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No devil in the detail

india Updated: Dec 28, 2011 23:33 IST

Hindustan Times
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In a resplendent celebration of democracy, Indian citizens elect 545 representatives to the highest lawmaking body in the land, expecting them to possess both personal integrity and the clinical acumen to formulate laws in accordance with the Constitution. The spate of financial irregularities shows the tattered state of that integrity. The ongoing flip-flop apropos a quota for minorities within the lokpal has now exposed the lawmakers' ignorance.

The word minority is arguably the most abused and misused word in the political and social lexicon of India: a term exploited by parties for political advantage and a convenient epithet that religious groups use to hog extraordinary privileges. But is 'minority' a legitimate term? Does it have an exclusive religious connotation as per the Constitution? Does the Constitution designate certain religious groups as minorities?

The answer is a resounding no. The Constitution does not define the word 'minority' anywhere in its voluminous expanse. 'Minority' (or its plural form) finds fleeting mention in three articles, 29, 30 and 350, giving the impression that our founding fathers were extremely wary of using this exploitable terminology.

In Article 29, the word 'minorities' appears in the marginal heading but not in the text. Additionally, this clause makes no mention of religious minorities, merely stating that 'any section of citizens… having a distinct language, script or culture of its own shall have the right to conserve the same.' Article 30 speaks specifically of two categories of minorities — "religious and linguistic"— while dilating on the right of minorities to establish and administer educational institutions. But here again the Constitution refrains from explicitly naming any particular group as a religious minority. References in Articles 350A and B are to linguistic minorities, not religious ones.

The Constitution, therefore, does not categorically define who is a majority or a minority and what constitutes a minority religion, let alone identifying such an entity or entities specifically by name.

Was this an oversight on the part of our founding fathers? Did they, out of negligence, forget to address such a weighty issue in a caste-ridden society wracked incessantly by communal discord? Or was this a deliberate omission to nip nascent divisive tendencies in the bud and chart the course for a classless society. The latter seems to have been the idea.

Working along these lines, and obviating the need for anyone to be privileged as either a minority or majority, the Constitution stipulates that there should be no discrimination of any sort. Article 15 prohibits the State from making any 'discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth' and Article 16 ensures that these factors do not play a deciding role in matters relating to employment or appointment to any office under the State.

Our founding fathers have provided us with a sage and robust roadmap to build a unified and egalitarian society. Unfortunately, we seem to be doing everything possible to thwart that dream by resorting to self-serving interpretations and obfuscations that are not logically, morally or practically tenable.

Vivek Gumaste is a US-based academic and political commentator. The views expressed by the author are personal.