June 2008 
Year 14    No.132

Same story everywhere

As a general rule, the mass media everywhere shows little interest in and gives little space to proceedings of most workshops, seminars and conferences. In this age of instant sound bites and competitive sensationalism where the media is overly obsessed with the "bold" and the "beautiful", who cares about the voice of reason or "boring discourse"? Where there is no call to  burn or kill, where there is neither blood and gore nor glamour, what is there worthy of news reportage or video footage?

So it is not surprising that the three-day ‘Global Minorities Meet’ held in New Delhi in March attracted little media attention. A big pity that. Had the media reported on the accounts of the meet’s participant academics, activists, legislators and jurists from across the globe, we would all have learnt how similar we all are across the borders of nationality, religion, language, ethnicity, race and ideology. Governments everywhere pay lip service to the principle of non-discrimination that is recognised in all international human rights instruments. The UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities makes it obligatory on the part of states to encourage conditions for the promotion of communitarian identity. In practice however, be it democracies such as India and the UK or self-proclaimed Islamic states such as Pakistan and Bangladesh, the minorities are discriminated against. In the worst cases, forget equality and equal protection of law, there is little security for the life or property of minorities. It is the same story everywhere: majoritarianism.

In Hindu majority India, Muslims, Christians, Neo-Buddhists (Dalits) and other minorities are discriminated against and frequently targeted. In neighbouring Pakistan and Bangladesh – both call themselves "Islamic states" – the tormentors and perpetrators are the Muslim majority while Hindus, Christians, Buddhists and Ahmadis are at the receiving end. In Sri Lanka, it is the Sinhalese Buddhist majority that denies Tamils – Hindu, Muslim and Christian – the dignity of equality and equal opportunity. In Christian majority UK, those of Asian and African origin continue to face serious problems. In other words, while the majority in one country is the minority in a neighbouring one, the misconduct of the majority against the minority follows the same pattern.

The sameness does not end there. For women from the minority communities there is a double jeopardy. Besides their vulnerability as part of the minority, they are also victims of the patriarchal practices of their own men pretending to be upholders of their distinctive culture and belief system. Muslim women in India continue to be subjected to the indignity of the obnoxious practice of triple talaq. The Indian Muslim male married under the Muslim personal law enjoys the rare privilege of divorcing his wife in an instant via a one-line letter, telegram, telephone, email or text message. The Muslim Personal Law Board continues to defend this inhuman anti-woman practice as theologically "valid" and in accordance with the Allah-given "Shariah" law. Mercifully, in the last few years an increasing number of non-Muslim judges in the high courts and the Supreme Court of India have started quoting the Koran back at Muslims. There are several court rulings which now assert that divorce without the Koranic stipulation of some valid reason and an attempt at reconciliation is not acceptable to the courts of secular India.

If that is the case in India, the story is no different for Hindu women in Bangladesh. According to a paper presented to the meet, "Hindu women suffer not only as minorities but also from discriminatory family laws within their community. Violence within families often goes unreported and unaccounted for though the family itself may perpetrate violence. Divorce is not allowed under Hindu law while men can remarry. Dowry is the root cause of violence against women of the Hindu community. Because, in practice, the gifts given to women as part of the marriage ceremony are not treated as "stridhana", which should actually be the property of women. Women of the Hindu community are also not entitled to inherit property from their fathers or husbands."

It only remains to be pointed out that if the reality on the ground is the same everywhere, the demeanour and conduct of state agents everywhere is also very similar. Masters of the pious word, they all focus on the wonderful Constitution, laws and policies that are in place in their respective countries. But none of them wants to address the vast gap that lies between theory and practice, the gulf that lies between constitutional provisions and institutional malpractice. In his inaugural address at the Global Minorities Meet, Pranab Mukherjee, the union minister of external affairs, after assuring everyone of what a haven India was for its minorities, shocked participants with his warning to minorities to beware of the fundamentalist forces in their midst!

Except for the paper on the situation of minorities in Pakistan, which we have reproduced from elsewhere, all others are written presentations to the meet, made available to us by Navaid Hamid of the South Asian Council for Minorities.

Our heart goes out to the kith and kin of those killed and those injured in the Jaipur bomb blasts on May 13. We strongly condemn the perpetrators of this inhuman deed, whoever they may be.


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