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Business News/ Opinion / Blogs/  Najma Heptullah’s flawed understanding of ‘minority’

Najma Heptullah’s flawed understanding of ‘minority’

Heptullah needs to understand minorities not only in numerical terms, and nor only in religious terms

Minority affairs minister Najma Heptullah. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint Premium
Minority affairs minister Najma Heptullah. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

The problem with debates on social media is that they flare up one day based on an isolated remark, and people focus only on the remark and often have no idea of the larger context. Life is about nuances and not binaries, but the partisan nature of political debate on the one hand, and the diminishing attention span on social media on the other, force people to reiterate their views quickly and then move on to the next topic du jour.

Something similar happened on Thursday when Najma Heptullah, the minority affairs minister, said: “Muslims are not minorities. Parsis are. We have to see how we can help them so that their numbers don’t diminish." When reporters persisted in asking her questions about Muslims, her response was: “This is not the ministry for Muslim affairs, this is the ministry for minority affairs."

She is of course right; her role is not to safeguard the interests of only one community. And as some writers pointed out to me, in his presidential address at the Ramgarh Congress in 1940, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad (Heptullah is his grand-niece), explained the meaning of being a minority: “It is not enough that the group should be relatively the smaller, but that it should be absolutely so small as to be incapable of protecting its interests. Thus this is not merely a question of numbers; other factors count also. If a country has two major groups numbering a million and two millions respectively, it does not necessarily follow that because one is half the other, therefore it must call itself politically a minority and consider itself weak. If this is the right test, let us apply it to the position of the Muslims in India. You will see at a glance a vast concourse, spreading out all over the country; they stand erect, and to imagine that they exist helplessly as a ‘minority’ is to delude oneself."

Azad is right in trying to delink a minority from its perceived weakness—and his remarks were made in pre-partition India to assure Muslims that they would be safe in India. Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s rationale was that they wouldn’t be, and eventually Jinnah succeeded. But on 11 August 1947, Jinnah was to tone down the rhetoric and present a remarkably liberal interpretation of the kind of country he wanted Pakistan to be. He told Pakistanis: “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed—that has nothing to do with the business of the state." That today the vulnerability of Pakistan’s Shias, Ahmadiyyas, Christians, and Hindus has only increased tells us more about Pakistan’s rapidly deteriorating governance.

But even if the intellectual basis of Heptullah’s view comes from her ancestor Maulana Azad, it is not enough to say therefore that Muslims aren’t a minority; that they are capable of defending their interests; or that real focus should be on the Parsis so that their numbers don’t decrease. Arguably, nobody asked Parsis if they want any special favours, nor is it in any way clear what the Indian government can do to increase the Parsi population.

Heptullah’s literal interpretation of her ancestor’s remarks reveals two flaws. First is her understanding of minorities only in numerical terms; and second is her understanding of minorities only in religious terms.

In an ideal world, all Indian citizens are Indians, and the gods they worship—or not, the language they speak—or not, the food they eat—or not, the caste to which they belong by the accident of birth—or not, none of these factors should matter. But they do, and they do because the discourse on majority and minorities misses the vital aspect of power. If Muslims or dalits or adivasis require affirmative action in some areas, it is because of discrimination and their powerlessness. When the majority wields power and enjoys a large share of benefits, it is often unaware of the inherent advantage its constituents have because of its majority status. That is a problem, because the minority then develops grievances because of perceived discrimination and injustice. Muslims are a minority not only because they are fewer than Hindus, but because as the Sachar committee report shows, and as other social and economic indicators, including statistics of their representation in bureaucracy, corporations, judiciary, and even newsrooms reveal, there are disproportionately fewer of them in professions and senior positions than their numbers. Instead of blaming the community, what the state should do is to figure out how best to ensure that Muslims have the opportunities to reach their potential. It is in India’s interest. An imaginative, forward-looking minority affairs ministry would look towards extending those opportunities, rather than questioning if a group of people who number 138 million represent a minority or not. In Apartheid-era South Africa, blacks were the majority but they lacked power, and were, in effect, a discriminated minority, because all the levers of power were with the white minority, which acted like the majority. Majority and minority are about power, not numbers alone.

The second part is harder—it is high time India stops seeing minorities only in religious terms. A minority affairs ministry should focus on eliminating discrimination, not only in matters of faith, but also language spoken, the caste in which the person is born, the person’s marital status, his or her food habits, and his or her sexual orientation. A minister meant to protect the rights of a minority is meant to empower the vulnerable. This means thinking of laws to prevent arbitrary denial of housing to people of another faith or food habits; of changing laws that criminalize certain sexual practices among consenting adults; transforming the nation’s outlook so that everyone is truly equal—not only as voters, but as equal participants in the great Indian adventure. The state cannot and should not guarantee equal outcomes, but it has an obligation to extend opportunities equally. Only then would what is now the real minority in India become the majority—and that minority is the group of people who see themselves as Indians, and not as Punjabi or Tamil, Muslim or Hindu, Kayastha or Chitpavan, or vegetarian or meat-eaters, or whatever else our devious minds come up with to divide people into us and them.

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Published: 30 May 2014, 02:33 PM IST
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