On the margins

Published : Nov 19, 2010 00:00 IST

Participation in public life and in decision-making is the only way in which minorities can hope to have a voice.

Minorities have learnt the hard way that protection by constitutional safeguards, while useful, is not enough to ensure them a place of respect in the polity. Partition is suicidal. There is a third P' which alone can help participation in public life provided it leads to their empowerment.

This volume, published under the auspices of the European Centre for Minority Issues and the Centre of International Studies of the University of Cambridge, compiles erudite essays by internationally acknowledged authorities on various aspects of the problem of effective participation of minorities in the nation's public life. As Dr B.R. Ambedkar remarked, isolation is the worst thing that can happen to a minority community.

The work is based largely on Europe's experience. The minority clauses of the treaties signed after the Treaty of Versailles influenced the Indian discourse.

The United Nations and the Council of Europe have formulated conventions and established mechanisms and procedures for their enforcement. The volume provides good guidance to anyone who cares to go through the labyrinths of the new institutions. It has, besides, copious references to international case law on minorities. The contributors are scholars who won recognition for their writings and their participation in international efforts to secure protection of minority rights. The emphasis is on their political participation and recognition of the right to a voice in public decision-making.

The Lund Recommendations on the Effective Participation of National Minorities in Public Life and the academic debate surrounding them of which this book is an important example are a great help in the practical work of institutions such as the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe) High Commissioner on National Minorities.

Relevant documents

The U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities (1992) is a highly relevant document and so is European Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (1995), on the Effective Participation of Persons belonging to National Minorities in Cultural, Social and Economic Life and Public Affairs.

Lanna Yael Hollo, director of Hollo Human Rights Consulting, specialises in minority rights and equality law. Zdenka Machnyikova is legal and political adviser to the global initiative on Conflict Prevention through Quiet Diplomacy, Human Rights Centre at the University of Essex, U.K. She is an expert on the international protection of minorities and served as a senior legal adviser to the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities.

Their essay on the Principles of Non-discrimination and Full and Effective Equality and Political Participation is typical of the essays in this volume, in its scholarship and close analysis. They sum up the problem neatly:

In the context of the right to political participation, a key element for the protection of the rights of members of minority groups as well as for the preservation of their distinct cultural identity is access to and full participation of national minorities in decision-making. Participation of minorities makes it possible to hear and effectively take into account the concerns and needs of persons belonging to minorities in achieving full and effective equality and their right to preservation and development of their specific identities. Political participation provides an effective mechanism against assimilation and provides minorities with opportunities to maintain their distinct identities within the majority culture, as well as allowing minorities to participate in society on an equal footing. The principal concern in this regard is to ensure the access of national minorities to decision-making regarding wider public policy and regarding matters of special concern to these communities. In this respect, the basic electoral representation is often not enough and a minority is simply disenfranchised by the operation of majority rule. In order to ensure that minorities have an adequate voice to secure their rights and equal opportunities, special facilitation of minority representation in legislatures and other decision-making and executive bodies may be required.

In India, constituencies are delimited without the slightest regard for the minorities' representation.

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