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Together they constitute 1/1200th of our total population. Or 0.083 per cent. Yet, they are a visible and largely affluent lot, known as much for their business success as their patent on an old Indic religion. Call it a formal recognition of the influence they wield, or a desperate attempt by the UPA to mop up whatever little comes their way ahead of a tough election. Between hope and an uncertain future, the Congress-led government hastily ushered in the nation’s sixth minority community—the Jains—last week. And a century-old issue was sorted out at the speed of light. On Republic Day eve, Jain leaders were meeting party vice-president Rahul Gandhi to petition him; on the morning after, the UPA was notifying the announcement. Pure optics or a fait accompli?
For the community, it has been a long wait that saw them moving the Supreme Court in 2005 and knocking at the doors of respective state governments for that one recognition that would put them on a par with India’s other five minorities: Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs and Zoroastrians. The court directed states to take appropriate measures to identify the community and accord the status in line with the provisions in the Constitution, but didn’t itself oblige. The National Minorities Commission set up in 1992 also recognised only five communities, and the Jains were not among them. Back in 1905, the Jains had managed to get the minority tag but their exclusion by the framers of the Constitution rankled large sections of the community.
Their new status will make the Jains eligible for minority welfare funds, though many Jains say they should voluntarily forego this.
Successive governments, whether of the Congress or of the BJP, promised to look into the matter, but the files didn’t move. The 1998 edition of the Vajpayee-led NDA government did set up a Constitution Review Commission to examine the issue but a formal anointment eluded the Jains once again as the Vajpayee government fell at the end of that year. Amidst this backdrop of repeated frustrations, the current UPA dispensation offered some hope. For one, it had the right men at the right place at the right time. To begin with, a sympathetic Union minister for minority affairs. K. Rahman Khan, who hails from Karnataka, a state which has a sizeable population of Jains, heard them out patiently and appeared kindly disposed to their cause (see box). Help came from a fellow Jain in the cabinet, Pradeep Kumar Jain ‘Aditya’, the MoS in the rural development ministry. Union communications minister Kapil Sibal, who had helped the community get a minority status in Delhi, threw his weight behind the issue as well. The constituency he represents—Chandni Chowk in Delhi—has a sizeable population of Jains and they looked up to him to help them get the status.
The legal nod had already come from Attorney-General Ghoolam Vahanvati. The A-G is said to have been reluctant initially—though Outlook has no independent means of verifying it—but is believed to have been sufficiently convinced by the arguments put forth in favour of recognition of the community as a linguistic and religious minority.
The final push perhaps came from Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi. After meeting a Jain Samaj delegation comprising among others spiritual head Lokesh Muni, All India Jain Minority Forum president Chakresh Jain, Ahimsa Foundation’s Ravi Kumar Jain and an influential business group from Rajasthan on Jan 19, he prevailed upon Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to do the needful. The formalities over, the Jains were declared a minority community on January 27, a day after the Republic Day.
Says Chakresh Jain, who met Sonia Gandhi along with other members of the delegation, “Mrs Gandhi was sympathetic to our cause. And Sibal saab is an old friend.” The freshly minted minority group has been going around thanking the prime minister and other ministers, including minority affairs minister Khan, in the last few days.
Their beholdenness should be encouraging for the Congress. As Chakresh says, “The Congress has been known to take care of the minorities, and we will take care of them. Why not?” Sibal bats away any suggestion of a quid pro quo. “Aren’t they a minority?” he retorts. “Aren’t they a religious and linguistic minority?” Indeed, they are, and have been for a long time. It still doesn’t answer the question: why now, two months short of a general election?
What’s more, there are enough voices within the community that despair of the status. They caution that the demand for identity is actually linked to control over educational institutions and places of worship. A minority tag will help the community run both according to their own rules. In Delhi alone, more than 25 schools and institutes are run in accordance with the Jain tradition, which includes eschewing non-vegetarian food.
Says education activist and Delhi High Court advocate Ashok Aggarwal, “The minority tag to a highly enterprising and largely prosperous community does raise questions about the benefits such a tag will bring, and to my mind, it will free unaided educational institutes run by Jains from implementing 25 per cent reservations for the backward classes.”
Some among the community caution against the tag. They say it’s linked to control over their educational institutes and temple wealth.
It’s a view Right to Education activist Kailash Jain shares. “It is highly divisive in the present-day context,” he says “to be pandering to communities like this.” He also points to an inherent danger. “Look what happened to Sikhs and Muslims. Why isolate the Jains who are in any way very much indistinguishable from Hindus?” he asks. Kailash also cautions that it will be very difficult to implement important rte provisions once the Jains decide to run their institutions the way they want to. “Past experience has shown that minority-run schools are very resistant to reservations as they get the right to reserve for students from their community. But name any Jain child deprived of education!” he asks.
Anil Kumar of the Jain Samaj and part of the delegation that met Sonia would have none of this. “This is about our identity as distinct from other religions,” he says. “It also allows us to run our places of worship as we want to. There is no other benefit we seek and all doubts about reservations are baseless,” he says.
Control over places of worship too is at the heart of the debate over the minority tag. At Mount Girnar, for instance, Jains worship the footprints of the 22nd Tirthankara Neminath, who is said to have attained nirvana here, while Hindus claim it is the abode of Dattatreya. Both communities have been involved in skirmishes despite the Gujarat High Court ordering in 2007-08 that Jains be provided safety. Despite that, a Jain sadhu was stabbed here last year, and things came to a boil.
Likewise, there is dispute between Hindus and Jains over the Rishabhdeo temple in Udaipur as well. Though the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the Jains, the matter is still not resolved. In fact, there is a quarrel between the two sects—the Digambars and Shwetambars—over its control. So much so that the feuding sects have decided to divide their time of worship. The Shwetambars like to decorate their deity while the Digambars like to keep things bare. The two sects are also feuding over Shikharji on Mount Parasnath, the holiest of the holies where 20 of the 24 Tirthankaras found enlightenment.
The minority tag is being seen as a first step towards resolving issues of faith. Temple wealth and control of management remains a thorny issue as government-appointed nominees have had their say thus far. With the minority tag, that will end, says the Jain community. Spiritual head Lokesh Muni, who has long been pressing for the demand, thinks this should have happened long ago. “Justice has prevailed now,” he says.
Above all, the Jains will now become eligible for funds earmarked by the Centre for minority welfare. The Rs 3,000 crore corpus set aside for the purpose might just see an increase in this year’s budget following the inclusion of Jains in the group.
Most Jains owe a personal debt to Bal Patil, the general secretary of the Jain Minority Forum, who had taken the battle to the Supreme Court in 2005. BJP supporters traditionally, will 2014 mark their conversion to the Congress?