Minority institutions - Rights or privilege?

Written by Mihir Desai | Published on: November 1, 2005

Rights or privilege?

The recent Allahabad High Court judgement ruling that Aligarh Muslim University is not a minority institution has sparked a nationwide controversy

The recent decision of the Allahabad High court effectively holding that the Aligarh Muslim University cannot claim minority status compounds the confusion created by the Supreme Court over the last 50 years in matters pertaining to rights of minority educational institutions.

But before we look at the Allahabad judgement and some of the other decisions of the Supreme Court it is necessary to contextualise the rights of minorities.

The yardstick for measuring the intrinsic strength of a secular democracy is how secure the minorities feel within the nation. No doubt, democracy is ultimately supposed to be the rule of the majority but at the same time there have to be inbuilt safeguards to ensure that a rule of the majority does not become tyranny by the majority. It is in this context that the rights of minorities acquire crucial significance.

Justice Jackson of the US Supreme Court rightly pointed out in the West Virginia State Board of Education case: "If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein".

Democracy is the rule of equality where all persons are treated as equal whether they belong to the majority or minority. It has been argued that the fact that the minorities are being treated as equals, and that too through a fundamental right, should satisfy and protect them. Where then is the need for special safeguards or separate fundamental rights? But as observed by the Supreme Court in the case of St Stephen’s College vs University of Delhi (1992): "The minorities do not stand to gain much from the General Bill of Rights or Fundamental Rights which are available only to individuals. The minorities require positive safeguards to preserve their minority interests which are also termed as group rights".

Similarly, in the St Xavier’s College case judgement of 1974, Justice Khanna observed: "The idea of giving some special rights to the minorities is not to have a kind of privileged or pampered section of the population but to give the minorities a sense of security and a feeling of confidence".

It has been internationally recognised that minorities need not just equal treatment but also special protection. It has been assumed, and rightly so, that the majority can look after and take care of itself in respect of protection of language, religion or culture.

In all functioning secular democracies, individuals and groups have the right to practice and propagate religion as a basic right. A secular state necessarily means the absence of any state religion. But this is a very restrictive definition. Secularism also means that the state shall protect those who do not follow the majority religion. It is thus crucial that sufficient protective measures exist for the religious minority groups to protect their religion.

There is a major difference between the Backward Castes and linguistic and religious minorities. The only way in which the Backward Castes can get out of their oppression in the long run is through a casteless society i.e. if they lose their caste status. The Backward Castes will benefit and in the ultimate analysis be rid of their oppression if they lose their caste identity and in that sense merge with the so-called mainstream. For the linguistic and religious minorities the issue is different. They want to retain their identity as separate linguistic or religious groups. As very rightly said, Jews do not want to be Catholics, Gujaratis do not want to be Maharashtrians and Muslims do not want to be Hindus. Looked at from this point of view, the stress laid time and again by the Supreme Court that all educational institutions should be melting pots for all communities is wide off the mark.

The Constituent Assembly recognised that religious and linguistic minorities have to be protected by allowing them