Problems of Religious Minorities A Big Challenge to the Secular Democracy in India

The problems of minorities, who are relatively lesser in numerical strength than the majority community, have been gaining too much importance in the politics of many nations in the world.

Written by

DR. JAJNESWAR SETHI

Published on

The problems of minorities, who are relatively lesser in numerical strength than the majority community, have been gaining too much importance in the politics of many nations in the world. Both the developed and developing countries are also caught in the problems associated with the minorities. In many third world nations, nowadays, racial tensions, communal violence and ethnic clashes make headlines almost daily. For instance, the ethnic conflict between the Buddhists and the Tamils is still going on in Sri Lanka, which has put a major obstacle in the way of economic development of that country.
India, which is known as a peace-loving nation, is also not spared by the problems of minorities. India is a multi-religious country and her society is pluralistic in nature from the religious and other points of view. Since a very long time, people belonging to various religious communities have been living together in this country. Not only major religious communities are spread all over the country, but the people belonging to all religious communities reside in each village and town in the country. Religious minority groups in India are chiefly the Muslims, the Christians, the Sikhs, the Jains and the Buddhists, who have been able to preserve their group identities and have also stayed in the mainstream of national politics.
The Muslims in India constitute the largest religious minority in the country. Though a minority in its numerical strength, it is as big as to make it the second biggest Muslim population in the world, next to Indonesia. The Muslims constituted 13.4 per cent of the Indian population according to the 2001 census, and form an important segment in the social fabric of the country. But economically, Muslims are the most backward community with the lowest employment rate. With such backward economic status, there was hardly any incentive for a modern secular education.
Unlike the Muslims, the Christians are the second largest and oldest religious minority in the country. It is chiefly spread in south India, particularly in Kerala. Consistent with the social philosophy of their religion, the Christians, in India are well represented in the social welfare activities of the country with particular concern for the service of the unprivileged. Their role in the sphere of health and education is well recognised. But recently, some Christian missionaries of the country have been alleged to be involved in conversion activities that led to communal conflicts which witnessed large scale attacks on the churches and Christians in Gujarat, Orissa and several other states. The very recent attacks on Christians and churches in the Kandhamal district of Orissa shook the entire Christian community of the world.
Similarly, the early part of the 20th century witnessed the rise of numerous Sikh sectarian organisations that emphasised the distinct Sikh identity.  Sikhism is another important religion in India which is spread in different parts of the country, especially in Punjab, Delhi, Haryana, Bihar, etc. Claiming Punjab as their motherland, the Sikhs have developed a very strong sub-national identity, carrying with them the vital elements of the Punjabi culture. The Sikhs are excellent cultivators in the rural areas; they have played a very significant role in the Green Revolution of the country. In urban areas, most of them earn their livelihood in the trade and commerce sectors. They have always maintained a larger share in defence forces of the country. Like the Muslims, Sikhs and Christians, other religious minorities of the country, such as the Jains and the Buddhists have also stayed in the mainstream of Indian politics.
The Constitution of India has provided the minority groups with some safeguards. The Preamble of the Constitution describes the concept of secularism which means that the State has no religion of its own, and there is equal respect for and protection to all religions. No one is to be discriminated on grounds of religion and everyone is guaranteed full and equal freedom of religion. Article 30 of the Indian Constitution states that the minorities have rights to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice. This includes the right to choose the medium of instruction, curricula, and subject to be taught. Minorities can impart instructions to their children in their own languages. The National Commission for Minorities undertakes review of the implementation of the policies formulated by the Union and state governments with regard to minorities. It looks into specific complaints regarding deprivation of rights and safeguards of minorities, and conducts research and analysis on the question of avoidance of discrimination against the minorities.
The minority communities have to face several problems in India. The minorities are not able to integrate properly in the Hindu-dominated society. There is apprehension among some sections that for enlarging its base, the Christian community is involved in converting the low caste Hindus or tribes to its own community or religion, resulting in the killing and intense conflict between the majority Hindus and the Christian minority. This has created too much insecurity and fear among the Christian minority in India. The minorities claim that unlike their Hindu counterpart, they are relatively deprived in areas like employment, politics and social facilitation. According to them, they are poorly represented in civil services as well as in medical and engineering colleges. The serious communal riots especially after 1960s have instilled a sense of insecurity among the Muslims and tend to push them into their narrow communal shell. The anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat during February-May 2002 supposedly in retaliation to the Godhra incident has shaken not only the Indian Muslims, but all the concerned Indian citizens. During the caste conflicts, communal violence, etc., the minority groups seek police protection. But the government in power also finds it difficult to provide such protection for all the members of minorities. For instance, the Modi government in Gujarat was unable to provide protection for the Muslims after the Gujarat massacre, in which huge numbers of Muslims were killed. Again, the then Rajiv Gandhi government at the Centre was severely criticised for its failure to provide adequate security for the Sikh community of Delhi because of the communal riots that broke out after the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984. Now, secularism began to be used merely as a slogan of opportunism. The politicians found it easy to align a large number of multi-cultural citizens into culturally distinct groups for the realization of their vested interests. Most of the communal riots in the country have been the handiwork of disgruntled politicians, anti-social elements and criminals. Demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992, the Mumbai riots, and the Godhra carnage and subsequent massacres in 2002 revealed the serious weakness and susceptibility of India’s commitments towards democracy and secularism. Thus, the condition of religious minorities in India continues to be very complex and critical.
In order to improve the condition of the religious minorities in India, the government in power should make every effort to restore their confidence. It is also necessary to create conditions in which the minorities are assured that their constitutional and legal rights are safeguarded. The government should seriously respond to the real needs and requirements of the poor and needy minority groups. The government should seriously consider the Sachar Committee Report without any delay and implement its recommendations. People-to-people contact, social consciousness, abolition of illiteracy etc. may prove useful confidence-building measures. The secular values must be internalised by the people and political parties. No political party should be permitted to contest election by exploiting the emotions of a particular community. Efforts should also be made to promote liberal social reforms to deal effectively with communalism and the influence of communalist leaders. The secular political class of India should campaign for widening the base of education for Muslims. The religious minorities have to be empowered educationally and economically. The progress of the country can be achieved if all the religious communities in India live in perfect harmony.