Saturday, September 24, 2011

Is the Congress protecting Minority Rights or practicing Minority Appeasement?

A lot of comments I get on my blog from BJP supporters relate to the appeasement of minorities by the Congress. On the other hand, there is a counter-charge made by Congress supporters against the BJP that it wants to thrust a single unified Hindu culture on the minorities. The truth obviously is somewhere in-between. Neither party is entirely right; neither is entirely wrong. I decided to research this subject and come to some factual conclusions. What I found is enough to start a debate!

It appears to me that there is a fundamental disconnect between the views of many Indians on religious diversity and identity and the vision of the founding fathers of our nation – the ones who wrote the Constitution. Many of the complaints that people make against the Congress are really (though perhaps unknowingly) complaints against the Constitution itself. If it is true that the Constitution of the country specifically provides for the protection of religious minorities, then the Congress is only protecting the Constitution. Let’s look at specific articles of the Constitution which cover the area of minority rights:

Article 14: Right to Equality: The state shall not deny to any person equality before the law and shall provide equal protection for every person within the territory of India.
Article 15: The state shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds of religion, race, caste, gender, place of birth etc.
Article 16: No citizen shall, on grounds of religion, race or caste, be ineligible for, or discriminated against, in respect of any employment or office under the state.
Article 21: No person shall be deprived of his right of personal liberty except according to procedure established by law.
Article 25: There shall be freedom of conscience and the right to profess, practice and propogate religion.
Article 26: There shall be right given to minorities to a) establish and maintain institutions for religious and charitable purposes b) manage their own affairs in matters of religion in any manner they wish to administer and maintain such properties in accordance with law.
Article 29: Protection to the cultural rights of minorities
Article 30(1): Right to establish and administer educations institutions of their choice
Article 31(2): The state shall not – in granting aid to educational institutions – discriminate against any educational institution on the ground that it is under the management of a minority, whether based on religion or language.

The above Acts were included in the Constitution of India probably keeping the religious plurality of India in mind. India is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-linguistic and multi-cultural society. I agree with the view that diversity of all types in the very soul of India.

If we believe in the Constitution, then the following are the implications:

1)      Religious conversions are fine as long as they are not forced (SC in 1977 also re-affirmed this). However, there are a number of states like Orissa, Arunachal, MP, Gujarat and TN which have enacted state laws that severely curb the right of people to convert. It is alleged that the state of Punjab intentionally delays or denies the venue and the date for religious conversions/conventions where the practices for preaching the teachings of Jesus Christ. Since most conversions are of Hindu dalits to Christianity or Buddhism, followers of these religions complain that the state is not doing what the Constitution has expressed allowed.
2)      Muslims are free to set up madrassas and carry on education in accordance with their religion. Many Hindus complain that these madrassas are the hotbeds of terrorist activities. That’s an entirely different matter. If that is indeed true, then clearly that’s not allowed. But the running of madrassas per se is fine.
3)      The concept of “Hindutva” – a “soft” attempt to impose Hindu culture on the religious minorities is – at least in spirit – wrong. The problem is that the BJP’s Hindutva is anything but soft – it is in fact an aggressive strategy. Professor Balraj Madhok – the first secretary of the Bharatiya Jan Sangh, the predecessor of the BJP – suggested that minorities must adopt Indian (Hindu) names. In short, they must adopt the Indian culture – the Hindu culture – in their religion. The religion of the minorities should bend its loyalty towards Indian nationalism (defined by Hindu culture). The BJP has been pumping up its demand to have a Uniform Civil Code – again perceived by the minorities as an attempt to mute the individual cultures of the minorities.
4)      Religious identity is fine. So a separate marriage act, a separate succession act is fine as long as it is protecting religious identity.

The only problem with some of this is that at the end of the day, we are one single country and if every community becomes a distinct and separate vertical, then how will we make it a single country. So there has to be some common national identity created – one that is not a Hindutva identity nor an identity based on minorities, but a more contemporary pluralistic one. Plurality has to be at the core of any national identity we create. Just like it cannot be a Hindutva identity, the national identity cannot be based on the Shah Bano kind of precedent either.

Considering that most people who accuse the Congress of minority appeasement are talking largely of the above issues, it is arguable if the Congress is a protector of the minority rights or an appeaser of minorities. Clearly the truth is somewhere in-between.

Now let’s come to another issue that deals with minority rights of a different type. These are minorities as defined largely by the caste system. I am talking of the Affirmative Action policies of the Indian state. I wrote on this subject on the 12th of September (4% compulsory government procurement from dalit firms is dangerous politics…..) and brought out the reasons and the rationale for the Reservations policy that we have in India. It must be noted that Reservations were initially based on caste and race alone – and not on religion. So there was 15% reservation for Scheduled Castes (dalits) and 7.5% reservation for Scheduled Tribes (tribals). Subsequently, an additional 27% reservation for Other Backward Classes (OBCs) was introduced by the Mandal Commission in 1980. In the beginning, the Constitution only provided for SCs and STs from the Hindu religion. In 1956 however, an amendment was made to the Constitution which extended the benefits to dalit Sikhs (1956). The Mandal Commission extended the benefits to backward castes belonging to all religions.  The exact list of castes included in the OBC category is a state subject and we know that a lot of politics is played in this area. All political parties indulge in appeasing some or the other castes in their states including the Congress and the BJP. By and large, it is not the Reservation policy or the OBC list however that one refers to in a discussion on minority appeasement.

With this discussion done, let’s go back to the beginning. The idea is to discuss the politics of the Congress and the BJP. Is the Congress appeasing the Muslims (and other minorities) by allowing conversions, allowing madrassas to flourish, blocking the Uniform Civil Code etc or is it merely protecting minority rights? Is the BJP not in violation of the Constitution by demanding that a Uniform Civil Code be imposed on all? Are the people of the country today less progressive in their mindsets than the authors of our Constitution were with regard to tolerance for religious diversity? How do we balance a need for modernity with the need to protect some form of identity? I leave it your judgment…..

I must bring out one other bit here. I read an article in The Times of India (20th August, 2011) written by Kanti Bajpai which brought out different types of democracies. There is something called a majoritarian democracy in which the will of the majority is the only thing that matters. Then there is liberal democracy in which the will of the majority is considered but it is tempered with the rights of the minority. Our democracy clearly is a liberal democracy. Many Indians wrongly believe that we are a majoritarian democracy – which means that whatever the majority wants – with no restrictions – should be the rule of the country. This perception needs to be corrected. It is possible that the majority of our people may want to declare India a Hindu nation; but the Constitution has intentionally preferred to call India a secular nation. This point brings out the possibility that maybe the Congress sees India as a liberal democracy; the BJP as a majoritarian democracy.

In my view, the Constitution is paramount. The liberal and secular fabric of the country is paramount. Many people have made attempts to modify the Constitution and remove the protection provided to minorities. For eg., in July 2001, a Shiv Sena MP Anant Gangaram Geeta moved a private member’s bill called the Prohibition of Religious Conversion Bill – but in spite of having a BJP government at the center, the Bill could not be passed. I think this reflects a continuing belief in protecting the plurality that is the defining characteristic of India.

Minorities of all form and nature need protection. As an example, Indians living in Australia are also a minority. Our blood boils when we here stories of atrocities committed against them by white Australians. We – the minorities there – need protection by Australian authorities. Given India’s fractious history of religion-based divide and rule – which the British exploited to the hilt – it is only appropriate that minorities in India be provided protection.

The real truth is that minority appeasement and minority rights are intertwined concepts. If you are a Congress supporter, you will believe that the party is only protecting minority rights. If you are a BJP supporter, you may call this minority appeasement. Primarily and fundamentally, this core difference in ideologies defines the two parties and what they represent…..

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