Taking Minority Rights Seriously

Dadri-lynching (1)

Yet another minority rights day passed on December 18 and minorities still continue to suffer from discrimination and exclusion. They are even subjected to genocidal attacks in this modern age. The State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples– 2016 published by the Minority Rights Group International, a London based international human rights organization asserts that “the unique cultures of minorities and indigenous peoples worldwide – spanning a wide variety of customs and practices – are under threat”. They continue to face barriers in the enjoyment of their cultural right and freedoms. Tragically their ability to maintain distinct identity continues to wane throughout the world. They are among the most disadvantaged, marginalised and vulnerable groups in the society in almost all parts of the world.

The continued infringement of the rights of minorities in South Asia is a matter of particular concern. The neglect and indifference of the most states towards their minorities is common to most states of the region. Despite constitutional guarantee of life and security to all there is a significant surge in violence against minorities in the sub-continent by both state and private actors as highlighted by the South Asia Collective in its first South Asia State of Minorities Report 2016. The Minority Rights Group in its annual Peoples under Threat Index of 2016 also lists two South Asian countries – Afghanistan and Pakistan – where minorities have serious threat, and Sri Lanka as posing a middle level threat.

There has been considerable rise in the violence against religious minorities in India since 2014 as reported by the national Crimes Records Bureau. A recent civil society report ‘365 Days – Democracy and Secularism Under the Modi Regime’ by ANHAD has documented about 600 cases of violence targeting Muslims and Christians. The violence against Muslims in the name of cow protection by vigilantes finds special mention in the annual report of the US State Department on International Religious Freedom. Expressing serious concerns over these incidents 34 US Congressmen even wrote to the Prime Minister asking immediate steps to curb such violence and bring the perpetrators to justice.

The protection of minority rights is long recognised not as a mere moral imperative rather a human rights obligation, a hallmark of a democracy, an effective instrument to prevent tensions and conflicts and also equally valuable in building politically and socially stable societies. The protection of minorities has been one of the oldest concerns of international law beginning almost a century earlier with the adoption of numerous peace treaties between 1919 and 1924  placing minority protection under the domain of the League of Nations and gradually developed under the United Nations with insertion of a provision in the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and finally adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities on 18 December 1992. At regional level especially in Europe the adoption of 1994 Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities is of seminal importance in the evolution of the international protection of minority rights.

This process of recognizing the rights of minorities also generated significant developments at the national level with incorporation of a number of safeguards aimed at protecting minorities in the constitutions of various countries across the world. The issue of the protection of minorities also figured prominently at the time of the drafting of the constitution of India. The framers of our constitution tried their best to assuage the fear which had gripped the minorities following partition by declaring India a secular state and providing them with special constitutional safeguards to instill a sense of confidence and security in them. The Objective Resolution moved by Jawaharlal Nehru on December 13, 1946 highlighting the aims and philosophy of the constitution clearly stated that “adequate safeguards shall be provided for minorities”. While moving the resolution setting up the Advisory Committee Govind Ballabh Pant stated that “A satisfactory solution of the question pertaining to minorities will ensure the health, vitality and strength of free state of India”. He emphatically said that “Unless the minorities are fully satisfied, we cannot make progress; we cannot even make peace in an undisturbed manner.”

Notwithstanding Jawaharlal Nehru’s apt advice way back in 1930 that “there can be no stable equilibrium in any country so long as an attempt is made to crush a minority or force it to conform to the ways of the majority” minorities continue to face tremendous challenges in maintaining their distinct identity. Though most states guarantee religious freedom to their citizens and minorities, the overall trend in the sub-continent is that of intolerance towards minority identity, culture and religion. The new socio-political climate in India especially after coming into power of the BJP led NDA Government seems to be quite inimical to the interests of the religious minorities. What worries them the most is the idea of “majoritarian nationalism” being propagated by the Hindutva brigade and onslaught on our liberal plural values and cultural ethos? The appalling silence of the Prime Minister and his failure to chastise the brigade he commands which is continuously indulged in fanning the flames of animosity and hate against minorities, is also disturbing.

The famous English historian Lord Acton once aptly remarked that “The most certain test by which we judge whether a country is really free is the amount of security enjoyed by minorities”. Mahatma Gandhi was of the view that the claim of a country to civilization depends upon the treatment it extends to the minorities.   Do most of our countries qualify the test laid down by Lord Acton or Mahatma Gandhi?

The writer is a Professor of Political Science and teaches Human Rights at Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh.

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