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India's minoritism vs silent minorities

india Updated: Jan 25, 2012 15:29 IST
Abhijit Majumder

The Salman Rushdie affair shows up a terrible Orwellian subtext of our politics: In India, some minorities are more equal than other minorities.

The State seems to feel that 14 crore Muslims in India are a more vulnerable minority who deserve protection from a few writers gathered at a literature festival.

More mature western democracies bring a very wide range of social, ethnic and religious groups under the minority umbrella and protect the smallest group more fiercely than others. In India it is the opposite.

Our polity sees the term 'minority' purely through the electoral reading glass, and therefore, the largest minorities always get the right of voice (it is another matter that the Sachar Committee recommendations on development of Muslims is perhaps taken with the least earnestness across party lines).

It is time to introspect if the concept of minority should be broadened and refined from the current premise of "ethnic, religious or linguistic". If after six decades of freedom, political parties find it increasingly easy to cynically subvert a writer or a painter's contrarian work or opinion at the behest of hoodlums and bigots, there must be something very wrong.

Indian political reality can, with one broad, dismissive brushstroke, whitewash our silent minorities such as the people of the North-east, writers and artists, tribals, contractual labour, single parents, hookah smokers, live-in couples, prostitutes, queer and transgender adults, village schoolgirls, prisoners, and those shadows from dark mindscapes who inhabit our world without property or political rights - the mentally challenged. Their vulnerabilities are inversely proportional to their numbers. For the political class, none of them really matter, unless they are subsets of a much larger, meaty minority.

Take the North-east, for instance. The government has kept Manipur's anger burning with the fuel of indifference. How could we afford it?

Manipur is a silent minority. It has just two Lok Sabha seats. All Manipuris together decide on 60 assembly seats in the state. In Bihar alone, Muslims are believed to decisively influence about 60 assembly constituencies.

According to the National Aids Control Organisation records, there are about 25 lakh males having sex with males in India. There are about 80 lakh Buddhists and 42 lakh Jains, two relatively small religious minorities in India. But queer and transgender persecution continues, with the brief exception of the judiciary stepping in to decriminalise Section 377 in spite of some homophobic ministers and a government which refused to take a stand.

Studies have shown that more than 80% schoolgirls in Madhya Pradesh drop out of rural government schools because there are no separate toilets for girls, and sometimes there are no toilets in the school at all. Little has been done about it so far in a state where chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan fashions himself as the protector-in-chief of the girl child. The picture is much the same in most other states. But village schoolgirls are another silent group who won't vote in the next elections, and when they do, they won't vote as a votebank.

How many times, for instance, have live-in couples featured in a parliamentary debate? They are a relatively small but fast-growing minority group, vulnerable to societal oppression, housing issues and legal vagueness (although family courts have lately started trying to address this issue with some clarity).

We need to stop minoritism and start being aware, sensitive, and protective of our minorities, and to my mind, they include writers and artists like Rushdie, AK Ramanujan, or MF Husain. It is time to go back to the wonderful Preamble to our Constitution and ensure "liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship" and "equality of status and of opportunity".