Minority politics: the shifting terms of policy discourse


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BUILDING on the political experience of countering the Hindutva movement of the 1990s, the Congress-led coalition government initiated and sought to legitimize an entirely new discourse on social policies. As soon as it came to power in 2004, the coalition government announced, and with alacrity implemented, a series of policy measures, assumedly with a view to reclaiming the trust and recognizing the stake of the religious minorities in India’s secular democracy. Such measures were indeed urgently required considering that members of the minority communities, especially the Muslim and Christian, felt highly insecure and emotionally shaken by the relentless, at times violent, assaults on them by the Hindutva movement.

The expectation was, however, also that the new policies of the government would take into account the pervasive sense of insecurity in the citizenry at large caused by a series of ‘jehadi’ terrorist attacks, and thus adopt quick and effective measures to pacify and mend the deeply disturbed inter-community relations that had caused communal polarization, not just in politics but in society at large.

The challenge, in short, was of addressing the larger picture of communal polarization and devising policies to restore the secularization process that had been severely disrupted by the discourse, politics and inter-communal violence of the 1990s, culminating in the horrendous pre-Gujarat assembly election event of the Godhra train burning, followed by the massacre of Muslims in different parts of Gujarat in 2002.1 More specifically, there was a need to recover the secular neutrality of the state which had been compromised in the course of the previous two decades by governments at the Centre as well as in the states – whether led by a ‘secular’, ‘left-secular’ or a ‘communal’ party – making instrumental use of the state institutions variously for private (e.g. in U.P. and Bihar), partisan (e.g. in West Bengal), or communal (e.g. in Gujarat) ends.

This historic moment was, however, allowed to pass. The newly elected coalition government devised policies which remained focused mainly on the immediate issues concerning the religious minorities. It sought legitimation for these policies from the neo-pluralist, counter communal discourse which, in its view, also made eminent electoral sense for its vote-bank politics.

At the core of the new policy discourse was the Sachar Committee Report.2 The political discourse and policy measures triggered by the report became fused with the ongoing counter-communal discourse that had grown and strengthened in opposition to Hindutva communalism and, in turn, produced a major shift in the focus of social policies. The shift has been in the direction of changing the principle of the policy as well as the criteria for recognition of beneficiary groups.


Social policies in India are conventionally based on the simultaneous recognition by the constitution of cultural rights of faith-communities and the development rights of the structurally and historically deprived groups within every community of faith. In this recognition lies the secular foundation of our social policies.

This principle enabled formulation of the policy of reservations covering the structurally deprived groups within each religious community. The relevant policy challenge now is one of devising mechanisms to ensure that the policywise deserving, but so far left out, backward groups among the minority religious communities are included in the official lists of backward communities. Equally, it is important to ensure that special economic and financial schemes are devised from time to time for alleviating the social, economic and educational conditions of the backward groups within every religious minority.

More specifically, issues like according Scheduled Caste status to the ex-untouchable groups of minority religious communities, ought to have been raised and resolved in the existing framework of secular social policies. All these and many other issues could have been effectively addressed by existing policies, but that did not seem to suit the post 2004 political strategies of the coalition regime. In effect, a new discourse was initiated which sought to shift the focus of social policies from backwardness to communality of groups, wherein religious minorities are treated as totalities in politics and as undifferentiated units of development discourse and policies. This shift has long-term negative implications for the secularization process.

By all accounts, every community of faith – while it shares a common religious symbolism and engages in common, piety-oriented ritual practices – is a highly differentiated entity from within: socially, economically, educationally and even culturally. Denying recognition of such differences has been at the core of all communal politics. Treating such vastly heterogeneous communities as a single unit for social and developmental policies has already begun to manifest trends retrogressive to the secularization process.


First, it has contributed to the re-establishment of the dominance of a small minority of the community elite belonging to the upper rung of its traditional social hierarchy – the caste-like hierarchy which both historically and today exists within every faith-community of India in one form or the other – over the entire community. In fact, the policy shift has enabled the elite of a faith community to mask its face while pursuing its own separate politics of cornering benefits meant for the poor and backward in the community. This elite pursuit is particularly facilitated when the social and development policies are made blind to the internal structure of inequality within the religious community.

Further, such totalization has begun to strengthen the hold of religious leadership over the lives of the followers of the faith. In this process a tacit understanding, if not an open alliance, is emerging between the social elite and the religious leadership (the clergy), who together seek to establish their claim of being leaders, representatives and sole spokesmen on every issue pertaining to the community or to any section within it.


Second, the totalization of a faith community has begun to suppress the voice and movements of backward and poor sections within the community, e.g. the Pasmanda movement among Muslims and the Dalit Christian movement among Christians.3 

Third, the totalization politics has led to an exteriorization of almost all issues and problems facing a religious community. This, in fact, has become a ‘common sense’ of neopluralist secular discourse. Thus, problems and issues facing a particular section within the community, but not necessarily by virtue of its belonging to that community of faith, can now be credibly articulated as problems caused almost exclusively by forces from outside the faith community.


Fourth, a near complete denial in the public discourse and the erasures applied by the commissions and high-level committees to the contribution of endogenous factors in the creation and perpetuation of inequalities and injustices within the faith community, has enabled the policies to conflate issues of deprivation and discrimination. Now it becomes easy to argue that socio-economic and educational underdevelopment of sections within a community reflected organic underdevelopment of the community as a whole, which in turn constitutes proof of the community being institutionally discriminated by the state as well as its other – the majority community.

The belief that religious minorities in India live in conditions of socio-economic deprivation caused by their systemic discrimination became sustainable in this politics of perceptions which has become the mainstay of the new policy discourse initiated by the Sachar Committee Report. No wonder, even some public intellectuals and social activists with impeccable secular credentials have come to believe that their entire community is a victim of institutionalized discrimination and perpetually kept in a state of backwardness, poverty and illiteracy.4 

Finally, treating entire communities of faith as economically, socially and educationally undifferentiated collectivities, has led to a politics of marginalization of many smaller religious, cultural and linguistic minorities in the states. As is well-known, almost every state in India has a dominant cultural and/or linguistic community. What is, however, not generally appreciated is that these states also have several smaller, social-cultural and linguistic minorities: e.g. Muslims in Manipur, Buddhists in J&K, the Hindi speaking population in Gujarat or the Rajbhars in West Bengal, where children of the poor among the linguistic minority are virtually denied their right to education, do not get into schools, and when they do, are often forced to drop out because the language used in the school is alien to them.5 

Even greater victims of neglect and non-recognition are the dalits in the hill states of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, tribals in Kerala and the ‘nomadic’ communities in most Indian states. Put differently, the new policies, being primarily oriented to the nationalized politics of the larger religious communities, have compromised the secular principle of social policy-making which addressed issues of backwardness of groups across all religious communities.


The politics of the last twenty years (1989-2009) has thus created serious long-term implications for the secularization process and for Indian democracy. Not only have different kinds of communities moved to the centre of India’s political and public life, they have now acquired a systemic basis and determining role in national politics. In everyday politics religious communities have begun to be represented as culturally unified political entities. Ideas and practices concerning matters of faith have become subordinated to this conception of the community and are being used for providing validation for political-communal solidarity of the faith community. In the political discourse, religious identities are being culturally essentialized and sought to be frozen in time and space. As a result, issues of rights and equality are being defined in communitarian terms and used for legitimating social policies for establishing inter-communal parity.


In such reductive communitarian politics, the community rather than the citizen begins to be seen as the primary bearer of rights and, worse, a collective victim of injustice by its ‘other’, or the state. Claims to equality, and more generally to public goods, are now made by larger communities competing vis-ŕ-vis each other rather than by citizens organized around secular interests, or by groups sharing common social, economic or educational conditions of deprivation and backwardness. Thus, rights and public ‘goods’ that persons can now access or aspire to, usually become available to them in their capacity as members of a community; qua individuals they are left with some residual political rights and communally unclaimed indivisible public facilities. This, it seems, is the result of the policy for minorities having conflated issues of discrimination and deprivation.

The secular policy of the state which ‘recognized’ all religions as equal, now treats the religious community in purely numerical terms; and the principle of equality is applied to the numerically asymmetrical religious communities. The community thus becomes a religion’s primary representation, with all other aspects of religious life such as piety-related practices, being incorporated and subsumed by the religion’s communitarian identity. In effect, such issues concerning freedom of faith and practices are sought to be defined and decided politically by community leadership. It is in this sense that policy treats the communities of minority faiths as totalities, each believed to represent a commonly shared social, economic and educational status. The result is the creation of a new hierarchy of religions which seeks to blank out the issue of caste/social hierarchy within religions from the policy discourse.


This change, marked by the emergence of minoritarian politics in the last two decades, is qualitatively different from the rise of ‘caste politics’ in the 1980s. First, the ‘so called’ caste politics was an expected development in the process of democratization – an inevitable moment of assertion for rights and aspirations for social justice by subaltern classes of all faiths once democratic politics opened up the economy and society that had, by and large, remained closed for centuries.

Second, the political competition in the 1980s was among relatively small and, in themselves, electorally unviable groups which traditionally occupied lower rungs of the social hierarchy across macro communities of faith. They did create larger political conglomerates for staking claims to political power, but their politics remained structurally confined to the states and regions. In this process of ‘castization’ and ‘regionalization’ of lower class politics (which encompassed a huge majority of the socially, culturally and religiously diverse communities of subaltern Indians), the politics of class (wage labour vs. capital) and communal conflicts (among macro-communities of faith) was prevented from acquiring visibility in national level politics, even as it was being fragmented and absorbed by caste-regional politics. In short, the so-called ‘Mandalized politics’ of the 1980s had remained manageable because of the working of the secularization process.


The nature of caste politics, however, began to change as a consequence of communalization of national politics in the 1990s. Even while stoutly confronting the Hindutva movement, it could not politically relate to the counter-communal minoritarian discourse. This confrontation and collaboration with communal politics over the last two decades produced two effects. One, a large part of caste politics began to be linked to, and even absorbed by, the pan-national politics of ethno-religious communities. Second, the internal political dynamic of ethnicization of caste – especially of the larger, regionally powerful castes – began gradually to be fused with the culture of the religious community, thereby transforming the faith community into an ethno-religious community.

This process is well-illustrated by the recent organizational and cultural changes in Hinduism, which are marked by the growing participation and power of the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in organizational activities and events of popular Hinduism, often sponsored and promoted by the Sangh Parivar, viz. the religious congregations and festivals as well as management of religious establishments. This development in Hinduism constitutes at least one important factor lending an ethno-majoritarian political character to Hinduism in the form of the Hindutva movement.

Somewhat different in its organization and character, but similar in consequence, is the fusion of ethno-lingual Gujarati identity with Hindutva that became manifest in the BJP’s Gujarat-asmita movement led by Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister of Gujarat.6 A similar movement seems to be in the making in Karnataka. A classic case of ethnic fusion of caste and religion, however, is the rise of political Sikhism in Punjab which is marked by the almost complete dominance of Jat Sikhs in the organizational and theological affairs of Sikhism, and in the determination of ethnic boundaries of the religious community, albeit drawn in impeccable theological terms. The result has been an exclusion of the lower caste communities of Sikhs from the ethno-religiously defined boundaries of today’s Sikhism.


The cumulative impact of the politics of subsuming castes in a monolithic religious identity is that India is being transformed functionally, although not yet constitutionally, into a democracy of faith communities, changing in the process the very idea of how India is constituted. It is a politics that is harking back to the old idea (of the 1940s): India being constituted primarily and ultimately (first and last) of Hindu-Muslim-Sikh-Isai.

If we look back at the 1980s and 1990s, we find two competing models of communitarian politics at work: the ethno-caste and ethno-religious. In my view, a restoration of the secularization process, rather the fate of secular democracy, will depend on which one of the two will prevail. Although this remains an open question, it is crucial to note that the caste-ethnicity based political entities – unlike the large, collectivist, macro-level political communities being formed through communalization of the faith-communities – are numerous and transient micro-level political formations, each comprising of few caste-ethnic communities negotiating constantly among themselves, and with the state in the short-term interest of their constituent members.


Ethno-caste entities are by themselves politically unviable; walking in and out of the now splitting, now merging alliances, they remain in constant flux, seeking a place amidst shifting political alliances. As such, they cannot emerge as a communally united enduring political force with members sharing a common system of ideas or symbols. Neither can they form a counter-democratic communal force, nor find a strong basis for emotional or ideological unity and attain a Durkheimian kind of mechanical solidarity.7 It is likely that ethno-caste political entities will be contained, in fact, absorbed by the larger institutional structures of competitive politics. In short, the politics of caste and ethnic identities will always remain subject to the working of the secularization process of democracy. This cannot be said, with equal confidence, for the communalized pan-Indian macro-entities of faith.

Thus seen, the threat to secular democracy lies not so much in caste-ethnic politics as in the possibility of the ‘nationalization’ of communal politics of the faith communities – a politics that has emerged mainly due to the inability of a secular leadership to meet the politics of communalism at the national level by raising issues of national concern in terms of the constitutionally rooted idea of secularism.


The results of the 2009 national elections have nevertheless raised expectations that national politics may finally be de-communalized. The optimism stems from the belief that the second successive defeat of the Hindutva party is likely to compel it to reconsider its exclusivist politics of majoritarian totalization. Besides, the expanding liberal-market economy (an important dimension of political secularization not discussed here), working in conjunction with the political market of votes in a coalitional system, is expected to reduce the possibility – communal or otherwise – of mass-mobilizational politics. This might make raising communal passions and engineering political riots electorally unrewarding. Also, the politics of minoritarian-communal solidarities that emerged under the threat of majoritarian communal assaults may now lose its appeal. The unity attained by religious minorities is more likely to find political expression in terms of the ethno-caste identities and interests of their constituent units at the regional level.

On the other side, especially if one focuses on the shift in votes of Muslims and other religious minorities in 2009,8 it appears that the minoritarian-counter communal model of politics and policies has worked well for the Congress. It has brought back to the party the support of Muslims and other religious minorities which it had lost to regional parties over several elections. So the Congress party may well want to opt for this model of politics, albeit by deploying greater sophistication in the discourse.

Although there may be pulls and pressures of this kind for the ruling coalition, it must keep in mind certain specific elements of the 2009 election verdict. First, at this juncture of time the Congress is a party in coalition; it is not managing a one party minority government like the 1991-96 government of Narasimha Rao. Second, the BJP has been pushed back cross-sectionally in the electorate and across regions, which may tempt the party to replay the old strategy of the 1990s. In such a situation it is necessary for the Congress to realize its newly attained political strength and convert the gains of 2009 into a long-term trend.


For a start, the return of Muslims and the other minorities does not appear to have happened under any pressure or fear of majoritarian communalism; by and large they have deserted ‘secular’ regional parties which nurtured, if not pampered, them as their ‘vote banks’. Equally, the Congress gains are not exhausted by the shifts in minority votes alone. It has also wrested, in significant proportion, the support of the urban middle and lower middle classes from the BJP who may be losing patience with any kind (majoritarian or minoritarian) of communally misconceived electoral-political strategies.

The short point of all this is that the Congress-led coalition has been given a ‘second moment’ after 2004 to restore the secularization process by shifting the focus of development discourse and policies from communality to backwardness of groups which remain subsumed within every community of faith. In politics there is no pre-determined path. The choices that the leadership makes can lay down, to a significant extent, a path towards at least the immediate future.


* The paper presents part of my work on political communalization of religious identities. For a detailed and empirically substantiated argument, see the larger version in Gurpreet Mahajan and Surinder Jodhka (eds.), Religion, Community and Development: Changing Contours of Politics and Policy in India, Routledge (forthcoming). I am thankful to Sanjeer Alam for his assistance and KAQA Hilal for preparing the manuscript.



1. For an explication of the concept of ‘secularization process’ see, ‘Political Communalization of Religions and the Crisis of Secularism’, Economic and Political Weekly, (forthcoming), a section of which this paper draws heavily on.

2. See, Prime Minister’s High Level Committee: Social, Economic and Educational Status of the Muslim Community of India: A Report. Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India, November 2006. For a critical review of the Sachar Committee’s use of data and methods of analysis and their implications for its findings, see Steven Wilkinson, ‘A Comment on the Analysis of the Sachar Report’, EPW, 10 March 2007, pp. 832-835.

3. A deep apprehension about the adverse impact of the new policy discourse on the backward Muslim communities following the Sachar Committee Report is expressed by a leader of the Pasmanda Muslim movement, Ali Anwar, on several public forums. See in particular his recent article in Hindi: ‘Sachar Committee ke Ayane me Musalman’ (The Muslim in the Mirror of the Sachar Committee), Samayik Varta, April 2007.

4. See, for instance, Javed Anand, ‘Yesterday Once More?’ The Indian Express, 21 May 2009.

5. A comprehensive discussion on the role of policies in the treatment of small linguistic minorities in different Indian states is found in Sumi Krishna, India’s Living Languages: The Critical Issues, Allied Publishers, New Delhi, 1999.

6. For an analysis of the changes in the political culture of Gujarat, especially the fusion of the lingual and ethno-religious (Hindutva) identities, see D.L. Sheth, ‘Growth of Communal Polarization in Gujarat: The Making of a Hindutva Laboratory?’ in Lessons from Gujarat, edited by the VAK Collective, Vikas Adhyayan Kendra, Mumbai, 2003.

7. For discussion of Durkheim’s concept of mechanical and organic solidarity, see Raymond Aron, Main Currents in Sociological Thought 2, Pelican, pp. 21-33.

8. Observations made here on the nature of the 2009 national election verdict are based on the CSDS data of NES 2009, published in a special supplement of The Hindu, ‘How India Voted: Verdict 2009’, 26 May 2009.