Redefining the minority in India
This book comprises a collection of well-researched essays mostly on India’s prominent religious/ethnic minorities. Its editor, a prominent scholar, known for her pioneering work on Indian Christians, who are increasingly becoming the target of hate campaign and ethnic violence in India. Her extended introduction in the book offers succinct representation of major arguments advanced by its contributors. It also has a commentary on the changing profile of minorities studies, and the various challenges that this sub-discipline faces in India.
What is striking about this book is its attempt to expand the definition of minority by not only including chapters on prominent religious minorities such as Muslims, Christians, Sikhs etc, but also essays that have explored the challenges of minority identity at the intersection of caste and tribal identities, and other reformist sects such as Ramakrishna mission etc. By doing so, it has positioned itself on an enlightened platform from which India’s National Commission for Minorities (NCM) that has a rather restricted view of minority should draw inspiration if it desires to be relevant in our time. Without doubt, scholarship on minority studies has become more organised and moved in the direction of inter-disciplinary research and this book is another prominent evidence of that trend.
The contribution by Rina Verma Williams makes a forceful argument that identities such as minority and majority are constructed by the state. Using the debate over Muslim personal law, she shows how the state and gender become part of the formation of identity and also certain perceptions about Muslim identity in this case that sets the larger ambitions of multi-culturalism and equality against community. She, however, concludes on an optimistic note by suggesting that given that making and unmaking of identity is contingent on the state which need not always contribute to the consolidation of fundamentalist forces, but instead has the possibilities for emancipatory politics.
Another important contribution by Lauray Dudley Jenkins seeks to explain the challenges arising out of efforts to lend religious colour to various Scheduled Castes (SCs) issues in India. It observes that the effort to create SC Muslim or SC Christian quota would reinforce religious differences than socio-economic similarities. She calls for utmost pre-caution while seeking to divide the minorities into micro-minorities or merge them into macro-minorities.
Farhana Ibrahim’s chapter is based on her research on vadha Kohlis in the villages of northern Kachchh in Gujarat. Socio-economic lives of religious communities at the village level is so deeply intertwined, according to her, that it is not easy to present it purely from the point of view of minority-majority framework. Any serious discussion over the issues of rights and equality thus needs to take this complexity into consideration. This does not imply that fundamentalist politics of the Hindutva variety does not have any bearing, but the multiple layers associated with identity formation does offer challenges to such sweeping generalisations about representation of identities.
Joseph M. Kujur explores the question of the relationship between tribal identities and minorities in the larger context of Christian identities. It so happens that tribal identity in India was rarely seen through the prism of discourse on minorities, and there has always been a focus on religious minorities. This chapter is based on the research on Oraon Christians and their relationship with tribal identity. The research highlights the duality and contradiction that arises out of the transition of an identity. In this instance, the identity of Oraon straddles between its tribal and its religious identity, but the tension that arises out of it, in fact, is not particularly troubling for the formation of minority identity.
Sikh minority is another important one in India that has confronted numerous challenges and also at one time, sections of this community nurtured the ambition to form a nation of its own called, Khalisthan. Natasha Behl’s chapter explores the formation of Sikh identity in the context of the Indian state and politics of public perceptions. She employs what she calls a public Sikh narrative about Sikh identity in developing her formulation on identity and argues how multiple layers of perception are built among peoples of Punjab vis-a-vis India and followers of the Sikh faith.
Another crucial contribution is the analysis of Ramakrishna Mission in the context of the minority-majority debate. It is an example that shows how often what is generally known as a majority identity could also give rise to practices of minority identity. In that sense, there are many identities that could be seen as minority yet might have remained embedded with majority identities in public perception.
A major strength of this book is that it has successfully been able to place the minority studies and research in the larger context of India’s vast minority universe. It needs to be underscored here that discussions on minorities in India is often dominated by the writings and commentaries on Indian Muslims. It is this kind of typical demonstration of minority studies reduced as Muslim studies that has contributed to biases towards minority politics and evocation of rather regressive argument of minoritism in the political context by Hindutva votaries in India.
The content of this book will go a long way to challenge such reductionist arguments and offers material to question the negative campaign against minority rights and minority studies.