As a Jain, I am aghast at the Union cabinet’s decision to grant the community minority status. This decision exemplifies just how confused and opportunistic the discourse on minority rights has become. A state should be judged by how well it protects minorities; no one should be targeted for simply being who they are. But the state is engaging in an active process of minoritisation that has nothing to do with protection of basic rights. The Jains are amongst the most privileged and prosperous communities in India. They are not targets of persecution or violence. They do not suffer by not having minority status. Their cultural identity will not in any way be endangered if they do not have minority status.
Indeed, the opposite argument can be made. The government’s proposal on Jains ought to be diminishing to Jains in so many respects. They are free-riding on a historical discourse of vulnerability to which they are not entitled, and they are letting the state define their identity. It is absolutely astonishing that traditions whose whole raison d’etre is to transcend the confines of identity are now clamouring for state recognition for a pinched-up conception of identity.
In a liberal society, your identity should be a matter of self-definition. Who you take yourself to be should be your choice. Are you a Hindu or Jain? Do you wish to be identified as something else? The answers to these questions should be entirely up to you. But the Indian state gives no choice in legal terms. It has created large categories into which everyone gets slotted, and then when those definitions do not satisfy all identities it creates new exemptions. But citizens can have a real choice about their own identities only when these identities do not matter for what rights and privileges they will enjoy.
The clamour for minority identity has already created fissures within the community. The sociological reality was that Jains used to intermarry with other communities. In places like Rajasthan, the precise identity of families, whether they were Vaishnav or Jain, was impossible to define. Indeed, the beauty was that within this structure the identity question was never posed. One never had to answer the question of what one is. There was no benchmarking of that identity. Now there is more active benchmarking, a clamour that people identify themselves as one or the other, even take on new surnames. If people chose to freely define their identities this way, if it was part of a spiritual awakening, it would be one thing. Clamouring to define identities so that you can get benefits from the state is quite another matter. And it raises the thorny question of why not extend this privilege to all communities that demand it? How does the state decide who deserves and who does not? How does it set itself up as the arbiter of belief and identity?
The drive to minority status is fuelled by two things. The first argument is that other communities have it, so why not Jains? The second argument behind the whole clamour for minority status stems largely from one issue: the right to administer one’s own institutions without the state imposing its own norms. Minority status has become the identity equivalent of the exemption mania in taxation. We design bad tax policies and then give different groups special dispensations. The same is true of the state and freedom to institutions. Instead of simple rules that say people are free to run whatever kinds of institutions they wish to run, subject to certain minimal regulations, we have a legal structure that imposes draconian restrictions on institutions with respect to whom they can admit, how much they can charge, what they teach and how they are to be administered. Minority institutions are exempt from these requirements. So look at my opportunism: if I open an education institution without reference to its identity, I get subject to draconian regulation. If I open it with the minority tag, I get substantial freedom.
So those of us who refused to name their identities as this or that now have an incentive to opt for one. The solution is not to create more minorities; the solution is to create a sensible regulatory system based on secular principles. The criteria of regulation should be compelling public interest, not the identity of the institution. But the state has now trapped us in the tyranny of compulsory identities. And come elections we will see more of them proliferate.