Becoming Minority- An Unsettling Inquiry into a ‘Settled’ Concept

 

Bhakti Deodhar

Bhakti Deodhar(Book review of Becoming minority: How Discourses and Policies Produce minorities in Europe and India, edited by Jyotirmay Tripathi and Sudarshan Padmanabhan, New Delhi, Sage Publications 2014.)

At a time when its attitude towards internal and external religious minorities poses an intractable predicament for the Indian government in the gaze of the international community, and an influx of refugees cracks open the fault lines in the European Union, Becoming minority, published in 2014, seems more relevant than ever. A minority is not a natural category. Rather, it is the product of a discourse. With this central argument, the book sets out to convince us of the dynamic character of this seemingly standardised notion through a wide range of empirical case studies.

 Edited by Prof. Jyotirmay Tripathi and Sudarshan Padmanabhan, the volume is the quick successor of another book edited by them – The Democratic Predicament: Cultural Diversity in Europe and India (published earlier that year). Both books, and Becoming minority in particular foreground the question of religious, cultural, ethnic and linguistic minorities, and how they defy conventional wisdom, consequently bringing in fresh perspectives to the discussion.

Both Europe and India are culturally diverse regions. Both are struggling to grapple with ongoing as well as newly surfacing ethnic and religious conflicts within their territorial boundaries, in a democratic setting. Conventionally, democracy with a secular state is seen as the ideal – indeed, the only environment – to redress these battles. This optimism emerges from the belief that a secular democracy is both impartial to and representative of all religious or cultural groups within its geographical fold.

Becoming minority challenges this unflinching faith in such ideals, by pointing to the damaging effects of the policies of such states with respect to 'minorities'. They argue that minority is not, and should not be considered as a fixed, static category. Situated in a post-structuralist approach, the contributors look at the constructed nature of minority identity. A minority is not born minority but becomes one through socialisation, stylisation and thus it is a performative construct. The democratic state shapes a discourse which views minorities not as a 'significant other' but a 'permanent other', leaving no room for emancipatory politics. Such a static perception of the minority is immortalised in government policies, welfare projects, and mainstream literary and non-literary forms, thus making this categorisation hegemonic in the Gramscian sense. Those termed as 'minority' are trapped within the benevolent language of tolerance, and the state becomes (or chooses to become) blind to their internal dynamism.

The book is divided into three parts. The first part introduces us to the theoretical premise of post-structuralism and how the contributors locate minority and minoritization in this framework. We are sensitized to the discursive power behind the 'standardised' view of many established concepts in social sciences such as minority, ethnicity, exclusion, and self-determination, among others. Through concrete experiences, we begin to see how minority comes into being as a result of discursive processes.

The second part is devoted to European experiences and experiments with minority issues. Seven chapters take us on an insightful journey through six Western European democracies. Various vantage points ranging from the political economy and welfare politics to immigration policies and racial discourse help us understand how some of the world's most sophisticated democracies end up not only promoting but actually constructing a fixated image of the minority, and thereby hurt their own cause.

The third part of the book engages with the minority discourse from India and constitutes a much smaller section compared to its European counterpart. It deals with two of the most prominent minority issues in India – the religious minority of Muslims and the politics of Tamil identity. The chapters thematizing minority rights with regard to Muslims eloquently argue that Muslims in India became eligible for the category of minority only in the context of welfare politics and not as a separate identity group. The essentialization of minority identity is also challenged by Dravidian nationalism. It's a worrying sign and warns us that not only the majoritarian state but the minorities themselves tend to fall for the image of a 'real', 'authentic' minority, and this is equally hazardous.

To sum it up, the book provides a welcome breeze of fresh air into the current scholarship on minorities and minoritization. It shakes up the foundations of many concepts that are otherwise considered 'settled', and prompts us to revisit them. The charge – that the democratic-multicultural narrative produces 'minority' due to its need to legitimise its multi-cultural contours – is serious, and has wide-ranging application. In the Indian context, where a Dalit is permanently a Dalit and a woman is permanently a woman, it paves the way for the re-conceptualization of caste and gender structures.

However, on a less appreciative note, the book surprisingly falls short of bringing together and relating the European and Indian experiences with each other in the form of overarching remarks at the conclusion. The section on Indian case studies is quite restrictive and overwhelmingly focuses on religious minorities such as Muslims, to the exclusion of other official minority categories in India, such as the linguistic minorities. Caste scholars like Anupama Rao have come up with impressive findings, through a close study of Ambedkar's creative re-interpretation of the minority in liberal democratic discourse, in his quest for Dalit emancipation. The volume would have surely benefited from such scholarly perspectives. Nevertheless, it captures our interest and sends us home with some powerful alternative ways of thinking. In the vein of Alexander Wendt, minority becomes what its practitioners make of it. It ceases to be yet another 'settled' category, and there lies the success of the book.

~~~

 

Bhakti Deodhar is a PhD student at Humanities and Social Sciences Department in IIT Bombay. Her research interest lies in the areas of Indian civil society, caste relations and cultural politics.

 

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