(An edited version of this book review was published in Business Standard.)

“In a country marked by multiplicity of faiths, speeches, castes, ethnicities and geographies, the question ‘who is a minority?’ is riddled with complexities. What adds to the intricacy is that each of these collectivities is segmented into status groups, sects, forms of worship, and regional variations to the extent that the difference offsets the commonality,” writes Tanweer Fazal in his introduction to a new book titled The Minority Conundrum: Living in Majoritarian Times, which he has edited. He is a sociology professor at the University of Hyderabad.

Fazal has put together a thought-provoking volume of essays that examine minority rights in the light of secularism and nationalism, both of which are foundational to the vision of the Indian Republic. This book, published by Penguin Random House, is almost entirely focused on the experiences of Muslims in India; so do not expect to find much in there about other minorities such as Christians, Sikhs, Parsis, Jains, Buddhists and Jews in India. However, do read Barbara Harriss-White’s essay ‘Minorities, Market and Accumulation’ and Ankur Datta’s essay ‘Kashmiri Pandits: The Ambiguous Minority’ to get a slightly more expansive picture.

(Source: Penguin Random House)

The author points out that most plural societies broadly recognize three kinds of minorities — those that demand self-governance rights over the territory they regard as their homeland or nation and may initiate secessionist movements, those indigenous or tribal groups that seek protection of their language and ideas of religion in addition to land and natural resources, and those religious communities and language speakers that reside outside their homeland and require preservation of identity and security and expect a share of the national wealth.

Though he admits that religious minorities tend to take up most of the space in this discussion, Fazal does not create much room in his own book to address issues faced by indigenous and linguistic minorities. Moreover, minorities among Indian Muslims such as Bohris, Ahmadis and Pasmanda Muslims are also overlooked. No book can capture everything there is to say, however it is useful to notice what the editor has chosen to prioritize. Sexual minorities and gender minorities are completely absent from this book.

That said, Fazal’s book is not bereft of nuance. He writes, “Identities are multiple, and each of these intersects with the other to complicate the situation further. A Santhal convert to Christianity bears no resemblance to the Syrian Christians in Kerala, be it in language, custom or the status that she enjoys in the wider society. A Tamil Muslim has far more points of interaction with a Tamil Hindu than with his co-religionists in Kashmir and in Urdu-speaking areas.” These finer distinctions are absent from sweeping generalizations that characterize every Hindu-Muslim conflict as a clash of civilizations.

Are democracies doing an effective job of protecting the rights of minorities? In his essay titled ‘Disenfranchised Minorities, Dysfunctional Democracies’, Amir Ali looks at how a political system that is supposed to safeguard the right to liberty, rule of law and free speech has been gradually silencing ethnic and religious minorities. Institutions that were once considered secular and pluralistic in character have been poisoned with hatred. This shift has been made possible by claiming that protections for minorities are nothing but a form of appeasement, and must be withdrawn.

In her essay titled ‘The Violence of Law’, Manisha Sethi shows how anti-terror laws such as the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act present a veneer of neutrality but effectively criminalize individuals based on the socio-religious communities they belong to. Because these laws foreground guilt by association, they create suspicion even towards people with no criminal record. The widespread prosecution — though not necessarily conviction — helps to solidify stereotypes that make people erroneously believe, for example, that all Muslims are anti-national.

Sethi remarks, “How could Hindus possibly bomb their own country — except in retaliation? The idea of Hindus as the only true and natural citizens of India has long been elevated to the mythical. As is the binary between a violent Islam and a non-violent Hinduism.” It is not surprising that the COVID-19 pandemic has become yet another opportunity for bigotry. The preposterous suggestion that Muslims are spreading the coronavirus in India as an act of bio-terror is being circulated enmasse via WhatsApp messages, and this sounds convincing to a large number of Hindus only because they have been made to believe that Muslims have hatched a conspiracy to threaten their existence. Does this not sound completely absurd considering that Muslims are minorities in India, and not Hindus?

Fazal writes, “The nation state and the minority cultures residing within it are almost eternally in a fraught relationship. At the heart of it is the question of allegiance, the terminal loyalty that the state wishes to command. Minorities insisting on the distinctiveness of their identity and practices are unfailingly the usual suspects.” This festering doubt about loyalty is what gives strength to India’s Citizenship Amendment Act, which has different provisions for Hindus, Muslims, Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs seeking Indian citizenship. “The problem compounds when cultural minorities are considered to have ‘kin states’ in the neighbourhood. Urdu-speaking Muslims are accused of nursing divided loyalties, and therefore the Hindutva catchphrase ‘go to Pakistan’,” explains Fazal.

Fortunately, this book does not stop at analyzing what is wrong but also envisions a path forward. Flavia Agnes, in her essay titled ‘The Triple Talaq Controversy: A Sociolegal View’, contends that reform of personal law must be located within the everyday realities of women’s lives and not in majoritarian mandates. In their essay ‘Education and the Muslim Child, Azra Razzack and Muzna F. Alvi find hope in the New Education Policy, a draft of which was published in 2019, because it talks of interventions to incentivize Muslims and other educationally underrepresented minorities to complete school education. Navsharan Singh, through her essay, ‘Bearing Witness: Living in Times of Hate’, advocates for empathy, truth-telling, justice, reparations and reconciliation.

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