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Religious minorities should be defined by district in Assam, say CM, 30th March

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Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said on Wednesday that religious minorities in the border state should be defined district by district. 

Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said that a community’s minority status should be determined based on its representation in a state or district’s total population, adding that the decision should be based on the existing local reality.

Sarma’s Statement regarding Religious minorities in State Assembly

Sarma stated during the ongoing Budget session in the state assembly, “Whether a community is a minority or not depends on threats to its religion, culture, or educational rights.” If such a threat does not exist, the community is no longer considered a minority.”

Religious Monirities Cm-speaks

In response to a question from BJP MLA Mrinal Saikia about which communities are considered religious minorities in Assam, Sarma stated that “one cannot say outright that Muslims, Buddhists, or Christians are minorities, because they are a minority in a particular state,” citing Supreme Court rulings on the issue and definitions given in Articles 25 to 30 of the Constitution.

“The definition of whether or not a community is a minority should be based on the existing reality in that state or district.” “This is an evolving matter of concern and at present, SC is hearing it as well,” he said.

Sarma was referring to the Centre’s affidavit filed earlier this week in the Supreme Court, which stated that notification of any community-specific to a state as a minority falls under the purview of the state in question.

While the central government has notified six communities as minorities at the national level, namely Christians, Sikhs, Muslims, Buddhists, Parsis, and Jains, it is open for states and UTs to notify Hindus as religious minorities or linguistic minorities where they are less numerous, according to the Centre’s affidavit.

Religious Minorities-logo

“In the context of Assam, Bengali speakers in Barak Valley can’t be called a linguistic minority, whereas those who speak Assamese, Rengma Naga and Manipuri are linguistic minorities there. Bengali speakers will be the linguistic minority in parts of the Brahmaputra Valley,” according to Sarma.

In addition, Sarma said “For long, there was a feeling in India that all Muslims are minorities across the country. But now, this definition has been challenged and it has been told to the SC by the Centre that Hindus can also be a minority in a particular state, depending on circumstances.”

According to him, Hindus are in the minority in Assam’s South Salmara district, while Muslims are in the majority.

The CM went on to say that in Assam, people from certain communities were receiving benefits intended for religious minorities as well as other backward castes (OBCs), scheduled castes (SCs), and scheduled tribes (STs).

“Now, issues like these are getting discussed and debated and even reached the SC. I hope that in the coming days, the SC would provide more clarity on the definition of minorities and a new meaning would emerge,” said Sarma.

According to current guidelines, only the Centre has the authority to determine which communities are eligible for minority status. Assam has several districts with a Muslim majority population, such as Nagaon and Dhubri.

“There was no definition of minorities in our constitution. It was only when the National Commission for Minorities was created, that the term got defined. Even there, only religious minorities were considered and not linguistic minorities. The religious communities considered as minorities are Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Parsis and Jains,” he said.

Sarma cited a 2003 Supreme Court decision by an 11-judge bench in the TMA Pai Foundation and Others vs. State of Karnataka case.

“Citing Article 30(1) of the Constitution, the bench had stated that religious and linguistic minorities are at par in so far as that Article is concerned. The SC order had made it clear that rights and privileges for religious minorities are also there for linguistic minorities as well,” he said.

“In India, there is no clear distinction yet on what would comprise a linguistic minority. What percentage of the population should speak a particular language for them to be declared linguistic minorities?” Sarma asked.

According to Article 30(1) of the Constitution, all minorities, regardless of religious minorities or language minorities, have the right to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice.

Sarma also mentioned Article 350B of the Constitution, which speaks about the President appointing a special officer for linguistic minorities. The officer is responsible for conducting investigations into issues concerning the constitutional safeguards afforded to linguistic minorities.

Senior Advocate on the matter of “Religious Minorities” stated

“The matter is being heard by the Supreme Court at present and is sub-judice. For Assam, when we talk of religious or linguistic minorities, we need to be clear on whether indigenous Muslims who speak Assamese fall within the ambit of minority or not.”

“Instead of declaring a community as a minority across India, it can be done on the level of states depending on the situation. But taking it to the district level could create more issues. Instead of whimsical statements on this, I think we should wait for the SC verdict on the issue,” said senior advocate Nekibur Zaman.

senior-advocate on religious minorities

CM explains the Matter of Religious Minorities

CM Sarma was referring to the widely held belief that language was the main source of contention in Assam when he explicitly stated that his comments were intended only for religious minorities and not linguistic minorities. 

Over the years, the state has seen several clashes over language between Assamese and Bengali speakers.

Moreover, he said that the state government would attempt to be a party to the Supreme Court’s litigation on defining minority status at the state level.

In the case, BJP leader Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay claims that, despite being a minority in ten states and Union Territories, Hindus are not eligible for government benefits intended for minorities. According to the Centre, states are free to designate minority status based on their population data.

Earlier this month, Sarma told the Assembly that Muslims made up 30-35 per cent of the state’s population and could no longer be considered a minority. Hindus made up 61.47 per cent of the population, while Muslims made up 34.22 per cent, according to the 2011 Census.

Also Read: States in 2022 with fewer Hindus to declare positively as Minority, says Centre

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