On 20 January, the Central government decided to grant the Jain community the status of national minority under Section 2(c) of the National Commission for Minorities Act, 1992. The status was granted “recognising the role played by the community in the social, cultural and economic development of the country”.
This decision has been a huge cause of celebration for Jains, as their demand for recognising the community as a separate minority has been a long-standing one. However, I do not believe that this decision is fair.
The National Commission for Minorities had recommended in 1993 that Jains deserve to be included in the list of ‘minorities’ recognised by the Central government. Further, late Bal Patil, former general secretary of the All India Jain Minority Foundation, petitioned the Supreme Court in 2005 to direct the Union government to declare Jains as a national minority. The court, however, ruled that the responsibility to grant minority status to Jains falls with the Union government and that the court couldn’t interfere in the matter. The issue was pending until the latest announcement.
Jains constitute roughly 0.4 percent of the total population of India. Although their identity has been recognised constitutionally, they have historically been included under the larger ambit of Hindus. Responding to Patil’s petition, the SC observed, “…Jainism is a special religion formed on the basis of quintessence of Hindu religion… [it] is a reformist movement amongst Hindus like Brahamsamajis, Aryasamajis and Lingayats.”
The reasons for demanding minority status were many. Some of them were outlined in Patil’s petition to the SC. Besides the preservation of the “independent cultural and religious heritage” of the Jain community, he cited uniform access to various welfare schemes as one of the prime reasons for this demand.
He explained that since “as a community Jains are backward,” they need uniform access to minority welfare schemes. This is an extremely problematic statement. Indian society is an extremely complex and heterogeneous society. Backwardness in that context becomes a very subjective term where just one criterion cannot be applied to all communities. In quantitative terms, however, the 2001 Census data shows that in terms of education, Jains have the highest rate of education among minorities. Many other indicators show that Jains are not backward.
Even if one were to overlook the statistics, Jains have always enjoyed a very comfortable social position in a polity dominated by Hindus. By being subsumed under the larger ambit of Hindus, they have never been seen as a threat by the dominant community and therefore have not been subjected to the severe process of ‘othering’ faced by other minorities such as Muslims. Therefore, I feel that Jains do not have to face the extent of structural inequalities faced by other marginalised minority groups, by virtue of them belonging to a particular community. Thus, it is unjust to extend the same amount of structural support and affirmative action to Jains as is given to Muslims, who are still going through an intense process of ‘othering’ at a national level and have been targeted many times.
It is undeniable that the Jain community is a numerical minority in India and the spirit of the Constitution demands that each community deserves to preserve its culture and tradition. But by granting them the status of national minority, the Centre has given the community access to a number of welfare schemes and series of affirmative action, meant to encourage disadvantaged communities and bring them at par with the dominant communities. I don’t believe that Jains comprise one of those disadvantaged communities that need access to these measures.
Thus, it is only reasonable to conclude it is not fair for the State to use simplistic criteria such as numbers or numeric strength to determine the status of any community and grant similar benefits to all communities without keeping in mind their socio-economic position.