I thank the management of the Radiance journal for inviting me today. Over the years, at home and abroad, I have been broadly aware of its claimto be ‘the Muslim minority’s representative voice’ in our tumultuous society. Occasionally it also echoes the emotional linkageof Muslims to the world of Islam beyond India.
Today is an anniversary and anniversaries, of heart or mind, are events of joy for reciting virtues. Rarely but rarely do they enumerate shortfalls. Deviation from this pattern is frowned upon, perhaps rightly.
For my remarks today, I propose a wider foray. I plead forgiveness for transgressions.The subject interests me as a citizen. It may be of interest to you.
Years back, and in another context, a well-meaning friend had advised me to endeavour to abolish the distinction between majority and minority. Conceptually possible but less so in real life was my diffident response. Yet, over the years these terms and some others contingent to them in their real and alleged import trouble me.
Some in this audience would recall that when the Constituent Assembly commenced its work in 1946, it has among others a sub-committee on minorities.In its final report in 1949 it voted against separate communal reservation. This, said Congress leader Ajit Prasad Jain on November 22, ‘smoothened our work of constitution-making, in particular the question of minorities which has been our headache and which thwarted all our efforts for the solution of national problems, has ceased to be live issue.’Three days later, on November 25, Sardar Patel said that in the interest of laying down ‘real and genuine foundations of a secularstate in the country’ nothing was better for the minorities than to trust the goodsense and sense of fairness of the majority, and to place confidence in them.Like-wise the majority must think of what minorities felt. He expressed thefervent hope that in the long run, ‘it would be in the interest of all to forgetthat there is anything like majority or minority in this country, and that in Indiathere is only one community’.
Three quarter of a century later, history makes its own judgement on intentions and reality.
India is a democratic polity.Democracy is a form of government in which supreme power rests with people, exercised through direct or indirect elections.Experience the world over has shown that the term expresses itself through adjectives that have multiplied with place and time and has led to terms like people’s democracy, guided democracy, ethnic democracy, direct democracy and parliamentary democracy.
Democracy necessitates choice and the general practice is to make itthe preferred optionof the majority of electors.Itsprocedural niceties have always been a matter of critical importance.
We are a parliamentary democracy, with governance premised on the Constitution and a bill of rights that guarantees equality, justice and freedom of expression. It requiresperiotic elections.Freedom of expression through the media with all its diversity is guaranteed. The latter shows a good deal of variability across time and content. Studies in India and elsewhere show that this varies from non-recognition and ridicule and strict regulation to eventual expression and acceptance of diversity.
While legislature, executive and judiciary are accepted as the three pillars of democracy the media in our times is considered its fourth pillar. Its origins go back to the days of our freedom struggle.
The rationale for journalism in a democracy is to inform, educate, guide, and entertain. Each of these is a desired function, more so in modern societies whose size and numbers need means of communication other than direct face-to-face ones. This is sustained by law. Open criticism of Government policies and operations is not a ground for restricting expression. We must practice tolerance to the views of others. Intolerance is as much dangerous to democracy as to the person himself.
Democracy admittedly is rule by majority but its essential prerequisite isRule of Law, defined by Dicey as (a) absolute supremacy of regular law (b) equality before the law and (c) access to justice and development of law by the judges on a case-by-case basis. This, as Prof. Upendra Baxi has argued, goes beyond a mere division of functions in modes of governance and incorporates four core notions of rights, development, governance and justice. This approach has been upheld in judicial pronouncements.
Yet, in a paper published in 2005, the late Goolam Vahanvati observed that ‘the Rule of Law in this country is under serious threat’ adding that ‘it would not be an overstatement if one concludes that each institution is destroying itself from within’ and that ‘there are cancerous developments eating into the fabric of each institution. If these trends are not arrested, they are bound to be destructive of the Indian state in the long run.’
How true is this of the media? To what extent is this being done? What happens when democracy is delinked from Rule of Law?One result is that, loaded terms have figured in the debate and assumeda high profile. They acquire specific meaning in the context of our times. I refer in particular to ‘majority’ and ‘minority’, ‘majoritarian’ and ‘majoritarianism’,‘self’ and ‘other,’ ‘otherness’ and ‘hatred’.Soalso came about the transition from democratic majority to populism, to authoritarianism, to ethnic majority and to the designation of fellow citizens as the ‘Other’.
Studies have shown that democracies have been at times threatened by elected leaders who subvert the very process that brought them to power. ‘The electoral road to breakdown is dangerously deceptive’ wrote Levitsky and Ziblatt in their 2018 book How Democracies Die. It opens the door to would-be-authoritarians. They categorise key indicators of authoritarian behaviour as (i) weak commitment to democratic rules of the game (ii) denial of the legitimacy of political opponents (iii) toleration or encouragement of violence and (iv) readiness to curtail civic of opponents, including media.
One consequence of authoritarian rule is majoritarianism, defined as the notionthat the numerical majority of a population should have the final say in determining the outcome of a decision.It has pejorative connotations since it denotes a perceived superiority and a claim to arbitrary space and importance. It also requires ‘a continuous demonstration of arbitrary power and submission of ideas, demands and identities that stand outside it.’
This situation is aggravated manyfold when the majoritarianism is accompanied by an ideological superstructure designated as Hindutva or Hindu nationalism.It is described asan ideology advocating a movement seeking to establish the hegemony of Hindus and Hinduism within India.It is promoted through a sense of vulnerability in the public, facilitated through ‘tentacular organisations’ having strong affinities with the caste system.Mr. Badri Narayan depicts it ‘Republic of Hindutva.’
The socio-economic changes of recent decades have highlighted a facet of the Fourth Estate that was less adequately appreciated earlier. The media now has an identifiable business and commercial persona and has been integrated in the market. Today’s media organizations are large business entities with thousands of employees and huge financial and other assets. While their primary professional duty is to their readership for keeping them informed and appraised with news, views and ideas, the commercial logic brings in a new stake-holders in the shape of commercial interests.
These developments have brought into play a new set of considerations that guide the professional decisions of the press. The interplay of these conflicting demands is subject of public debate. The phenomenal growth in the media industry, and intense competition within it, induces journalists and their supervisors to look as much at the top line and bottom-line growth as at headlines and editorial content.
A perusal of the print and electronic media today is suggestive of the tilting balance between news and advertising content and the fading distinction between editorials and advertorials. The emergence of the Internet and 24×7 television as also of social media reporting have put additional pressure on the print media.
The phenomenon is global and has been commented upon. At the other end of the spectrum, we have the development of grass root journalism, subject of an interesting study by Alan Gillmor two years before Twitter was born. He opined that ‘tomorrow’s news reporting and production will be more of a conversation.’
The paradigm shift in the production, transmission, and consumption of media productsis having major consequences for three constituencies: journalists, newsmakers, and the audience. The convergence between news media, entertainment and social media has eroded the demarcation between journalism, public relations, advertising and entertainment. This has created new ethical dilemmas that lie at the core of many issues of debate today and pose questions.
Has the media upheld the social and political compact that our people gave it through our Constitution?
The deteriorating situation in the media is reflected in the World Press Freedom Index 2023 thatranks India 161 out of 180 countries; this was 150 in 2022 and 140 in 2014. A democratic backslide in media’s role as the fourth estate is the end result.
What then is the meaning of democratic majority? How is it to be distinguished from ochlocracy or the tyranny of the majority? If majority is separated from rule of law, how can its political and ethical rectitude be ensured?And, how does all this affect the minorities?
Modern states are non-homogenous entities composed mostly of diverse elements in ethnic, linguistic, and religious terms. They have ethnic minorities. A minority in the territory of a State means it is not the majority. The makers of the Constitution of India accepted as a living reality the diversity of India in religious and linguistic terms. They also accepted the plural ethos.
The Indian polity has the most elaborate set of identities based on class, religion, gender, caste, region and language. Our linguistic diversity is reflected in the currency notes written in seventeen different scripts. India thus should be viewed as a multicultural polity rather than merely as secular.
Religious minorities constitute 18.4 of India’s population. Thus, every fifth or sixth Indian has a religious minority affiliation. Articles 25 to 30 of the Constitution guarantee the freedom of religion and of cultural and educational rights of all sections of citizens andcircumscribe the tyranny of majority in any one sense.
What do religious minorities seek from the state and the social apparatus?
In specific terms, they seek (i) identity and security (ii) education and empowerment (iii) equitable share in the largesse of the state and (iv) a fair share in decision making. Each of this is a right and has to be dispensed without discrimination. This is true in good measure of the Muslims who constitute 14.2 % of the population and now number over 200 million. Yet, as an editorial comment opined recently, ‘India is witnessing the progressive normalization of minority baiting.’The official claim however is that “we are a democratic polity with strong commitment to rule of law.’
The happenings of 1947 and the events preceding and following it cast a shadow of physical and psychological insecurity among Indian Muslims who were made to carry its burden unfairly.The process of recovery from that trauma has been gradual and uneven, and at times painful. They have hesitatingly sought to tend to their wounds, face the challenges and seek to develop response patterns. Success has been achieved in some measure; much more, however, needs to be done.
In recent decades, work has also been initiated to delineate the contours of the problem. The Sachar Committee Report of 2006 did this officially. It laid to rest the political untruth in some quarters about the Muslim condition and demonstrated that on most socio-economic indicators, they were on the margins of structures of political, economic and social relevance and their average condition was comparable to or even worse than the country’s acknowledged historically most backward communities, the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. It specified the development deficits of the majority of Muslims in regard to education, livelihood and access to public services and the employment market across the states.
Pursuant to the Sachar Report, Expert Group reports were prepared in 2008 on the need to develop a Diversity Index and establish an Equal Opportunity Commission.Taken together, these and other studies bring forth sufficient evidence to substantiate the view that ‘inequality traps prevent the marginalised and work in favour of the dominant groups in society’.
Subsequently, the Kundu Report of September 2014, commissioned to evaluate the implementation of decisions taken pursuant to Sachar recommendations concluded that though ‘a start has been made, yet serious bottlenecks remain.’ It observed that ‘available financial resources and physical targets have been meagre in relation to the deprived minorities, especially Muslims, and for some of the schemes this meagre amount has not been fully utilised.’It makes specific recommendations to remedy these. It asserted that ‘development for the Muslim minority must be built on a bed-rock of a sense of security.’
This however is not happening.
It is evident from these reports that the principal problems confronting India’s Muslims relatein greater degree to the shortfalls that affect other minorities. Each of these is a right of the citizen. The shortcomings in regard to each have been analysed threadbare. Identity is unquestionably linked to ordinary expressions of faith and of language that is often transgressed socially; both need to be protected within the legal framework.
The challenge before us today is to develop strategies and methodologies to address them.
Instances of breach of security at individual or group level continue to occur with disturbing frequency. Most reveal a failure of the state apparatus to respond in a timely manner, compounded by failure of media houses that often ‘dictate a majoritarian mindset.’ A good instance of it is the report entitledDelhi’s Agony on the communal violence in Delhi in February 2020 and its section subtitled the Aftermath.
Civil society reports on violence elsewhere, and court observations relating to them like the Punjab & Haryana High Court ruling recently in August,suggest a disturbing pattern of studied neglect by local or state administrations.
The default by the State or its agents in terms of deprivation, exclusion and discrimination (including failure to provide security) is to be corrected by the State; this needs to be done at the earliest and appropriate instruments developed for it. Political sagacity, the imperative of social peace, and public opinion play an important role in it. Experience shows that the corrective has to be both at the policy and the implementation levels; the latter, in particular, necessitates mechanisms to ensure active cooperation of the State governments whose responseis often tardy.
One aspect of the Delhi Report is its section on ‘Hate as State Project’ and its observation that ‘India is witnessing a carefully crafted phenomenon, Hate as State Project, concertedly unleashed against the most marginalised sections of our population.’Since both hate and polarization need vehicles for dissemination, the 24-hour news television and sections of the social media provide the platform for it. Instances of it also surfaced in the first phase of Covid.
Hate is a toxic tonic. It is, regrettably, becoming part of normal discourse and is not being discouraged.Hate crimes convey a message to targeted communities that they are unwelcome and unsafe, impacting the collective sense of security and wee-being. It has been suggested that it necessitates a collective effort involving legislative reforms, sensitisation campaigns, community policing and youth engagement.
The official objective of sab ka sath sab ka vikas is commendable; a pre-requisite for ithoweveris affirmative action to ensure a common starting point and an ability in all to walk at the required pace. This ability has to be developed through individual, social and governmental initiatives that fructify on the ground. Programmes have been made in abundance; the need of the hour is their implementation.
The experience of several decades makes it evident that meaningful correctives would not originate from official agencies and programs,and that they have to emanate at individual, group and community levels, and cover both genders.They haveto be realistic, grounded in the ground situation, and devoid of unrealism and nostalgia.
What are these correctives? In the first place, precedence has to be given to self-reliance. Alongside, and looking at what has been done by other minority communities in India and elsewhere, organised community effort has to be promoted as an imperative and in an atmosphere of self-help.
Autonomously, a beginning has to be made with education to fill the gap in levels of both of boys and girls as also of adults. Details of both, including dropout rates, have been quantified and I had mentioned them in an earlier speech and observed that the equality bestowed by faith was diluted or denied by tradition and practice. Particularly disturbing were details of educational levels of girls and the participation of Muslim women in the workforce.
Associated with it is the imperative of inducing young people – men and women – to diligently acquire skills in different professions, notwithstanding the actual or alleged effort in some quarters at explicit discrimination. The effort in all cases has to be on quality since, in the final analysis, such efforts fail when confronted by quality differentiation.In the same vein, independent efforts directed at initiation of small enterprises would bring forth both employment and self-reliance on the pattern of what is being done by other minority communities.
These requirements have to be quantified for better performance.
The population of India is dispersed, has no legal restrictions on locations of residence, and is broadly though not specifically integrated. It adheres mostly to being plural anddemocratic andis devoted to principles of pluralism. Departures from it, noticeable of late, is disturbing.
Assimilation with fellow citizens is not a legal requirement but does happen sporadically. This is highly desirable and is in need to be strengthened and accelerated.Hence the need for emotional integration and for overcoming problems posed by it from time to time. This effort to assimilate without loss or dilution of identityor identity-markers has to be made in the context of Indian conditions and the uniqueness of its three dimensions: plural, secular and democratic. It would at all times be challenging.
An attempt to implement it can only be made in the context of the Constitution of India and its prescription, and in the principles of Equality and Fraternity enunciated in the Preamble.
Experience tells us that seeking special facilities in the shape of reservations will not be fruitful and the quest for Schedule Caste status for relevant segments of the Muslims and Christians, however justified, would not be conceded politically. A more productive option may be tofocus on citizenship rights and their equal dispensation.
Quantifying the corrective and the requirements of the present-day situation is one aspect of this. A journal like the Radiance has to go beyond it and induce its readers – through the power of its pen – to take an active part in bringing about the required change and thus further what its readers would expect from it.