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Aren't we all minorities, Mr Chidambaram?

By Vivek Gumaste
November 09, 2009 19:14 IST
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A secular state cannot subscribe to the concept of a majority and a minority for it is that very inequity that a secular state strives to eradicate, argues Vivek Gumaste

It had all the pretensions of an exalted moral judgment. But in reality was a politically motivated vote garnering gimmick. Analyse it further and the statement becomes an arbitrary interpretation of Indian secularism and a fallacious one at that. I am referring to the pronouncement made by our home minister at the Deoband Islamic Seminary on November 3.

At a conference organised by the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, Chidambaram philosophised: "A nation can ignore its minorities only at its peril. The golden rule in a democracy is that it is the duty of the majority to protect the minority, be it religious, racial or linguistic. It is a self-evident rule. It is a rule that is firmly rooted in the universality of human rights."

Although Chidambaram added racial and linguistic qualifications to imbue a sense of political correctness to his remarks, it appears to have been an afterthought. There is little doubt, that the basic thrust of his statement was directed at assuaging Muslim sentiments as evidenced by his redundant resurrection of a near forgotten issue that is nearly 17 years old: the Babri Masjid demolition.

The term minority is an oxymoron in a secular setting: the two terms are incompatible. A Hindu state can have a Muslim minority and vice-versa but a secular state cannot subscribe to the concept of a majority and a minority for it is that very inequity that a secular state strives to eradicate.

Chidambaram's statement therefore stands out for two infractions both of which perpetuate a malady that we are striving to erase: one, the use of the term minority that stereotypes a section of our society and two, the ill conceived proposition that all minorities are automatically in need of protection or privileged access. These remarks by Chidambaram as well as the oft quoted contention by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that minorities have the first right on the nation's resources violate the spirit of the constitution and are diametrically opposed to the course of action advised by the Supreme Court of India as per the Constitution of India.

The Constitution is extremely clear that the ultimate goal should be the creation of an egalitarian society that harbours no division and obviates the need for protection for anyone as indicated in this Supreme Court judgment:

'The constitutional ideal, which can be gathered from the group of articles in the Constitution under chapters of fundamental rights and fundamental duties, is to create social conditions where there remains no necessity to shield or protect rights of minority or majority.

'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.'

Bal Patil vs. Union of India. August 8, 2005. Case 4730

Who actually is a minority in India? The question is perplexing with no single response. India with its myriad communities, castes, religions, languages and races spawns a complex variety of minorities based on these attributes; some display conflicting identities that make them a majority and a minority simultaneously while still others may exhibit traits that condemn them to a double disadvantage. Haven't we all experienced being a minority at one time or another? Linguistically, even the Tamilian Chidambaram, despite his powerful status, is a minority in the predominantly Hindi-speaking city of New Delhi and may be subject to subtle discrimination.

When the term minority is defined purely in terms of religion, which has been the case in India, it becomes an etymological and social misnomer that smacks of favoritism towards a specific section of society relegating other numerical disadvantaged groups to second class status. One type of minority cannot be more equal than another. Moreover with a religious connotation, there is a real danger of inadvertently converting our secular nation into a theocratic state the Supreme Court cautions in the same above mentioned case:

'We should guard against making our country akin to a theocratic state based on multi-nationalism. Our concept of secularism, to put it in a nut shell, is that 'state' will have no religion. The states will treat all religions and religious groups equally and with equal respect without in any manner interfering with their individual rights of religion, faith and worship.'

Even identification of Hindus as a majority is a misleading and unfair conjecture in the pluralistic mosaic of India, the Supreme Court points out:

'As such, the Hindu society being based on caste, is itself divided into various minority groups. Each caste claims to be separate from the other. In a caste-ridden Indian society, no section or distinct group of people can claim to be in majority. All are minorities amongst Hindus.'

The Supreme Court goes on to warn the country of the dangers posed by the minority label, namely the fragmentation of society and encouragement of fissiparous tendencies:

'The country has already been reorganised in the year 1956 under the States Reorganisation Act on the basis of language. Differential treatments to linguistic minorities based on language within the state is understandable but if the same concept for minorities on the basis of religion is encouraged, the whole country, which is already under class and social conflicts due to various divisive forces, will further face division on the basis of religious diversities. Such claims to minority status based on religion would increase in the fond hope of various sections of people getting special protections, privileges and treatment as part of constitutional guarantee. Encouragement to such fissiparous tendencies would be a serious jolt to the secular structure of constitutional democracy.'

To address inconsistencies of race, religion, language and race individually by classifications along these lines would be a gargantuan task practically impossible within the framework of any form of governance.

The state must therefore view every individual as a person devoid of his religion, caste, sex, or language. In such an environment there can be no minority or majority. Privileges should be conferred on merit or need-based criteria. Equal opportunity for all not differential treatment is the panacea for our nation.

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Vivek Gumaste