In the four months since becoming minority affairs minister, Abdul Rehman Antulay, 76, has been flooded with petitions from minority groups.

Early this month he played a key role in controlling the situation in Vadodra city in the western Indian state of Gujarat, where the demolition of religious shrines threatened to spark communal clashes.

Gujarat was the scene of violence in 2002 when more than 2,000 Muslims were killed after allegations that a Muslim group burnt a train, killing 59 Hindus.

Such acts of religious and communal conflict, Antulay says, "strike at the very root of India's unity and identity as a true nation state".

A lawyer by training, whose political career in the ruling Indian National Congress (INC) spans half a century, Antulay has held several important posts including that of chief minister of Maharashtra state in the 1980s.
 
Antulay spoke to Aljazeera.net about the causes of communal conflict in India and the need, goals and achievements of his ministry.

Aljazeera.net: India has a Sikh prime minister in Dr Manmohan Singh, a Muslim president in Dr A P J Abdul Kalam and a super-powerful person in Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born chairperson of the ruling United Progressive Alliance, which gives a very flattering picture about India as a flourishing, secular democracy. Why then do we need a minister for minority affairs?

Antulay: To my mind there is some deficiency in our being a nation yet. The day the differences vanish between the majority and the minorities will be the day when we will be a proud nation.

The differences can only vanish when we psychologically empower the minority groups, when they have a sense of security, when they feel that they are no different from the majority, when they have no fear of their life and property and when they have the same opportunity and rights as the majority community. That indeed will be the day that India will be a proud nation and every Indian will be proud.

It is my goal to erase the distinction between the minorities and the majority and I regard myself as minister for national integration.

Why did we need this ministry now?

The US is a democracy. How many years after Lincoln were the blacks given equal rights? Could Lincoln give them the rights? It took time. It always takes time to implement such ideas.

Critics of the government say that the creation of the ministry is just a political gimmick to appease Muslims.

There are many misconceptions about the word minority. In fact, if there is any word that is most abused that is 'minority'. Unfortunately those who abuse the word do not remember or appreciate that even Hindus in Jammu and Kashmir are a minority as well in some other states.

There are so many other minority groups in India, but my friends in the opposition, especially the saffron opposition [a popular name for the Hindu BJP], think only Muslims are a minority. So they say, "No appeasement of minorities." I am also against appeasement but I am in favour of them (Muslims) being treated at par with all other minorities.

The critics also do not remember that the Indian Constitution itself speaks of religious and linguistic minorities in one breath. No regular census data is however available on linguistic minorities. In the next census we want the government to collect data on the linguistic minority groups but my guess is that they are about 12%.

Among religious minorities, Jains are treated as a different and distinct religion in the census but they are not officially notified as such. That will be my job; my efforts are in that direction as also notifying Hindus of Jammu and Kashmir and in the north eastern states.

But do the Hindus of Jammu and Kashmir want to be declared a minority?

So far I have met tens of delegations and nobody has said that they should not be declared a minority but they have also said that before they are notified as a minority, the hardship through which they are passing in refugee camps should be looked into and they should be treated as Indians with dignity and honour.

However, I will act only if they feel that they should be notified as a minority, not before that.

And the Jains?

There is no question about the Jains who have been denied their rights as a minority group. Jains are there all over the country and wherever they are, they are in a minority. The most competent authority to declare them as a minority is the government of India and the mistake made about them by the Supreme Court (that recently ruled that they can be declared a minority state-wise) will be rectified.

Who or what do you think is responsible for communal conflict in India?

I have always been saying that the government concerned is always responsible.

Unless police protection is there for those who indulge in violence and communal riots, they cannot act. On their own the anti-social and anti-national elements are extremely timid. Unless they are given protection and go ahead by the police, communal violence cannot take place. And yet, I will not blame the police. I will blame the rulers, the political leaders who are in the government at the given time.

I have myself experienced this. When I was chief minister of Maharashtra [India’s third largest state, bordering the Indian Ocean], there were organised efforts to see that Maharashtra burns with communal violence and I am thrown out if not totally burnt politically. But fortunately, by God's grace, I didn't 'permit' a single incident to take place.

Communal violence is largely organised, it does not come like lightning or cloudburst. So, it is possible to see it building up and to nip it in the bud with strict instructions to the police and the local administration.

In that case, would you blame your party, the Indian National Congress, for the communal violence that took place in the country before the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came on the scene in 1998?
 
Forget the first few years immediately after India's partition in 1947 (into Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan). The wounds then were so deep, so hurting and sentiments  on both the sides were such that nobody could have stopped it except Nehru, Nehru the great (India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru).

But thereafter whatever might have happened, whosoever might have been in authority, I am not prepared to believe or accept that it was done not at the behest of those in authority, whosoever it may be, I have to be honest.

So, would you say that a tough political leadership can always prevent communal violence?

No, not just tough. The political leadership should be just, equitable and must do everything in good conscience. Good conscience in fact is the most important.

Would your ministry push for special courts to try those responsible for communal violence in the recent past, like in Gujarat in 2002?

I don't think we need special courts. May be, we can have special judges for such cases who attend to them as and when they come up, without delay and on a priority basis.