Minority in diversity: Sunak’s elevation and shifting lines of identity politics in India

Appointment of an Indian-origin person as British P.M. has thrown open a fierce debate on the minority-majority equation, on four discernible strands

October 29, 2022 08:31 pm | Updated October 30, 2022 09:59 am IST

British Prime Minister  Rishi Sunak with one of his daughters in a Bengaluru restaurant during one of his visits to India. Photo: Special Arrangement

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak with one of his daughters in a Bengaluru restaurant during one of his visits to India. Photo: Special Arrangement

The election of Rishi Sunak as the Prime Minister of the U.K. has triggered some heated conversations in India on minority rights within the country. There are at least four discernible views that have emerged, signifying the divergence within India on the question of minority rights in a democracy.

In the first, Congress leader Shashi Tharoor wondered whether India could elect a member of a “visible” minority community as Prime Minister. He pointedly avoided the fact that Manmohan Singh, a Sikh, had been PM for 10 years. By counting Sikhs out of the minority category — he later clarified that he meant a community that is not Sikh, Jain or Buddhist — Mr. Tharoor betrayed the typical liberal approach to minority politics in India which is about accommodating Muslims and Christians. This liberal conception of minority and majority at the national level, and in religious terms, is, paradoxically, in alignment with the conventional Hindutva view that sees Christianity and Islam as non-Indic, and hence out of line with the country’s cultural nationalism.

The second view emerges in a Twitter spat between Mehbooba Mufti, former Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, and BJP leader Ravi Shankar Prasad. “Proud moment that UK will have its first Indian origin PM. While all of India rightly celebrates, it would serve us well to remember that while the UK has accepted an ethnic minority member as its PM, we are still shackled by divisive & discriminatory laws like NRC & CAA,” Ms. Mufti tweeted. In response, Mr. Prasad tweeted: “Mehbooba Mufti Ji! Will you accept a minority in Jammu and Kashmir as Chief Minister of the state? Please be frank enough to reply.”

Those who support autonomy for culturally distinctive regions within the country often find it difficult to grapple with questions of minorities among the minorities — Hindus in the Kashmir Valley in this instance. The possible changes in the demography of Kashmir is widely considered a threat to its identity, and not celebrated as diversity as in the case of the U.K. This question of minorities among minorities surfaces quite frequently in India. This week, Tulu and Kodava speakers in Karnataka protested against the State government move to promote Kannada, fearing that it may undermine their mother tongues.

Mr. Prasad may argue for the minorities of the U.K. and Jammu and Kashmir, but not for the minorities in his home State of Bihar, or India in general — and that is the global standard of politics dependent on religious majorities. Minority rights are sought only when one is a minority. Indian Islamists might swear by the Indian Constitution, but they are also likely to support the Islamist policies of Turkey or Saudi Arabia, in the same breath. That is the third view of minority rights, informed by a world view of religious nationalism, in response to Mr. Sunak’s rise.

A Dalit view is different from all these, and was articulated by BSP leader and former Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Mayawati. “After Indian-origin Rishi Sunak’s historic appointment as British Prime Minister, here in India, a Twitter war is going on between the Congress and the BJP. Allegations and counter-allegations are levelled everywhere, but no one is discussing about that political rights and justice due to which no ‘Dalit’ has been able to become Prime Minister in the country so far,” she posted in Hindi on Twitter.

Both secular and Hindutva versions of nationalism in India consider Dalits as part of the larger Hindu society, and not as an autonomous minority.

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