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The Indian electoral system confirms to the international standards as enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights declares that “Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, without any of the distinctions mentioned in article 2 and without unreasonable restrictions ;

To take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives.

To vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by Universal Adult Suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors.

To have excess on general terms of equality to public service in his country.”

However respect for fundamental rights such as non-discrimination (Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) may not be sufficient to ensure truly effective participation and representation of minorities in public life. If one maintains a strictly formalistic reading of the right of one person one vote, there is the potential danger of perpetuating the tyranny of the majority inherent in most political systems. Persons belonging to the minorities would still tend to be less visible and less audible in all sphere of public life, with the result that their interest would naturally tend to be ignored or disregarded.

The right to vote and to be elected and to take part in the conduct of public affairs currently protected under Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is arguably not so rigid. Article 2 of the U.N Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities appears, in fact, to be a clarification on how this human right should be appropriately interpreted in relation to persons belonging to minorities since it adds that

“(2) Persons belonging to minorities have the right to participate effectively in cultural, religious, social, economic and public life.

(3) Persons belonging to the minorities have the right to participate effectively in decisions on the national, and were appropriate, regional level concerning the minority to which they belong or the regions to which they live, in a manner not incompatible with national legislation.”

Article 2 of the U.N Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities acknowledges albeit indirectly there may be obstacles which risk rendering the participation of persons belonging to minorities ineffective. Persons belonging to minorities tend to be consistently outvoted or under-elected because of their lesser numbers, with the consequence that their interest are often neglected in public life.

This is why article 2 sub-clause 2 of the U.N Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities speaks of the right to participate “effectively” and then proceeds in sub-clause 3 with suggestions on how this can be done, “…. the right to participate effectively in decisions on the national and, where appropriate, regional level concerning the minorities to which they belong or the regions in which they live ….”

The creation of linguistic states in India has, to a large extent addressed the problems of the linguistic minorities. The state of Haryana was claimed to be created out of Punjab to accommodate and to protect the aspirations of the non-punjabi speaking people (linguistic minority). The Hindu religious Minority in Punjab were thus able to effectively participate in political and public life in the new state of Haryana.

A much more difficult problem to address is the tendency of religious minorities to be under-represented in political and public life. In such a political system as the present one these minorities tend to find there ‘votes diluted’ especially if they are not territorially concentrated. The number of elected representatives who are members of the religious minorities tend to be much lower than the actual percentage of the population which the minority constitute.

The 1991 Census data available gives us the percentage of population of major religions in India in the following manner:

Hindus 82.00%

Muslims 12.12%

Christians 02.34%

Sikhs 01.94%

Buddhists 00.76%

Jains 00.40%

Others 00.39%
Out of the total number of 452 districts in India the Christians and Sikh religious minorities are more or less territorially concentrated with more than 50% population according to religion in 21 and 9 districts respectively. (although they constitute 2.34% and 1.94% of the total population of India) On the other hand the most significant minorities i.e. the Muslims constitute 12.12% of the population but they are territorially dispersed. Muslim religious minorities therefore, have more than 50% presence in only 8 districts (Dhubri, Barpeta, Hailakandi, Goalpara, in Assam, Kishanganj in Bihar, Malappuram in Kerala, Lakshwadeep, in Lakshwadeep, and Murshidabad in West Bengal according to 1991 census figures).

Except for the seventh (1980) and eighth (1984) Muslim representation has ranged between 4.4% and 6.6% on an Average being 5.8% of the total strength of the Lok Sabha were as their population during this period has been 11% on an average. The figures for the state assemblies are not very different. The previous Madhya Pradesh Assembly did not have a single Muslim member, interestingly. It is high time the under-representation of the most significant religious minority needs to be studied.
This under-representation of persons belonging to religious minorities is, however, not directly attributable to any actual desire by the state to reduce or eliminate the election of citizens who happen to belong to a minority. It is simply a manifestation of a structural difficulty or flaw in many political systems, including majoritarian democracies. Because of the lower number and territorial dispersion minorities are systematically outvoted in terms of there participation and representation in public life. This means that the minorities can almost never elect the number of representatives that reflect more of less faithfully their actual percentage of the population. In our democratic system their voices in the world of political representation tend to be either weak or barely audible, their presence almost invisible.

On the more negative side in India there are instances were the creation of electoral constituencies can be ‘GERRY-MANDERED’, manipulated so that even when a minority represents a large percentage of the population, its members are divided between a number of constituencies in such a way that their votes are diluted to the point where it is unlikely that they will be able to elect even a minimal number of representatives who belong to minorities.

Whether this is actually an intentional result of not, this obstacle certainly has occurred and is still occurring at various levels. Although the citizens who belong to religious minorities are not denied the right to vote, the delimitation of the electoral borders can constitute a serious obstacle to the effective participation of minorities in political and public life in the state, since it results in an inability of electing individual who would be able to represent their interest at the political level to a degree which actually reflects approximately their numbers.


Under-representation in political and public life and economics are interrelated. A survey of 33,000 nationally representative rural sample, conducted by National Council of Applied Economic Research in 1994 provides data on house hold income and a range of human development parameters which can be cross-classified according to selected population groups. These data show a very high incidence of poverty among the Muslims compared with the all India average.

The percentage of population below the poverty line is 43% for Muslims followed by 50% for SCs. Compare this with 39% for the whole population (32% for the Hindus excluding SCs and STs). Percentage of Kutcha houses is very high 65.9% among Muslims close to 66.6% for the SCs. The national average figures in this case is 55.4%. Disabilities among Muslim children between the age group of 0-12years is higher than the national average. Percentage of severely malnourished children in the age group of 5-12 years is the highest 33.5% followed by 30.2% for STs 28.7% for Hindus and 29.0% of all population i.e the national average.

Therefore the SCs STs and the Muslims can be considered as the economically deprived population group. To some extent the reason for their relative backwardness are social; their relative bargaining power in the social and political system has always been low.

According to another White Paper prepared by an organization working for the Muslim minorities there were only 116 Muslims out of a total of 3883 administrative officers (2.98%), 45 out of 1433 police service officers (3.14%) and 57 out of 2159 foreign service officers (2.64%). In central Government Muslims constitute 1.6% of all class I officers, 3.9% of all Class II officers and 4.4% of all the technical supervisory staff.
An official report by Dr. Gopal Singh Committee, reveals a marked disparity between Hindus and Muslims in economic, social and educational field. The report based on a sample survey of 80 districts across the country found that there were only 92 Muslims out of 2698 students in Engineering Colleges. The number of Muslim students in the MBBS course in 8 Universities across 8 states was only 98 out of 2895. Some scholars have explained this declining under-representation of minorities particularly the Muslims in Government or private services through Gunnar Myrdal’s Cumulative Causation (CC) Theory.

The famous economist Gunnar Myrdal did not believe in the conventional economic theory because it is mono-causal, as only economic factors are accepted in the explanation of social life. For Myrdal non-economic factors (which encompass historical, institutional, cultural and ideological elements) are central to the initiation and continuity of circular and cumulative proceses as they are among the main vehicles for circular causation. Economic and non-economic factors reinforce each other and augment any tendency a system may have to development or under-development (Myrdal 1978).

Myrdal insisted on the central role of social, political and institutional factors in the explanation of development and under-development. Under-representation in political and public life and economics are interrelated. Therefore promoting effective participation of minorities in the social economic and political life is essential.


Guaranteed seats

More effective participation and representation in public life is possible without territorial political autonomy. New Zealand uses a combination of two different approaches that can be helpful by having both a proportional electoral system and guaranteed electoral seats for the Maori minority. It must be noted however that while any measure that guarantees or makes it more likely that such persons can be elected and thus participate in the public life of the state is commendable and an improvement on simple majoritarian rule, it does not actually guarantee that this will necessarily be an effective way of protecting the interests of persons belonging to minorities. To put it simply, even a minority guarantee a few seats in the legislatures like the reserved seats for the Anglo-Indians in parliament, may not be able to influence or modify greatly “ the tyranny of the majority, in areas of concern because they will normally be out voted. Nevertheless the increased and voice of persons belong to minorities do contribute to a more effective participation than a completely majoritarian approach to representative and participative democracy.

In Romania seats are reserved for small minorities which do not obtain atleast one Deputy or Senate mandate in parliamentary elections, as long as they had obtained in the whole country a certain percentage of the validly caste votes in the election of the Deputy in the whole country.

In Ethiopia the Yefederashan Mekir Bet (Council of the federation) has 117 members, one each from the 22 minority nationalities and 1 from each professional sector of its remaining nationalities, designated by the regional councils which may elect them directly or provide their direct election.

Proportional Representation

Many countries have the proportional representative system of elections. For larger minorities such elections offer a better chance of gaining some representation. Proportional representation can operate on the basis of large multi member districts/constituencies in which the seats are allocated according to the percentage of votes cast. The advantage of proportional representative system of elections, and one of the reasons why they are so popular in many countries, is that they suggest atleast a possibility of fairer representation of both minorities and majorities. Proportional representation in Israel does ensure that persons belonging to Arab minority are able to elect a number of members to the ‘Knesset’ which is fairly representative of the size of the minority.

Most proportional representation system however, operate with some type of party list, from which a proportional number of elected members can be extracted; …… a party which gets under such a system 50% of the votes will have the first 50% of the individuals on its list elected. Ofcourse persons belonging to minorities may also find themselves relegated to a minority position in the list of political parties. They may therefore find themselves seriously outvoted and excluded in a proportional system.

A unique approach to address this lacuna has been rather successfully implemented in Singapore. A Group Representation Constituency scheme was introduced in 1988 to allow members of parliament to contest elections as a team which would, it was felt, ensure a more effective participation and representation of persons belonging to minorities in parliament. Essentially, this scheme requires that all political parties contesting certain constituencies must present a slate of there candidates, one of whom must belong to a minority community. We can also use this system to address the problem of under-representation of women and minorities in India.

(III) Reduced Vote Threshold

Some countries promote representation of minorities in legislatures by lowering the number of votes needed for election in case of candidates belonging to specific minorities. Germany and Hungary have adopted this system to improve the representation of the Danish and National and Ethnic minorities respectively.


Adequate representation and effective participation in public life is important to create links of loyalty to the state and society of which persons belonging to minorities form a part. Fair treatment of minorities in mainland India will also reassure the secessionist forces in Kashmir and elsewhere. In a letter to Mr. B C Roy the then Chief Minister of West Bengal dated June 29, 1953 Jawaharlal Nehru spoke of the injurious results of majority communalism in Kashmir. He wrote “As you know, the people in the valley are over 90% Muslim. The reaction of the Jammu Praja Parishad movement on them has been very great. They have become frightened of the communal elements in Jammu and in India and their previous wish to be attached to India has weakened.” He felt that ‘in the ultimate analysis…..we gain Kashmir if we gain the goodwill of the people there…….’ To this one may add that before we try to gain the goodwill of the people in Kashmir we must gain the goodwill of the minorities in India (who constitute a majority in Kashmir and elsewhere).

Deprivation of the minorities in a formalistic constitutional non discriminative system where power could be acquired by the dominant religions, without it being reflected in the constitution was a fear expressed by the founder of the Indian Constitution Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar who warned the Constituent Assembly on November 4, 1948 that “it is perfectly possible to pervert the constitution without changing its form by merely changing the form of administration and to make it inconsistent and opposed to the spirit of the constitution”.

Jawaharlal Nehru in his Note on Minority published in Young India in 1930 had observed that there could be no stable equilibrium in any country without fair treatment of Minorities. He felt that the method of representation should be such as to carry the goodwill of the minorities. The Congress leadership assured the minorities that seats in the central and state legislatures would be reserved for them on the basis of their population under joint electorate. Articles 292 and 294 thus got incorporated in the Draft Constitution Part-XIV published in Feb, 1948. Adequate representation of minorities in the cabinet was provided under a schedule to the Constitution. These special measures for the protection of political rights of the minorities were removed under the shadow of partition.

While deleting these special provisions of reserved legislative seats for religious minorities, Jawaharlal Nehru and other senior Congress leaders had given an assurance in the Constituent Assembly in 1949 that even without any statutory safeguard the minorities would receive fair treatment and that they should trust the majority for this. According to Nehru it was ‘an act of faith above all for the majority community because they will have to show after this that they can behave to others in a generous fair and just way. Let us live upto that faith.’

However the working of the electrol system in India has demonstrated that Jawaharlal Nehru’s famous ‘act of faith’ could not make much of a difference in practical terms. Unless the entry of members of historically and socially disadvantaged groups are facilitated by special measures the constitutional provisions for equality of opportunity for all citizens would remain near paper declarations. The electoral system in India needs to be studied to balance the interests of majority and minority communities and modified accordingly, so that the entitlement of the religious minorities to special treatment as individuals (citizens) is recognized ‘their communal membership serving only to identify them as deserving beneficiaries.’



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Email: reads@rediffmail.com / habyeeb@yahoo.co.in


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