India has succeeded in wearing down the concept of positive discrimination into a threadbare veil for political bargaining. The United Progressive Alliance government has decided to grant the Jain religious community national minority status quite close to the Lok Sabha elections. But the Jains have been asking for it for some time past. Apart from having had some low-key theatre enacted to bring the event to the public’s notice — evidently it was Rahul Gandhi’s support for the Jain demand that tipped the scales —the UPA may be confident that there will be no serious objections. The Jains are certainly a minority; they claim to have too many differences with the Hindu religion to be included in its rather large embrace; besides, why should they not be a religious minority if Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists and Parsis all have that label? The UPA can hardly go wrong on this one, especially since the Jains already have this status in several states. If accused of further breaking up an already fragmented society and increasing tensions over State funds and schemes for minority development, the UPA can always say that others did it first. Longsighted thoughts for the welfare of the country’s people are really not the Indian politicians’ forte.
How does this benefit the Jains? As a community they are prosperous, far from the economic straits of the country’s largest minority, for whom the special status has brought little serious gain mainly because of the vested interests of both politicians and its own religious leaders. But what the Jains will certainly get is freedom from government interference in its religious, cultural and educational institutions. Although an understanding of the spirit of the Constitution as regards equality and freedom would render the whole notion of minority status unnecessary, government control over and interference in religious and educational institutions is a reality. Minority status provides an escape, because of which even the Ramakrishna Mission had once tried for it. The problem should be attacked at its root: government interference in educational and religious institutions should cease — the last makes a mockery of the concept of a secular State. Escaping through the loophole of positive discrimination instead of creating pressure to remove the State’s finger from every pie is to open up the way to ever-increasing fragmentation.