Are India’s Muslims a minority?

Minister in Hindu nationalist BJP government says Muslims are not minority causing controversy on status of community.

Muslims constitute slightly less than 14 percent of India's total population of 1.3 billion [EPA]

Only a day after the Indian government led by the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party leader Narendra Modi took oath of office, Najma Heptullah, the new minister of minority affairs made an unusual statement. While some were surprised, even shocked, by her statement, others expressed happiness over it. She said: “Muslims are not minorities, Parsis are. We have to see how we can help them [Parsis] so that their numbers don’t diminish”.

Currently, Parsis number about 69,000 whereas Muslims constitute slightly less than 14 percent of the total population of 1.3 billion. In one view based on the 2006 Sachar Committee report which studied the status of Muslim community, unlike Parsis, “Muslims are worse off than any other community, even the Musahar (low caste) Dalits, in terms of their socio-economic condition.”

One newspaper interpreted Heptullah’s statement to say that Muslims were “too large to be considered a minority”. When journalists asked her what her ministry would do for the Muslim community, she said: “This is not the ministry for Muslim affairs, this is the ministry for minority affairs.”

Defining minority

So, what does it mean to say that Muslims are not a minority? At stake here is the very meaning of minority, which does not have a single agreed definition. But Heptullah’s statement does assume a definition. She thinks of minority statistically. To her, minority is a tiny group like the Parsis and since Muslims are far larger than Parsis, they do not qualify as a minority.

The federal minister’s definition either betrays a historical innocence or a deliberate political manipulation. Central to the characterisation of minority is not just numbers but their comparative, disempowered position vis-a-vis the majority community in a given polity. For political scientist Andre Liebich, two key elements constituting a minority are “inequality and inferiority, not merely numerical but substantial inferiority”.

In fact, Heptullah’s definition subverts the one by the philosopher politician Abul Kalam Azad, the first education minister of free India who also happened to be her grand-uncle. In his 1940 Presidential address at the Ramgarh session of the Indian National Congress, Azad (p. 292) observed:

In political parlance the word minority… means such a weak community (jamat) which because of both its number and capacity (salahyiat) finds itself incapable of protecting itself in relation to a larger and more powerful community… Here the issue of capacity (nauyat) is as important as that of number (tadad).

Clearly, Azad referred to lack of access to and exercise of political power as central to the idea of minority in a future democratic polity. With the partition of India in 1947, the idea of Muslims as a minority was institutionalised in political and constitutional discourses through a clever act of disempowering them.

Democracy creates as much as it reflects and perpetuates the gnawing power differential between majority and minority. To grasp the meaning of minority is to understand the contours of representative democracy, different from Athens’ assembly democracy. The contemporary usage of minority is indeed born from representative democracy – from Ireland to North America, from Romania to India.

Protecting minority by disempowering it

In a valuable study, political scientist Shefali Jha demonstrates how the current meaning of minorities in India was secured by robbing it of its political power in the Constituent Assembly, which framed India’s constitution in 1950. With the creation of Pakistan, central to which was also the provision of communitarian separate electorates, this demand was dropped in the Assembly. However, in July 1947, its Committee on minorities discussed granting of reservations in legislatures to Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and the Scheduled Castes (SCs) in proportion to their respective population as well as reservations in services and jobs.

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Advocating proportional representation so as to escape “pervading evil of democracy [that] is the tyranny of the majority“, Qazi Karimuddin argued that it “is not based on religious grounds and it applies to all minorities, political, religious and communal”. “Without any sacrifice of democratic principle”, he further argued, “representatives of communal and political minorities can be elected”. Similarly ZH Lari contended that with proportional representation, the parliament will become “the mirror of the national mind” and that “minorities will not have grievances about their representation”. Voices of Karimuddin and Lari were also backed by other members such as DH Chandrasekhariya.

Through a variety of mechanisms, later the Assembly scrapped all suggestions and provisions discussed for the political representation of minorities, especially Muslims, for the provision for reserved seats for the SCs was retained. Jawaharlal Nehru, regarded as the architect of “secular India” but who made no efforts to institute the term “secular” in the constitution, pleasingly said: “in the very nature of things, in a democracy, the will of the majority will ultimately prevail.”

Having constitutionally robbed Muslims of any representational power in future parliament and services, the Assembly offered them “minority rights”. Even these minority rights were vehemently opposed initially. On the obscene grounds of disruption of “national outlook” and “national unity”, people such as Jay Prakash Narayan and Damodar Seth argued that language alone – not religion – should form the basis of classifying a minority. To Seth, if religious minorities were allowed to run their educational institutions, it would “promote communalism and anti-national outlook”. Was not BR Ambedkar right that “any claim for the sharing of power by the minority is called communalism while the monopolising of the whole power by the majority is called nationalism”?

With the wings of representational power in future parliament and services chopped, the constitution gave minorities such as Muslims the “rights” (read compensation) to establish their educational institutions and “to profess, practise and propagate religion”, of course, “subject to public order, morality and health and to the other provisions”. Note that “in essence, the constitution was forged by about a dozen, mainly Congress party, politicians”, many of whom such as KM Munshi were well known for their virulent majoritarian Hindu nationalist activism.

It is within this historical context that one can understand why some felt worried over Heptullah’s statement whereas others felt happy. Those deeply concerned about it felt that even those minority protections were probably to be revised or trimmed, if not deleted.

The pervasive majority

As Andre Liebich and Abul Kalam Azad observed, if minority existed only in relation to a majority, Heptullah’s verbal erasure that Muslims are not a minority is premature because she did not question its constitutive cognate term, Hindus as majority, which is the pervasive premise of nearly everything Indian.

MN Srinivas, the foremost sociologist in independent India, held that “the concept of the unity of India is inherent in Hinduism”. According to Srinivas, the term “Hindu” includes Buddhist, Jains and Sikhs. His guru and the father of Indian sociology, GS Ghurye, held that tribes were not distinct or separate from Hindus. To him, they were “imperfectly integrated classes of Hindu society”. Likewise, Nirmal Kumar Bose considered tribes as “full-fledged Hindus”. Note that until 1940, the government census did not classify tribes as Hindus. 

All these assertions, some also supported by the measure of the government of free India such as the inclusion of tribes in the census as Hindus, reflect the assumption as well as the attempts to craft a Hindu majority in a democracy based on the strength of sheer numbers.

The BJP’s allegation that the Congress and other political parties indulge in “minority appeasement” and use Muslims as a “vote bank”, assumes and enacts the premise of a majority. During the hey-days of the campaign to demolish the Babri mosque in early 1990s to build in its place a temple for lord Ram, the BJP and its allies rejected the proposal for a constitutional settlement by arguing that the temple was ultimately an issue of people’s faith. Clearly, the people here referred to the majority community.

The contemporary discourse of terrorism is deliberately rendered as synonymous with the minority community and its religion in a way that it assumes that people enacting political violence from the majority community are rarely called terrorist. In fact, in the ideological discourse of the BJP and its parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), because of their religion, Muslims and Christians can never be loyal to India, whereas members of the majority community naturally are.

During the election campaigns in April, in a TV show, Vivek Agnihotri, a Bollywood director, said: “The grassroots reality is that the moment you say ‘secular’, people think you are anti-Hindu.”

Nothing reflected the assumption of a Hindu majority more crisply than the slogan “Hindu ghata, desh bata” (as the number of Hindus decrease, India will break/get divided) raised and written on public walls during the 1980s and 1990s.

Can Heptullah ever say that Hindus are not a majority? Put somewhat differently, does this even need to be said for it stands as so “natural” and banal?

Irfan Ahmad is Associate Professor of Political Anthropology at Australian Catholic University, Melbourne and author of Islamism and Democracy in India, which was short-listed for the 2011 International Convention of Asian Scholars Book Prize for the field of Social Sciences.