The Numbers Game~II

Minorityism, as a social and political principle, was first propounded and popularized by John Bordley Rawls (1921-2002), an American moral, legal and political philosopher of the liberal tradition, in his seminal work A Theory of Justice (1971).

The Numbers Game~II

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Minorityism, as a social and political principle, was first propounded and popularized by John Bordley Rawls (1921-2002), an American moral, legal and political philosopher of the liberal tradition, in his seminal work A Theory of Justice (1971).

Rawls’ theory “justice as fairness” advocated equal basic liberties to all, equality of opportunities and facilitating maximum benefits to the least advantaged groups in the society where inequality exists. What Rawls had in mind was the plight of the oppressed African-Americans who rose from slavery to citizenship with an unbearable burden of inequality.

This started a process of effective ‘affirmative action’ over years applicable to admissions in educational institutions and employment in government and business establishments as well as in the universities. John Rawls’ political philosophy had made such an impact that the courts in USA and Canada had frequently cited his philosophy and work.


Rawls’ pioneering work of ‘justice as fairness’ was taken forward, expanded and given new dimensions by the Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen in his monumental work, The Idea of Justice (2009). While Sen dedicated his book to the memory of Rawls, he differed from the ‘theory of justice’ propounded by Rawls and envisioned a global view of and an action plan for a ‘just world.’

Sen states that “the strong perception of manifest injustice applies to adult human beings as well as children. What moves us, reasonably enough, is not the realization that the world falls short of being completely just ~ which few of us expect ~ but that there are clearly remediable injustices around us which we want to eliminate.” While Rawls’ theory emerged in the background of American society, Sen wrote in the context of India.

Sen calls for massive investments in education and healthcare (which will help promote equality) and in pro-active antipoverty programmes, especially for the minorities. In a way, Sen is also a proponent of minorityism. Minorityism is practiced in a variety of ways ~ pro-minority government policies, affirmative actions, reservations in jobs and educational institutions, introduction of quota system and appeasement of minorities in political, social and religious affairs.

While minorityism as a principle never existed before modern democracy took deep roots, it is a queer irony of history that the world had mostly been ruled by minority groups/ coteries of kings, queens, emperors, aristocrats, feudal lords, invaders and barbarians, who only served their own interests. Remnants of minority rule, albeit in a Constitutional framework, still exist in many democracies where certain families and minority elite groups monopolize political power and follow minorityism in various ways for electoral gains.

The question naturally arises: who are the minorities in modern democracies and what are the criteria ~ religion, language, colour, culture, region, ethnicity, caste or tribes? In the USA, it is not based on religion, language or culture but on colour and ethnicity, mainly the African Americans. In India, the picture is opaque. Minorities belong to various regions of this vast country, religious groups, linguistic groups, caste groups, cultural groups and the tribal groups. Officially, religion has been accepted as the only criterion to determine the status of minority.

This has created an anomalous and untenable situation. In India, minority status, on the basis of religion, has been accorded to the Muslims, the Jains, the Buddhists, the Sikhs, and the Zoroastrians (Parsees) and a separate Ministry for Minority Affairs has been instituted for affirmative action.

Since the Constitution of India has recognized Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism as belonging within the Hindu fold (as they emanated from the offshoots of Sanatana Dharma), and since the Zoroastrians, a miniscule community refuse to accept any concession from the government, the general public understand the Muslims as the only minority. Many political scientists believe that religion as the only criterion for minority status is not scientific and has ignored many minority-related problems of exclusion.

For example, the Tulu language group is a minority in Karnataka, Konkanis in Maharashtra, Bengalis in Assam, Dogras in Jammu and Kashmir, and Nepaleese in West Bengal etc. A question has frequently been asked: are the Muslims in India a minority community in the true sense? According to Najma Heptullah, former Cabinet Minister for Minority Affairs, Muslims cannot be treated as a minority community; they are also a majority community because of their sheer number and also because they enjoy the same equality of rights and privileges like the majority community.

As of 2023, around 220 million Muslims live in India, almost equal to the size of Pakistan’s total population. How can such a mammoth population be called a minority? Moreover, Muslims are in brute majority in the Kashmir valley (98 per cent) and also in several areas/ districts of Assam, West Bengal, Bihar, Telengana, Maharashtra, and Kerala If the minority tag is to remain with the Indian Muslims (because of the official position), they nevertheless belong to a special category known as the “Dominant Minority.”

The Muslims who had been in hopeless minority earlier, ruled the major part of India and dominated the subcontinent’s politics for 600 years from the thirteenth to eighteenth century and in a way, they followed minorityism ignoring the concerns of the majority community. Even after the partition of the country, Muslims have been a dominant factor in Indian politics and being the dominant minority and the biggest votebank, they possess enormous leverage with the political parties and all of them try to woo them.

Hence, the presence of minorityism and minority politics. As a dominant minority, they play a crucial role in the elections and formation of governments, especially in Bengal, Assam, Bihar, UP, J&K, Telengana, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Kerala. In a landmark judgment the Supreme Court of the United States has ruled (29 June 2023) that race-based affirmative action in college and university admissions is unconstitutional as it violates the principles of fairness and equality of opportunity.

While this may not upend the age-old policy of affirmative action and diversity, which was also embraced by the corporate sector in the USA, it reopens the debate about the merits of affirmative action and minorityism. The split verdict (6-3) of the Supreme Court has expectedly produced a mixed response but the majority of the Americans appear to have welcomed it. In India, the picture is totally different because minorityism has been provided Constitutional protection and the courts can hardly interfere to stop the affirmative policies and programmes of the Union and the State governments unless they go against the Constitutional norms.

There is no doubt the affirmative policies, especially the reservation policy, have had many positive results and have benefited large sections of the underprivileged and the oppressed. Notwithstanding the benefits accruing to certain groups of the society, long term use, excessive use and using the reservation policy as a political tool may lead to dangerous consequences. The limited 10-year reservation policy included in the Indian Constitution for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (SC&ST) has already become permanent.

Similarly, reservation for Other Backward Classes (OBC), Extreme Backward Classes (EBC) and Economically Weaker Section EWS) is also going to be a permanent feature in the Indian polity. Already, the ugly side of the massive affirmation system has started showing.

A new guilt-conscious nouveau riche privileged class has emerged that has developed vested interests and monopolized the privileges without hard work for generations, preventing the benefits to flow to the poorer sections and the needy. The caste-based reservation system has crossed the threshold limit of 50 per cent in many States and may soon reach 75 per cent (as in Bihar), in which case minorityism turns into majoritarianism, a most despised concept.

This has divided the Indian society from the middle and will have the effect of killing initiative, innovativeness, spirit of reform and scientific temper and the centres of excellence. Like the exodus of Tamil Brahmins from Tamil Nadu because of the excesses of the State’s reservation policy (69 per cent ~ majoritarianism!), India may also witness a large-scale exodus of Indian scholars, scientific and technological talents, and flight of capital to foreign countries.

(The writer is a former Dy. Comptroller &Auditor General of India and a former Ombudsman of Reserve Bank of India. He is also a writer of several books and can be reached at brahmas@gmail.com)