Just days after the Congress dynast charged his principal rival with trying to divide while his own party seeks to unite, the Union cabinet has chosen to contradict his words with action instigated by him. A cabinet that kowtows to Rahul Gandhi has decided that the country’s five million Jains deserve to be cleaved from the so-called majority Hindus and be accorded the status of a national minority. This means India now has six national minorities – Muslims, Sikhs, Parsis, Christians, Buddhists, and now Jains. To the best of anybody’s knowledge, no Jain has ever been discriminated against in independent India because he was a Jain.
The average socio-economic status of the Jain community – which has many adherents from the business class – is also well above that of most other communities in India, including Hindus, in terms of literacy levels (94 percent for Jains), incomes, share of GDP, etc. In this context, to think that the conferment of a national minority status is somehow a great benefit to Jains – when 11 states already give them this status – is rubbish. It is nothing more than a crass attempt to promote the idea of victimhood among non-victims.
This begs the question: why do so many communities seek minority status? The answer is simple: it insulates them from state interference in running their religious, cultural and educational institutions as they deem fit. It also insulates them from criticism in the media since writing against them means attacking a minority. While no one needs to grudge the industrious and good Jains their right to run their institutions, we are now left with the perverse consequence of yesterday’s cabinet decision yesterday (20 January): now, only so-called majority institutions (i.e. only Hindu institutions) will be left vulnerable to targeting by the state for political ends. It will ensure that majority institutions are the only ones to have no insulation from state interference in their religious, cultural and educational affairs. According to Sandhya Jain, state interference in running Hindu institutions is huge. Giving statistics from just one state- Tamil Nadu – she writes: “Tamil Nadu’s Hindu Religious & Charity Endowments (HR&CE) department controls 36,425 temples; 56 mutts; 47 temples belonging to mutts; and 1,721 specific endowments and 189 trusts.” The dead hand of the state has been, and will be, used to debauch Hindu/quasi-Hindu institutions, with laws created by politicians to cater to their own votebanks. Only “majority” institutions will be fair game for political decisions on quotas and the applicability of ill-thought-out laws like the Right to Education (RTE). Minority unaided institutions are not bound to follow the RTE, according to a Supreme Court judgment. The right to equality under the constitution guaranteed under Article 14, and the freedom to manage religious affairs (Article 26) are thus a joke as far as so-called majority institutions are concerned. Religious, cultural and educational institutions are part of a community’s social capital, and denial of this right only to the majority community is surely a travesty that the makers of the constitutions never intended. The perversity of the idea of denying to the majority what is constitutionally available to minorities was nowhere demonstrated better than in the case of the Ramakrishna Mission – which encapsulates Swami Vivekananda’s ideas on inclusive Hinduism. Some years ago, the Mission wanted to be declared a non-Hindu minority institution to avoid being hounded by atheist, Left-ruled West Bengal.
The Supreme Court rightly refused to sanction this self-denial and better sense prevailed in the Ramakrishna Mission. It is worth recalling that in the south, from the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD, India’s richest temple) in Andhra Pradesh to many other smaller temples, the state interferes in the administration of Hindu temples. There are entire laws devoted to the state managing and directing Hindu religious endowments in the south. In Maharashtra, the state government is seeking to take over the Sai Baba Trust in Shirdi. It already runs the Siddhivinayak temple in Mumbai. A hopeful sign came recently from the Supreme Court which is now beginning to recognise the nonsensical nature of denying Hindu groups the right to administer their institutions. The court recently overturned the takeover of the Chidambaram Natarajar temple by the Tamil Nadu government with the appointment of its own executive trustee. The temple, set up in the 19th century, is run by a community called the Podhu Dikshitars. It was taken over by the state on the plea that it was not properly administered. The court, while rubbishing this claim, said that even if a temple had to be taken over for the stated reasons, the state had no business staying on as administrator once the damage of mismanagement was undone.
A Supreme Court bench comprising Justices BS Chauhan and J Chalemeshwar, in a judgment on 6 January 2013, held that “even if the management of a temple is taken over to remedy (an) evil, the management must be handed over to the person concerned immediately after the evil stands remedied. Continuation thereafter would tantamount to usurpation of their proprietary rights or violation of the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution in favour of the persons deprived. Therefore, taking over of the management in such circumstances must be for a limited period.” To get back to where we started: it is now clear that the state is constitutionally barred from interfering with the rights of minorities in running their institutions. In a sense, thus, all state laws intended to run temples are now open to challenge.
So, while the Jains are certainly entitled to their minority status, if that’s what they want, the question is do they require this status to do what the constitution anyway guarantees them and every Indian sect? If many majority religious institutions are now subject to state interference, the broader question is this: how is this secularism by any stretch of imagination? And if it is, why subject only one religion’s religious and other institutions to malevolent state control? After the Chidambaram temple judgment, where the rights of one Hindu sub-group have been upheld, clearly the law needs change. Or will the perversity end only with another perversity – where all Hindu groups claim to belong to a different religion? If a religious group is defined by its exclusive form of worship, maybe all Hindu groups need to declare themselves as separate religions since they worship different gods and follow diverse cultural and religous practices.