The debate over the proposed anti communal riots bill is curious in more ways than one for those of us in the northeast. As is evident, in India by the term minority what is generally meant are the country’s Muslims, forming a small 13.4 percent of the country’s total population (2001 census), but in terms of numbers this translate into 138 million, making for the second largest concentration of people affiliated to the religion in any country after Indonesia. In other words, India has more Muslims citizens than any single Islamic country in the world except Indonesia. Yet by Indian standards, this is a minority. It must however be conceded indeed, as events in the post colonial India have been witness, they have been victims of most of the religious communal riots in the country which for historical reasons they have been almost always pitted against the majority Hindu community. No dispute about it that they therefore may need the protections proposed to be introduced by the bill in question. While we have very little to say on this aspect of the bill, there is however a very serious flaw in the entire approach to the issue from the point of view of the northeast. The bill does not acknowledge there are many different minorities in the country, and that again this minority status is very much contextual.
We of course allude to the situation in the northeast chiefly, but not necessarily exclusively. In this region, the picture evoked by the idea of minority is not so much in terms of religion but ethnicity and not without reason too. As of today, the so called minority Muslims of India would easily, and overwhelmingly too, outnumber many of the small ethnic communities inhabiting this region. The related frictions as well as apprehensions would also be significantly different, and these concerns are what have been totally ignored all the years since Indian independence and unfortunately these are also what continues to be ignored even today in the endless debates on television and newspapers in the run up to the proposed introduction of a new law on minority protection. This is unfortunate, and perhaps the intelligentsia in the northeast has to share a greater part of the blame for as they say, if you do not write or speak up about yourself, others will write and speak about you. This has been the case for a long time, but the correction to this anomaly in self representation is still not complete, as is again evident in the debate over minority protection. Perhaps a more representative approach to the issue would be to not think of “religious minorities” only, but also “national minorities”. Communities that are not exactly of the mainstream national communities who belong to non-mainstream cultures and speak non-mainstream languages, also are also extremely vulnerable today, and this concern is what needs to be pushed strongly. This push, to underscore the point, has to come from the northeast intelligentsia.
Again, a minority community in the nation may not be a minority within a state of India. As for instance, Sikhs may be a minority in the country, but they obviously are not in Punjab. But the nuances go deeper. As for instance, within a state a particular community may be the majority but in the region they belong to, they can still be a tiny minority, hence suffer from a minority complex despite being the majority in their state. This can be said of most of the communities of the northeast. Take for instance Mizoram. In Mizoram the Mizos are an overwhelming majority but in the region the state belongs to which, includes the populous Barak Valley, they would be a tiny minority against the Bengalis (Hindus and Muslims combined). Hence the often heard allegation that Mizos are being unreasonably xenophobic about the plainsmen (in their term, Vai) would likely be a case of a total misreading of the situation. Without this natural wariness of outsiders, the Mizos could easily have ended up marginalised in their own land, as has happened to neighbouring Tripura. The same was the logic which came into play in Bhutan when the country decided to push away Nepali immigrants three decades ago from South Bhutan. Inhuman though it may have seemed, there was a legitimate reason for the Bhutanese to fear what happened to Sikkim a decade earlier. Although it has been so well camouflaged, demography often becomes a sinister articulation of political will of dominant interests. But the Gramscian “idea hegemony” has been so perfectly made to be internalised that even speaking up about genuine apprehensions of self preservation by small host communities have today been made to seem politically condemnable and inhuman.