maturity.(REUTERS)

Has India always, or at least since 1947, had a ministry of minority affairs? At any rate, it is probably a necessity in the present government. Since the BJP came to form the government with a healthy mandate, there have been questions about the security of, and social and political equality for, the minorities and wholehearted commitment to these from our rulers and the forces they control.

To be fair, the questions have only arisen in the context of the Muslims and Christians of India. Those who favour and follow what is known as the Hindutva ideology, or at least the extremists of this tendency, stand accused of attempts to characterise Muslim Indians as not quite full-fledged citizens. I am trying to choose my words carefully.

The killing of an individual suspected of storing beef in his refrigerator, the murder of scholars who are in any way critical of the emerging ideology, the attack on Muslim actors who have made determinedly sensible and patriotic remarks, the battles on university campuses which characterise perfectly legitimate protest and obey the tenets of free speech as treason — these and other sinister developments might merit stronger language.

I am sure all the members of the present government don’t support in any sense this tendency. There is Najma Heptullah, the minister for minority affairs, who surely dissents from it. I think one of her outstanding tasks is to redefine the brief of her ministry. Indian Muslims should not be seen as the ‘minority community’. Here’s where arithmetic and political expression come into conflict. Yes, there are fewer Muslims in India than there are Hindus and that should give them the status, not of a minority but of a ‘smaller majority’. It may seem like a semantic quibble but from such quibbles, policies of empowerment of social justice should flow.

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The real minorities of India, and I am sure Najmaji has very many definitions and categories of them, are, by religion, the Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, Jews and Zoroastrians.

The Hindutvaterrati have attacked Christian missionaries in very vicious and even murderous ways, but seem to have left the rest of us minorities (I write as a Parsi of Zoroastrian descent) alone and even on occasion celebrated them.

I don’t suppose the ministry of minority affairs has any business with the question of banning ‘Sikh Jokes’, for which there is an individual case initiated in the courts. It doesn’t seem to have attracted the support of millions of Sikhs, who perhaps, as the late Khushwant Singh did, tolerate the jokes and see laughing at oneself as a sign of cultural maturity.

If Sikhs were the only minority to suffer such jokes, the objection would carry more weight. Just as Americans have jokes about Poles and the British have jokes about the Irish, Pakistanis have funny stories about Bangladeshis, Indians have jokes about Bengalis, Malayalis, Biharis and Parsis.

As a member of the Parsi community, I quite enjoy Parsi jokes, especially those perpetrated by one of us. A Parsi journalist, asked about why our numbers were dwindling, said, “Because half of us are gay and the other half are statues in Mumbai!”

And then there was the one about a gathering of Parsi gentlemen where one says to the other “my wife is pregnant,” to which the reply is “Oh dear, I’m so sorry, whom do you suspect?”

I don’t think any Parsi will go to court about these or indeed appeal to Heptullah to initiate a parliamentary bill banning them. In fact, I gather that Heptullah is quite supportive of this particular minority community and her ministry has sponsored an exhibition called The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination in the National Museum in New Delhi.

The exhibition opens today and is open till May 31. The reason I’ve already seen it is because it was curated by the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) of University of London and was shown in London in 2013. It is now on the first step of what its originators call an ‘International Tour’.

Accompanying the exhibition will be an extension, which wasn’t a part of the display at SOAS. It features, among other things, a recent Bollywood film called Ferrari ki Sawaari. The title doesn’t give away the film’s connection with the history of Zoroastrianism, but I’m sure its selectors have some critical criteria which relates this 2012 Bollywood comedy to the theme of The Everlasting Flame.

The film, directed, acted (with the exception of Zoroastrian Boman Irani) and produced by non-Parsis tells the story of a Parsi father determined to get his son to play cricket at Lord’s. The determination leads him to steal the Ferrari of Sachin Tendulkar and the car’s journey introduces a gaggle of comic characters in set-piece situations and some genuine drama.

The film was a critical and financial success and may delight its audiences, but the only connection that one can see to 3,000 years of Zoroastrian history is that Parsis have evolved from being the Achaemenid rulers of the known world and the Sassanian conquerors of Rome to being good fun for Bollywood audiences. We have our uses.

(Farrukh Dhondy is an author, screenplay writer and columnist based in London. The views expressed are personal)