The smaller number or part, especially a number or part representing less than half of the whole.” That’s the Oxford dictionary’s definition of minority, devoid of the Indian context of economic and social disparities. And when the country’s new minority affairs minister Najma Heptulla blandly stated that Muslims are not a minority, she was wrong not just in terms of her English but also in ignoring the larger Indian picture.
Muslims constitute 13.4 per cent or about 138 million of India’s 1.2 billion population, according to the 2001 census, the largest segment amongst the Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Parsis and now Jains who are notified as minority communities, but a minority nonetheless. That is the demographic reality. And then, there are the other realities of a community living on the margins of society and discriminated against. According to the Sachar committee report, the literacy rate amongst Muslims, for instance, was 59.1 per cent against the national average of 64.8; Muslims comprise only 3 per cent of the IAS and 1.8 per cent of the IFS; one-third of small villages with high concentration of Muslims don’t have any educational institutions. The list is long, the point the same — looked at any way, demographic, economic or socially, Muslims are a minority.
What then did Heptulla mean when she told a reporter that Muslims were too large a community to be considered minority and that hers was not a “ministry for Muslim affairs...”? The minister, the lone Muslim face in Narendra Modi’s council of ministers, also said, “In fact, the Parsis are a minority and their number is dwindling. They need help so that do not diminish.” She told another reporter, “So far as my ministry is concerned, of the six minority communities the weakest is clearly the Parsis.”
Parsis, who comprise a mere .007 per cent of the population, are indeed a minuscule section of Indian society with a diminishing growth rate. According to one estimate, the population of the country grew 187 per cent in the 20 years between 1961 and 1981 but the number of Parsis came down 39 per cent. So yes, there is need for attention there. But are they indeed the weakest as the minister describes them? This is also an extremely affluent community with 97.9 per cent education and governed by strict laws, which don’t allow conversion or accept the children of Parsi women who marry outside the religion.
It really is not Muslims versus Parsis debate and Heptulla, the grand-niece of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, should not have made it one with her statements. Which is the community that needs government support and intervention? A rhetorical question for most, but perhaps not for the new minister tasked with handling minority affairs. Ironically, the ministry itself is a recent addition, having been set up by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh following the Sachar Committee report.
Correctives are needed urgently and the minority affairs ministry with Heptulla at its helm has the responsibility of ensuring not just the plurality of India but also that growth and opportunities are inclusive, fair and evenly distributed amongst all its people, across class, religion and caste divides. A task that is all the more critical given the abysmal representation of Muslims in Parliament with only 22 MPs from the community in a 543-member Lok Sabha. The message of ‘India for all’ must go out, particularly as a new government gets into action amid some apprehension.