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September 11 2012 09:30 | Dom Armie Kino Hall

Minorities in India

Homi Dhalla

Zoroastrianism, India

In many parts of Asia, ethnic minorities are faced with a new challenge, that of globalization.  Besides the political, cultural and economic challenges of the modern world which the ethnic minorities have to face, globalization brings in its wake the problems of population, infectious diseases, unemployment and environment.  A dimension of globalization which was given little importance in certain parts was the problems in cooperation and confrontation among different ethnic minorities.  Over the years, certain groups which find themselves marginalized for e.g. indigenous people or immigrants have put forward claims for their rights and equality.  These claims may take a form of linguistic or political rights thus creating tension with the local population.

On June 20, 2011, the UN Refugee Agency stated that in the last one year, 43.7 million people around the world had been forcibly displaced from their homes either due to conflict or persecution – this was the highest number in 15 years.  80% of the refugees were provided a shelter in the world’s poorer countries.  The agency further warned that these countries could not continue to shoulder this responsibility on their own.

India which is hailed as ‘the melting pot of cultural diversity’ is also home to the world’s 11th largest population of ‘Internally Displaced Peoples’ (IDP) --- those forced to relocate fearing religious, ethnic or other persecution in conflict-induced situations.  India and Turkey are the only ‘stable’ countries in the list of 12 nations which have witnessed, forced migrations of a million or more.  These statistics come from the IDP database created by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC).  This database which was created at the request of the UN is organized by NRC’s Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) and is the only agency which furnishes global IDP figures.  (Thakur Atul, “India has 11th most domestic refugees”, The Times of India, Mumbai, August 27, 2012)

The Indian scenario
India is a country where four of the world’s great religions---Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism were born and four other religious traditions have emerged from West Asia and have flourished for centuries---Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Islam.  Hence, India has been a multireligious, multicultural and multilingual society for centuries.  It has been a beautiful mosaic comprising of different people, having a wide spectrum of hopes, dreams and yearnings.

This multiculturalism has prevailed in India for ages and it is a celebration of religions and not their denial.  Multiculturalism in India conveys the concept of cordial coexistence of people of various religions.  It is to the credit of India that we have achieved a certain degree of tolerance through the ages.  India was known as a land of tolerance, where everyone could live his own life and this was known in neighboring cultures.  Hence, when the Zoroastrians of Persia realized that their religion was being threatened, they turned to India for refuge.  For centuries, the majority community, the Hindus have never interfered or intimidated the Zoroastrians for which they shall always be grateful.  And again, twelve centuries later, when the culture and religion of the Tibetans was also attacked, they looked to India which welcomed them.  It is this spirit which permitted every religion and community to flower in multicultural India.

Dr. Rajendra Prasad, the first President of India assured all the minorities in the country that they would receive a fair treatment.  “They will enjoy all the rights and privileges of citizenship and will be expected, in their turn, to render loyalty to the country in which they live and to its Constitution......We are embarking on a great task and we shall do our best to serve it”.

In the same spirit, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India declared that “The service of India means the service of the millions that suffer.  The ambition of the greatest man of our generation has been to wipe every tear from every eye.  That may be beyond us.  But so long as there are tears and suffering, so long our work will not be over”.

National Commission for Minorities
Despite the safeguards provided in the Constitution and the laws in force, there persists amongst certain members of the minorities a feeling of inequality and discrimination.

In order to preserve secular traditions and to promote national integration, the Government of India attaches the highest importance to the enforcement of the safeguards provided for the minorities.  It is also of the firm view that effective institutional arrangements are urgently required for the enforcement and implementation of all the safeguards provided for the minorities in the Constitution, in Central and State laws and in Government policies and administrative schemes enunciated from time to time.

The Government of India has, therefore, resolved to set up a Minorities Commission to safeguard the interests of minorities whether based on religion or language.  The National Commission for Minorities came into existence on February 24, 1978 then under the name “Minorities Commission”.  It functioned on a ‘non-statutory basis’ till May 17, 1992 when Parliament enacted the National Commission for Minorities Act.  The first statutory Commission was set up on July 5, 1993.

In 1978, the Government had issued certain Notifications and Orders, etc. which together constituted the Commission’s governing law.  After 1993, a number of statutory Rules were framed and other relevant Notifications and Orders issued for the Commission by the Central Government.  Under its statutory powers, the Commission also framed and adopted certain Rules and Regulations.  All these, now, together constitute the Commission’s laws regulating its functioning.

The Compilation of Rules and Regulations of the National Commission for Minorities was first printed in 1998.  After a gap of 12 years, this is now re-printed after updating and modification.

Functions of the Commission
The Commission shall perform all or any of the following functions:
•    Evaluate the progress of the development of minorities under the Union and States.
•    Monitor the working of the safeguards provided in the Constitution and in the laws enacted by the Parliament and the State Legislatures.
•    Make recommendations for the effective implementation of safeguards for the protection of the interests of minorities by the Central Government or the State Governments.
•    Look into specific complaints regarding deprivation of rights and safeguards of the minorities and take up such matters with the appropriate authorities.
•    Cause studies to be undertaken into problems arising out of any discrimination against minorities and recommend measures for their removal.
•    Conduct studies, research and analysis on the issues relating to socio-economic and educational development of minorities.
•    Suggest appropriate measures in respect of any minority to be undertaken by the Central Government or the State Governments.
•    Make periodical or special reports to the Central Government on any matter pertaining to minorities and in particular the difficulties confronted by them.
•    Any other matter which may be referred to it by the Central Government.

Justice Sachar Committee
Over the years, many studies have been undertaken pertaining to the various minority communities---their reports have been published and their recommendations have by and large been implemented.  One very important study regarding the Muslim community of India was undertaken by the Justice Sachar Committee.

In March 2005, Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh appointed a high level committee to prepare a report on the social, economic and educational status of Indian Muslims.  The 7-member committee, headed by Retired Justice Rajinder Sachar submitted its report to the Prime Minister in November 2006.

This report is an extremely valuable document about the Muslim community which is the largest minority community in India.  The findings of the Sachar Committee refer to public perceptions and perspectives about the Muslims, their population, distribution, health and educational conditions.  It deals with their economic and employment status as well as their levels of poverty and standards of living.  Besides this, the report focuses on their employment in government services and programmes chalked out for their amelioration.  A number of recommendations have been made by this Committee to the Government of India.

Justice Ranganath Mishra Commission
This Commission was chaired by former Chief Justice of India, Justice Ranganath Mishra. The Commission submitted the report to the Government of India on May 21, 2007.  This Commission identified the criteria for socially and economically backward classes among the religious and linguistic minorities of India.  It has made several recommendations relating to the religious minorities of India.

How ethnic violence continues in Assam
Ethnic conflict in Assam, as in some other parts of North East India is several decades old, but has increased its frequency since the late 1970s.  An extremely militant agitation, ostensibly, to remove ‘foreigners’ but targeted more generally against all non-Assamese people has gripped the state from 1979 to 1985.  One of the factors that gave the agitation ground support was the large scale influx from Bangladesh, particularly after 1971.  The Muslim population of Assam rose 77% between 1971 and 1991, whereas the Hindu population rose about 42% in the same period. Over the years, there have been several clashes between the Muslims and the local Bodo population in spite of various Accords.  The most prominent movement demands a separate state of Bodoland.  The supreme leader of all the action in Assam is Hagrama Mohilary who is demanding that all illegal immigrants leave Assam.

In recent months, once again there have been serious clashes between Bodo tribes and Bangladeshi Muslim migrants in certain parts of Assam.  This has led to the death of 80 people and rendered 400,000 homeless.  As a result of this, people from the North East states who have been working in various parts of India have been threatened.  This has resulted in mass migration of these North Easterners, running for shelter back to their states.  India is engaged in a struggle with itself with its identity of oneness being threatened.

On August 11, 2012, disturbances engineered by a small group of Muslim zealots broke out in Mumbai leading to a lot of destruction and burning of vehicles.  The police succeeded in saving Mumbai from a huge communal flare-up.

In this context, it is pertinent to point out the other incidencts of internal displacement that have taken place in India.  This includes those displaced in the North Eastern states, the Kashmiri Pandit Diaspora as well as those forced out of their homes due to the Naxal violence and the communal violence which took place in Gujarat.

India provides asylum to Hindu families from Pakistan
India’s policy on granting asylum is based in two fundamental rights in the Constitution --- Articles 14 and 21.  These rights give any resident in India the right to life, equality and justice.  Refugees and asylum seekers in India can avail of government education, medical care in government hospitals, practice their religion and even work in the informal sector.

Hindus make 2.5% of Pakistan’s 174 million populations, of which 90% live in Sindh.  In August 2012, the problems of Hindus living in Pakistan once again came into the limelight when a 14 year old girl Manisha Kumari was kidnapped, forced to convert to Islam and married off.  Following this incident which took place, 250 Hindus crossed over the border seeking asylum in India.  They alleged harassment by certain Islamists groups.  They also blamed the blasphemy laws used by the hardliners to target Christians and Hindus.  This had attracted international attention since Punjab Governor Salman Taseer was assassinated for sympathizing with a Christian woman who was given a death sentence for allegedly insulting Islam.  Besides this, the assassination of Minister for Minority Affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, cast the spotlight on the plight of minorities.

These migrations have embarrassed Pakistan.  In his Independence Day speech, on August 14, 2012, the Army Chief of Pakistan, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani made a pointed reference to the security of minorities.  Without a specific reference to the Hindus, Kayani said that minorities in Pakistan should be free to live and work and practice their faith without fear.  The plight of Hindus in Pakistan figured in the Indian Parliament with the BJP leader Rajnath Singh forcefully raising the religious and human rights violations Hindus face in the neighboring country.

Fair treatment to Minorities in India
In exercise of the powers conferred by Clause (c) of Section 2 of the National Commission for Minorities Act, 1992 (19 of 1992), the Central Government hereby notifies the following communities as the “the Minorities Communities” for the purpose of the said Act, viz., Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Zoroastrians (Parsis).

On August 15, 2012, when India celebrated its Independence Day, the remarks of the Chief Justice of India, Mr. Sarosh Kapadia are pertinent.  He stated that “India is the only country where a member of the minority Parsi community with a population of 1,67,000, like myself, can aspire to attain the post of the Chief Justice of India.  These things do not happen in our neighbouring countries.  I am proud to be an Indian.  Thus we realize the values of Constitutional ideals and principles”.

In this context, it would be relevant to state that although the Parsi community is microscopic in a population of 1.2 billion people, its members have held the highest positions in the armed forces and in many other departments of the Government of India.  Our present Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh who is a Sikh, also belongs to the minority community.  A few years back, the highest office in the country that of the President of India was held by Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam who belonged to the Muslim community.

Sarajevo, Bosnia, September 8-12, 2012

Message of His Holiness Benedict XVI
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