In his scintillating treatise The Continent of Circe, Nirad C Chaudhuri has described India’s Muslims as “the least of the minorities”. Before Sabrangis take offence to this description, one must hasten to add that Niradbabu was not necessarily being either facetious or disparaging. He was merely elaborating on the fact that “in terms of absolute numbers the Muslims are not a small minority”, but “their numerical strength” is not reflected in “the position they hold”.
Of course, in the near half century that separates the publication of The Continent of Circe and the times we live in, the numerical strength of Muslims in India has jumped from “just under 47 million in a population of 439 million” to 138 million in a population of 1.2 billion. We are yet to get the details of the 2011 Census. Common sense suggests Muslims today constitute a much larger section of Indian society than they did in 2001.
Numbers apart, there is this issue of defining Muslims as a ‘minority’ community. At which point does a community become non-minority? The Constitution of India accords its minority communities special rights and privileges. But neither the Constituent Assembly debates nor the Constitution of India deals with the contentious issue of defining a minority in specific, inflexible terms. The Constituent Assembly did dwell at great length on the issue of minority rights; the Constitution enshrines those rights, especially through Articles 25 to 30.
It was assumed by the Constituent Assembly, as Niradbabu has eloquently put it, that “in today’s India all non-Hindus are minorities”. Judgements of the Supreme Court, somewhat absurdly, make out that any linguistic or religious community that is less than 50 per cent of a State’s population is a minority. So, if some day in the near future if there are sufficient Bangladeshis in Assam to push up that State’s Muslim population from 30.9 per cent (or is it 35 per cent) to 49.9 per cent, it would still continue to be designated a minority community.
Is the criterion of population the best to define the minority status of a community? Or should it be a community’s strength in terms of economic status, political empowerment and social development? In India, can we divorce the definition of a minority community from communal perceptions? Niradbabu recalls that it was “a Bengali-Brahmin-Hindu professor of history and political science who first put forward the suggestion that the Hindu-Muslim differences in India should be settled on the lines of the recommendations for the protection of minorities put forward by the League of Nations”.
Alas, the League of Nations is long departed. And the UN, well into middle age, is still grappling with the problem of defining the term ‘minority’. According to the UN’s working definition, a minority is a “group numerically inferior to the rest of the population of the state, in a non-dominant position, whose members being nationals of the state possess ethnic, religious or linguistic characteristics differing from those of the rest of the population and show, if only implicitly, a sense of solidarity, directed towards preserving their culture, traditions, religion or language”. Let’s see those who want our polity and society rid of distracting and debilitating tags like ‘minority’ and ‘majority’ beat that.
The fact that the term ‘minority’ is undefined (unless we go by the most banal of definitions, that of numerical strength) is as true as the fact that minority rights are well defined.
It is this privileged status that leads to perversities like the Ramakrishna Mission going to court to press its demand to be declared a ‘minority institution’ and its followers non-Hindus who are members of a minority sect. The perversity stems from the distortion in the Constitution that places minority institutions above the law of the land vis-à-vis non-minority institutions.
And it is this perversity that explains why Hindu philosopher-saints like Sri Ramakrishna are in danger of losing their core identity. In an advertisement issued by Ramakrishna Mission and published in The Indian Express, Sri Ramakrishna has been described as a ‘secular saint’. Fortunately, in his lifetime, Sri Ramakrishna did not have to deal with the secular-communal bunk that we are flooded with today. He would have baulked at such travesty.
Which takes us back to Niradbabu and his thesis.
The writer is a senior journalist based in the National Capital Region. His Twitter handle is @KanchanGupta