Tag Archives: minorities

The Minority Vote

2 Sep

This post is a reaction to media reports and analyses that look at the population size of various minority groups and anticipate how it may affect the political outcome in elections. In India, the Modi-Gandhi face-off has led media to calculate Hindu-Muslim ratios in various states and accordingly predict the result of the upcoming elections in 2014. With respect to UK, it was recently reported that ethnic minorities, especially Indians, can significantly affect election results. The need to reach out to the growing population of Asian-American voters was similarly felt in the US. These reports highlight the need for politicians to connect with the minorities to woo voters from minority groups.

My difficulty with such analyses is that they sometimes tend to treat minorities as a homogenous class and are disrespectful of their autonomy. They treat minority groups as a uniform group of voters whose interest lies only in specific issues that interest them, like racial equality or secularism. There seems to be an underlying presumption that other political issues like the economy or foreign policy or healthcare or corruption are not of much concern to them. If minority groups form a sizeable part of the voting population, it is in fact ironic that these other issues will not attract them. Equality is offered as the candy that will lure all minorities. Such reporting may also somewhere sub-consciously affect actual voting, by presenting members of minority groups as part of a broader alliance who must vote for a particular party in order to prove themselves to be loyal members of their group.

In different ways, these reports also tend to both recognize and undermine the autonomy of the majority group. On one hand, they seem to recognize that majority voters are likely to evaluate different issues, policy choices and political promises offered to them, and vote accordingly. Unlike the homogenous minority group, a majority voter might be rich, poor, capitalist, socialist, conservative, and so on. Whether the political party’s orientation is in line with the voter’s ideology and demands is what is likely to determine the outcome in case of the majority voter. However, on the other hand, such reports may present the majority as a group unaffected by the issue of equality. It is assumed that political concerns of the minorities are of no concern to the majority.

Such analyses do tend to direct the attention of political parties and people to important and legitimate concerns of minority groups, especially regarding equality. But equality as an issue should not be treated as an exclusive concern of the minorities in a nation. Further, what about groups that form an insubstantial minority in a country so as to not have sufficient voting power? Should equality for these actual ‘minorities’ be of no concern to the nation? For example, Indian politics seems to be dominated by the majority (Hindus), and the majority within the minorities (Muslims), without much space available to persons following other religions like Christians, Parsis, Sikhs (often clubbed with the Hindus, along with Jains and Buddhists) or Jews.

There is a need to shift focus from identity to issue. Identities may help reveal issues. But addressing issues should be the end, not alluring identities. It can be said that this is how politics works. But at least the media and analysts can try not to present this as legitimate and unproblematic. If offering baits to different groups works in reality, then instead of encouraging this trend and presenting it as a legitimate way of running the polity, we should seek and highlight better ways to make our democracy function.

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Update on reservation for Minorities: Ranganath Mishra Committee Report

14 Jan

The government has asked ministries for feedback on the implementation of the Ranganath Mishra Commission Reforms (Govt eliciting views of ministries on Ranganath Misra report).  The ministries have been asked to report whether there are ‘insurmountable difficulties’ in giving identified minorities adequate reservation.  I had posted a piece on the subject some time earlier.  Please read if interested.

Bestseller II: How scholarly are our courts?

12 Jan

Yesterday I posted a piece on a judgement of the Bombay High Court banning a book.  I had mentioned the facts of the book and the main points raised by the author of the book.  Today, I am quoting the main points of the court’s judgement.  After that I argue that banning books on sensitive issues does not necessarily maintain or promote harmony in society.  It might in fact, curb opportunities for dialogue in society.

The judgement: The High Court upheld the ban on the book.  There were many procedural and substantive grounds given.  I am summarising only the substantive points:

The Constitution allows the state to frame laws to restrict our freedom of speech and expression in the “interest of public order”, and not just “maintenance of public order”.   Interest has a broader meaning than maintenance.

For a Notification banning books to be valid, the government’s opinion and reasons should be clearly mentioned in the notification.  In this case, they were clearly expressed.

An author has a right to put forth a perspective that a particular religion is not secular.  However, if a book reeks of hatred for a particular community…..one must pause and consider whether it is in the interest of general public to allow its circulation.”

According to us, the lurid details allegedly of Mohammad Paigambar’s life, the authenticity of which may be challenged by some, could have been avoided by

the author…..It is not possible for us to conclude that they are in the nature of historical research. We feel that the attempt is to show Mohammad Paigambar in poor light to hurt Muslim sentiments.”

Thus, Mohammad Paigambar is designedly painted as a debauched person and anything which can be said in his favour is discounted. “

We have no doubt that the author must be allowed to criticize Islam….But, here the criticism is not academic. The author has gone on to pass insulting comments on Muslims with particular reference to Indian Muslims.”

My argument: These points were made somewhere in between nearly 100-pages of a scholarly ‘exposition’ by the court.  The court examined a number of extracts quoted from the book, and referred to other books it considered scholarly and definitive, and tried to examine the true nature of the words and phrases of Muslim religious texts which had allegedly been wrongly represented.

I would like to point out some features of the government action and the court’s judgement:

1.  The government acted in 2007 when the book was first published in 2003.  It would be interesting to ponder over whether they would ban a book had it not sold 10,000 copies.

2. Banning the book may have done two things: (a) it may have sent out a signal that the government is ‘pseudo-secularist’, and over protective of minorities;, (b) it might also have stifled genuine debate by deciding for itself that the book is derogatory, insulting, and a threat to public order.

3. The length of the court’s ‘treatise’ on the authentic interpretation of the sources used and mis-quoted form nearly half the length of the 150-page judgement!!  The court, even though it said it has no business laying down authoritative interpretation of religious law, went ahead and did exactly that.

In any society, debate on religion and culture (as indeed so many other things) should take part in civil society.  That the government should be able to regulate matters inciting violence and hatred is granted, but does not this particular form of regulation i.e. banning a book, also stifle debate likely to happen in civil society when controversial arguments are made?

Consider an alternative scenario: The government does not have the power to ban a book outright.  it can however issue an ‘advisory’ stating that a particular book is factually incorrect/ provocative/ misrepresents historical facts, and so on.  If such a book does subsequently lead to a direct role in violence or public disorder, the government can ask the courts to ban it.

In such a case, if the government issues an advisory stating its reasons for doing so, information about the book and its contents will be given wider publicity.  Wider publicity will also in turn attract greater public scrutiny, greater criticism, greater debate, and if the material is truly objectionable, even a case for defamation.

Greater public scrutiny, in my opinion would also help different sections of society voice their opinions more often, and may also help in the expression of pent-up voices that are otherwise expressed with destructive intent.

In the occasional situation that a particular book etc. is taken to court, the court may be in a position to resolve a dispute between two people from different backgrounds in society.  In such a case, its 100-page ramblings might settle a question of authenticity of cultural and religious texts in a manner that gives closure to at least one individual in society.

In the present circumstances, the court usually has to decide on the very legitimacy of the government’s action of banning a book.  It might appease a community, but still leaves individuals simmering.

Ranganath Mishra: Mandal II? Not Really

5 Jan

Recently, The Ranganath Mishra Commission (National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities) Report (RMC) was tabled in Parliament.  One of the most talked about issues discussed in the report was that of reservation for minorities.  That is neither the majority, nor the substance of the Report, as an op-ed in Indian Express also points out.  Before going further, let us look at the main terms of reference the government asked the Commission to consider:

To suggest criteria for identification of socially and economically backward sections among religious and linguistic minorities.

To recommend measures for welfare of socially and economically backward sections among religious and linguistic minorities, including reservation in education and government employment.

To suggest the necessary constitutional, legal and administrative modalities required for the implementation of its recommendations.

To give its recommendations on the issues raised in WPs 180/04 and 94/05 filed in the Supreme Court and in certain High Courts relating to para 3 of the Constitution (Scheduled Castes) Order 1950 in the context of ceiling of 50 percent on reservations as also the modalities of inclusion in the list of Scheduled Castes.

As can be clearly seen, two of the four points explicitly deal with reservation.  As has been pointed out in the Express op-ed, if the terms of reference of the RMC themselves contain two issues relate to reservation, can the Report be trashed because it gave its findings based on the questions the government asked it to answer?  Let us also look at the other observations of the RMC:

1. The RMC looked at the National Commission for Minority Educational Institutions Act, 2004 which was enacted to constitute a Commission charged with the responsibilities of advising the Central Government or any State Government on any matter on education of minorities.  The Commission was to be given the task of deciding disputes a minority educational institution and a University on its affiliation to such University.  The RMC recommended that there was a need to amend the Act to make it more streamlined.

2. The Commission observed that provisions relating to untouchability under the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955 also applied to non-Hindus.

3. It was also felt that the provisions of the Prevention of Atrocities (SC/ST) Act, 1989 needs to be extended to cover OBCs, Minorities or the socially and economically backwards to protect them from discrimination.

4. Regarding religious composition:  (a) Level of urbanization – The 1991 and 2001 data show that Muslims are more urbanised than Hindus and Sikhs;  (b) Most urban minority group – Jains are the most urbanised as compared to any other religious minority group;  (c) Sex ratio – The sex ratio among Muslims at 936, is slightly above the national average.  However, the sex ratio for Hindus has declined from 942 in 1991 to 931 in 2001, Buddhists from 963 to 953 and Jains from 946 to 940;  (d) Gap between male and female literacy – Among the six major religions at the national level, the maximum gap between male and female literacy is among Hindus (23 percent) followed by Buddhists (21.4 percent) and Muslims (17.5 percent points);  (e) Educational level – Muslims have the lowest proportion of educated persons within the minority (3.6% have completed graduation, even though 65% have completed primary education);  (f) Ownership of houses – The ratio of those living in rented houses was highest among Muslims (43.74 percent);  Urban poverty – Muslims occupied highest share in Urban Poverty population with 36.92 percent; (g) Percentage of workers to total population – The lowest work participation rate of 31.3 percent at the national level is seen for the Muslims population.

5. Infant and child mortality rates among Muslims are highest in so far as Minorities are concerned but these rank lower than Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.

6. Language as a basis for determining socio-economic backwardness – The RMC stated that “there is no justification for making language as the basis to determine the socio-economic backwardness of the people, it was felt that in a multi-lingual society like ours, exclusive adherence to a minority language, which may be the mother-tongue of a section of population, does affect the socio-economic and educational development of that linguistic minority specially in the initial years. Therefore, steps for enhancing the skills of the linguistic minorities including learning/teaching of the majority language need to be emphasised.”

7. Regarding reservation –  The RMC noted that (1) reservation should be a temporary measure, (2) if an individual has benefitted from the reservation in the matter of employment, it may be worthwhile to consider his next generation for educational benefits only, (3) the entire system of reservation as also of the SC, ST, OBC Lists need to be overhauled. Since, BPL Lists are being prepared on the basis of social/educational and economic criteria, these are more scientific.

8. Reservation on religious basis – “It is claimed and agreed to by almost all sections of the society in India, in various context and especially in respect of the issue of reservations, that no special benefits can be given to any community or group on the basis of religion. At the same time, however it is generally insisted upon that the class of Scheduled Castes must remain religion-based. This seems to be illogical and unreasonable.

I have not mentioned above, the more discussed observations recommending reservations for religious minorities, but not for linguistic ones.  The purpose is to highlight the importance of other findings which have been made by the RMC.  It is also worth mentioning here that the Action Taken Report of the Sachar Committee Report on Muslims shows that the government is primarily engaged in raising social and educational standards of the Muslim community, and not discussing reservation.

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