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Minority rights: India’s powerful Jain community suffers from ‘Muslim envy’

Jains reiterate their long-standing complaint: Muslims have been allotted disproportionate share of minority benefits.

An analysis of the presentation made by members of India’s most influential minority to the National Minorities Commission in Mumbai on Friday makes one thing clear:  the powerful Jain community is suffering from “Muslim envy’”.

In a conversation after the presentation,  Dhanpal Solanki, an articulate campaigner for Jain minority rights, made constant references to “Muslim appeasement’’, contending that India’s largest minority community is disproportionately being allotted benefits that should be spread out among all minority communities.

Jains, who form 0.4 % of India’s population, and dominate the worlds of business and media, were granted their long-standing demand for minority status by the United Progressive Alliance in January 2014, just before the Lok Sabha elections.

The contention that Muslims were receiving favourable treatment was also made in a petition filed by the Akhil Bharatiya Jain Mahasabha in the Supreme Court last year. The petition claimed that the government “has adopted appeasement policy towards Muslims and in the name of the minorities all the benefits are being given to this community whereas other minorities are not being given the same benefit and status”.

An obvious explanation

The Jains aren’t the only community that is aggrieved by the benefits granted to Muslims, said National Minorities Commission member Captain P Davar. “But the explanation for this is obvious,” he noted. “Not only because Muslims are the largest minority, but also because of their condition”, which has been reported to be below the status of even that of members of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.

In their presentation to the National Minorities Commission last week, the Jains claimed that 18% of their community members live below the poverty line, and 20% are poor. If this claim is true, said Captain Davar, this 38% of Jains must be given the benefits to which other minorities are entitled.  These would include scholarships and loans (which come with income limits), hostels, a focus on infrastructure in minority-dominated district blocks, and land grants at concessional rates for Jain educational institutions.

In true competitive spirit, Jains have demanded a socio-economic survey of Jains and other non-Muslim minorities in the manner of the UPA government-appointed Sachar Committee, which submitted a report on the condition of Muslims in 2006. The presentation has also demanded annual grants on the lines of madrasa empowerment schemes for Jain patshalas, which aim at “preserving the Jains cultured heritage and to imbibe the same in the next generation’’. But, as Captain Davar pointed out, madrasas get central aid because they impart religious education to the poorest of the poor.

Their list of demands in the presentation covers a wide span of Jain religious and cultural life: special trains to Jain pilgrimage sites, with new rail tracks to be laid if necessary;  special measures to ensure the safety of Jain pilgrims; protection for Jain temples to prevent encroachment; land and aid for building community halls and a Jain museum; central resources for teaching Pali and Prakrit in schools in areas in which Jains comprise one-fourth of the population, and the restoration of Pali as a subject in the civil services exam.

They have also demanded a “special protection force” for Jain munis to ensure “freedom of movement to practise and propagate their religion”. This, explained Solanki, is actually a demand for pavements on highways for Jain priests and nuns, who are obligated by their religious beliefs to travel on foot.

Solanki added yet another demand that was not included in the presentation: programmes to ensure the empowerment of Jain women, whose representation in government service is even lower than those of Muslims and Scheduled Castes, he said. Since literacy rates among Jain women are actually very high, this under-representation is actually the product of community attitudes, Solanki admitted. Still, he suggests, the government could help by running training programmes for Jain women. (The Jain delegation that met the minorities commission did not include any women.)

Demand for representation

In January, in response to the Jain Mahasabha petition, the Supreme Court asked the Centre to consider including a Jain in the minorities commission. But this, said Captain Davar, would be difficult unless the National Minorities Commission Act is amended.  The Act stipulates that the commission must have a chairperson, a vice-chairperson and five members from the five notified minority communities. The practice has been to include two Muslims on the panel, one of them the chairperson. One Hindu rounds up the seven-member commission, whose members enjoy a three-year term.

A new member can only be added if a vacancy arises, and none of the minorities can be left unrepresented. In effect, this would mean a Jain would find place on the commission only when one of the two Muslim members, or the Hindu member retires. If the government chooses, it could amend the Act to increase the number of members.

In another sign that the Jains aim to end what they believe is Muslim appeasement, the representation to the minorities commission also demanded that the post of chairman of the minorities commission should go to a representative of each minority group by rotation. Only once before, under the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance regime, was a non-Muslim chosen to be the panel’s chairman.

Despite the community’s demands, there is some incongruity in the Jains considering themselves a minority. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh certainly does not consider Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs to be different from Hindus. Besides, Jain munis have been among the most fervent speakers at meetings of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. “Jains are also in the forefront of Bajrang Dal cow-protection activities,’’ agreed Solanki. “We are completely amalgamated with the Hindu majority; yet, we are not Hindus. And, though the community generally supports the BJP, it is the Congress, Mayawatiji and the CPI(M) that have granted us minority status in states ruled by them, not the BJP.’’

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