National Commission for Minorities has no members currently. SEEMA CHISHTI explains the rationale
and background of the setting up of the Commission, and the special role it plays in India’s democracy.
Delhi High Court last week sought the Centre’s response, by August 11, on a plea against government “inaction” on making appointments to the National Commission for Minorities (NCM). Earlier in March, proceedings in Rajya Sabha were washed out after Opposition members protested unfilled vacancies in the commissions for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Backward Classes and Minorities.
The NCM is supposed to have a Chairperson, a Vice-Chairperson, and 7 members, at least 5 of whom should be from minority communities. The communities listed as minorities under the National Commission for Minorities Act, 1992, are Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Parsis and Buddhists. Jains were included in the list in 2014.
As of now, all posts at the NCM are vacant. Chairperson Naseem Ahmad retired on March 3, and the last serving member, Dadi E Mistri, completed his 3-year term on March 9. All other members had retired between September 9, 2015 and then, and none of the resulting vacancies had been filled. On the day Mistri retired, PTI quoted Minority Affairs Minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi as saying the process of making fresh appointments “was on”.
So, what exactly is the National Commission for Minorities?
It is a forum for appeal, set up to safeguard the rights and interests of India’s minority communities. The NCM Act lists 9 functions of the Commission:
(i) to evaluate the progress of the development of minorities under the Union and states;
(ii) to monitor the working of safeguards provided in the Constitution and in union and state laws;
(iii) to make recommendations for effective implementation of safeguards for the protection of minority interests;
(iv) to look into, and take up, specific complaints regarding deprivation of rights and safeguards of minorities;
(v) to get problems of discrimination against minorities studied, and recommend ways to remove them;
(vi) to conduct studies, research, analysis on socioeconomic and educational development of minorities;
(vii) to suggest appropriate measures in respect of any minority to be undertaken by central or state governments;
(viii) to make periodic or special reports to the Centre on any matter concerning minorities; especially their difficulties;
(ix) to take up any other matter which may be referred to it by the central government.
Is the NCM a constitutional body?
No. Unlike the National Commission for SCs and for STs, it is not. It was set up by an Act of Parliament in 1992.
Does this make a difference?
It does. The power and authority vested in a constitutional body are very different from those vested in a statutory body. Constitutional bodies have greater autonomy, they can take up and inquire into many matters suo motu, and have powers of a civil court. Again, not all statutory bodies are the same — the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has more powers than the NCM.
What is the point of having bodies like the NCM?
The Constitution is unambiguous about the rights of individuals, and of certain groups and minorities. The success of a pluralistic democracy lies in the extent to which rational and robust institutions can in practice protect those rights, or give those abstract ideas shape on the ground.
The degree of autonomy with which organisations like the NCM, NCSC, NCST or NCBC are able to function eventually decides how healthy a democracy is. These are systems that allow for a healthy evaluation of the state of the nation, a forum for airing of discontent, which ultimately strengthens the system, apart from allowing individuals to fully exercise their rights.
What happened to the move to give the NCM constitutional status?
The Constitution (One Hundred and Third Amendment) Bill, 2004, proposed to establish a new Commission, with constitutional status. But it got trapped in the quagmire of who is a ‘minority’, and the Bill lapsed. While the founding fathers of the Constitution, as well as the framers of the 1992 Act seemed to have a clear idea of who ‘minorities’ were, the Supreme Court, in a matter concerning minority educational institutions, ruled in October 2002 that a state may be considered as the basic unit for the protection of the right of minorities to set up minority educational institutions (TMA Pai Foundation & Ors vs State of Karnataka & Ors). Subsequently, a May 2007 cabinet proposal defined minorities along these lines — so Hindus were a minority in states such as Jammu & Kashmir, Punjab, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Meghalaya and Mizoram.
This presented complications, as religious and linguistic minorities had been historically defined in terms of their overall numbers in the country. Because states had been drawn up on a linguistic basis, what worked for languages did not necessarily work for religious identities.
Politically, what is the origin of the idea of a minorities’ commission?
The Draft Committee of the manifesto of the Janata Party for the 1977 elections — which included the BJP’s L K Advani — promised “to make suitable institutional arrangements for the protection of the Constitutional and civil rights of the Minorities and other weaker sections of the society”.
After Janata came to power, a semi-government organisation called the Minorities Commission was born in Delhi, piloted by Home Minister Chaudhary Charan Singh, and with the blessings of Prime Minister Morarji Desai. On January 12, 1978, the union Home Ministry notified a Government Resolution: “Despite the safeguards provided in the Constitution and the laws in force, there persists among the Minorities a feeling of inequality and discrimination. In order to preserve secular traditions and to promote National integration, the Government of India… is of the firm view that effective institutional arrangements are urgently required… The Government of India has, therefore, resolved to set up a Minorities Commission to safeguard the interests of the Minorities whether based on religion or language.” (In 1988, the Commission’s Charter was amended to exclude linguistic minorities, for whom there was a separate arrangement.)
Did the Janata government try to give it constitutional status?
It did. On August 3, 1978, the government introduced in Lok Sabha a Bill which, among other things, proposed a constitutionally sanctioned minorities’ commission to “inspire greater confidence among the Minorities”. The Bill lapsed, but the Morarji government tried again in 1979 — which attempt too, fell for lack of support. It made another attempt in a specially extended session of Lok Sabha, but failed again.
What about later governments?
Attempts by V P Singh’s government in 1990 to give statutory and constitutional status to the minorites commission did not fructify — because, according to a statement made by Ram Vilas Paswan in Lok Sabha in 1992, “the men of BJP were with us in the government”. Arguing against the NCM Act during the House debate in 1992, Advani said the 1977 manifesto had spoken only of a Civil Rights Commission. In its manifesto for the 1998 elections, the BJP pledged to wind up the Commission. Its politics by this time was the antithesis of the idea of a Minorities Commission — it argued that the only problem was of minority “appeasement” and majority grievance. BJP governments in Rajasthan and Maharashtra (1995-96), and Uttar Pradesh (1999) wound up the state Commissions.
Why is it important that the NCM not be, as the petition before the Delhi HC has argued, “defunct”?
While the NCM’s recommendations are often ignored, the Centre is required to present its reports, along with an action taken report, to Parliament. In cases involving states, the NCM is obliged to advise or act in some way. In the current atmosphere of insecurity among many sections of the minority population, the unavailability of a mechanism like the NCM shrinks the space for the articulation of a counter-narrative. Appointing no members to the NCM for long emasculates the institution.