Saturday, July 14, 2007

Defining Minorities in India

Today's edition of the Hindu features an article by Professor Zoya Hasan, who teaches at JNU, and is a member of the National Commission of Minorities (click here for her profile as well as those of other members of the current Commission). Her article argues against the prevailing consensus among the three wings of government (reflected in the reported Cabinet approval of the new policy in May 2007, which is itself based on recent Supreme Court decisions) on the proper approach to defining minorities in India. Here are extracts from the article highlighting the persuasive arguments advanced by Professor Hasan:

"The Constitution (103rd Amendment) Bill, 2004 to grant constitutional status to the National Commission for Minorities envisages a change in the way minorities are specified. The Cabinet has reportedly approved a proposal (May 2007) to define minorities State-wise in line with several Supreme Court judgments, most notably that in T.M.A. Pai. For the purpose of this legislation, minority will be specified as such in relation to a particular State/Union Territory by a presidential notification issued after consultation with the State Government; this will be in addition to the five minorities (Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Parsis) referred to in the NCM Act, 1992. The new approach is not consistent with the understanding developed in the Constituent Assembly on the protection of minorities and the constitutional compact between the State and minority groups.

Although the Constitution does not define a minority or provide details relating to the geographical and numerical specification of the concept, it is clear that the constitutional scheme envisages this to be determined at the national level. Periodic judicial interventions and categorisation has had major repercussions. Over the years, judicial pronouncements have sought to give a restricted meaning to minority rights by limiting them to education and defining minorities at the State level in terms of protection under Article 30 which provides religious minorities the right to set up educational institutions of their choice. The legitimation of a restrictive conception of minority rights can also be noticed, in this context, in the Central Government’s proposal to adopt a State-specific notion of minorities.

... ... ... At the heart of the current controversy is confusion about which groups qualify as minorities and regarding the nature of the unit of determination under this rubric. However, internationally, some agreement exists. Commonly cited characteristics that make groups distinctive and expose them to discrimination include religion, language, culture, and gender. There is also a unanimous opinion that the term ‘minority’ refers to a power relationship. In this, the size of a group may bear some relation to the degree of power it wields, but presumably because other factors are also involved in the equation, the relationship of group size is not all that significant.

Contrary to this widely accepted perception of minorities, the Government’s new proposal for State-specific minorities is driven by a statistical or numerical approach. The size of the group is not what should concern our policy-makers or those committed to eradication of inequity, prejudice, and discrimination. This is because numbers per se merely quantify and describe the proportion of a group in a population; they do not tell us anything about whether a particular minority group is powerful or powerless, advantaged or disadvantaged, represented or under-represented. A more meaningful conception of minority status would include sections of people who, on account of their non-dominant position in the country as a whole (not a specific State), and because of their religion, language, caste or gender, are targets of discrimination and therefore deserving of special consideration. The statistical approach disregards the crucial qualitative condition of vulnerability and disadvantage.

... ... ... In the circumstances, defining and confining the category ‘minority’ to States is not the best way forward; it would be far more helpful to recognise the comprehensive character of minority rights, in consonance with the demands of substantive equality, to include them by revisiting the concept of affirmative action. This would be in step with the slew of policies and measures currently under consideration to address the economic, social, and educational deprivation that minorities experience."
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