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New Delhi not to allow single states to define religious minorities

ICC Note: It is encouraging to hear that the Federal government in India is stepping in to protect minorities, such as Christians, from being defined out of existence by state governments.

7/17/07 India (AsiaNews) – John Dayal, on behalf of the All India Catholic Union, the All India Christian Council and the United Christian Action, has welcomed a statement by Union (Federal) Minority Affairs Minister Abdul Rehman Antulay in which he said that he would “ensure that the Union Government does not push through a proposal to redefine religious minorities on the basis of their population in individual States.

The statement is in effect timely. The ‘What is a minority’’ debate rages on in India. ‘What rights do minorities have?’ is another. In May the Union cabinet approved a proposal to define minorities per state and this raised serious concerns among Christians in some states, like those in the north-east and the south, where they are numerous, and among Muslims in the north.

Dayal noted that the courts have regularly given restrictive interpretation to minority rights, limiting them to the educational field. The constitution does in fact guarantee religious minorities the right to set up their own educational institutions.

However, in 2002 the Supreme Court ruled in the T.M.A. Pai Foundation & Others vs. the State of Karnataka and Ors case that the minority principle should be determined state by state and not across the country because the states were created along linguistic lines. This led to a situation in a state like Uttar Pradesh where the High Court ruled that Muslims cannot be considered a minority in the state.

To prevent this from happening Religious Affairs Minister Antulay said that he will get the central government not to push through any changes to what constitutes a minority.

Prof Zoya Hasan, a political scientist and member of the National Minorities Commission, explained that the government’s proposed approach “was not consistent with the understanding developed in the Constituent Assembly on the protection of minorities and the constitutional compact between the State and minority groups”

For this reason, the All India Catholic Union, the Christian Council and other organisations, including Muslim groups, vehemently protested the proposal in memoranda to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and United Progressive Alliance Chairperson Sonia Gandhi.

“Prof Hasan and others have supported our argument that a state-specific conception of minorities will result in distortions in minority rights. Sikhs in Punjab and Christians in the many north-east states will be held to be a majority and consequently deprived of constitutionally sanctioned minority rights. Christian students will be ineligible for admission in minority educational institutions, such as St. Stephens College or Loyola College, as they will not have minority status there. Eligibility for admissions to minority educational institutions will be limited to minorities domiciled in the states, and what is more, some minority community applicants will not be able to avail themselves of minority quotas outside their state because they are not a minority in their own states,” he said.