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A Continuing Debate

Shefali Jha

By Tanweer Fazal
Routledge, New Delhi, 2014, pp. 256, price not stated.


With numerous incidents of what the RSS offshoot, the Dharm Jagran Samanvay Samiti calls ‘ghar wapsi’, (250 Muslim families being reconverted to Hinduism in Agra in November, 2014, and 40 Mazhabi Sikh families who had embraced Christianity being reconverted to Sikhism in Amritsar in December 2014), Tanweer Fazal’s book is certainly a topical contribution to the continuing debate, or if you like, confrontation, over the religious rights of minorities in India. One of Fazal’s main arguments is to discount ‘the commitment of the Indian polity towards minority rights’ (p. 32). Fazal rightly, I think, marshals the acrimonious debate over religious and cultural rights, including ‘the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion’ (Article 25) as well as other minority safeguards, in the Indian Constituent Assembly. He argues that Indian nationalist leaders, following the model of western nationalism which imposed a linguistic and ‘cultural monism’ on a heterogenous population, were loathe to grant differentiated rights to minorities in India. Whatever minority rights that were granted, were, first, limited to the cultural domain, second, justified on the twin grounds of either being necessary to pull up ‘backward’ groups or to prevent dissatisfied minorities from becoming a ‘canker sore’ in the body of the nation, and third, have often been under threat in the history of Independent India.  The debate about minority rights has been addressed in other work as well; what is interesting about Fazal’s book is the other strand of the author’s argument.  His position is that the focus on minority rights has not really furthered the cause of the Muslims or the Sikhs. He critically analyses the process of ‘minoritization’ of both these communities before Independence, as well as the stance of ‘minorityism’ of the sovereign Indian polity. He also presents to us the views of the members of these communities, both during the freedom struggle, as well as in contemporary times, questioning these processes. Fazal analyses the gradual transformation of the Muslims in colonial India from a cultural community into a political minority which needed to be safeguarded. The intervention of the British colonial state in the form of the Government of India Acts of 1909, 1919, and 1935 which provided for separate electorates, and extended reserved seats from Muslims to Sikhs to Indian Christians, Anglo-Indians and many other categories, furthered this process. Eventually some Muslim groups claimed that minority safeguards would not be sufficient to protect the Muslims and ensure their welfare; ...

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