"Are Sikhs a minority in Punjab," asked the Supreme Court recently, while hearing a petition from the state government seeking minority rights for Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC)-run institutions.
In order to answer this question, the first thing to ask is who is a minority in India. However, the Constitution does not define the word "minority"?
This article looks at whether Sikhs are a minority, tells you why the implied definition of "who is a minority" is flawed, reviews India's population between 1950 and 2011 and in states with large non-Hindu population.
Lastly, it benchmarks with the USA and the UK.
When the Constitution was written, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains were treated as part of the wider Hindu community which has different sects, subsects, faiths, modes of worship and religious philosophies. In various codified customary laws like the Hindu Marriage Act, Hindu Succession Act, Hindu Adoption and Maintenance Act and other laws of pre- and post-Constitution period, the definition of "Hindu" included all sects, subsects of Hindu religion including Sikhs and Jains.1
Sikhs began to be considered a minority sometime after the very violent Khalistani Movement and the Congress-orchestrated 1984 riots. The Congress declared Jains a minority before the May 2014 general elections.
The question to be asked is whether, from a philosophical and cultural standpoint, Sikhs are a minority. Late Khushwant Singh wrote, “The Adi Granth echoes the Vedanta through most of its nearly 6,000 hymns. There is a new breed of Sikh scholars who bend backwards to prove Sikhism has taken little or nothing from Hinduism. All they need to be told is that of the 15,028 names of God that appear in the Adi Granth, Hari occurs over 8,000 times, Ram 2,533 times.”
Will the Supreme Court use the same intellectual rigour, in deciding whether or not Sikhs are a minority, as it did in 1995 when the Ramakrishna Mission said they were not Hindus.
At the time of its inception, the Constitution's definition of "minority" implied to mean Muslims, Christians and Parsis. According to a Supreme Court judgment of August 2005, “Minority as understood from the constitutional scheme signifies an identifiable group of people or a community who are seen as entitled to protection due to deprivation of its religious, cultural and educational rights by other ‘majority’ communities. Majority here refers to a group or community that is likely to gain political power in elections under a democratic form of government”.
However, minority has now come to imply every community that has a population which is less than the majority community. The underlying rationale is:
1. Minorities deserved protection of their rights from the majority community, that is, the Hindus.
2. The Hindu community is a monolith, which voted solely on religious lines (that is Hindu versus non-Hindu).
3. Hindus would force non-Hindus to assimilate into Hindu culture.
These assumptions are flawed.
First, the Hindu society could be a monolith if it were governed by the equivalent of one Holy Book and a Church. It has numerous schools of thought and sampradyas, which co-exist peacefully in the belief there are many ways to the same ultimate goal.
To understand this, sample this recent observation. The author visited Rameshwaram in Tamil Nadu. The pilgrimage town has dharamshalas of different communities from various parts of India but not a Hindu dharamshala. Ditto for many other pilgrim spots.
Two, by its very nature, Sanatan Dharma allows others to assimilate into its culture. Over the centuries, it has absorbed numerous aspects of alien cultures and made some of them its own.
Three, more than hundreds of years ago, Indians read Hindus gave refuge and untrammelled rights to communities that were persecuted elsewhere, like Parsis, Jews and Syrian Christians.
Four, during the last 60-odd years, we have seen that the Hindu does not vote on religious lines, but for example, on performance, ethnicity, caste and locality.
Another practical example to make this point. If there is a fight between a Hindu and Muslim and a Hindu messages 200 Hindus seeking support, may be 20 would come. Conversely, at least 175 Muslims will respond to a similar call.
Thus the fear of domination, as it happens in Christian and Muslim countries, is misplaced.
It can be argued that circumstances post Partition required additional rights to be given. A comparison of the population numbers between 1951 and 2011 shows -
At 17.22 crore, the Muslim population in India is large and exceeds the total population of many countries. For instance, in 2013, UK's total population was 6.41 crore, Germany's 8.06 crore, Iran's 7.75 crore, Saudi Arabia's 2.88 crore, Pakistan's 18.21 crore and Indonesia's 24.99 crore). Thus, they cannot be construed to be a minority just because numerically, their population is less than Hindus.
The composition of India’s population has substantially changed since 1950, making it imperative to revisit the implied meaning of the word "minority".
Besides not defining the word "minority", the Constitution does not specify a population percentage beyond which a community ceases to be a minority. The table below shows the population percentage of minorities in different states with high non-Hindu population.
Muslims constitute approximately 15 per cent of the India’s population and are a majority in large pockets across the country. They are a majority in Jammu and Kashmir, just as Christians are in Meghalaya, Nagaland and Mizoram. Inspite of being a majority and holding political power, they are considered a minority.
In Kerala, Muslims and Christians make up 45 per cent of the state’s population. The latter control most educational institutions there. Today, 49 of 72 MLAs of the the United Democratic Front belong to the minority group and the chief minister is Christian. Yet they are considered a minority.
It is interesting to read the "Constituent Assembly Debate on Reservation for religious minorities". Excerpts from an article by R Upadhyay:
Sardar Patel said, “If the process that was adopted which resulted in the separation of the country is to be repeated, then I say: those who want to have a place in Pakistan and not here. Here, we are building a nation and we are laying a foundation of One Nation, and those who choose to divide again and sow the seeds of disruption will have no place, no quarter here and I must say plainly enough” (Constituent Assembly Debate VOL. V).
Even Jawaharlal Nehru had slammed the idea of a communal quota and said, “A safeguard of this kind would have some point where there was autocratic or foreign rule, it would enable the monarch to play one community off against the other.”
Even Muslim members like Tajamul Hussain, a barrister and member from Bihar, maintained:
"The state in India being secular shall have no concern with any religion, creed or profession of faith, and shall observe an attitude of absolute neutrality in all matters relating to the religion of any class of its citizens or other persons in the Union" (Constituent Assembly Debate, Vol. 7, page 815)."
Note that, barring India, no country defines minority by religion. What do Britain and USA do?
The constitution of Britain does not define who is a "minority". There, such division is based on skin color and race. However, racial minorities do not have special privileges like the minorities of India.
The US' Constitution does not use the term “minority” anywhere. What it has come to mean, through case law, is that certain group characteristics are treated as “protected classes” for various provisions of the law — race, color, religion, national origin, et al.
In India, on the other hand, everyone wants to be declared a minority because of certain privileges:
1. Schools runs by Christian minority are provided special rights to enable the community to protect its religion, culture et al. A survey of such schools would show that majority of students are non-Christian. So how is Christian religion being protected? Further, Christians like Ryan International Group have taken advantage and set up over 125 schools across India. It is a business!
2. The Bill for reservation of 27 per cent seats for the OBC is not applicable to institutions of higher education run by minorities.
It is because of such provisions that Sikhs want to be considered a minority in Punjab despite constituting 57.8 per cent of the state's population (based on the 2011 Census) and ruling it for decades.
3. According to the RBI circular on Priority Sector Lending, dated July 1, 2015, "minority communities considered are Sikhs, Muslims, Christians, Zoroastrians, Buddhists and Jains. Sufficient care may be taken to ensure that the minority communities also receive an equitable portion of the credit."
This circular assumes that only non-Hindus are under-privileged and deserve equitable credit. Some of the country's biggest industrialists and most prosperous communities are Jains, Parsis and Sikhs yet successive governments follow such warped policies.
Such schemes are a result of the British/Congress line of thought and unheard of in any other country.
The division of India into majority and minority has only increased conflict. It is time the judiciary and government work together to do away with colonial and undefined concepts of minority and secularism. Instead, they should provide equal rights for all with special facilities for the poor.