Who are South Asia’s Minorities?

The Afghan Constitution (of 2004) does not define minorities, but it does identify 14 ethnic groups and nationalities. Ethnicity (based on language) determines the construction of much of Afghanistan’s identity although religion too has played an important role. Pashtuns and Tajiks are the main ethnic groups, with Pashtuns being dominant.6 In the absence of a national Census, it is difficult to say what their exact numbers are but estimates put the Tajik population at 35 per cent (Pashtuns by the same reckoning are anywhere between 40-45 per cent of the population). There are a large number of ethnic minorities. As for religious minorities, these are mostly small groups with Sikhs and Hindus being the principal ones as also Baha’is. Shias (Hazaras mostly, but also Qizilbashs) are also seen as religious minorities.

Bangladesh’s Constitution makes Islam the state religion. However it protects the rights of all citizens. Article 28 (1) states ‘The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth.’ Bangladesh’s national identity has been influenced by Bengali language and culture, with the former playing a central role. More recently, religion – Islam in this case – has been increasingly becoming a central element of national imagination so much so that commentators talk of a change in national imagination from ‘Bengali’ nationalism to ‘Bangladeshi’ (Bhardwaj, 2010:3). Non-Bengali speakers – indigenous groups and Urdu speakers – are the principal linguistic minorities, and Hindus and Buddhists are the main religious ones.

Bhutan does not have a written Constitution but its national identity under the monarchy is constructed around Buddhism and the dominant Dzongkha linguistic identity. Interestingly and bucking the trend of numerical dominance marking majorities, Ngalungs, the dominant group in the kingdom – living in the north-west, who profess Buddhism and speak Dzongkha – make up only 15 per cent of the population and are thus really a minority ruling elite. Sharchops (who are Buddhists but speak a minority language, and inhabit the north-east) are demographically the dominant group. They make up 50 per cent of the population and are the principal minority. But it is the Lhotsampas (the southerners professing Hinduism and speaking Nepali), making up 30-35 per cent of the population at last count, who are minorities in the true sense.

India’s Constitution defines minorities as religious and linguistic, and these besides ethnicity, are the main markers of minorities in the country. The Constitution defines itself as secular in religious terms, with Hindi language and taking the pre-eminent, although not the sole position. But increasingly, the national identity is being sought to be redefined in Hindu religious terms. Muslims (14 per cent of the population, 2011 Census), Christians (2.3 per cent), Sikhs (1.72 per cent) and Buddhists (0.7 per cent) are the main religious minorities, there also being a large number of linguistic and ethnic minorities. Although not officially defined as such, Dalits and Adivasis (included largely within the Hindu fold, but a significant section also professing minority faiths) form the largest section of the ‘minority’ population with a small upper caste elite dominating power and influence.

Maldives defines itself as an Islamic state. And despite the apparent homo gentility of a largely Muslim population there is significant ethnic and linguistic diversity – Sinhalese, Dravidians and Arabs with overlays of respective languages. These are also the lines along which minorities are defined.

Nepal’s new Constitution (2015) defines the country as ‘a nation of minorities’ given that no single group in the new dispensation is overwhelmingly dominant. The old order, recently pulled down, saw Nepal largely as a nation of Hindu hill-castes. The new Constitution recognizes minorities and bases this on multiple axes of caste, geography, ethnicity, language and religion in an effort to include them all. In that sense, Nepal’s is a case of an expanded concept of national identity and of the definition of minorities.

Pakistan’s Constitution defines Pakistan as an Islamic republic and recognises minorities – religious and ethnic. The former are principally Hindus, Christians and Sikhs, and the latter Baluchs, Sindhis, Pakhtuns and Mohajirs. The national identity is centred around Islam – Pakistan’s self-image of being the land of Muslims – with Punjabi language (and ethnicity) providing the glue. Defining national identity purely in religious terms has however not helped Pakistan bridge its ethnic and religious divides and crucially is now leading to contestations around religion too with Sunni identity taking precedence to the exclusion of other Islamic sects, Ahmadis and Shias most prominently. These communities increasingly find themselves in a state of limbo neither included in dominant imaginations of the nation, nor clearly defined as minorities with clear rights.

In Sri Lanka, national identity is an amalgam of Buddhist and ethnic Sinhalese elements. The Constitution defines itself as secular, but gives foremost place to Buddhism. The Tamil speaking population –mostly Hindus, inhabiting the country’s north-east – is the principal minority that has felt largely excluded, the outcome of which and also the cause of continuing exclusion being the long standing armed ethnic movement that the Sri Lankan state has recently crushed militarily. Other minorities that have also felt wronged, more so recently, are Muslims dispersed across the country as well as Christians.

Some conclusions can be drawn from the previous section based on what the national identities are, how these influence the definition of minorities – de-jure and de-facto – and what that means for minorities and their ability to access citizenship rights:

  • In most cases, national constitutions define the communities, hence that is a good starting point to identify minority communities to focus on and assess their conditions. However, at other places identification is itself problematic. The Ahmadis’ case in Pakistan is a peculiar one where a group is forcibly and officially turned into a de-facto minority and refused identification within the larger and dominant Muslim identity. They suffer a double jeopardy when they are neither officially declared a minority – thus accepting them as citizens entitled to basic rights – nor being able to access those rights without denouncing their religious beliefs.
  • Similar is the case of Bhutan where Nepali speaking Lhotsampas have been declared non-citizens and large sections have been forced out of the country effectively making them stateless. In Bangladesh, Urdu- speakers, otherwise called ‘stranded-Pakistanis’ and in Sri Lanka, ‘Indian’ or ‘estate’ Tamils, have similarly been disenfranchised denying them the basic rights of citizens – most are ‘stateless’ – not to talk of any special protective measures. Likewise, large sections of Muslim Bengali speakers in the Indian state of Assam are often labelled ‘Bangladeshi’, implying illegal migrants questioning their citizenship. This is taken to its extreme in the case of Maldives where all non-Muslims are non-citizens. There are other albeit less fraught cases too: In India, although Jews and Baha’is are clearly religious minorities they are not declared so officially whereas smaller groups with similar socioeconomic conditions (such as Jains, considered a branch of Hinduism) have been categorized as a minority. This, within India’s regime of minority rights has implications for protective and promotional rights for the groups such as ‘personal laws’ that govern family law matters as well as rights to manage their own educational institutions.

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