The word is ‘Accommodation’

The word is ‘Accommodation’

The Living Stream

Imagining communities as majority and minority is, of course, a recent practice, a result of modern states in the 19th century classifying social groups on the basis of their numerical strength.

A slim new book, Democratic Accommodation: Minorities in Contemporary India (Bloomsbury India, 2019), valuably reminds us that modern India has imagined the co-existence of different communities inside it in novel ways. The Indian method, it argues, is to seek accommodation, and not assimilation or integration, of the cultural distinctiveness of its ethnic, linguistic, religious and sexual minorities.  

Imagining communities as majority and minority is, of course, a recent practice, a result of modern states in the 19th century classifying social groups on the basis of their numerical strength. The harms of such a policy habit of modern states, which allows, for instance, 20 crore Indian Muslims to be imagined as a minority community, can be guessed. The political and cultural significance of “minority” communities shrinks in the public imagination in so many ways.

The authors of the book, Peter Ronald deSouza, Hilal Ahmed and Mohammed Sanjeer Alam, all faculty at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi, note that the Constitution did not view the Dalits and tribals as minority communities while making them eligible for reservation in education, employment and electoral politics.

On the other hand, Muslims and Christians and linguistic groups, who were viewed as minority communities, were allowed rights to retain their cultural distinctiveness but were ineligible for reservation. Further, the socially and economically backward castes within the Muslims and Christians were not seen as eligible for reservation, making the latter a tool of Hindu social reform since Dalits and tribals lost their claim to reservation if they converted to either of those faiths.

In arguing that the design of the Indian polity shows a distinct inventiveness and didn’t wholly derive from models of Western democracy, Democratic Accommodation identifies the policy strategy of accommodation at work in the realms of law, public institutions and policy, which its authors regard as resulting from “the enlightenment of state leaders” and “their prudence to avoid a discontented citizenry.”

In the realm of law, the Fundamental Rights allow the minority religions the freedom to practice their religion and to promote and develop their languages and cultures. The National Minorities Commission, which was founded in 1978 to safeguard the interests of religious and linguistic minorities, and the Ministry of Minority Affairs, which was formed in 2006 to focus on issues relating to Buddhists, Christians, Jains, Muslims, Parsis and Sikhs, and several state-level committees to investigate the social-economic conditions of the latter are examples of India’s institutional commitment towards the well-being of the smaller religious communities. Besides, the declaration of festivals from various religions as public holidays have formed part of the style of the Indian state’s pluralism. Introduced early this century, the policies for advancing the levels of educational attainment among minority groups, such as opening schools where the latter are concentrated and offering merit-based scholarships, have done well.

The authors of Democratic Accommodation are aware, of course, that India’s policy experience towards the minorities is complex: the elites within the minorities have been better served by the Indian state than the non-elite, political parties have at times been guilty of minority tokenism, the efforts of Hindu majoritarianism to diminish the presence of religious minorities in public life has reversed many of the policy gains, among others. Still, they ask that we cherish the distinct institutional structure that India has evolved for engaging with social communities, a structure that is likely to endure and even gain in salience since “the politics of populism is often short lived” and the “lived social space” in the country “abhors religious extremism and religion-based oppression…”

The obligation to see these hopes get realized belongs to everyone.