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Not just a status symbol

It may be a colonial invention, but notion of ‘minority’ is as real today as ‘India’, writes Mushirul Hasan.

india Updated: Apr 11, 2007 07:06 IST

The political scientist, Rajni Kothari, observed that one way to think about India is as a people and a land made up of a series of minorities. He was right. In the first all-India census in 1881, the enumerators found that Muslims numbered only 19.7 per cent of the population. They uncovered a geographically dispersed aggregate of Muslims forming neither a collectivity nor a distinct society for any purpose, political, economic and social. Out of a total population of about 50 million, the Muslims in Bengal spoke Bengali and those in Punjab used largely Punjabi as their language. Those living in Tamil Nadu spoke Tamil; those settled on the Malabar coast spoke Malayalam.

The enumerators found Muslims whose religious rituals had a very strong tinge of Hinduism and who retained caste and observed Hindu festivals and ceremonies. In Bengal, between the 15th and the 18th centuries, many Muslim cultural mediators wrote in Bengali. They expressed Islam in the local cultural medium, an idiom greatly enriched in the same period by translations of the great Hindu epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, into Bengali, and the expression of Nath and Vaishnava teachings.

The entry of Muslims in South Asia through so many and such separate doorways, their spread over the subcontinent by so many different routes, and the diffusion of Islam in different forms from one area to the other, ensured that this religion would present itself in those different forms. Neither to its own adherents nor to non-Muslims did Islam seem monochromatic, monolithic or indeed mono-anything.

The notion of ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ is a colonial invention. It did not exist under the Mughals: the lines of division then were regional and ethnic (in the way they are in the United States today) rather than religious. Under colonial rule, however, the introduction of representative institutions in late 19th century raised fears of minorities being swamped by the majority. They were echoed by Syed Ahmad Khan of Aligarh and, importantly enough, by the Hindu Sabha and the Akalis in Punjab where the Hindus and the Sikhs were in a minority. In December 1916, the Congress concluded the Lucknow Pact with the League on the principle that the Muslims were a religious minority. The Nehru Committee Report in 1928 lent its approval to the notion of a Muslim minority in need of constitutional safeguards.

The Muslim spokesmen had a three-fold aim: to trace the historical evolution of an imaginary community as an antithesis to the Congress theory of ‘Unity in Diversity’; to emphasise its distinct identity in order to extract concessions from the government; and to invoke Islamic symbols in defence of ‘Muslim aspirations’. This is how ‘Muslim nationalism’ gained legitimacy in the eyes of the Muslim landed and urban-based professional classes who were apprehensive about their position in the newly-created power structures. Hence every single step from 1909 to 1935 towards the devolution of authority to Indian hands lent weight to notions of majority and minority rights.

The British government had created a Muslim identity in Indian politics through the Acts of 1909 and 1919. Now, in the 1940s, they could draw comfort from M.A. Jinnah repeating much the same arguments in support of a formal minority status through separate electorates, weightages, and reservation in the councils and public services. Later, they backed his Pakistan project as a reward for his supporting the war effort.

After Independence and Partition, leaders like Maulana Azad questioned the standard definition of a minority, arguing that “their heads are held so high that to consider them a minority deserving special concessions makes no sense”. Nobody heeded such advice. Muslims regard themselves as a minority and there is nothing one can do to change that self-perception. This perception is grounded in history and, what is more, it draws legitimation from the constitutional provisions guaranteeing minority rights. These cannot be taken away by an executive fiat or a judicial judgment. Let us remember that the issue at hand was not the minority status of Muslims but to find ways and means of integrating them into the nation-building project.

How does one draw up the balance sheet on Indian democracy? It is generally agreed that the Constitution balances well the commitment of a democratic and liberal State to provide equal status for all and the need to take account of weaker and backward groups. The Muslims, on the other hand, have been economically marginalised and are disproportionately located towards the lower end of the socio-economic hierarchy. They lag behind the majority in income, in education, in participation in the major institutions of the country.

In June 1983, the Gopal Singh Committee had stated in no uncertain terms that the Muslims were “the hewers of wood and drawers of water”. Now, in November 2007, the Sachar Committee’s findings point to the “deficits and deprivation in practically all dimensions of development”, and to the absence of any great schemes that would stir the Muslims from a long sleep and beckon them to a prosperous future.

Why do the Muslims lag behind the majority? What does one do to mitigate the effects of those factors that make so many of them so much more poorer and backward than other Indians? Somebody must have the answers. The Manmohan Singh government, proceeding on the right assumption that the Muslims constituted a minority and recognising their uneasiness over their economic status, has initiated certain administrative measures. They deserve unqualified support.

Let me draw your attention to another compelling need. One of the crucial functions of most Constitutions is to protect minorities against the tyranny of the majority. This protection ensures equal respect for each and every citizen, a value at risk in any organisation run by majority votes. Therefore, the need is to preserve the idea that all citizens deserve to enter public space on equal terms and conditions. Indeed, as Malini Parthasarathy, the former editor of Hindu, pointed out, “It is time that those Indians who pride themselves on being part of the global community yet have bought unquestioningly the notion that the minorities are responsible for some imagined economic deprivation, ask some hard questions. By driving the minorities to the margins of a civil society of which they are equal inheritors and thereby polarising Indian society, rendering it more vulnerable to bitter internal conflicts, how can the dream of a modernising India becoming part of a wider global community, sharing a vision of faster economic growth and greater prosperity, really materialise?”

Minorities do not expect miracles to transform their lives, but they expect the State to guarantee them their right to observe and practise their religion, and provide them the opportunity, regardless of their faith, to lead a dignified and self-respecting existence. “A majoritarian democracy is no democracy at all,” declared Justice M.N. Venkatachaliah. “It is only a participatory, representative and inclusive democracy that can take a pluralistic society further and make it conflict-free.”

Whether Indian secularism can survive in any meaningful sense in the 21st century will depend on how religious minorities can share power and privilege and, at the same time, preserve and safeguard their religious and cultural interests that are enshrined in our Constitution. Jawaharlal Nehru had proclaimed in September 1950, “People should learn the great lesson that the inscriptions on Asoka’s pillars teach that a man respecting the religion and culture of others increases the value of one’s own. If the religion or culture of others is run down, to that extent the value of one’s religion and culture is lowered.”

Mushirul Hasan is Vice Chancellor, Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi

First Published: Apr 11, 2007 06:31 IST