How do Minorities Fare in South Asia?

All countries in the region provide a guarantee of life and security to all their citizens. This includes minorities. Yet there is widespread physical violence and denial of right to life disproportionately of members of minority communities across the region. Minorities also suffer disproportionately when they are denied civil and political rights. We notice three broad trends here:

  • Violence against minorities is, in essence, about state failure, that is, the state’s inability to protect minority groups from violence by private parties. This is an aspect of state failure given that the police is unable to protect vulnerable minorities from attacks by non-state parties (mostly militant arms of fundamentalist groups movements and individual and group acts of violence), and that law courts are unable to hold the perpetrators to account, thus failing in the state’s foremost duty to protect. In these situations state agencies are either overwhelmed by non-state actors or have weak capacity to protect minority citizens to begin with. Examples here include the violence by Afghan Taliban on Hazaras and women and other minorities in Afghanistan; by groups such as the Ansarullah Bangla Team and the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) on minorities and progressive bloggers in Bangladesh; by Bajrang Dal, Shiv Sena and other Hindu right wing groups affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh against Muslims and Christians in India; by militant Islamist groups such as Sipah-e-Sahaba, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Pakistan Taliban against Shias, Hazaras and other minorities in Pakistan; and in Sri Lanka in recent years against Muslims and Tamils by Buddhist nationalist groups such as the Bodu Bala Sena and Sinhala Ravaya.
  • Besides poor state capacity, violence against minorities also represents weak rule of law, specifically the selective application of laws by agencies of the state denying minority groups’ protection under the law and access to justice. Poor efforts by the police and security forces to prevent anti-minority violence (either directed at individuals or the entire community) from breaking out, and once it has, weak efforts to contain it, is one aspect of this weak rule of law. Equally, other aspects of the criminal justice system including recording of crimes, investigating them and prosecuting perpetrators are all fraught, especially when it affects minority groups, in effect denying members of minority groups the right to equal protection under law. This selective application of the law is much more than weak capacity to protect; in most cases it represents collusion between state actors and anti-minority groups result- ing in systematic erosion of the rights of minorities to equal citizenship. These take many forms – state actors being influenced by majoritarian anti-minority ideologies and biases in discharging their responsibilities at best, to state actors abdicating their responsibilities allowing anti-minority groups to overwhelm state institutions and using those against minorities in its worst form. Biased policing and delivery of justice, much normalized across South Asia, is a good example of the former and genocides and pogroms not uncommon in the post-colonial history of the region that of the latter.
  • In some cases, it is not so much the weak application of the laws that is problematic, but the laws themselves contain the seeds of violence against minority groups. Blasphemy and anti-Ahmadi laws in Pakistan, Vested Property regulations in Bangladesh and laws against cow slaughter and conversions in India are examples of regulations that provide opportunities (in how they are applied) for biased state actors colluding with private anti-minority groups to perpetrate violence against vulnerable members of minority groups.
  • Finally, cases where the state directly denies the right to life to members of minority groups. Illegal detentions, torture, custodial deaths, extra-judicial killings and fake encounters and enforced disappearances are all human rights violations that occur with regularity in the region with minority groups disproportionately affected. Much of this takes place in the context of nationalistic conflicts – in Kashmir and the North East in India, Baluchistan, Karachi and NWFP in Pakistan, against Tamils in Sri Lanka (and in the past in the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh, besides against Maoists in Nepal). The global ‘war against terror’ has provided another setting for subversion of justice with national security providing a cover for large-scale violations of the right to life, minorities again suffering the most. In both contexts, harsh ‘extra-ordinary laws’, devised by the state to counter ‘anti-state’ violence provide the basis for systematic violations. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958, 1990, the (J&K) Public Safety Act 1978 and the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act 2004 in India; Protection of Pakistan Ordinance 2013 and its amendment, the Actions (in Aid of Civil Power) Regulations 2011 and Anti-Terrorism Act 1997 including its many amendments in Pakistan; Public Security Ordinance 1947,Prevention of Terrorism Act 1979 and Emergency Regulations, 2000, 2005 in Sri Lanka; and the Nepal Public Security Act 1989 and the Anti-State Crimes and Penalties Act 1989 in Nepal are instruments used by South Asian states against their peoples, mostly minorities. Besides violating due process, state impunity is a key factor here with law and the criminal justice system aiding impunity of state actors (to violate rights) and the systematic denial of justice, either juridical or compensatory.

Right to identity, culture and conscience, is a key minority right. It is particularly important for multi-ethnic societies and in helping promote diversity ensuring that these rights are available equally to all, including minorities. Overall, South Asia fares poorly on the right to identity and culture. Most states provide some sort of freedom of identity, but the general trend is to promote the identity and culture of the majority community towards integrating the various diversities into a homogenized conception of the nation. Majoritarian ideas and imaginations, themselves the outcome of the peculiar history of the region, are behind much of this push for assimilation. These result in severe restrictions placed on minorities. Let us look at the different arenas closely.

  • Religious freedom is a key marker of right to identity and culture. There exists a wide spectrum here with Maldives disallowing in law any practice that is non-Islamic; poor in Bhutan where registration requirements mean that only Buddhist and to some extent Hindu groups are allowed freedom of religious practice; poor again in Pakistan against Ahmadis who are prevented from practicing their faith; to availability of formal religious freedoms in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka (and Pakistan for religious minorities) but practical restrictions on freedom of religion there, given the atmosphere of fear and intimidation against religious minorities in all these countries.
  • Language affiliations and freedoms is another key right to identity. It is also mixed up deeply with issues of ethnicity and in the context of SouthAsian history, has been an important trigger of conflicts. Bangladesh’s is the most famous case with the Liberation War (1971-72) waged by Bengali nationalists against, among others, the linguistic assimilationist policies of the Pakistan state. Tamil ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka too had its roots in the linguistic policies of the Sri Lankan state restricting Tamil language. Other prominent ethnic movements in the region – Kashmir and those in north-eastern India for instance – draw sustenance from perceived assimilationist policies and practices of the national government. In non-conflict contexts too language and ethnicity continue to be sites of discrimination and denial for minorities. This is reflected in language homogeneity and domination against minority languages. Urdu and other non-Bengali languages in Bangladesh; Baluchi in Pakistan; Nepali-speaking Lhotsampas in Bhutan; and minor languages in Afghanistan are examples of this. India has shown the way in accommodating linguistic demands and autonomy through administrative decentralization and by creating linguistic/ethnic provinces but the fate of dispersed minority languages, especially Urdu, has been harsh worsening with the growing hegemony of Hindi, the dominant language.

Non-discrimination in accessing services and opportunities is a key minority right. This has implications for the socioeconomic condition of minorities and their well-being. Across the region, laws promise equal access and non-discrimination to all in public services and opportunities. And yet minorities make up disproportionate sections of the poor and excluded in all countries. Hindus and Christians in Pakistan, Muslims (besides Dalits and Adivasis) in India, Dalits and Muslims in Nepal and Dalits and indigenous groups in Bangladesh suffer the worst socioeconomic drawbacks. Their access to services such as health and nutrition, sanitation and education, as well as to opportunities such as remunerative employment, credit and markets, is limited. Discrimination is at the heart of exclusion with minorities denied equal access to services and opportunities that the rest of the population expects as a matter of right. Discrimination works at multiple levels – local, where services are provided, but also at the policy level, where absence of a mechanism to identify and check discrimination enables discrimination to play out unfettered.

Across the region there is a dearth of efforts to address the deprivations faced by minority groups in the socioeconomic sphere. It is possible to deal with the situation through targeted programmes aimed at the specific disabilities and discriminations that minority groups face. India has an elaborate programme of support for Dalits and Adivasis including better access to services, housing, employment and education. In comparison, recent support programmes for minorities seem to be very modest in their design. Their implementation leaves much to be desired. Across the region there is little policy focus on addressing minority disabilities including poor documentation, tracking and reporting of data disaggregated by minority groups and little attention to cast the spotlight on how universal anti-poverty programmes and services work especially for minority groups. Overall, minorities and minority well-being are not a policy priority. This is a serious weakness.

Participation in public life including adequate representation and role in decision making in governing institutions is a key determinant of minorities’ realisation of equality and well-being. Most South Asian constitutions profess equality and non-discrimination to all citizens, including minorities. Yet, minorities’ exclusion from participation in public life including in governing institutions is widespread. This has a wider impact on the realisation of all other minority rights. Here we focus on the representational dimension of participation, looking at:

  • Political representation in elected bodies at the national and lower levels
  • Representation in civil services

There are broadly two trends here:

  • Legally denied, where the law itself discriminates between groups and minorities are denied equal treatment, for example, in accessing public office. Pakistan does not allow a person of any other faith but Islam to stand for office as President. In the case of the Prime Minister though the law does not prevent non-Muslims, restrictions kick in in terms of preventing non-Muslims from taking oath of office thus effectively keeping this position out of reach of minorities. Ahmadis, given that they are deemed non-Muslims, too are denied this right of standing for office. Their exclusion in participation runs deeper as they are denied even the right to vote in elections. And whilst the Constitution puts in place mechanisms for protection of minority representation in national and provincial assemblies through separate quotas these are not robust enough to ensure either proportionate or meaningful representation of religious (and ethnic) minorities in these houses. Similarly Maldives, Bhutan and Afghanistan discriminate against minorities when they restrict their access to political office.
  • Denied in practice: India does not discriminate formally against minorities in access to political and public office including the highest ones. And yet minorities, especially Muslims, are very poorly represented in elected assembles at national, state and local levels effectively blocking them off both from decision making and from a sense of being wedded to national processes. Critics have pointed to the design of the electoral system that encourages majoritarian outcomes combined with the absence of any proactive efforts to bring minorities, especially religious minorities, into governing institutions as being the cause of much of this poor representation.
  • Nepal is charting a new course in the region in terms of crafting an inclusive regime of political representation and participation for minority groups. It seeks to do this through devising an electoral system that seeks not only to keep the doors to political representation open to all (through the first-past-the-post system) but combines that with measures for positive support to traditionally marginalized groups (Dalits, religious minorities and women among others) to be better represented in Parliament and newly devolved provincial assemblies through a com- bination of ‘proportional representation’ and ‘quotas’ for marginalized groups. The new arrangement is already showing results with a marked increase in the representation of Dalits, women and minorities. This is still an evolving system but one that holds promise for a region where the norm is for minorities to be kept out of political power.

Civil services and the public sector in general are equally unrepresentative in the region mirroring the barriers that minorities face to political representation. There seems little effort by states to encourage greater minority engagement through programmes such as quotas. India, with an elaborate system of ‘reservations’ for Dalits (Scheduled Castes) and Adivasis (Scheduled Tribes) and other ‘backward’ groups in Parliament and state assemblies fails to provide anything similar for religious minorities. The handful of countries that do reserve quotas among other measures to encourage minority representation seem not to be able to show many results of those policies – quotas for religious minorities in Pakistan in the army and civil services and for adibashis in the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh, have not resulted in great improvements in their representatives.

Several conclusions can be made drawing on the analysis presented in this section:

  • The poor condition of minorities in the region effectively means denial of basic rights to vast numbers of people (mostly on account of the discrimination that minority groups face). These are rights that most states provide in their constitutions and that which they are committed to providing (through international covenants that they are signatories to). In sheer numbers alone we are talking hundreds of millions of citizens who are denied basic rights to life, security, identity and culture, socio-economic well-being and participation. The vast scale of the denials also contributes to the poor ability of South Asian countries to meet their national development and well-being goals.
  • Poor rights for minorities have implications for conflicts. Behind many of the ethnic conflicts in the region – those fighting for greater autonomy within nation-states as well as movements for self-determination seeking independent states for themselves – are minorities and their perceived sense of grievances. Most negotiated solutions to these challenges – the Mizo Peace Accord, and that for linguistic accommodation in India; the Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord in Bangladesh; and the Comprehensive Peace Accord in Nepal, for example – have been about agreements on arrangements that purport to provide better for minorities. Clearly, efforts at minority rights’ protection and promotion are steps towards conflict prevention too.
  • Underlying this poor show of minority rights are weak policy commitments to delivering for minorities with little resort to robust institutional mechanisms for minorities or to targeted programmes and projects and poor attention to reviewing outcomes including through collecting and reporting data disaggregated by minority groups. In other words, minority rights, indeed human rights, are not a policy priority for most South Asian states.
  • Part of the reason for the weak policy priority for minority rights by South Asian states is the region’s strong majoritarian atmosphere. Nationalistic mobilization, both ethnic and religious, seeks to create homogenous societies and the first victims of this dynamic are usually minority groups. In recent times, majoritarian mobilization has intensified across the region. As the Minority Rights Group (2010:110) notes, ‘a growing trend of radical, sometimes militant, nationalism and religious extremism throughout the region, is posing a major threat to religious minorities.’ Islamist mobilization in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, the Hindu right wing in India and Buddhists in Sri Lanka, all seek to move towards hegemony of one religion and culture at great cost to the countries’ minorities. In this context, any talk of minority rights is seen by majoritarian groups and state actors as challenging the state and hence it is quickly delegitimised.

Majoritarian impulse is inherent in nation-states. In the case of South Asian states, historical legacies strengthen the majoritarian trend. These are about the region’s colonial encounter (including anti-colonial struggles) politicizing ethnic and religious identities. But more important as a factor was the creation of the post-colonial states through partition of much of the subcontinent splitting up ethnic groups across new and arbitrary borders and fears of the political elites all-around of further disintegration of successor states. Given this history the trend across the region has been for antagonistic nationalism (between successor states) with frequent conflicts (inter-state as well as against minorities) all with adverse consequences for minorities. As a result, denial of minority rights in practice even though guaranteed in law carries on with impunity.

There are other factors too which contribute to the rising trend of major- itarian nationalism in the region:

  • Institutional design: Parliamentary democracy with the first-past-the- post electoral design which is common to most South Asian nations favours ‘majority take all’ outcomes and ‘ethnic outbidding’ with contestants pandering to majority votes even at the cost of marginalizing minorities. It is no wonder then that elections and electioneering in the region are the sites of much minority bashing.
  • Clash between elites for control over the state – related to the above is the tendency of elites in their contests over control of state institutions to pander to majority interests and sentiments even at the cost of minorities. Elite contests with their narrow interests have a tendency to structure national debates along ideological lines that then end up ben- efiting majorities at the cost of minorities.
  • The media across the region is a reflection of and a driver of populist sentiments. The media– print and electronic – fuels jingoistic nationalism again ending up working adversely for minorities.
  • Finally a word about democracy in the region and the place of minority rights in it. South Asia has had a mixed experience with democracy. Some states have had long experiences with democracy although mostly in its formal sense (of holding elections and periodically changing governments). Others have had a more chequered history where even formal democracy is only a recent phenomenon. The poor condition of minorities across the region then is a reflection of South Asia’s ‘democ- racy deficit’, with the idea and practices of citizenship and equal rights not having taken roots and access to rights, justice and opportunities contingent on peoples’ ascriptive identities.

Given these adversities, the protection and promotion of minority rights then is going to be about deepening democracy. In the current context that would imply developing the state to treat all groups equally by putting in place systems to check differential treatment such as anti-discrimination laws and mechanisms and affirmative action policies to help marginalized groups overcome exclusions and disabilities. Central to this venture must be creating and entrenching safeguards including minority rights’ protection regimes, strong mechanisms for protecting human rights, establishing the rule of law, entrenching an independent judiciary, establishing non-dis- crimination policies and mechanisms, providing affirmative action policies and promoting diversity and multi-culturalism.

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