Are the minorities in India underthreat? Is there any basis for the reported apprehensions of some of the minorities and their leaders that their constitutionally protected rights are being eroded? Should we consider the concern on behalf of the minorities to protect the Constitution against a majoritarian assault as realistic or reject it as a mere scarecrow?
India has a long tradition of acknowledging and protecting minorities and according special rights to them. Some of these rights are entrenched in the Constitution. However, we have been witnesses to movements, organisations and ideologies that contest and condemn these rights, sometimes even with diabolic social violence.
Who are the minorities?
Minorities are generally understood as non-dominant groups in a society or nation. This non-dominance can be numerical or qualitative. Some groups, though numerically large, can be non-dominant qualitatively. The Indian Constitution has provided for special protections, provisions and rights for several kinds of minorities. Some of these minorities are sections of citizens requiring protection on the basis of language, script, culture, religion, race or caste (Articles 29 and 30). Women and children also are considered minorities requiring special protection. Those sections of citizens who are likely to be discriminated against on the grounds of sex, descent, place of birth or residence are also considered minorities entitled for protection. Scheduled Castes (S.Cs) and Scheduled Tribes (S.Ts) are treated as minorities requiring special provisions. Socially and educationally backward classes of citizens are also considered minorities for certain purposes (Articles 15 and 16). It can safely be concluded that the equal protection clause in addition to the equality clause under Article 14 of the Constitution treats all those persons and groups reasonably classifiable for protection as minorities in the broader sense. However, for historical reasons and because of the aggressive ascendancy of religion-based nationalism and politics, religious minorities occupy a special place in the Indian context.
According to almost all the different theories of governance in ancient India, protection of minorities was the core of governance, not to speak of good governance. The very purpose of governance and government was to protect the minorities, that is, to protect the minor (small) fish from the major (big) fish—to protect the people from matsya nyaya (Mahabharata 12/58, 12/67/17-28). According to the RgVeda, the very role and duty of the king was to be the protector of those people who required protection ( janasya gopta ) in addition to being a destroyer of the towns of their enemies, or puraam bhetta ), (Krishna Kumar, 1998:6). Arthashastra of Kautalya (1/9) reiterates this role of the king as the protector of the people.
The very first step in the policy of governance, or dandaniti , is the protection of minorities—the protection of the little fish from the big fish. One of the first stories of practical dandaniti is that of Prajapati Manu (Vyvaswat Manu). This story of the primordial man who does his first act of governance at the request of a little fish to save her from matsya nyaya is a shared memory in Indian traditions. There are different versions of this story in different literatures. The story brings to the fore the relevance of minority rights in constitutional governance, that is the prevention of matsyanyaya . The story of the first instance of protection of minorities practised by the primordial man Manu can be found in Satpata Brahmana (Skanda 126.96.36.199-6). The same story can be found in the Matsya Purana. It can be found with some changes in the Mahabharata in Vanaparv. The core of the story is as follows: When Manu was washing his hands, a little fish came into his hands and requested him to save it from being eaten up by big fish. Manu asked the little fish: “How am I to deal with you?” The fish said: “As long as we are small, there is great destruction for us since fish devour fish. You should first keep me in a jar. When I outgrow it, you dig a pit and put me in it. When I outgrow it, you take me out of it and put me into the sea, then I shall be beyond destruction.” Thus, we have the traditional wisdom of dandaniti , or science of governance, as protection of minorities as small fish.
The protection of non-dominant sections of the polity as central to governance is a continuous policy followed by all great governments. That it is found in Arthashastra may be a reflection of the practice at the time of Chandragupta Maurya. Asoka was famous for protecting the minor heterodox sects. Although he was a follower of Buddhism, his edicts are proof of the special protection and provisions he granted minor heretical sects such as Ajeevikas. This tradition continued despite the recurrent discrimination and atrocities against Vaisyas and Sudras, who were non-dominant minorities socially and politically, though not numerically.
The Karachi Resolution
During the freedom struggle, except for a few religious nationalists, all groups and organisations pledged to provide for the special protection of minorities. The resolutions adopted by the Indian National Congress during the independence movement clearly spelt out the protection of the rights of the minorities in addition to the religious neutrality of the state. The Karachi Resolution on Fundamental Rights and Economic Programme adopted on March 31, 1931, reiterated this. The Objectives Resolution passed in the Constituent Assembly on January 22, 1947, specified that adequate safeguards should be provided for minorities, backward and tribal areas, and depressed and other backward classes.
Despite the tragic partition of the country on religious lines, India has incorporated special provisions protecting minority rights into its Constitution. It is interesting to note that India and Pakistan famously entered into a bilateral treaty on April 8, 1950, for the protection of minorities, which is known as the Minorities Agreement or Delhi Pact. This agreement declared that both governments should ensure the protection of their minorities. It also specified: “.... The Prime Minister of India has drawn attention to the fact that these rights are guaranteed to all minorities in India by its Constitution. The Prime Minister of Pakistan has pointed out that a similar provision exists in the Objectives Resolution adopted by the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan.” Among several provisions there was also a provision for the setting up of minority commissions in both countries.
Although the Constitution of India has protected the rights of minorities and the Supreme Court has been interpreting these provisions expansively and liberally even in the matter of religious minorities, there have been numerous instances and events that have threatened not only the protection of the rights of the minorities but also the pluralist fabric of the nation and Indian democracy itself.
Only ideology matters
The threat apparently is not from Hindus as a majority community but from an ideology and its proponents advocating a “Hindu Rashtra” falsely pretending to represent the majority religion. In the context of a majoritarian nationalism, whether cultural or religious, what is most relevant is ideology. Nitin Gadkari, former president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and now a Cabinet Minister, was on point when, referring to the opponents of his party, he said: “Even if I polish the country with gold, they won’t be happy. They have a problem with us, our ideology” ( The Week , July 16, 2017: 10). The same message was worded differently by Amartya Sen: “In the suppression of India’s tolerant tradition, the BJP has clearly played a gigantic role. What is astonishing is how much tolerance of intolerance the political climate in India has been made to bear” (ibid.).
Minorities are generally understood as non-dominant groups in a society or nation. This non-dominance can be numerical or qualitative. Yes, ideology not only matters but may be the only thing that matters when the issue is cultural or religious nationalism in the form of Hindu Rashtra. It was not Nathuram Godse who really murdered Mahatma Gandhi; he was an instrument in the hands of an ideology. The very statement of Godse proves this. In his long written statement filed before the trial court and repeated before the appellate court, he said that he studied the two conflicting ideologies, those of V.D. Savarkar and Gandhiji, and that he believed in the ideology of Savarkar and rejected that of Gandhiji (G.D. Khosla, 1963: 239). Godse went on to explain that it was his commitment to the ideology of Savarkar and his frustration at the ascendance of the Gandhian ideology that led him to murder Gandhi. Godse made assertions about his membership and allegiance to the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and the Hindu Mahasabha, the then political party advocating Hindu nationalism (Manohar Malgonkar, 2008: 342).
Gopal Godse, Nathuram Godse’s younger brother and one of his co-convicts, asserted that all the brothers, including Nathuram, grew up in the RSS rather than in their home and that Nathuram never left the RSS (interview with Arvind Rajagopal published in Frontline , January 28, 1994).
The Kapur Commission of Inquiry also came to the conclusion that it was this ideology and the conspiracy by its stalwarts that led to the assassination of Gandhiji. Deputy Prime Minister Vallabhbhai Patel was convinced of the role of this ideology in the assassination. He wrote to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru on February 27, 1948: “I have kept myself almost in daily touch with the progress of the investigation regarding Bapu’s assassination case.” Patel’s conclusion was: “It was a fanatical wing of the Hindu Mahasabha directly under Savarkar that [hatched] the conspiracy and saw it through.”
Similarly, all inquiry commissions found this ideology to be the motive behind or the operational engine for the numerous communal riots India has witnessed before and after Independence.
The RSS was banned twice not because its members were guilty of a murder or a riot. Even in the recent atrocities apparently directed against Muslims, Dalits, tribal people and Christians, it is the ideology that does the work. In the lynching of Pehlu Khan, Junaid Khan and Mohammad Akhlaq, it was not the perpetrators who were mainly and solely responsible but the ideology that provided the motive, instigation and pretext. Neither the BJP nor the RSS has condemned this ideology or apologised for it except through ambiguous and clever statements distancing themselves from such people and actions. The minorities, then, have sufficient reason to be afraid of the ascendance of this ideology and its methodology.
The manifesto and praxis
The BJP’s manifesto of 2014 stated: “BJP is committed to ensure Justice for All….” The stress on the motto “justice for all”, though apparently innocuous, is part of a stealthy agenda of “nationalist universalism” aimed at abolishing group rights, minority rights, pluralism and federal principles. In tune with the overall approach of universalism that the BJP and the RSS have been propagating, the manifesto had as its key motto “ Sabka saath sabka vikas ” (In support of all, development for all). Unless understood in its historical and ideological context, people may consider it innocuous and even ideal. But it should be seen in the context of the campaign for annihilating the special rights of minorities and specified categories such as S.Cs, S.Ts and backward classes on the grounds that special rights to specified groups are the main reason for the divisive tendencies in society and that what is required is for all sections to be granted the same rights without there being any special rights for specified categories or groups.
Another motto was repeated in the manifesto: “ Ek Bharat, shresht Bharat ” (One India, the best India). As if until now there were many Indias that needed to be submerged into one India and the many ideas of India available were inferior to the BJP’s idea of India, which is the best. This approach has the danger of being interpreted as a unitarian agenda of devaluing the federal structure and the separation of powers between the legislature, the judiciary and the executive. Above all, it reeks of anti-minorities attitudes. Hence, the minorities cannot be faulted for making the interpretation that the government is not with each one and each group but is for a free-for-all, a matsya nyaya , where the big fish would be facilitated by the development conundrum to eat up the small fish.
The manifesto cleverly sugar-coated the Hindu Rashtra objective but could not fully hide it. It popped up here and there. For example, on page 40, it declared: “India shall remain a natural home for persecuted Hindus and they shall be welcome to seek refuge here.” What about persecuted non-Hindu citizens? And according to the BJP’s manifesto, the cultural heritage of India has shrunk to Ram Mandir, Ram Setu and the Ganga, as symbols of faith, and the cow. What further reassurance do the minorities need?
Minorities to be gradually eliminated?
Last year, Gopal Krishna Agarwal, the BJP’s national spokesperson, went on record to state that the party’s aim was to move beyond the concepts of minority and majority and that the motto Sabka saath sabka vikas meant exactly this and would mean equal opportunities for all and no special provisions for any ( The Hindu , April 25, 2017). Many others are also of the view that minorities and their rights should be slowly eliminated. Representatives of the RSS and the BJP have been repeating that the present Constitution is “a new testament of our gulaami [slavery]”. Some of them have gone on record to say that they would like the 16th Lok Sabha to be converted into a Constituent Assembly to draw up a new Constitution. In such a scenario, should the minorities not strive to protect the Constitution with the help of right-thinking members of the majority?
Secularism to be amended out
The aversion of the RSS and the BJP to the secular and socialist features of the Constitution is no secret. But when the Home Minister attacks secularism and socialism in a speech in Parliament, there is reason for not only minorities but all Indians to be forewarned. He assumed office after swearing on the Constitution and he has the official duty to protect these features as long they remain so.
The present Prime Minister, who has been a long-time propagandist of the RSS, has several times ridiculed secularism and secularists, even when on foreign soil. In 2014, during a visit to Japan, he mocked secularism and secular friends and said that his gift of the Bhagavad Gita to the Japanese emperor was likely to trigger a controversy back home. In 2015, in Berlin, he blamed certain notions of secularism for the neglect of the use of Sanskrit in India. He is also known for redefining secularism to mean India first.
The President of India is a person who subscribes to the ideology of Hindu nationalism and the methodology of the RSS and its affiliates. He is known for once holding the view that Christianity and Islam can be discriminated against because they are alien to India and for staunchly opposing the constitutionally permissible entitlements to those members of the S.C. community who decided to convert to Christianity or Islam. Other constitutional functionaries subscribing to the RSS line may pretend to swear by the Constitution though they are committed to destroying its ideal of pluralist secularism.
Real battle: majoritarian Hindus vs secular Hindus
The real battle for and against religious nationalism is fought within the majority community itself. This is a duel between majoritarian Hindus and secular/constitutionalist/pluralist Hindus. Hindu nationalism has nothing to do with the Hindu religion or culture except when its adherents use clever misrepresentations to sell it as Hinduism. This ideology of majoritarian nationalism could not win over genuine Hindus such as Mahatma Gandhi, Rajendra Prasad, Vallabhbhai Patel, Sarojini Naidu or the vast majority of practising Hindus.
Since they are involved and interested in this dispute within the Hindu community, the members of the majority community should look to independent arbiters. Communities other than the Hindu community alone can fulfil this sensitive and monumental role. The unsoundness of the ideology of Hindu Rashtra cannot easily be discerned by the members of the majority community without the assistance of the minority communities.
Fulfilling the fundamental duties as minorities
The Constitution mandates that it is the duty of minorities as citizens to value and preserve the rich heritage of India’s composite culture. Even though these and other duties are applicable to both the majority and minority communities, when the climate is vitiated by religious or cultural nationalism, the majority community may not become easily aware of its failure with respect to these duties. This is because such failures may not pinch the majority first; instead it may even feel cosy and comfortable in such failures. Initially, the minorities alone may feel the effects of such failures in the short term until the cancer has already eaten up the vitals and the minorities within the majority become the victims and the whole system has broken down. Therefore, the minorities have to play their role of doing their fundamental duties and of reminding the majority community of its duties.
Similarly, the members of a minority group are in a better position to feel, understand and empathise with the suffering of another minority group. So the fundamental duties of the minorities are higher in the cases where the ideals at stake are those of India’s pluralist secularism, composite culture and minority rights.
Any silence or non-contestation by the minorities would not only be suicidal but fratricidal. An inhuman ideology that is to be completely shunned cannot be presented as one of several political ideologies. Even from an ethical perspective, there are forbidden ideologies completely contrary to mandatory principles. Of course, there could be recommendable ones and permissible ones along the spectrum of mandatory and forbidden ones. To say that no ideology is untouchable is to propose a nihilist relativism, which is the other extreme of unitary universalism. Four kinds of ideologies may be available: constitutional, pro-constitutional, non-constitutional and unconstitutional. Out of these, unconstitutional ones are to be shunned and rejected unconditionally. The only requirement would be that such shunning and rejection should be through constitutionally permissible means.
The minorities ought not to let Hindus down when the majority community needs them the most. There are important constitutional roles the minority communities and their members have to play in protecting not only themselves and their rights but also the very sanity and true identity of the Hindu community and the composite constitutional democracy itself. Hindus need the minorities to hold up a mirror reflecting the horrendous and ugly face of the ideology of “Hindu Rashtra”.
M.P. Raju is an advocate practising in the Supreme Court. He is the author of several books, includingMinority Rights: Myth or Reality (2002) andIndia’s Constitution: Roots, Values & Wrongs(2017) .