Millennium Post

Minority beyond numbers

The term “minority” is usually associated with certain disadvantages that accrue to a group by virtue of its status. Designating a group as “minority” is often based on the numeric count of a specific identity like religion, caste, or language. This numeric measure often ignores space and context entirely while interpreting minority as a disadvantage. The extent, to which the notion of being in a minority is associated with disadvantage and deprivation, needs to be re-examined. One must look beyond the numeric to the term’s operationalisation in a functional and social space. Each individual could belong to a minority according to some specific identity. However, the use of numeric count alone can be a misnomer. For example on a construction site with 15 unskilled workers and 2 skilled masons, the latter are considered a minority by virtue of numbers. But by virtue of power over workers and skills, they cannot be thought of as a “minority group”.

 The popular identity of a minority defined in a social space, according to identities like religion and caste perhaps remains relevant, only when these identities remains primary to the individual. In today’s globalised world, one can hope for a gradual erosion of these primary identities. Suffice to say, these identities can be replaced with professional, regional, as well as functional identities. With information and communication holding the key to social status, linguistic identities, especially the ability to speak in English, is gaining prominence. That renders the non-English speaking group a minority in certain areas of functioning. The conventional minority status is perhaps posing a lesser threat compared to the newly emerging minority identities in the form of linguistic and/or domiciliary attributes. This can be easily seen in the varying demands for statehood in India within a region primarily identified by their linguistic identity alone. Hence, minority identity in the functional space needs to be separated from that of social space for many reasons. Such a scenario can be best explained when one considers a highly educated professional in an urban space. If this professional is domiciled in a place where he/she does not have any linguistic affiliation, the person may not be a minority in the professional space, but will be a minority in his social space. Moreover, alterations in the primary identities and minority status can be achieved given the propensity for mobility in today’s global world. Therefore, a primary identity need not be considered as an ascribed quality that would remain unaltered.

If minority associated vulnerability is a real concern, then the term needs to be widened beyond social identities. It is important to recognise that the primary identity alone does not assert one’s minority status. An individual’s identity evolves over the course of their life and so does his/her minority status. The issue of deprivation/disadvantage is largely in the functional space where the identities that come into play may be different from the ascriptive ones. For example, a professional who is less than fully qualified may resist efforts of retraining his/her caste identity or social power that accrues through networks that are strong. Thus, the consequent identity that a person acquires through this process of evolution over the course of their life may take them in a direction completely different from their primary identity. Moreover, such an evolutionary process may give rise to the adoption of ideological positions that overcome the stereotyping of primary identities. Thus, primary identities may change, both in the functional and in the social space over time. Given this complex mechanism of identities, there remain a lot of ambiguities in defining minorities in terms of the numeric, particularly in the social space.

Deliberations on minority identity specific to context and circumstance are perhaps more relevant 
today given the new world of fanaticism emerging due to evolving identities. The identities that are replacing primary identities are the region, language and place of education, among others. With such identities occupying the centre stage, a call for a minority identity that challenges existing orders could emanate from any unknown corner. There is a reason to believe and be optimistic regarding the erosion of caste/class/religion identity with the immensity of opportunities opening up for various groups with mobility. This necessitates redefining the concept of “minority” if at all it remains a relevant means to identify vulnerabilities in the future. Such optimism is possible provided every individual evolves their identity such that it outweighs his/her primary identity, and strives for a privileged identity through this self-evolutionary process, rather than looking for gains from his/her minority status based purely on socially ascribed characteristics.

 (The author is a professor at the Centre for Development Studies in Trivandrum. Views expressed are strictly personal)
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