Sunday, February 8, 2004

A century of discrimination

Minorities and Religious Freedom in a Democracy
by James Massey. Manohar, Delhi. Rs 500. Pages 246.

FUNDAMENTAL Rights are enshrined in Part Three of our Constitution. The Fundamental Rights cover a wide range of subjects relating to religion, culture and social conditions of the multi-religious and multi-lingual population of India. Besides these provisions, there are some rights that safeguard the interests of various minorities of India.

This book covers two such rights mentioned in Article 25 and Article 30. Article 25 deals with freedom of conscience and the right to profess, practice and propagate religion and Article 30 deals with the "right of minorities to establish and administer educational institutions". Besides exploring the rights and status of the minorities the work also traces the history of these Articles.

It reflects what hard work went into including each word in the Constitution. The lengthy debates and the discussions show how these provisions were accepted and included in the Constitution. Massey defines the concept of "minority" not only in the Indian context, but also at the international level. He highlights the work done for the minorities and the different acts of violence carried out against them.

He quotes Francisco Capotorti, whom the United Nations appointed a Special Rapporteur of a special study on Article 27 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights of 1966: "(Minority is) A group numerically inferior to the rest of the population of a state, in a non-dominant position, whose members being nationals of the state, possess ethnic, religious or linguistic characteristics differing from those of the rest of the population and show, if only implicitly, a sense of solidarity, directed towards preserving their culture, traditions, region or language."

He gives the state-wise population of various minorities in India and also the literary count among the Muslims and the Christians. As a member of the National Commission for Minorities, the author writes from his experiences about the non-cooperation of the state-machinery with the minorities in India.After travelling across 17 states and the Union Territories, he now has first-hand knowledge of the problems of the minorities. The grievance that he finds common among minorities in India regarding their slow advancement is the limited scope of development and absence of clear-cut guidelines and instructions in this regard from the Central and state governments.Enumerating and analysing the debates in the Constituent Assembly, he traces the inclusion of Articles 25 and 30 in our Constitution. The debate on including the word "propagation" reflects as to how each clause was minutely scanned by the framers of our Constitution. The difference between Articles 29 and 30 has been brought about. The link between human rights and the rights of the minorities have been given a new dimension as he talks of "historical development of human rights", covering a period of more than a century.

The focus is first on the American and French Revolutions, which ushered in a new era of rights, and then on the socialist revolutions before gradually shifting to the anti- colonial revolutions that talked of nations emphasising their self-determination.

The text is resplendent with data and facts and is a painstaking examination of the status and rights of the minorities in India. Highlighting the case of the Christian community, the instances of discrimination against them run like a common thread through the book. It is important to have such discussions to maintain a fine balance between the majority and the minority communities.