It's strange season again in the corridors of planning and power — the run up to the 12th Five-Year Plan. This is when myriad Planning Commission committees review the (somewhat predictable) non-implementation of policies intended to benefit some of the poorest Indians, and recommend changes, only to repeat the exercise five years later.

Forgive my cynicism. It arises from the fact that once again, when it comes to Muslims, we are confronted with word games one hoped had been left behind. We are repeatedly told we cannot plan interventions for ‘Muslims qua Muslims', because it's not constitutionally appropriate; at best we can plan for ‘Minorities'. Hence, the strange situation of offering small ‘Minority' scholarships to Parsis (with presumably nearly 100 per cent literacy), and to Christians (with 80.3 per cent literacy rate) along with Muslims (59.1 per cent literacy rate in 2001, lowest among religious groups).

Surely every religious minority has unique problems, and requires different interventions? Sikhs have the worst sex ratios (786 in 2001 compared to 950 for Muslims), and need exclusive, targeted interventions for that. Parsis, among our most prosperous communities, are impoverished by a declining population, and need to improve fertility rates, rather than avail of educational scholarships. Dalit Christians suffer bias and a development deficit. But Plan after Plan, ‘Minorities' it is. So should we just stop gathering disaggregated data for religious communities, since it is ‘unconstitutional' to plan interventions when the data is in?

Not enough of a fig leaf

But even ‘Minorities' it seems is not enough of a fig leaf. At a recent meeting to discuss 12th Plan proposals for Minorities, a leading sociologist suggested that since any intervention for ‘Minorities' is assumed by implementers to primarily target Muslims, there is bias and neglect, both benign and malignant, down the line. So why not plan schemes along sectoral lines (such as support to artisans) where Muslims exist in large numbers, and cross our little fingers and toes in the hope that a bulk of beneficiaries turn out at the end of the day to be Muslims?

It was probably a realistic but sad proposal, suggesting that India, a pluralistic democracy, should seek to help some of its most desperate citizens by stealth and subterfuge. The fact is that we as a nation cannot hope to solve a problem we refuse to name. Naming and shaming alone was the single most important contribution of the Sachar Report (which was about Muslims not ‘Minorities'). But regrettably the Sachar respite from historical institutional obfuscation was all too brief.

So who are the Minorities? The Constitution mentions minorities in four places, Articles 29-30 where it refers to both linguistic and religious minorities, and Articles 350A and 350B, which pertain only to linguistic minorities. At the national level, under the National Commission for Minorities Act 1992, the Central government notified five religious minorities (Muslim, Christian, Parsi, Buddhist, and Sikh). In TMA Pai Foundation & Ors vrs State of Karnataka and others (2002), the Supreme Court held that for the purpose of Article 30 a minority, linguistic or religious, should be determined at the level of the State and not at the level of the country. State Minorities Commission Acts empower the State governments to notify such minorities, and under this provision, Jains have been notified a State religious minority in several states.

Yet, scanning recently through a draft report on religious minorities in the North East, I came across this brain twisting oxymoron, ‘…when the minority is a majority, then recognition of that minority who is majority, will be as a majority and majority will be considered a minority…' Deciphering this tangle meant the following — the writer was troubled when confronted with Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya, where Hindus are the religious minority and Christians the religious majority. His familiar mental categories of Majority=Hindu and Minority=Muslim/Christian were unraveling. He meant that Hindus (a religious majority at the national level) must be recognised as a minority at the State level. Absolutely.

As for linguistic minorities, they exist only at the level of the States and every State has several. The Ranganath Misra Commission report says, “first, every community in India becomes a minority because in one or the other state of the country it will be a minority – linguistic or religious.” (p32) Gujaratis in Delhi, Tamils in Karnataka, Biharis in Mumbai — indeed each of us domiciled in any State barring our ‘native' state is a linguistic minority. And remember, south of the Vindhyas, linguistic nationalism and linguistic fault lines have far greater historical and emotional salience than religious ones.

As loaded as an automatic gun

But in the Indian lexicon, the word ‘minority' is as loaded as an automatic gun. People instantly think religious minorities (not linguistic minorities), and only think at the level of the country not in the unit of the State. The even more instant word association is minority (bang!) = Muslims. No amount of factual correction seems to place a safety catch on that automatic gunfire.

Which is why we've had the kind of absurd opposition seen in recent days to the Draft Prevention of Communal and Targeted Violence Bill recommended by the National Advisory Council. The Bill is based on the reality that in cases of targeted identity-based violence against a non-dominant group at the State level (defined as linguistic or religious minorities, SCs and STs in a State) there is incontrovertible evidence of bias by local State law enforcement and administrative machinery. The Bill therefore proposes correctives to restore equality in the working of the law for these non-dominant groups everywhere.

A U.N. sub-commission report in 1977, defined minority in precisely these terms — “as a group numerically inferior to the rest of the population of a State, in a non-dominant position…” And the Ranganath Misra report also clearly says that “…the basic characteristics of minority status are: numerical inferiority; non-dominant status and stable features of distinct identity.”

Yet critics seized upon the word ‘Minority' in the Communal & Targeted Violence Bill. They counted on the automatic gun (minority=Muslim) in people's minds, and tried to sell the impression that the Bill was somehow anti-Hindu. One TV debate had a right-wing Hindutva ideologue waving the Bill screaming, “Why is this directed against the majority?” For starters, the Bill is directed largely at the State machinery. More importantly, what did the nice gentleman mean by ‘majority'? A bulk of linguistic minorities in every State are Hindu, as are SCs and many STs. Hindus are also religious minorities in several states. So, what precisely was his problem?

Consider the conundrum. When it comes to development, Muslims can only be called ‘Minority'. When it comes to communal & targeted violence ‘Minority' is not acceptable because it only seems to mean ‘Muslims'.

What it all boils down to is this. Word games will continue. We will trot out any excuse, simply because anti-Muslim sentiment across the board is supposedly so strong that we cannot bear to acknowledge the extent to which poor Muslims are in trouble in this country — on development, on security, on a decent future. And we're even less able to actually say ‘yes' to giving help. We drape our ignoble biases in noble Constitutional defense, instead of generously interpreting the Constitutional promise of equality to all. Why do we refuse to settle on SRC, socio-religious community , as a valid category for development interventions as Sachar had suggested?

So, the poor Muslim gets poorer; and slow disenfranchisement leads to absolute disinheritance.

Even as the national imagination continues its increasingly slippery embrace of ‘the Muslim' in frozen unreal traps — nawabi high culture, Urdu poetry, cauldrons of rich biryani and platters of kebab on one side; and capped, bearded, beady eyed Islamists on the other. And India will forever be unable to redress a grave injustice that we do not have the courage to name.

(Farah Naqvi is an independent writer and activist and member of the National Advisory Council. The views expressed here are personal.)

The (word) games we play to avoid dealing with the problems of some of the poorest Indians.