India: Melting pot vs salad bowl

Shortly after foisting his nominee as president of the main opposition party at the Centre, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat came up last Sunday with a controversial formulation: “He who is an Indian is a Hindu and he is who is not a Hindu is not an Indian.” This should put in perspective the modest budgetary allocation of Rs 1 crore two days earlier for “containing population decline of small minority communities”. The idea of India, clearly, has two conflicting interpretations. One sees India as a melting pot in which all the Indians are reduced to Hindus. The other views the country as a salad bowl in which all communities retain their distinct identities. Though both interpretations have their constituencies, only the latter conforms to India’s binding obligation under the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to prevent its majority community from swallowing up minorities. Article 27 of the ICCPR says: “In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practise their own religion, or to use their own language.”

The political friction in India is not over minuscule “ethnic” minorities such as Parsis and Jews but over those perceived mainly as “religious” minorities such as Muslims and Christians. In the rather peculiar RSS perspective, Muslims and Christians could not be classified as minorities at all because, as Bhagwat’s predecessor K S Sudarshan put it, most of the members of those communities shared the “same blood and same ancestors” with the Hindus and that they had only changed “the way of worship.” Given the extent to which Hindutva ideology has compromised the constitutional commitment to secularism, it is no surprise that India, for all its claims to being a liberal democracy, finds itself on the US “watch list” of 12 countries where violations of religious freedom are engaged in or tolerated by governments. It is poor consolation that the US puts India’s neighbours, Pakistan, China and Myanmar, in the even more dubious category of 13 egregious violators, “countries of particular concern”.

But the erosion of minority rights has not only been by Hindutva forces. If the BJP has been unable to live down its complicity in the 2002 Gujarat riots, Congress is accountable for many more such episodes of communal violence over the decades. The avowedly secular party is also vulnerable to the charge of discriminating against minorities in some of the laws piloted by its governments. The law restricting the benefits of reservation to Dalits who remain within the Hindu fold is a case in point. If a Dalit converts to Islam or Christianity, he is stripped of his SC status. The pretence that just the act of conversion would rid him of the effects of centuries of discrimination betrays a state bias to tie him to the majority religion.

Congress also acquiesced in the enactment of a series of anti-conversion laws eroding Article 25 of the Constitution, which guarantees “freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion”. Disregarding the Constituent Assembly debate on the import of Article 25, the Supreme Court upheld two anti-conversion laws in 1977, ruling that the freedom to propagate could not be taken as “a fundamental right to convert any person to one’s own religion”. The verdict, however, has had little credibility in the UN. For, Article 18 of ICCPR expressly says that freedom of religion includes “the freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.” In 1993, the human rights committee monitoring ICCPR further clarified that this freedom entailed the “right to replace one’s current religion with another”. India is still nowhere near measuring up to such international standards. Hopefully, proposals like the equal opportunities commission will help reduce the gap.


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