“Minority rights” is an idea that is today omnipresent in the liberal discourse on South Asia. The existence of specific rights protecting ethnic or religious minority communities and granting them some degree of autonomy as against majority rule has come to be considered an essential component of liberal democracy and “good governance”. What has been conveniently left out of this majority versus minority debate however, is the fate of those individuals who can be viewed as “minorities within minorities” (1) – be it women, homosexuals or freethinkers, all too often facing abuses from their own community. The long struggle of Indian Muslim women to end the ignominious practice of triple talaq (2) – enshrined in the country’s Muslim personal laws – can be one of many cases illustrating this paradox.

The emphasis on minority rights is problematic not only when these are used to perpetuate oppression while preventing state interference. It should be clear a principle that in a liberal democracy, the provision of minority “self-rule” cannot undermine the fundamental rights of individuals it is supposed to protect. That being said, one can argue that the very nature of minority rights – as group rights rather than individual rights – does lead to forms of governance that are neither liberal nor democratic.

First of all, what is a minority exactly ? A common definition would be that of a comparatively smaller group of people, sharing a number of characteristics, practices and values that supposedly differentiate them from the rest of the society and who identify as such. This however is rarely a matter of choice, in a region where one’s ethnicity, religion and caste is ascribed by birth and ought to follow her/him through the rest of her/his life. By giving official weight to the distinction between majority and minorities and promoting differentiated group rights, the state encourages the hot branding of identity on people and the negation of their individual specificity.

What is there is the essentialisation of citizens into communities on the sole basis of their ethnicity, religion or caste. Hence it is assumed, for instance, that all Muslims share the same needs and interests, and want the same thing from the state. Needless to say how ludicrous this perspective is. Just as no one expects the majority to be one homogeneous bloc, so-called minority communities can be divided as well in a multiplicity of sub-groups, and ultimately individuals with distinct needs and interests. Because her name is Fatima does not mean she necessarily believes in Islam, even less that she wants to be ruled by Muslim personal laws that were framed by the most hardline and reactionary clerics in the country – incidentally those speaking the loudest in defense of minority rights. As a “minority within a minority” Fatima is vulnerable both to hatred against Muslims for supposedly being one, and hatred from Muslims for not really being one. Freedom of conscience has been sacrificed in the name of religious toleration – or rather the toleration of intolerance and backwardness.

From there inevitably a question arises : why would a country viewing itself as a liberal democracy promote minority rights in a way that is so nefarious to the core values it professes ? One analysis could be that it has not so much to do with liberalism and democracy than with plain old power politics. It is worth to note that the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act was passed in 1937 by the British – who were not particularly concerned, to say the least, about upholding the individual rights of their Indian subjects. Accommodating religious or community leaders was a key principle of colonial governance, which was essentially limited to the maintenance of law and order. The practice has remained in democratic India, although it has acquired a new dimension with vote banks. It is, remarkably, a win-win situation : while politicians can count on extra votes and support, religious and community leaders in exchange are given latitude to strengthen the grip on “their” people and force their own agenda upon them.

In sum, minority rights turn out to mean the opposite of what they are said to : far from signalling the acceptance of a minority community, they in fact maintain a form of apartheid between it and the rest of the nation. On the one hand, minorities are not viewed by the state as citizens with rights, but as semi-alien populations that have to be accommodated somehow – and preferably left on their own. On the other hand, obscurantist and often self-appointed minority leaders are too happy to maintain the status quo as they hypocritically brandish the banner of minority rights.

Cultural difference cannot be an excuse for the state to abandon some of its citizens in such a manner. Liberals advocating for minority rights should realise they pay lip service to the persons they claim to defend. If anyone is serious about protecting the rights of minority people, then it would be good to focus on the rights of every individual – which include an equal treatment before the law – while promoting inclusiveness instead of communal segregation. One must stop seeing minorities in terms of homogeneous groups but rather in terms of individual citizens entitled to choose for their own life. After all, if you do not recognise a person’s agency, why would you give her/him the right to vote ?

– – –

(1) See Avigail Eisenberg and Jeff Spinner-Halev (2004), “Minorities within Minorities”, Cambridge University Press

(2) Procedure by which Muslim men can obtain divorce simply by saying “talaq” three times in a sitting.

by William Rambaldi, Intern, RCSS*. William is currently pursuing a Master in International Security at Sciences Po PSIA (Paris School of International Affairs), with a focus on South Asia.

*Opinions expressed in this forum does not necessarily reflect that of the Centre, and rather is the personal opinion of the writer. Constructive engagement with the thoughts and ideas expressed here are welcome.