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Should India's 5000 Jews be given minority status?

Saurav Datta | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:50 IST

Jews have petitioned the Narendra Modi government, demanding minority status under law. The community that first set foot in India 2,300 years ago is currently reduced to a miniscule minority. At present, there are only 5,000 Jews in India. The city of Kolkata, one of their earliest bastions, has only 20 of them now.

The Jewish community in India, represented by cleric Rabbi Ezekiel Issac Malekar, approached the government with its demand of being designated a religious minority. Najma Heptulla, Union Minister for Minority Affairs, promised to examine the demand.

This move assumes significance in the light of Modi's upcoming visit to Israel, and his efforts to woo the country, especially for the purpose of striking advantageous defence deals.

This move assumes significance in the light of Modi's efforts to woo Israel ahead of his visit

But the moot question is - what are the defining and determining criteria the government might adopt if at all it wishes to approve the community's demand? Would it go by constitutionally and legally permissible objective criteria, or by clever political calculations? Especially because the granting of minority status to a community has frequently been a politically fraught issue.

For instance, in January 2014, the previous UPA government granted central minority status to Jains, perhaps with an eye on getting financial support from one of India's most prosperous mercantile communities.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta, one of India's most well-known public intellectuals, excoriated the move and the politics behind it, and slammed "The Tyranny of Identity by Decree".

The Law's Silence and Political Maneuverings

Central to the 'Jewish Question' is the fact that neither the Indian constitution nor any other legislation define the term "minority. The former only states that minority status should be decided only on religious or linguistic grounds. Should numbers, or more important, indicators of social and economic disadvantage play any role in the matter? The law is silent.

The Jewish community is a "storm-tossed and history-crossed" one, which has always suffered "the precariousness of exile", wrote Suketu Mehta in his preface to Anita Desai's novel Baumgartner's Bombay. That iconic book chronicled the life and times of Hugo Baumgartner, who fled the Holocaust made the Bombay of the 1970s his home, and also breathed his last there.

Why does this matter here? Because, in most countries of the world, the levels of persecution and prejudice suffered by a community has a significant bearing on the determination of minority status.

It is true that the Jews have suffered persecution since the time of the Byzantine Empire (404 BC) wherever they have gone - be it in Europe or elsewhere. But not in India, where the community has been loved, and has thrived and prospered.

Jews have suffered persecution everywhere since the time of the Byzantine Empire, but not in India

In fact, as Sifra Lentin, scholar on the history of the Jews in India has detailed in her work, members of the community even contributed immensely to the building, growth and development of the cities of Cochin, Bombay and Calcutta.

For instance, Bombay's David Sassoon Library, Keneseth Elyihoo Synagogue, Cochin's Jew Street, and Calcutta's Magen David Synagogue remain iconic landmarks even to this day.

Not only that, as the documentary Shalom Bollywood depicted, many of India's Jewish women contributed a lot to the growth of Indian cinema even in the pre-Independence era.

Then, merely on grounds of religion, should the Jews be granted minority status, especially when they are a phenomenally prosperous community in India?

If the answer lies in the affirmative in the present context, it has the potential to set yet another wrong precedent of governments in India playing political games with identity politics and notification of minority status.

Categorisation, recognition, and its discontents

The problem, in the present case, is compounded by the fact that those at the topmost echelons of Jewism's clergy have steadfastly refused to recognise most Indian Jews as a part of the faith. India's Jews are divided into three categories - the Baghdadi Jews, the Bnei Menashe of Mizoram and Manipur, and the Bene Israel Jews of Maharashtra.

The clergy refuses to accept the last two groups as Jews; in fact, many Bene Israel Jews who had migrated to Jerusalem were forced to return after being subjected to humiliation and hostility.

The granting of minority status grants a community certain immutable rights and freedoms, the most fundamental of which lie in the domain of religion and religious practice.

In India, two minority communities - Christians and Muslims - face recurring onslaughts and threats of being made to toil under a Uniform (not Common) Civil code, which is the equivalent of a steamroller being run over religious freedom. Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution prohibits the State from making incursions into minorities' religious rights.

But, the Jewish community has never faced any such threats or attacks. Then why the clamour to claim minority status?

True, the questions raised here could possibly be termed 'uncomfortable', or even 'communal' by certain quarters. But the government must answer them before making any further moves.

Edited by Aditya Menon

First published: 15 April 2016, 12:21 IST
Saurav Datta @SauravDatta29

Saurav Datta works in the fields of media law and criminal justice reform in Mumbai and Delhi.