Sunday , 18 November 2018

Mine-ority debates

Frederick Noronha


Twitter, the short messaging service, gives a good hint about the issues which concern a section of our chattering classes.

Last week, as I usually do, I checked Twitter, to check up on what subjects were trending in that corner of cyberspace. Like it usually happens, I was surprised to see issues raked up from nowhere making it to the top of everyone’s agenda.

One of the topics generating heat and in the news was the question of minority rights. Naturally, this is a controversial question in India; more so in these times, when religion and politics (and also race and ethnicity) get easily fused, and not just in our part of the globe.

So there was this prominent TV channel, obviously taking pride in setting the agenda, giving a lot of attention to the minority rights debate. It demanded to know why only those considered ‘minorities’ at the national level were able to claim this status, while those who actually were ‘minorities’ at the state levels were not being treated as such.

Admittedly, this whole concept of ‘minority’ rights is a contentious one by now. Just because someone is in a ‘minority’, does not necessarily mean he or she deserves some kind of protection or privilege.

Further, giving protection or privilege is often decided on some political criteria. Or, the clout one carries in electoral calculations. So those who deserve it might not get it, while others might get more than they deserve.

To make matters worse, in our times, politics and religious divides often get mixed up. This is a game that all sides can play, and play quite successfully too. Some play it subtly, others blatantly.

If you focus on people’s religious differences, you don’t have to bother too much about the state of the economy, issues like poverty or illiteracy, and the other many concerns that affect all of us regardless of our faith beliefs.

So, are we really battling issues that matter?

Times Now, trying hard to keep up with the emotionally-surcharged Arnab’s Republic, set the agenda over this issue. It made the case that Hindus were being deprived of minority status in those (eight or so) States where they were actually in a minority.

There could be diverse ways of looking at this issue. Just like caste-based reservations have not been effective to bring about actual change, the minority status has been more of a fig leaf. It helps us believe that all sections are being taken care of, while the reality is different.

What are the benefits given to ‘minorities’ in India, really?

For one, there are a few scholarships available to students coming from such backgrounds. But then, these are given under rather stringent criteria. Parents have to earn not above a certain allowed salary. The total funding allocated for such scholarships is limited too. In other words, many would have to fight over a few scholarships.

One other clause often pointed to is the section of the Constitution, which says that minorities will be given the right to run and manage their own educational institutions. (Manage, not mismanage.) It needs to be also noted here that this right is not restricted to religious minorities alone, but also to linguistic minorities. This would suggest that many diverse communities could actually claim such a right if they so choose to.

The case of Goa was dragged up, in this debate. But Goa’s is a strange case, because of a demographic shift and politics played by all sides of the divide.

Till the 1920s, Catholics had been a majority in Goa. Not that this made a difference to the majority of the community in the colonial state. They still had to migrate out of Goa in large numbers for work (as is the case today). Improvements for most in the community actually came about due to out-migration and education, particularly women’s education, one could argue.

The demographic shift too happened because of out-migration, during colonial times itself. But neither the colonial State, nor the post-1961 regimes (which have sworn by secularism of diverse kinds) were able to prove their bonafides in terms of how they treated their minorities. Participation in public life, politics and jobs, can be taken as indicators of these trends.

In one case, the government declined to set up a minorities’ commission in the state, pointing out that an earlier government had also decided to do so. Not that this would have made a crucial difference, except that it shows intent. Or lack of it.

There is another quite different issue here though. Just because someone is in a minority does not mean they are necessarily in a disadvantaged position.

Some minorities can actually be dominant minorities. Middle classes and the affluent of just about any community (including Catholics in Goa) often show their ability to take care of their own interests. On the other hand, larger sections (of all communities) who have limited access to the levers of power, often find the going tough.

Isn’t it time enough to just considering treating everyone fairly, instead of fighting over labels?

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