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Do Minorities Matter?

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Hamid Ansari’s concern over unease among Indian minorities came just after Pakistan swore in its first Hindu cabinet minister in 20 years. Truth is contrary to this click bait. 

Let’s set this argument up by borrowing our courtroom judges’ method by stating the bare facts first. We will argue and conclude later whether it is a good or a bad thing.

With the departure of Mohammad Hamid Ansari, Indian political history has opened a new chapter. I have checked, even deep-trawled the history of many short-term governments, but failed to find another instance at least in the past 50 years when none of our top political positions: president, vice-president, prime minister, speaker of Lok Sabha and top ministries (home, finance, defence, external affairs) was held by a member of one of our minority communities. I know, you’d be tempted to Google and prove me wrong on this, but please do remember that not just Muslims and Christians, but Sikhs are a minority too.

Check, instead the names of the members of the Narendra Modi cabinet. It’s unique in our independent history for having just one member of a minority in the main cabinet: it’s NDA partner Akali Dal’s Harsimrat Kaur Badal with the all-important portfolio of food processing (or minister for chutney, pickles, jam and juice, as her resentful loyalists say). Go further down to junior ministers and some names will pop up. Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi is the seniormost minister of state from the minorities now, with independent charge. Please note his portfolio is minority affairs. We also find M.J. Akbar as MoS, external affairs.

I don’t find any others, although names sometimes can be misleading, especially for Christians. So, is this council of ministers also unique in not featuring any Christian? That, when BJP’s allies rule some predominantly Christian northeastern states. Besides Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland, almost entirely Christian states, and Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir, none of the remaining 24 Indian states has a chief minister from the minorities. Carry on further. The Modi-Amit Shah BJP is the strongest national political party since Indira Gandhi’s heyday. Who are its most visible minority faces besides those holding political office: Shahnawaz Hussain, S.S. Ahluwalia and may be, next to him, Tajinder Pal Bagga.

You could counter this with a similar count for the Congress, Left and heartland parties claiming to be secular. But it only strengthens our first conclusion: India’s minorities have never been so out of the power structure. They are justified in having a sense of unease about it.

OUR POLITICS provides the most fascinating paradoxes, rooted in reality laced with folklore. L.K. Advani and Atal Bihari Vajpayee (the order is deliberately chosen) resurrected their party from the ashes of 1984 by working on one of these: the Hindu majority’s minority complex. Contrary to the true-believing, Left-secular chic view, it wasn’t all fictional or orchestrated by calculated mass self-pity.

Decades of Congress rule had seen Nehru’s hard yet relatively easy secularism yield to Indira Gandhi’s in-your-face minorityism and then Rajiv Gandhi’s historic capitulation over the Shah Bano case. It was so dramatic it even left his own party’s liberal Muslims disillusioned: rising Muslim star and an MoS then, Arif Mohammed Khan, who grew out of Aligarh Muslim University student politics, quit in protest. For the conservative Hindu (not necessarily BJP voters) this was contrasted with the same party’s reformist zeal in enacting the Hindu Code Bills. How could the same party now woo the Muslim clergy like this? This gave Advani an opening and this minority complex among the majority changed Indian politics in a fundamental way. The result is today’s minority-mukt Bharat Sarkar.

In 1993-94, I wrote a monograph “India Redefines its Role” (Adelphi 1995) for the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). Anticipating the rise of BJP as India’s dominant political force, it discussed this phenomenon. Answering his first no-confidence motion as prime minister, Vajpayee quoted from it and said, with a tone of deep regret: something unusual has happened. The Hindu majority has acquired a minority complex. He wanted this debated.

Far from defending it, he was noting it with disappointment and the promise that he would do something about it. Please note, therefore, that in 1998 he was applauded for highlighting the majority’s concern. Two decades since, Hamid Ansari is attacked for noting the same concern among minorities. We need to listen to him as seriously as we did to Vajpayee. Presuming that Vajpayee was right, has our politics over-corrected subsequently? If so, is Ansari flagging a genuine concern? Is a rectification called for? And finally: do minorities matter?

THREE YOUNG, imperfect and distinct Asian democracies have wrestled with this question. In an interview with me in 1993, late Shimon Peres had said the only nations in a vast expanse from Bay of Bengal to the Mediterranean which allowed all their citizens–including Muslim minorities–a fair vote were Israel and India. So minorities did matter to his country but it didn’t give them full democratic rights and choices available to its Jewish citizens. This dilemma, squaring the ideology of a Jewish state with modern, liberal democracy was brought to us John LeCarre readers through the mind of Khalil the protagonist of his The Little Drummer Girl. If Israel wanted to retain the West Bank territories and gave all its Arabs the vote, it would cease to be a Jewish state. If it denied it to them, it would no longer be a republic. Israel does remain an odd democracy, where everybody has a vote but not equality. No questions are raised if its Arabs can’t rise to high positions.

Subsequently, Pakistan has joined Peres’s two democracies, if a spasmodic one. Like Israel, it’s an ideological state and faces the same question. If minorities have equal political rights, can it be an Islamic republic? Its founders put the white strip in its green flag to represent the minorities. But in politics, they continued with colonial style reserved constituencies for minorities. It yields interesting tokenisms like the new minister for interprovincial coordination Darshan Lal, or even a moment of secular pride in commemorating its Army’s first Sikh officer, Harcharan Singh, or now a Hindu martyr, Lance Naik Lal Chand Rabari. At the same time, a politician who justifies abduction and forcible conversion of minor Hindu women is celebrated, widespread victimisation continues to drive Hindus out, diminishing their population. Of course, besides Hindus, Sikhs and Christians there are also minorities such as Ahmediyas who are dismissed and persecuted as godless apostates.

The Indian Right has a point in previous Congress-secular governments playing the game of minority vote banks. It’s also true that the minorities voted against the BJP and kept Congress and allies in power and now, as demonstrated in the Uttar Pradesh elections, their vote banks do not matter. Of course, our government will ensure their safety, improve their social conditions, but please do not ask for a share in power, barring a tokenism we might create at some point: our own Darshan Lal. We will then be choosing the Pakistani answer: minorities do not matter. Let us conclude with a question: as we redefine our nationalism, is Pakistan to finally be our inspiration?

Shekhar Gupta is Chairman & Editor-in-Chief of ThePrint. Twitter: @ShekharGupta

This article was originally published on 12 August 2017.

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  1. In Retrospect your 20 years of predictions has unfolded true, nearly….what is your view looking 20 years ahead? Secular would be an alien interpretation or a Functional working of our Republic?

  2. The new minority in India are the forward caste Brahmins!
    Successive governments have been only good and quick to dole out sops to Christians, Muslims, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Backward Castes, etc. That leaves nothing to have an egalitarian society in India.

  3. It is quite instructive to read this article. They are the thoughts of a 60 year old man who is unused to the idea of merit. This is the kind of thinking that analyses a cricket team’s XI by their religion and not their achievements or capabilities. The faster we move away from such thoughts. the better it is for New India. I have not seen journalists from USA or France or Australia analysing their Govt by the presence/absence of Hindus or Jews.

    • You will find that if you look hard enough. Di ersity is an important word now in most Western secular democracies…of course theirs have Christian roots unlike ours.

  4. To answer the question raised in the headline of this article, ‘do minorities matter in India’, yes they do. Being a minority, whether religious, social or economic, does not restrict anyone from holding a top official post. In fact, Indians celebrate when a Dalit, coming from an underprivileged background, rises to become the President of the country.

    To be sure, Hamid Ansari’s parting comments were unfair mainly because of the inopportune time they have been unveiled at. He was the Vice President of India for two terms. An obvious question to him in response to his statement will be: what did he do in his time as VP to curb this insecurity among minorities? Why didn’t he raise his voice earlier? And now that he has completed his term, what will he do in the present to achieve the ends he seeks?

    Those playing the minority victimisation card will never achieve their ends because Indians have moved on from voting on lines of religion or caste. They have seen coalition governments, with minority ministers, loot the treasury, deprive them of economic development and deliver condolences to the dreams of millions hoping for better living standards. The promise of jobs, the promise of law & order and the promise of clean administration combined is what wins votes today. Not mere lip service to the ideals of secularism or liberty.

  5. Good article sir,I feel that Bjp not giving important portfolios to none of Muslims is due to absence of senior Muslim leaders who are senior to other cabinet members.the first generation Muslim leaders of bjp like sikindar bakht,aeifmohammad are no longer active.yes I agree that vajpayee promoted shahnawaz hussain.he lost elections otherwise he is surely ministerial material.The comparison of India with Israel,pakistan is not appropriate because foundation ethics do matter.lastly Indian trajectory can’t be decided in 1 general elections,5 years rule by Bjp

  6. If India had remained undivided, Muslim population was have been 50+cr. They wd have large share in every thing
    You can ignore them at great risk. History repeats

  7. I am a big fan of @ShekharGupta and way he brings his ideas and questions. Completely respect his point of view in this article, however placing people just because of their case, religion or community is not justified. We have moved in new era and have to look for more attributes. I wish competence and capability issues were raised.

  8. India is moving away from failed identity-driven model of politics. Empowerment of Muslims can come from education, utilisation of Waqf resources and such measures. Not tokensim. India had Muslims in almost all major powerful posts. Has it improved their lot ? Can only Muslim safeguard the interests of its community ? I am glad we are moving away from their fossilisied approach.

    Second, there is a flawed comparison with Israel or Pakistan. Both of these countries put ideological restrictions because of which their minorities cannot reach to the top. None whatsoever in India.

    Third, what Vajpayee raised 2 decades ago stands true even today. Hindus suffer from minority complex. Whether it is RTE, control over temples, rampant conversions, reservations etc. Now when there is any hope that such blatant special priviledges will give way to genuine equality, there will be resistance from vested interests, as Mr Ansari’s comments indicate. This will furthur increase, as we debate about UCC , triple talaq, regulating madrasas etc. So the comparison of ABV and Ansari lacks this undrstanding.

  9. Typical secular article – make up your mind first then chose the data to support it ignoring uncomfortable data –

    Smriti Irani is a parsi – a minority
    Kiren Rijiju a Buddhist – a minority
    Jual Oram, Adivasi – a minority
    Amit Shah – Jain – a minority

    Add all these names and article has 0 value!

  10. I am from Orissa. Orissa has never produced any PM, President, VP, Speaker or even a home/finance/defence minister. Orissa doesn’t have representation in Bollywood or music. What could be the reason: (1). Relevant geographic, cultural, linguistic, historical, educational, economic, political factors. or (2) Maybe Orissa is a victim of deliberate conspiracy by non-Oriya people. According to the simple-minded journos, Oriya people should cry victimhood rather than have some self-awareness.

  11. Anyone who saw 9,00,000 silent, resentful, thankfully peaceful, Marathas wend their way through south Mumbai would be hard pressed to make the case that India is shining for the majority, either.

  12. Regrettably, today minority is marginalized in India. This is because, till 2014, they believed that they have the casting vote and thereby created insecurity in majority. Now they have realized that vitebank politics won’t work in their favor. First indication is softening of their unreasonable babri masjid stand. This may also loosen Hindu solidarity against minority in elections. I believe good days are ahead

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