Muslims are not minorities: Najma is right, her timing is wrong

New Delhi, 29 May-2014, R Jagannathan: Najma Heptulla, the new minority affairs minister in the Modi government, surely kicked up a hornets’ nest when she said it would not be right to term Muslims as minorities.

Muslims are not minorities: Najma is right, her timing is wrong

Muslims are not minorities: Najma is right, her timing is wrong

She said her ministry was not a Muslim affairs ministry. Her exact quote runs thus, according to Mint: “This is not a ministry for Muslim affairs, but ministry of minority affairs. Muslims are not a minority. In fact, the Parsis are a minority and their number is dwindling. They need help so that do not diminish.” What she said was right, but politically unwise, for it left people wondering whether she was trying to align her views with that of the BJP and whether the new government has a hidden agenda on Muslims. At the outset, let us be clear that what Heptulla said was on the same lines as her grand uncle Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Education Minister in Nehru’s cabinet. He stoutly opposed partition and saw Indian Muslims as the country’s second majority. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, founder of the Aligarh Muslim University and father of the Muslim modernity project, called Hindus and Muslims “two eyes” of the nation – that is, equal and second to none. Heptulla was unwise to say what she did because as part of a BJP-led NDA ministry she will be seen as representing the regime’s views rather than her own personal ones. In the context of deep Muslim suspicions about a Modi government, the statement is unlikely to set perceptional issues about the BJP at rest.

The right time to bring up the definition of minorities would have been when Modi’s policy of treating all Indians as equal citizens has had some time to play out and its impact recognised as genuine and non-discriminatory. That time is not yet.

However, we do need to have this debate, and since Heptulla has already raked it up, there is no reason to pretend it is irrelevant. I believe that the concept of minority is the most abused one in the Indian context. Currently, a minority is only defined by arithmetic: if your population is less than 50 percent you are a minority. It doesn’t matter what the actual size of your population is.

Look at the absurdity of it all in the Muslim context.

First, with a population of around 180 million, Muslims in India are too large to be called a minority. India has the second-largest Muslim population in the world after Indonesia, though Pakistan, with runaway population growth after the break-up with Bangladesh, bids fair to overtake us in the next decade or two. If India’s Muslims were put into a geographically contiguous place, they would be the sixth or seventh largest country in the world.

Second, if a religious group is defined as people professing belief in one god, then Hindus should be classified as several minority religions since every sub-segment has its own gods and belief systems. It is only culturally that Hindus can be defined as one entity, but this definition cannot exclude those who worship Allah or Jesus either. Hindus are hardly a majority if we use the Abrahamic definition of religion and god.

Third, minorities ought to be classified based on their innate ability (or inability) to safeguard their culture or numbers. In the Indian subcontinent, Muslims have grown their numbers everywhere – and faster. So, clearly, there is nothing artificially curbing their growth, their culture and share of the population. If any community is going down in numbers across India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, it is various groups of Hindus – and Heptulla’s Parsis. Muslims may need economic support, education and jobs because they have fallen behind, but not because they are minorities. Maybe their sense of victimhood is what is holding them back.

Fourth, in large, populous countries, minorities cannot be defined only in proportional terms. The actual size of the minority also matters. In a country of one million, 200,000 can be a minority, since the other 800,000 can look threatening. This also makes sense if the 800,000 and 200,000 are both internally homogenous groups. But, in a country of 1.2 billion, to talk of 180 million as a minority is silly. The one billion so-called Hindus are not only not a monolith, but their sheer regional, linguistic, caste, class and ethnic diversities militates against organised oppression as a combined majority. This does not mean oppression does not take place, but the oppressive majority that matters here is the local one – in cities and villages – not the national one.

Fifth, all majorities and minorities are contextual – and cannot be defined only on the basis of religion and language, as we do in India. Within the Muslim community, there are many more minorities – like the Shias, the Ahmaddiyas, etc. Then there can be minorities based on class. Then there are minorities based on sexual orientation – gays and lesbians face huge discrimination in all communities, but particularly in Muslim society religious injunctions are used against gays.

Sixth, a smaller relative number should not automatically constitute a minority. Take Brahmins. They constitute a very small minority caste within the larger Hindu whole. But their clout is out of proportion to their numbers. The same goes for Jews in the US. The point is: relative numbers alone do not constitute a minority that needs official protection.

Seventh, minorities can become majorities and vice-versa depending on the geography you use to work out their population numbers. Hindus are a minority in large parts of the north-east and Kashmir. Muslims are a majority (or near majority) in many districts of India, especially in Kerala and some parts of Bihar, UP, West Bengal and Assam. In Kerala, over the next two censuses, the Hindu population could well fall below 50 percent. Even Christians in Kerala worry about their declining proportions and many Kerala churches want their members to have more kids. The point: it is illogical to work out minorities in large territories like India. There can be numerous local and regional minorities.

What I am driving at is this: if a minority in one social or geographical context can become a majority in another, the only logical way to ensure protection to all minorities is to use the citizen as the fundamental unit to confer rights on. The individual citizen is the minority to worry about. The individual citizen is the one who needs protection against discrimination, who needs to be the unit for defining poverty and well-being. The remaining minorities are fictional – and serve only a political purpose.

Muslims in India will be better served as individual citizens rather than as a huge minority of 180 million. That number alone makes nonsense of the term minority.

(Input source: FP)