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Minority groups on the Indian subcontinent

By William Gomes

For centuries, ethnic and religious minorities have been living lives of suffering on the South Asian subcontinent, in the countries of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bhutan. Minorities are not created by God, but are created by political systems. Before going any further, let us look at the reason why minorities were produced in the region. If you go to India or Pakistan or some other part of the South Asian subcontinent, you will see similar kinds of minorities. In a liberal democracy, we cannot deny minority rights, yet we have failed to protect the minorities from oppression and suppression.

In Europe, minorities were produced by lengthy religious and national wars. There was a need to protect minorities from oppression in Europe, and so there eventually came to be regional guarantees and a charter of human rights, which ensure minority rights.

During colonial rule by the British, the question of minority rights, which had been struggled with in Europe for more than 200 years, reemerged on the Indian subcontinent in a way unique to the Indian situation. The British reinforced the distinct identities of the various ethnic, religious, cultural and linguistic groups in nearly all of the countries of the Subcontinent. The British clearly categorized the identities of these groups in their census and in the manuals for their administrators.

The Partition of India saw India come out from under British rule, which had been established in the mid-eighteenth century. The division of the country into India and Pakistan led the Indian people into one of the great tragedies in human history. Mohandas Gandhi opposed the division of India along the lines of religion, saying, “My whole soul rebels against the idea that Hinduism and Islam represent two antagonistic cultures and doctrines. To assent to such a doctrine is, for me, a denial of God.”

Law and order completely broke down; many died in riots, massacres, or just from the hardships of their flights to safety. What ensued was one of the largest migrations in recorded history. According to Richard Symonds, “At the lowest estimate, half a million people perished and twelve million became homeless.”

A huge population exchange occurred between the two newly-formed states of Pakistan and India. In the aftermath of partition, about 14.5 million people crossed the borders; 7,226,000 Muslims went to Pakistan from India, while 7,249,000 Hindus and Sikhs moved to India from Pakistan. Part of the British scheme to “divide and rule” was ultimately successful; they successfully divided the people who had previously stood united against them.

The legacy of hatred can be seen wherever the British Union Flag flies, from hatred among Hindus, Muslims and Christians in the name of religion, to politics as a force that still divides us. Every day, we are defining a new type of minority. The division continued when, in 1971, an armed conflict pitting West Pakistan against East Pakistan gave birth to a new nation, the independent nation of Bangladesh.

The countries of the South Asian subcontinent, which formerly had colonial, patriarchal state structures and now have new models of governance, are failing to accommodate diversity. In the centralized state structures of most governments, they have failed to include minority groups effectively in the state machinery. Bangladesh and Pakistan are shining examples of this; in Pakistan, from Iskandar Mirza to Asif Ali Zardari or from Liaquat Ali Khan to Yousaf Raza Gillani, not a single religious minority person has been elected president or prime minister of Pakistan for more than five decades. On the other hand, in Bangladesh, the suppressed religious and ethnic minorities have never had one of their own as president or prime minister of Bangladesh; from Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to Zillur Rahman or Tajuddin Ahmad to Sheikh Hasina Wazed, the majority has always triumphed over the last four decades.

More than half a century after independence, the countries of the Indian subcontinent are still struggling to resolve majority-minority issues, which are feeding long-running conflicts around the borders and are affecting regional and global security. Whether the Gujarat riot in India in 2002 or the post-election violence in Bangladesh in 1996 and 2001 or any recent attack on Christians in Pakistan, minority issues cause undesirable suffering and extend hatred and extremism all across the world, across all borders and boundaries.

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