Reconsidering minorities

Reconsidering minorities

The assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti, the Pakistani minister for minority affairs, on March 2, 2011 was one of the most depressing pieces of news we have read from that country in a long time.

There are many reasons for us to be worried about this development, not least that he is the second prominent Pakistani politician to be killed in a few months — the other one being Salman Taseer, the governor of Pakistani Punjab. If a state cannot keep its own citizens safe — and thousands of ordinary Pakistanis have also been killed in suicide attacks and other militant violence over the last year — its neighbours, as in us Indians, are hardly likely to be safe. When you live next to a burning house, it is unlikely that you will escape the flames.

But, why is the assassination of a minority leader such a big deal? When thousands of ordinary Pakistanis are being killed, why does it matter that one of them has been singled out because he was representing minorities? And anyway, why should the killing of one man become so much more important than the killing of thousands? How is his tragedy greater, how does he become more special because he was a Christian, a member of a minority in Pakistan?

We have to be able to clearly understand these questions, because these questions apply to us here in India as well, or should I say they apply especially to India, since in this large country of 1.2 billion people, everybody is a minority somewhere. The boy from Patna is a derided Bihari in Bombay, the Mumbaikar is an odd man out in Chennai, the Gujju is mocked in Uttar Pradesh, and the Kannada speaking young man finds himself an outsider in the New Delhi Railway Station. In India, at some point or another, we all find ourselves in a minority, depending on how we identify ourselves.

But, does being a minority make you special? Does it confer extra rights to you? Just because a community is smaller, does it become more important somehow? Of course not. Every single citizen should enjoy equal rights under the law. The practice of making one section somehow special, especially if that section is a smaller part of a larger society, will only breed resentment. And yet, at the same time, we all understand that it is polite to give up your bus seat to a pregnant woman or an elderly traveller, that to help a stranger is a good thing, and that the treatment of orphans and widows reflects how healthy a society is. In the same way, we understand that the attack on Kashmiri Pandits, who constituted less than three per cent of the population of the Kashmir Valley before 1990, was a particularly bad crime, as was the pogrom carried out against Sikhs in 1984, or against Gujrati Muslims in 2002.

Just as numerical weakness does not entitle a community to special rights, those that attack a ‘minority group’ are understood to be the worst offenders. For a man the accusation that he attacked a woman is a condemnation. Anybody who takes advantage of the weak is considered morally depraved.

How do we reconcile these two things, the idea of equal rights, and the protection of the weakest sections of society? Where do they meet?  

Part of that answer became clear to me last year when I visited the Jewish Museum in Berlin. The killing of the Jews by the Nazi regime remains our greatest measure of the evil that human beings are capable of. Walking through the museum, looking at the exhibits showcasing the lives of Jewish German citizens, I was struck again and again by how ‘normal’ the stories were. Not that I was expecting something abnormal, just that you feel that there should be some reason to explain this systematic, industrialised destruction of people.

Why attack normal people, your own citizens, a small section of your own society? How does such persecution and killing benefit you? It made absolutely no sense. Only part of the museum is dedicated to those who were killed by the Nazi regime, but having gone through it, I felt sickened and disgusted.

 A few months later, a friend loaned me a book by Sebastian Haffner titled, ‘Germany: Jekyll & Hyde’. Haffner was a young German journalist in the 1930s and fled from Germany to England with the rise of the Nazis. His account is one of the best contemporary accounts of the regime. In his analysis, he stated that part of the strategy of the Nazi leadership was to encourage moral and financial corruption among its own people. By killing the weak, and stealing from the state, it made the whole regime a criminal enterprise. Everybody, in any position of power, was implicated in the crimes and had blood on their hands. Thus their ability to resist, to be honest, to call a criminal a criminal, was severely restricted because it meant realising and admitting that they had been accomplices in the crime.

Thinking back on my trip to the Jewish Museum, I realised that there was something special about the Jews as a minority in Nazi Germany: they were especially vulnerable, and a criminal regime took advantage of that vulnerability. A movement, a regime or a government that attacks those especially vulnerable has a target that goes beyond that group: it seeks to destroy the rule of law. It is a way of stating that some people are not equal citizens of the state. This goes against the very premise of the rule of law. A law that does not apply for a certain set of people, a discriminatory law, is only a form of crime.

This is where the two points: of equal treatment under the law, and the care of minorities, converge. The state of minorities in a country is a way to measure the overall health of its society. Any country that allows for the repression of its minorities is one that cares little about the rule of law. Any movement that attacks minorities for the sake of their being minorities, is a movement that does not believe in the rule of law, but only in the rule of power.

But the use of the example of Nazi Germany can confuse as much as illuminate. To compare the mechanised, industrial killing of millions of people in Germany with the murder of one politician by militants in Pakistan would be foolish. While we can draw out a certain general rule: the state of vulnerable groups in a society reflects its respect of the rule of law, not all attacks on a minority are a descent into a racist, pathological state. In India too we have had our own killings of minorities, whether of Graham Staines, or the ones I have cited above.

While Bhatti may have been assassinated because he was a minority, he was not the only one to stand against the militants. Salman Taseer had also been assassinated earlier for his defence of Aasia Bibi, another Christian, who he had been defending. And when Bhatti was assassinated, Asiya Nasir, a member of Pakistan’s National Assembly, gave an impassioned speech in the National Assembly, which led to a walk out by all MNA in support of her and other minorities.

We should spare no words to condemn the militants behind the attack, nor should we underestimate the danger they pose to Pakistan — and to us, their neighbours.
News from Pakistan has been, and is likely to continue to be, depressing. But if despite such acts of violence, Pakistani society retains its ability to understand that the militants who target its weakest members are a threat to all Pakistanis, then there is some hope.
If they act to prevent it, then we can even hope for peace. And if we, living in a happier, more prosperous and more stable country, hope to build on that happiness, prosperity and stability, we could do well to understand the lessons that our neighbouring country is being taught at such great cost. We have our own chauvinists, those that whip up mobs to attack the weakest sections of society on the basis of caste, religion, language, or any other so-called identity. The point at which to stop them is now, not later, when they have killed their own share of our citizenry.

That goes beyond that group: it seeks to destroy the rule of law. It is a way of stating that some people are not equal citizens of the state. This goes against the very premise of the rule of law. A law that does not apply for a certain set of people, a discriminatory law, is only a form of crime.

This is where the two points: of equal treatment under the law, and the care of minorities, converge. The state of minorities in a country is a way to measure the overall health of its society. Any country that allows for the repression of its minorities is one that cares little about the rule of law. Any movement that attacks minorities for the sake of their being minorities, is a movement that does not believe in the rule of law, but only in the rule of power.

But the use of the example of Nazi Germany can confuse as much as illuminate. To compare the mechanised, industrial killing of millions of people in Germany with the murder of one politician by militants in Pakistan would be foolish. While we can draw out a certain general rule: the state of vulnerable groups in a society reflects its respect of the rule of law, not all attacks on a minority are a descent into a racist, pathological state. In India too we have had our own killings of minorities, whether of Graham Staines, or the ones I have cited above.

While Bhatti may have been assassinated because he was a minority, he was not the only one to stand against the militants. Salman Taseer had also been assassinated earlier for his defence of Aasia Bibi, another Christian, who he had been defending. And when Bhatti was assassinated, Asiya Nasir, a member of Pakistan’s National Assembly, gave an impassioned speech in the National Assembly, which led to a walk out by all MNA in support of her and other minorities.

We should spare no words to condemn the militants behind the attack, nor should we underestimate the danger they pose to Pakistan — and to us, their neighbours.
News from Pakistan has been, and is likely to continue to be, depressing. But if despite such acts of violence, Pakistani society retains its ability to understand that the militants who target its weakest members are a threat to all Pakistanis, then there is some hope. If they act to prevent it, then we can even hope for peace. And if we, living in a happier, more prosperous and more stable country, hope to build on that happiness, prosperity and stability, we could do well to understand the lessons that our neighbouring country is being taught at such great cost. We have our own chauvinists, those that whip up mobs to attack the weakest sections of society on the basis of caste, religion, language, or any other so-called identity. The point at which to stop them is now, not later, when they have killed their own share of our citizenry.
 

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